Shadows of Aging part 1: Powerful Forces

December 14, 2010 By: Sherry Ruth Anderson Category: Aging With Grace and Glory, Sherry Anderson

Marion Woodman

The year I turned fifty, I was invited to Toronto to be a keynote speaker at a conference for women. A conference organizer, a barely controlled fireball named Victoria had invited two other women to be speakers as well. Michelle George, an actress and singer, was a virtual legend in Toronto for her spontaneous theatre work. She had been a member of Peter Brook’s original company of actors, dancers, musicians who toured across the Middle East and Africa in the early 1970s. 

The third woman, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, was a white woman who had been studying with Native American Grandmothers and had recently begun her own teaching program. Michelle, like me, had just turned fifty and Oriah was in her mid forties. The organizer made us an unusual offer. We could choose any topic we liked, so long as it was about women and so long as we all participated, and she would create a conference for us.

We scarcely knew each other but gamely agreed to meet and see if we could find some common ground.  I flew in from California for a weekend and we met at Oriah’s apartment on Queen Street next to the trolley car tracks. We sat around and drank coffee and told each other some of the stories of our lives. Eventually we tiptoed up to what we felt our edge was, the place where we needed to open spiritually, the matter that scared us most.

It was about getting old.  How did we feel about that?  No, how did we really feel about that, apart from our fond ideas about Grandmothers of the Dreamtime and wise elders and how beautiful wrinkles are. We dove in, doing our best to be honest with each other, exploring questions we hadn’t whispered to anyone. This was the stuff underneath our shiny shells, our barely surfaced fears and worries.  Will we end up as bag ladies standing alone on windy corners? Or as the dotty spinster auntie, living on the top floor of our niece’s house, trying not to eat to much or draw anyone’s notice?  Or wearing polyester pants suits and playing golf all day and cards at night, our lives empty and meaningless?  Or living in a shared room in a nursing home, everyone we know already gone?

Because these images were the scariest (we said “most challenging”) ones we could think of, and because we were (bravely, crazily, grandiosely) determined to do something that hadn’t been done before, we decided to create a conference for women elders. What does it mean to become a wise elder?  We thought we’d ask that first.  How can we become wise elders?  That seemed like it could come next. What stands in our way? What support do we need?

We phoned Victoria in high spirits and announced that we had agreed on our topic: “The First Canadian Conference on Women Elders.” She was thrilled, she said. She liked the decisiveness of the topic and would book a location in downtown Toronto right away.

As I look back now, I tremble at what we were setting in motion that day. The stereotypes of aging we were carrying came from some mix of 19th century novels, old movies and the direst fears in our culture that equated growing old with becoming useless and dependent. Not that these fears aren’t still our culture’s most toxic aspects of aging and do indeed need to be addressed. The truth was that we had no experience of what it was like to grow old so we couldn’t know which questions to ask, what would open something genuine in the women coming to the conference and what would merely waste their time.

And I can see now, with a vision that was impossible then, how terrifyingly naïve we were about what would happen when women in their mid life (us) tried to create a conference for elders. We thought that we’d all be women together, tackling the big questions about aging and sharing our discoveries with each other. Asking questions as sisters and friends. We had no notion of the sleeping furies we’d be disturbing.

About five months before the conference, we came up with some questions we wanted to explore and Michelle put in an array magical theatre exercises to spice up the days. Oriah was bringing her big drum and her young assistants would lead chants she had learned from the Native Canadian Grandmothers. We were excited. Victoria had certainly been right, we told each other. We were a good mix and it was going to be fun to dive into these questions about aging together.

To open the conference, we invited Marion Woodman, a respected Jungian analyst who had been a mentor for many Canadian women, including Michelle and me. Marion agreed to open the conference on Friday evening but said that she didn’t want to prepare a talk. I was to interview her and it would all be very free form. Marion had been my analyst and friend for several years when I lived in Toronto, and I was delighted to be given this job.  I re-read all of her books —she’d written about seven at that point—and thought carefully about my questions. Then, about four months before the conference, Marion was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Letters and phone calls flew back and forth between her hundreds of clients and friends, and prayers and blessings from countless others formed a network of care and concern as she went through surgery and radiation therapy.

A month before the conference, Marion told Michelle that she would still like to give the opening talk. She explained that she no longer wanted an interview format, that might be too tiring, but if I could ask a question or two to get things started, she would simply respond with what came to her spontaneously. It might be a very short talk, she warned, but if we still wanted her, she’d be there. We want you, Michelle told her. We absolutely want you.

Inanna and Ereshkigal sculpture by Sheryl Cotleur**

On the opening night of the conference, Marion and I walked up to the stage. As we took our seats facing each other, she smiled at me and I tried not to cry. She was wearing a loose white pantsuit which did not do much to conceal the fact that she had lost about fifty pounds. Something happened first, I think, some music. I stood to introduce Marion and talk about what she meant to so many of us, how she was showing the way as a truth teller we had not heard before.  In one of her early books, Addiction to Perfection, she described how women tried to make themselves into ideals and were killing themselves doing it, through bulimia and hating their bodies.

Applause filled the church and Marion nodded to me. I hadn’t been able to prepare a question ahead of time. I waited for one to come. It was very simple. I asked, “After all you’ve been through this year, how is it for you to be here with us tonight?”

The oddest thing happened. Marion got up a little shakily and just stood for awhile, getting her bearings. The stage lights seemed to brighten several orders of magnitude and I could swear I saw Marion calmly unzipping her white pantsuit and letting it fall to the floor. And then she was slipping off her flesh and stepping out of it, letting that fall to the floor too. Then she was only light, standing and not saying anything at all. At some point I sat down and Marion started talking. I remember that she seemed to gather strength but I have no recollection of what she said nor did I remember anything that night either. At the end, she seemed to have reached down and put her skin and her pantsuit back on and taken her seat. The applause didn’t stop for a long time. In the midst of it and for some time afterward, a vast silence seemed to enfold us.

If I’d had the tiniest smidgen of humility or been able to notice the quaking in the core of my body, I might have been able to make out the message of that night. I imagine it would have been written in ancient script, echoing the mythic wisdom of the descent of the goddess Inanna to the underworld.  It would have said something along the lines of  “No one enters this gate clothed. Let go of all the symbols of competence you’ve accumulated, all you’ve read, all you think you know. Until you are naked, you cannot enter the mystery that awaits you here.” (To be continued in Shadows of Aging: Part 2)

©Sherry Ruth Anderson, December 5, 2010

**Inanna, Queen of the Above World, descends to the Underworld to visit her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of that realm. This is a risky and dangerous undertaking. Being of high order they each wear the girdle of their power around their loins. This belt of precious lapis contains the symbols of the seven gates which must be passed to gain entrance.

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8 Comments to “Shadows of Aging part 1: Powerful Forces”

  1. Dearest Sherry, After having had the privilege of being with Marion a number of times and the blessing of your friendship, I can imagine being there in the audience, you both on the stage, and breathlessly being transported into the ancient, oft unspoken world of Inanna. Thank you for your words that meet each other in a place so deep within me.

  2. Joan McIntyre says:

    Thank you for sending me Shadows of Aging part one. Powerful forces.
    It was quite wonderful and painfully inspiring.
    I took a workshop with Marion Woodman during the time she was in treatment for cancer. She was frighteningly thin and very tired, but the same exquisite honesty and truth seeking as you communicated so eloquently was with her and was with all of us as she spoke to us and took us through our paces.
    Thank you for reminding me of this experience. As I previously communicated, I am 75 in a month. Marion’s stand and courage and refusal to play they Age card or the I am unwell card is a constant lesson. I can not wait for the next installment.

  3. sherry, as an aged 63 year old i am at that point in life where quality of the present life and the process toward death are profound inquiries, i greatly anticipate part 2. please continue these writings, as i need reminders of the profundity of this moment in our lives. thank you

  4. Sherry – Thank you for sharing this story and the profound message of courage and dignity that it presents to us. At age 63, I am deeply touched, grateful for a much larger perspective on this process of living right up until our last breath.

    I also look forward to the next chapter and the unfolding of this amazing story.

  5. Maura Kelsea says:

    Dear Sherry, Your note arrived as I was in Sacramento admitting my Mother (almost 90) to the hospital with a new diagnosis of Congestive Heart Failure, not the stage 4 kidney disease she has been living with, uneasily, the past few years. As they removed the fluid from her lungs, belly and legs, she returned to good spirits, we saw she is not ready to leave us and we are not ready to let her go. She is home with new energy, eagerly anticipating the entire family gathering near for Christmas Eve. Back home I read your blog tonight with chills of profound truth opening my heart and eyes to other dimensions of life, feeling the thin veil I wear through ordinary days fall away just as surely as that night with Marion. Somehow your story girds me for the days ahead. I thank you deeply and look forward to your next …

  6. Thank you for writing just what I’m exploring within myself.. I’m 68 yrs old(or young) and for the first time in my life, I realize I will die one day, any day, in the future. I loved your blog and it helped me to go even deeper to another truth underneath my last truth that I thought was the last truth. You are an incredible writer and a gift to everyone, young and old.
    Thanks for the friendship for so many years. We are universally connected..

  7. Dear Sherry:
    I am deeply touched by your writings on aging. at 61, I am embarking on a new path in my life’s work and feel that all the years up to now have prepared me for this work. I have no intention of slowing down due to age but I am aware that my body and soul require me to pay closer attention to what they need to thrive in my remaining years on this planet. I adore Marion’s work and have read all her books, as well. I take in the wisdom and lessons you so beautifully crafted in message and look forward to the next.

  8. Dearest Sherry,
    Thank you for your writing and sharing and imaging and connection to the Spiritual Realms. Marion Woodard is someone I hold with such deep care and respect. I’ve been doing emotional healing work for many years and this is such sacred work, in my opinion-to clear our trauma and what we carry in our bodies that does not serve-in order to receive the gifts of our Spirit Guides and Soul Partners. My book-Blessings From Mary-came to be as a result of my willingness to release the emotional trauma and ego wounds I carry and bring to my guides daily. What a gift there is in surrender.
    Thank you so for all that you do and call together for the good of the whole.
    Blessings and love, Sally


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