The title here is from a poem by Tennyson, “Ulysses,” which says, “The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs…” The poem is about middle-age: “Come, my friends,/’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” It reminds me of what a friend said some years ago when my life fell apart. “The end of Eden was the beginning of the world as we know it. Go forth and build worlds.”
The title here is also that of a new book which I saw in The New Yorker the other day and gasped. I have been waiting for this book like for a compelling acquaintance who promised to call but never got in touch. I ordered it right away. I am reading it very slowly. Every page makes my head explode.
Susan Mattern’s new book is a socio-cultural-evolutionary biological look at menopause.
I was 45 when my slow moon began climbing. I had clues. Rising at night, hot behind the knees. Car windows down in winter. And then back up. Like my cardigan. On. Off. On. When I got a letter from my doctor confirming what I knew, I wanted to (or maybe I did) scream NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. It was all finished by the time I was 47.
It was too soon. I was too young. I hadn’t made use of all my biological reproductive options yet (though, really, I had). But not having the choice. Being limited, denied. Like a waiter taking away your plate before you’re finished. That’s what scalded.
As did the moments of discomfort and confusion. Lying comfortably on the sofa reading I would be caught by a slow rise of heat and for a split second, panic that I couldn’t move or breathe. Driving down dirt back roads I would suddenly not know where I was and fear I couldn’t get home. My body expanded into new shapes I didn’t like. Its weather patterns annoyed me.
I woke up every day thinking there wasn’t any point in going on. I broke into tears at a traffic signal. I felt like something had control of me and as its hostage, I was giving up hope.
I read Christiane Northrup and Gail Sheehy and Germain Greer on the “climacteric,” but the medical view wasn’t satisfying. Friends not there yet had nothing to say. Friends who knew told me to take black kohosh (which, thankfully, I did). But what I knew deep down, Susan Mattern is now validating for me in her dense, fascinating study.
Post-reproductive women have an important role to play in society and are the reason why we have survived. For most species, the end of reproduction is the end of life. They do not have a menopause. One rare exception is a Japanese aphid that undergoes, in older life, what entomologists called a “glue-bomb” phase, where their infertile abdomens produce a sticky substance. When a predator attacks the colony, they throw themselves into the battle, sticking to the predators and saving the rest at the cost of their lives. (They are also all females, and clone in “virgin births.”)
For women, the years after fertility are important. “Menopause is probably adaptive…not a mistake or an artifact of modern life whereby women live past some natural test of usefulness.” But it is a puzzle.
I love being a mystery. I love being independent and whole and able to give. I love living in a community where women of a certain age lead the pack with their experience and wisdom.
Our cultural narrative about menopause is that it is beastly, unfair. It makes us moody, hysterical. Menopause is the butt of jokes, including by us, as we become unseen, unheard, undesirable.
The narrative I have always hoped to see–and that this new book is refreshingly grounding me in–is that as post-reproductive women; as people past the age of bearing children; as women now free to turn our talents and skills toward what we must do in our lives and our communities and our culture; we are, finally, and completely, unbound.
In Japan and other Asian cultures, a woman’s 60th birthday is her most important. Called kanreki, it celebrates a “return to the calendar.” She has completed a full life cycle (based on their calendar) and now begins a new life.
Gifts for a woman turning 60 in Japan are red. The color of power. Of blood. Of fire.