(author photo: witch outside a puppet shop in Prague's old city)
Old Woman Nature
naturally has a bag of bones
tucked away somewhere.
a whole room full of bones!
A scattering of hair and cartilage
bits in the woods.
A fox scat with hair and a tooth in it.
a bone flake in a
A purring cat, crunching
the mouse head first,
eating on down toward the
The sweet old woman
calmly gathering firewood in the
moon. . .
Don't be shocked,
She's heating you some soup.
"Old Woman Nature" by Gary Snyder
Last month I devoured Hagitude, Sharon Blackie's new book about the initiation into elderhood for women. One of the invitations I most appreciated involves embracing the "loathly lady", the figure of the ugly old woman that arouses so much fear and disgust in our patriarchal culture.
In fairytales about the loathly lady, the premise of the story often turns on a young and attractive man being presented with an ugly old woman as a potential partner. If he accepts her as she is, she magically transforms into a young and beautiful woman. To me this seems like a variation on the standard theme of a man having the power to change a woman's state, i.e. a prince's kiss bringing Sleeping Beauty back to life or making Cinderella into a queen. In patriarchal terms this is true at one level: being associated with or attached to a man is what gives a woman both her status and a place in society. Once you lose your looks and/or the ability to procreate—i.e. once you are no longer a resource in your own right—you become disposable, invisible, a non-entity.
Thus for women, being afraid of ageing isn't (just) about vanity: it's about survival.
To embrace the loathly lady, then, takes courage. It's about rejecting the conditions under which your presence is merely tolerated and claiming your right to exist, full stop.
I also see it as claiming the gifts of the "sweet old woman" described in the poem above. On one hand, she has a home full of bones, and even her cat is munching happily on the skull of a mouse, yet at the same time she is heating you some soup. In other words, she is weaving death and life together at every moment. Her wisdom lies in knowing they were never separate to begin with, and in no longer identifying with the body or other forms.
When I was imagining the old woman of the poem, I started to hear an echo of Mevlana Rumi in my mind.
This world is like a tree,
and we are the half-ripe fruit upon it.
Unripe fruit clings tight to the branch
because, immature, it's not ready for the palace.
When fruits become ripe, sweet and juicy,
then biting their lips, they loosen their hold.
When the mouth has been sweetened by felicity,
the kingdom of the world loses its appeal.
[Mathnawi: III, 1293-1295]
Spiritual and bodily maturity are not necessarily the same things; however, what Hagitude helped me to see is that the physical process of ageing is meant to help us toward spiritual maturity. May our loosening flesh help us let go of the tree of the world and sweeten with felicity inshallah!