About half way through what I was calling My Year of Living Dangerously—the year I thought might last forever with me languishing gloriously on the sofa reading novels and watching the wind shake through the poplars across the street—the matter of Growing Old came knocking on my door. It wasn’t what you might expect—some bad news thing about a fall or the death of a dear friend or discovering overnight that I had developed jowls. It was a call, a wake up and show up and pay attention call that I had not anticipated at all.
It happened on a Sunday morning in August as I was rolling up my sweaty yoga mat at the end of class. A tall, blond woman I knew slightly asked if we could talk for a few minutes. We huddled in the corner as the next class of eager yoginis rushed past us to stake out their territory. “I’m turning 50 at the end of this year,” the woman said. “I heard from some friends that you took them on a trip on the Colorado River in April. They told me you did a powerful ritual about becoming elders. I need that.”
Wow, pretty direct, this beautiful woman, I thought. She knows what she wants. We walked outside and I gave her a couple of ideas for creating an elders circle for her birthday. “Call me if you want any help,” I said.
A couple of weeks later the woman, I’ll call her Eve, sent me an email. It was a little stiff, the way emails are between virtual strangers. “You inspired me with your suggestion of how I might mark my 50th year and prepare for my entry into ‘Crone-hood’. I would love to continue the conversation. To be honest, I would welcome the opportunity to talk with you, if you were open to it — this last month has thrown me into some really interesting explorations of how to be in partnership, and yet not lose myself (that age old thing!)”
She invited me to tea, saying that she had an English garden attached to the back of her little houseboat in San Francisco Bay. She included a photo of a small deck covered with pots of red geraniums and white begonias and a profusion of summer flowers I couldn’t identify. Beyond her floating garden was the dark green bay and the washed out blue of the summer sky. I was enchanted. What an old fashioned thing to do– sit in a garden drinking tea and, as Eve put it, continue the conversation.
Two weeks later I followed Eve home after yoga. As I hung around in her houseboat’s kitchen, trying not to smack my head on the sharp angles of her cabinets, Eve made us a salad of beets and goat cheese, and the promised tea. We carried the plates out to her deck where otters were splashing in the water a few yards away and a convoy of white pelicans wheeled above our heads. We chatted about her family and her life in England and her travels around the world and my work —almost everything, it seemed, except the Cronehood that was supposed to be the point of our getting together. Just as I was wondering how I could politely leave, the conversation took an intimate turn.
Eve confided that she was in a ten year long relationship with a man named Henry where she seemed to be giving herself away, and she was getting sick of it. A horribly familiar resentment had set in, which was bad enough, she said, but now something worse was happening, something that really worried her. Her usual cool righteousness was starting to seethe and spurt like an out of control volcano. She was sure this was going to destroy her relationship but she couldn’t seem to shove her anger back down, no matter how hard she tried. Did I have any wisdom to offer (from, presumably, the far side of Cronehood where my 65 year old self was residing)?
I was actually feeling joy. It looked to me like Eve’s generations-long maternal family pattern of long suffering Ice Queens was being melted by lava flows of some upwelling energy. “This is a good thing,” I told her. “Something life giving is moving in you and you need to go with it. Without spilling it all over Henry, of course.”
She grinned. Evidently, spilling it all over Henry had a certain appeal.
Then she leaned forward and asked me a question I was to hear many times over the next year. “Is there a map? I need a map for this new territory I’m headed into.”
A Map for the Territory
Eve’s question stayed with me long after that afternoon on her houseboat. We met again for lunch, and then for walks through the hills above her house in Tiburon. Over the next few months, we became friends, walking and talking over the hiking trails of Marin County as the dry grasses of summer turned the hills into pale wheaty bales of hay and the skies lost all their clouds. Once in a while I’d remember how we met and Eve’s question and I’d wonder, Is there a map for how to grow old, the kind she wants there to be?
Early one morning in October, I made my way through a dreary line of commuter traffic to meet Eve at a French bistro in a made-over garage (“because you have to, because they have the most outrageously perfect croissants in the whole Bay area ”). Once we had our coffee (ok, mocha lattes) and the famous croissants and strawberry preserves Eve brought from home, she surprised me by picking up our original conversation as if we’d been discussing nothing else for the past three months.
“There ought to be a map,” she said, emphasizing the ought as if we’d been debating the matter. “Something that comes after The Feminine Face of God. When you and your friend Pat wrote that book, you said we were coming into a time of massive changes, of ‘spirituality in the fast lane.’ Well, that time is here and everybody knows it. Now what?”
She went on, gesturing with the remains of her second croissant, explaining that she didn’t mean “now what” in general. She meant it in particular about women like her, women in the middle of their lives who are living now. “When sacred feminine no longer sets off shock waves in the culture and women like me are running things, becoming Secretary of State and Speaker of the House and soon President,” she said, “what is the way for us? I want a map for turning 50 and for the territory ahead, 60 and 70 and 80. And what about my young women clients who are in their 30′s and 40′s? If I’m not moving into my own … what do you call it? Growing edge? Growing up? Growing wise? … they’ll have no one ahead of them to show the way. They’ll have nothing to move into and they’ll keep looking back to their 20′s as their best years!” She looked exasperated. Come on!
I told Eve I’d think about what she said and get back to her. As it turned out, I didn’t actually think about her questions so much as feel jolted awake by them. Have you ever been startled in that way by a question—as if you’re headed to your gate in some foreign airport with all the noise and flight announcements blaring in another language and suddenly you hear your name called on the sound system? And bang, you’re right there, feet on the ground and paying attention.
If you’ve felt that, then you know the intense attraction that Eve’s question about a map had for me. This question seemed to be mine to take up and respond to. Whether or not I could actually come up with anything like an answer was irrelevant. The question itself seemed to be an assignment with my name on it and I couldn’t turn away.
A Longing for Elders
What happened next was that I started to feel lonely for a woman named Esse Chaisin whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. It had taken a long time to find her in the first place—one of the very few women teaching of Kaballah in the United States at the end of the 20th century. At seventy years old, she was a respected elder and I had been eager to interview her for the book on women’s spirituality I was writing with my friend Patricia Hopkins.
When we finally had her permission for an interview, I took the train from Manhattan to Long Island. It was an exhausting trip, crowded with my fears and prejudices about what it would be like to interview an elderly teacher of Kaballah. My family’s (modern, conservative Jewish) ideas about traditional Jews joined my own vivid imaginings to create a daunting picture: a sour old woman shrouded in layers of black, wearing a sheitel, the traditional wig, would greet my impertinent questions with withering disapproval and probably throw me out of her house.)
I finally arrived at Esse’s bungalow. “Hi,” she said, opening the door. “Come on in.” I stared. She was wearing a form fitting fuschia sweater and skirt outfit and her wavy white hair was clearly her own. In a sunny living room where she had already prepared tea and sandwiches, we talked for hours. Esse turned out to adore questions. The more confronting my questions were, the more she enjoyed them. She had always liked questions, she told me, but in her forties, she developed a passion for them when she studied a system of self-awareness called The Fourth Way. “Bring them on,” she told me, laughing and challenging me. “They open me deeper to my truth, and through the truth, to HaShem, the Holy One.”
How did she get so fearless, I wanted to know.
She responded with a story about her teacher, a fierce woman named Madam Irmis Popoff who had studied with the founder of the Fourth Way, G. I. Gurdijieff. One afternoon, after Esse had worked with Madam Popoff faithfully every day for eight years, her teacher abruptly ended their relationship. “It’s time to leave,” she announced to Esse. “If you’ve learned what I’ve taught you, you’ll be fine. If not, not. Either way, it’s up to you now.” And that was that. Her time of being a student was over. Esse was on her own.
Remembering the story made me sad. I missed Esse. I wished I could talk to her about this elders thing. I wanted to ask her about the map for growing old and wise. So I Googled her. To my delight, I could track Esse’s life through her teaching in a synagogue in Brooklyn for several years but then I could find no entries. At last a reference came up in a book written by one of her students. It was a dedication that began “Esse Chaisin, Of Blessed Memory.”
Hot tears rushed to my eyes. Although we hadn’t spoken often after our meeting in Long Island, Esse has been a place-holder for me, an elder. One of the many. I realized that the women from The Feminine Face of God had constituted my circle of wise women. Their life stories flashed up in my memory often, showing up my blind spots, revealing my stubborn opinions, inspiring my courage. And even more than their stories, I carried the felt sense of their presence. Each woman was unique and every one, in her own way, was faithful to the truth that was unfolding through her.
But after a while I realized something else. I’ve hidden behind those women. Their words and stories spring so easily to my lips, I haven’t searched for my own. This year I turned 65. Esse is gone, along with many others of the wisdom circle. No fierce teacher is tossing me out on my own the way Madame Popoff did with Esse. They’re simply dying. Leaving open the space like an invitation. It’s your turn now, they seem to be saying. Will you step up?
And along with the invitation of the elders, there is that other invitation, if I can call it that—Eve’s voice demanding, Is there a map?