Most of us consider our fiftieth birthday a milestone, but of what? Is it the beginning of the end, as the conventional wisdom predicts? Our lapsing memories, spreading waist-lines, and lost fertility can make us think it is. Or is it the beginning of a beginning, as I and countless other women believe it is? Of course it is a little of both. Which is why so many of us are both elated - and dazed and confused.
The easy response to our existential bewilderment - from partners, doctors and even from ourselves - is that it's all "menopausal madness" and it will pass. But it won't.
The restlessness and confusion, the mix of hope and despair, signals a life transition as profound and far-reaching as adolescence. In both cases, we are asking ourselves who we are, what matters to us, and how we can be engaged in the world.
Big questions that take some trial and error to answer.
No generation before ours has had to navigate this transition. We are the first to contemplate the prospect of as many years of adulthood ahead after fifty as already lived before. Between the two lies The Fertile Void where we grapple with the question: What will I do with the rest of my life?
At first we thrash around trying to figure out what is happening, in our desperation to DO something, we try out some pretty bizarre behavior. Sometimes we make fools of ourselves. That risk-taking and fool-making turns out to be a good thing. It is liberating. Sooner or later every woman hears herself say, "You know what? I don't care what people think anymore." That unladylike behavior is the hallmark of what I call the "Fuck You Fifties."
All the seemingly aimless activity eventually throws us into a tailspin. We feel as though we are falling into Alice's rabbit hole: The Fertile Void. It is in that gravity-free zone where we will sort things out and shake things up. We will shed the voices of shoulda-woulda-coulda thinking and begin to sense the presence of an internal compass, our own voice.
Let me illustrate by telling my own story.
My first step into The Fertile Void was backward off a ninety-foot cliff. How I got there was the result of one of those wayward impulses that I mentioned. I had been a tomboy, but like many women, I abandoned strength for coyness. After years of inactivity I had signed up for a week-long Outward Bound program.
On the last day we were led through a sweet-smelling forest toward a clearing. How nice, I thought, we are going to have a farewell picnic and reminisce about how we triumphed and how we bonded. That fantasy was not meant to be.
Ahead in the clearing lay a row of sinisterly coiled ropes at the end of....Nothing. Dumb with terror, I let myself be suited up in full rappelling gear in order to walk down the face of what could well have been my twelve-story apartment building. I was only mildly reassured by the words of our leader: "Fear is the appropriate response here," he said. "After all, evolution doesn't take much interest in creatures that step backward off ninety-foot cliffs."
I made it down, of course, but when I hit terra firma, I was overcome; I began to sob and laugh uncontrollably. As the others made their way down, I pulled myself together and began to digest my accomplishment. I had definitely learned the lesson the exercise was designed to teach, that fear is not an unacceptable response, but it can be confronted.
My real breakthrough, though, came later.
As the group relaxed in the valley below that awesome cliff, our instructors called us to attention. You must understand that over the week of training we had followed their every command -- jumping into cold water at dawn, being left overnight on a deserted island, swinging on a rope into a spider web net, like in the Marine recruiting ads. So we were ready to take our orders. It was time, we were told, to climb back UP.
Maybe it was because I was so totally wasted by the emotional and physical exertion, but I think it was overcoming the fear on the way down that gave me the courage to speak up. To listen to the voice calling out from within. To say NO to going back up. That "No" was the loudest sound I had ever made. It stirred more emotions than the feat I had just performed. For what felt like the first time I said what I meant. I did what I needed to do rather than what I was expected to do.
And, it wasn't the end of the world. "Ok," said the instructor, "the path up is over there."
The Fertile Void is not only a void in which we search for our voice. It is also where a new kind of fertility reveals itself. Once there, we begin taking ourselves apart and putting ourselves back together again. We enter it feeling broken and emerge having been broken open. The process is a mission without a goal. We get impatient. We feel frantic and stuck. The unremitting unknowingness is maddening. Desperate as we are, we have to give ourselves slack, to "go with the flow." The solution to being stuck is being still.
This stillness goes against everything we have learned about getting through the day. We are the generation that perfected multi-tasking and efficiency. (I still debate with myself whether when putting on sneakers, it is better to go sock-sock, shoe-shoe, or sock-shoe, sock-shoe). We've also gotten very good at mind-reading. We are expert at tuning into the needs of those we love - often at the expense of our own needs. It seems so "selfish" to put ourselves first. But it is time, as Gloria Steinem says, for a new Golden Rule: "Do Unto Yourself as You Have Been Doing Unto Others."
One woman, a recently retired teacher, described the transition as a "kind of detox" from living by the bells that had tolled her existence for 35 years. "I laugh about it," she told me, "but in some ways, I needed a bell to go to the bathroom. Everything was so structured."
For many of us it takes a year or more to disengage from structure and habit. It takes time to shed the emotional and psychological baggage of a lifetime. It takes time to reconsider our priorities and our relationships. And to consider the consequences.
And there are consequences. We may be in a void but we are not in a vacuum, and as we move closer to who we want to be for the rest of our lives, our relationships are affected. Marriages flounder on their staleness or toxicity. Friendships are shed. Children are outraged to discover that you are not on call 24/7 anymore. And those who have counted on us for so long may become afraid that after all the changes we are going through, we won't love them as devotedly as before. In most cases, though, they and we learn to keep loving in a new mutually-nurturing way.
By the time you head out of The Fertile Void, you are traveling lighter and your very own pilot light is burning clear and true. In the distance you can make out the outlines of a safe harbor. It is your authentic and empowered self. In the Gnostic Gospels (Elaine Pagels/Vintage), Jesus is reported to have said, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." The Fertile Void is where that choice is made.