I paste the picture onto the last page and close the scrapbook. The album overflows with faces beaming over dining tables laden with carefully prepared food, dancing– we seem always to be dancing, the Motown sound accompanying us at each of our retreats. There are meditative pictures snapped during our lengthy and painstaking meetings, and the formal portrait our last activity before leaving to return home, camera perched on a ledge as we pose exuberantly waiting for the click. We have become extended family to one another for what will be the rest of our lives.
We know that now, although we didn’t at first. We simply wanted a group for women in our fifties. A place to talk about aging and ageism, our changing bodies, our shifting relationships, the precariousness and urgencies of our health, the regrets, the possibilities, the losses, the potential exhilaration of what lay before us. We shared a feminist frame of reference, understood that the personal was always political and had a long history of using our own autobiographies to create analysis and understanding of how the theory and practice of gender shapes women’s lives. My political work was with survivors of physical and sexual violence, women and girls whose bodies had been beaten, raped, sexually abused. The terminal breast cancer of a partner, my own thyroid cancer, my brother’s lung cancer and my mother’s breast cancer had significantly shaped my personal life. The world of flesh had become a deeply compromised one for me. Now my own flesh was aging, literally falling off the bone. Sagging, drooping, wrinkling, thinning, graying. Feminists had begun the women’s health movement with the publication of Our Bodies, Our Selves. This was a time when I needed to love my body, love my self as it aged in this environmentally polluted and often-predatory world.
The night of my fiftieth birthday, wearing a blue velvet dress, smile carefully arranged, I arrived at a local restaurant to join a few close friends for dinner. During the preceding year, my life had diminished, my intellectual, political and social interests narrowed to our neighborhood, then our apartment, then, finally, to our bed upon which my partner had just died. Now, sixty-one days later, I sat, surrounded by friends to, if not celebrate, at least mark the passage into my sixth decade.
Over dessert we talked about how consistently we found ourselves the oldest women in nearly every political and social situation. Someone, maybe it was I, made a joke about Stewart Granger and Farley Granger and everyone at the table knew who both of those generationally specific, second tier matinee idols were. The laughter of relief, of cultural shorthand, was immediate. For the next hour our voices rose and fell as we played an insistent game of Trivial Pursuits– the pursuit being a shared frame of reference. The music of our first adolescent slow dances, the movie stars we emulated or fell in love with, the radio shows we listened to late at night, the libraries we haunted to find our way into the larger world, the clothes, the makeup, the hairdos. Our words spilled over one another, laughter filling the pauses, delight on our faces. Then, as the conversation slowed, the evening coming to an end, someone suggested that we form a consciousness-raising group for women our age.
We were swept forward on a wave of enthusiasm that this might be the context in which we would be able to track each other’s lives, engage the celebrations and losses, the personal and professional choices, the loves and the unexpected shifts that inevitably mark the conscious process of aging. Eagerly beginning to plan, we agreed that each of us would invite two other friends so as to open the group to a wide range of women. In that moment, my melancholy world began to shift. Perhaps this group would take me forward, provide the cushion upon which I could re-engage my own life and re-create a sense of my own future. I was ready and even a little bit eager.
Our monthly meetings began with sixteen women at first and as each of us talked about how we imagined the shape, the focus and emphasis, what we personally wanted from this group and what level of commitment we were prepared to offer — we gradually, over a period of months pared down to the eight of us who have remained. We named ourselves the Wandering Menstruals, each of us in the process of the slowing down or ending of our menstrual cycles. We were all in some stage of menopause. Not the disease-needing -medicine menopause of the dominant culture, or the exuberant crone ceremonial of the alternative one. But something between both of those. We wanted a context that embraced the psychological tasks of mid-life, the political urgencies of aging, the need to hack our way through the medical underbrush of conflicting information, the completion of some life tasks freeing time and possibility to begin new ones. We knew that this would be a complicated, demanding, painstaking and challenging task. We were artists and teachers, therapists, administrators, writers. We wanted to age in community. We wanted the personal to remain political and the political to become deeply personal.
It takes more time than I would have imagined to create a family. We began with the intention, the hope, and the idea. Not all of us were even friends at the beginning. There were clusters of intimates, some women who didn’t know more than one or two of the eight. Our lives did not overlap in a natural or fluid way. We started our three hour-long monthly meetings with check-ins, which at first, took up most of the time. We were beginning to learn each other as daughters, some as mothers, sisters, most as women who had been in many relationships, as women with work identities, as women in middle-aged bodies. We thought at the start, that we would have “themes” to discuss after our check-ins, much as we had done in our decades earlier consciousness-raising groups. But the discussions were ideological, awkward, halting and we stopped. We simply didn’t know each other well enough yet to understand how our thinking, our understanding of the world had emerged from our lives.
Instead we began to describe our lives decade by decade. At each meeting after check-in, one or two women would narrate the first decade of her life. It took us several years to move painstakingly through the five decades of our lives, to understand how the toll of sexism and racism, religious practice, homophobia and disengagement from traditional family life carved the shape of our lives. We became able to see how class and geography, early marriages and parental deaths shaped our thinking, our emphasis, and our ways of relating in the world. Suicide, murder, alcoholism, drug addiction, rape, battery, teenaged pregnancy, poverty all played a role in our lives. As did the complex pleasures of political public life, professional careers, developing alternative institutions, raising children and spiritual study and practice. We were taking our selves, our lives and one another very seriously.
Each month as first one, then another woman traced her life, we began to see the texture of the accumulated years. We understood the ways in which life choices become diminished because of limited health insurance and a sick child. We sympathized with the ambivalent response to the financial and caretaking needs of aging parents. We acknowledged the thrill of re-engagement with a life put on hold during years of raising young children. We excavated the many betrayals and the increasing number of triumphs.
Then we were able to ask better questions, deeper questions of one another. What was it like to be young working class women in the l960’s? A middle-aged middle-class woman in the l980’s? How were our specific lives shaped by the possibilities available to women then? How was our restlessness and guilt for a larger life than that of wife and mother socially constructed? How could we find ways to love men while demanding they develop psychological and emotional vocabularies? What are the precise vulnerabilities lesbian mothers of son’s experience? Heterosexual mothers of daughters? How can we calibrate the unexpected complexities of being aging mothers with middle-aged children? The form of consciousness-raising still served us well. First we offered one another the detailed testimony of our daily lives. Then we created analysis, saw patterns, unearthed the deeper shapes of women’s lives that ours reflected.
Now we no longer agree or disagree with one another’s ideas. After all this time, we fundamentally understand the personal roots of each woman’s thinking, the reasons for her conclusions. We blend now, we shift, and we make room for one another. There is a grace that shapes our conversations, a soft patience as we listen to the details of the past month. We know when to step forward when one of us is struggling with a painful issue in her life, when to step aside and encourage, when to challenge and when to simply listen with love. Now we are able to talk about everything. The deaths of our parents, the experience of cancer, envy, money, lost hair and lost sleep. What constitutes a successful life, the pleasures and the losses of aging, the growing courage to step into the new, and the unexpected?
Relationships have begun and ended in the nine years we have been together. We have witnessed the exhilaration of new love affairs and the agonies of their ending. We have attended weddings and funerals, birthday ceremonies, children’s graduations, gone to dinners and demonstrations, visited one another in the hospital and swam naked together in icy rivers. We have seen our hair thin and our hips thicken, our faces red with tears and beaming with delight. We are an extended family now.
There have been situations of great difficulty, tensions, and estrangements– just like in any family. Yet we continue to deepen our skills at calibrating the levels and pacing of intimacy. Some use the group as a sounding board to examine the nature of their primary relationships while others maintain a careful privacy about their partnered life. Some express criticism or concern about their children’s life choices and others are less willing to discuss their hesitations. Some talk enthusiastically about sex lives, histories and particular pleasures and others, while clearly enjoying the voluptuous conversations are less concrete and specific about their sexuality. And each time we gather to talk about children or sex, work or partners– the mix changes, some women filled with words and feelings and others more receptive and encouraging. Each of us, even after nineteen years is free to open at her own pace and each of us finds her own rhythm to maintain the constantly shifting balance between the separate self and the connection of the group.
From the first, we had offering assurances that we would be “there” for one another, “no matter what,” not yet understanding what that would mean. Each of us had other close friends, children, commitments, financial and time depleting obligations. The promise was a heartfelt abstraction until we were called to fulfill it. One of our members was diagnosed with cancer, a diagnosis that required extensive surgery and chemotherapy. We gathered, the Wandering Menstruals as well as other women from her spiritual and political communities. We raised money to defray her living expenses while she was unable to work, developed schedules for support people able to provide miso soup, videos, trips to the hospital, daily errands. Some women could be more centrally engaged and others, because of their work schedules or geographical location were less physically involved. Instead, they stayed in contact on the phone and with notes and letters. We moved in, fanned out and created a cushion upon which this woman was held during her year of crisis. And we came to the beginnings of understanding what “being there” for one another as we age would represent.
When the Wandering Menstruals began, two of the members were a long-term couple. While they had a level of intimacy significantly deeper than any of the rest of us, neither was fully able to make use of the group to talk about the frayed places in their relationship without pressing the group into a therapeutic role, one we were unwilling to perform. Their personal check-ins were abbreviated, their coupled discontents and insecurities not a part of the life of the group. Over the years, we witnessed the dissolution of their partnership and helped them maintain their family connection while moving to separate their personal lives. But while we tried to maintain evenhandedness and support for both women, the reality of their coupledness did not allow either woman to fully use the group as a resource, sounding board, or personal support. Now that they are fully separated and each moving forward in her own life, we all agree that it was an error to have a couple in the group at all.
In the seventh year of the group, my primary relationship was troubled and my brother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I responded, in part, by dying my hair. Everything in my life was moving too fast, aging, loss, death, and change. I longed to slow everything down. I was ashamed of myself and appeared at our next meeting hoping no one would notice, but of course they did. My hair had transmuted into the color of a young raccoon. Internalized ageism, one said, disappointed in me. Why didn’t you discuss this with us first? Asked another, feeling left out of my process. Do whatever you need to do to get through this time, reassured a third, supportive and non-judgmental. Each was simply being herself and responded, as I knew she would. I was defensive, not yet understanding that I was trying to stop time, to remain the woman who was engaged with the questions of her forties. A woman who was building a career, creating a home, having adventures and beginning to travel. As the conversation continued, I felt lonely and disconnected both from myself and the other women. All I wanted was to be young just a bit longer.
Another woman, preparing to publicize a new book, travel for interviews and public appearances had also colored her hair. We sat beside each other at meetings, giving each other comfort in our foolish and, relievedly, temporary insecurities. Tell us what you were thinking when you did it, one woman suggested. I began to talk then, letting my words take me forward.
“This is the only place in my life that I speak without thinking first about what I’m going to say and how and when I’ll say it,” I began. The words startled me into recognizing how much of my protective armor had, without my noticing, fallen away. How, with these women, I didn’t anticipate judgment or need to charm or be convincing. Certainly there had been times over the years that I had been misunderstood or abruptly challenged, leaving me feeling hurt and unseen. But always there was the insistence on a conversation that began with either my tears or my anger, moved into a shared receptivity that allowed us to hear one another and ended with the eventual sigh of re-connection. I sat, surrounded by these women and let my words spin me towards a fuller awareness of my yearning to stop time. To feel pretty. Young. To be at a moment in my life when so much was still before me, untested, unexplored. They sat, unmoving; hearts open to me, witnessing my painful letting go of an era that had ended. The pictures in the scrapbook show the other woman and me, with our hair being taken over by wiry gray, the dye growing out. We too were growing out.
We have a rhythm now somewhat akin to a slow minuet. When we go on retreat, there are women gathered in the living room talking softly, others taking a walk before the meal, two cooking supper, one in her room reading or napping, another on the deck doing Tai Chi. We spend long hours sitting at the table after our meals, the carefully arranged platters picked clean of the loving and painstakingly prepared special foods. Mealtimes and meetings are the two opportunities for us to be together and we are loath to separate and move back into the groups of two or three that shape the rest of the day. We bless each meal and one another before beginning to eat. The spiritual necessities of our lives are a foundational part of our understanding of aging, although each of us defines that necessity in her own way.
We embrace often. Our bodies are old friends to one another. The changes in our bodies have been witnessed and shared. The politics of estrogen replacement therapy, the latest information about alternative hormonal substitutes, the walls of our vaginas as ordinary a subject for discussion as recipes for curried soup.
How will I use the time of this last stage of my life, what will my relationship to work, to productivity, to reflection, to change be? How will I relate to my middle-aged children? I bring these questions to them. We have moved through several name changes in the past years, from the Post-Menstruals to the comfortable and familiar mennies.
Each of us has different questions, of course. And different priorities. One woman becomes passionate when talking about the urgencies of teaching art to elementary school children as a primary vehicle for learning more traditional subject matter. Another plans a Conference to address the psychological and spiritual needs of poor and indigent people trying to access quality medical care. Another, an early child development administrator brings pictures to each meeting and we watch her beloved grandchildren grow and stretch into their world. Our lives are very different, one from the other. Our choices and priorities only sometimes overlap. But there is a generosity of parallels that we have created. Each of us finds her way forward, each of us formulates her own questions, each of us on her own trajectory, bound with love to one another.
This is the family and the home I always yearned for and never imagined I would have. And it took nine years, rivers of words, chopping onions and making fruit salad together, dancing to the Temptations, singing medieval rounds, sharing religious practices, arguing, laughing, having long talks in hot tubs and taking early morning hikes to get all the way here.
The scrapbook contains nearly nineteen years worth of pictures. I can trace my chin line as it softened, my belly doing the same. Soon I will be seventy. While I have had many lovers and a few major relationships in my life, I understand that my primary relationship now is with time. I am preparing to enter the last stage of my life. Given my mother’s genes, I hope it will be a long and healthy one. Nevertheless, I am paring down, simplifying what matters to me. Who I want to accompany me into old age. Who I am prepared to commit my heart, my resources and my energies to. There have been many deaths, some people moving away, drifting into other lives, other choices. I cannot live any longer with the emotional promiscuity, the physical pace that has defined my first five decades. I have to make choices now. Time and energy are finite. When I think deeply about what and who matter in my life, I begin with my daughters, and then add the mennies. Everything else comes after them. Those women create the environment in which I will age and ultimately die.
None of us are menstruate any more. One woman wryly suggested a logo of a tampon in a circle with a line through it. We all laughed, imagining ourselves marching eight across with our arms linked down a busy city street wearing sateen bowling jackets with a tampon logo on our backs. What a stir we could create! What guerrilla theater, what consciousness-raising! Perhaps there will be younger women walking to work or to school or the supermarket who will see us, laughing, singing, and dancing our way down the street. Perhaps you will feel a rush of wanting that in your life. Wanting to link arms with other women, to come to know them down to the bone. To grow old with them. To create family. To plant a garden of new seeds, new growth, new possibilities.