THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN
by Marian Van Eyk McCain
(first published in the summer solstice edition of Crone Chronicles in 1997)
I traveled once, several decades ago, through the valley they call Arcadia*. A name which, to me, conjures up visions of nymphs and shepherds frolicking in a lush, green landscape, heavy with the fruits of nature.
That was how it felt, too, sitting on that old, navy-blue bus as we wound our way round narrow and precipitous bends to the accompaniment of bouncy Greek music on the bus radio. Lush and full; life as endless, plentiful adventure.
Arcadia. Fabled valley of the gods and goddesses, countryside rich and full with history, exquisite still in its green and fruitful beauty. I remember it as though it were yesterday, and that feeling of adventure and excitement rises again in me as I hear, in memory, the music and Greek voices against the rumble of the old engine.
Somewhere on that journey, climbing high, we crossed the mountainous spine of the Peleponissos and turned a corner into a different world. Verdant wood and pasture gave way to olive grove and rocky hillside. Wet and lush gave way to dry and sparse. We were on the other side of the mountain. Around Tripolis, oranges grew in the white sunlight, heat bounced off bare stone. And it was that way all the way to the coast, to the turquoise waters of the Argolian Gulf.
I used to bleed, back then. I was like Arcadia, lush and fruitful in my bleeding, my mothering, my womanhood. My sap flowed, just as it did in those green oaks and sycamores that lined the valley, overhung the road, filtering the sunlight.
Somewhere along the way, I reached a peak, half recognized in the busyness of a full life, and traveled for a while along the ridge, just as the road does before it winds down to Tripolis. The ridge, of course, was menopause, and it lasted quite a while. There was protest in my body as the sap began to leave; protest in my mind as the landscape of my life began to change; turmoil in my heart, assuaged somewhat through the writing and sharing of my own experience. But when I emerged from it, I found that I had turned the corner. I was on the other side of the mountain. And there was a whole new lightness in my being. The hot flushes and night sweats ebbed away, leaving my body quiet, softer, dryer; lighter, as a leaf gets lighter before it falls.
My energy returned. Not quite with the same force as before. This energy has a different quality somehow. For one thing, the daily allocation is slightly less. A highly productive morning needs to be followed by a quieter afternoon. I can no longer squander reserves, for if I do, the well is empty for several days afterwards. But there is a wirier, more reliable energy under there which, if it is not abused, remains constant every day, unlike the fluctuations that hormones once dictated.
It is not the endless energy of the child, freely spent and totally renewed by a short nap. It is a slow but steady, even-paced energy, resilient like desert grass.
Something else I realize now, in retrospect, looking back at all my years of motherhood, is that motherhood gave me a feeling of being somehow at the center of things. As though the world revolved around me. Not in a narcissistic way, as though I were the only important person around and needed everyone's attention. We all know people like that and I hope I am not one of them.
No, I mean central in a cozy sort of way, with a sense of being at the heart of a nest to which everyone came home, fully present as an essential part of the fulcrum around which all our lives revolved. That, too, felt like Arcadia. Nymphs and shepherds in groups under the trees, lying around with their limbs touching, like the ones in the old-fashioned paintings.
Nowadays, my children have nests of their own. I am no longer the center of anything except of myself. So the challenge of that has been to re-orient myself to the world in such a way that I don't keep feeling as though something is missing.
In my work world, the pattern was similar. Retired, from an organization I helped to create, I found myself no longer at that hub either.
This seems to be the deeper dynamic behind the whole "empty nest" syndrome and the angst that many feel upon retirement from a career. It is not just that you miss your kids because they have grown up and left, or that you are wondering what to do with your life now that it no longer revolves around the workplace. It is that you have to move out of the feeling of being at the center of things, and the coziness which went with that, and face life from a different place. It takes courage, for this land can be dry, rather than lush and cozy.
Some people remain in denial. They block the feelings with busyness, TV, or any one of a hundred ways that human beings have devised in order not to stay awake to the experience of their own lives. Others look ahead for ways to cope.
The first impulse, quite often, is to try to rewind to an earlier version of the self. But that long-ago self seems two-dimensional now, empty, shallow, a costume for a play whose season is long since over. The old roles, the old selves, they are quite inappropriate for nowadays, even if we could still remember our lines. The selves who stare back at us from the photos of our youth are selves we can no longer feel from the inside, parts for which the scripts are now lost.
At first, though, we tend to look in all the old places for inspiration, and not find it there, so life sometimes feels like a series of disappointments or disillusionments. It is easy to fall into depression, wondering if all the meaning has gone from life and it would be better to die now and be done with it.
The desert, when one first encounters it, seems bare. The very word - desert - implies barrenness, emptiness, isolation. But for anyone who has walked in the desert with open eyes there is a revelation waiting. The desert teems with life. Tough, resilient, wiry life, dry and enduring in the heat of day and cold of night, conserving the rain that falls so rarely, living, relating, being, in the full glare of the sun and the starry, desert dark.
The far side of menopause is like the desert. Stark, real, beautiful, and full of a different kind of life. This is not the ascetic life of a spirit that denies the body and yearns to transcend it. Far from it. This is the life of a spirit that drops ever more deeply into the body, hangs in with the body as it dries and ages and withers, feels it from the inside, marvels in it as it goes through its stages and the bones creep ever closer to the surface.
Once, when I lived in a warmer climate than I do now, my garden grew tomatilloes, those little Mexican tomatoes that grow inside a husk. They were everywhere, their vines sprawling lushly all over the place in eager fertility. Thousands of fruit fell to the ground. Some we ate, some we bartered or gave away, some simply lay there and rotted. Eventually, the frosts came, and the leaves and stems blackened and fell, the last of the fruit returned squishily to earth. For a while, the smell of fermentation hung in the air, and then the brown humus reclaimed its own. Winter was upon us and the places where the summer's tomatilloes had flourished were bare again.
One warm day in Spring, foraging for carrots, I found the most exquisite little parcel, sitting neatly on the ground. What had once been a tomatillo husk was now a delicate basket of filigree lace, almost non-existent in its sheer transparency, a perfect, basket-shaped skeleton. Inside it, rattling there like so many marbles in a bag, a few dozen tomatillo seeds. Nothing more. The bare essentials that remained of a tomatillo fruit, a packet of seeds in Nature's own presentation pack.
I held it reverently in my hand. It reminded me of the desert, of how the deep basics of life are exposed when the flesh dies and the skeleton bleaches in the sun. It reminded me of myself, as I grow old and let go of all but the hardy, long-lasting essentials.
This is the essence of the grandmother's lightness. The lightness of aging gracefully, of aging fully, and letting the passions of a fully-lived life burn you right through to ash.
Probably, I would feel out of place in Arcadia now. My task is to make my life on the other side of the mountain, among the orange groves; to feel alright as a tomatillo husk lying undiscovered on the earth, far from the cozy center of things; to conserve my resources, as a desert dweller should, and to welcome into my bones that very sun that will one day bleach them white. For when life has fully burned me up, then I can go home satisfied, leaving only my seeds and the faint, filigree husk of a memory.
(click on the gold button to read about the woman who started all this ...)(*Note: August 26, 2007. Arcadia, so lush and green when I travelled through it in the Spring of 1977, is today enveloped in a tragic and horrific fire. I am weeping as I read the news and my heart aches for this beautiful place and its people.)
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