Why are there so few enviable images of female elderhood in our culture? Dr Sharon Blackie, the neuroscientist turned ecofeminist author, is urging women entering the second half of life to welcome their inner transformative power
Occasionally a book comes along which friends share passionately among themselves, sending highlighted excerpts or pages photographed, battered copies passed from one hand to the next. If Women Rose Rooted, Sharon Blackie’s 2017 cry for living an authentic, whole, enchanted life, is one of these. The combination of memoir, Celtic myth and land lore became a cult hit and bestseller. Her newest book, Hagitude, is, in many ways, a follow-up.
Hagitude sees Blackie entering the second half of her life, celebrating 60 years on this “beautiful, troubled planet”. Her life to this point has been remarkably varied. Born into an impoverished working-class family in the north-east of England, she has lived in some of the most elemental parts of Scotland, Ireland and now Wales, and worked as a neuroscientist, psychologist, corporate businesswoman, publisher, and now writer and teacher focused on the mythic imagination. She reached menopause a few years back, and it was a revelation.
Blackie is speaking to me from her small farm in mid-Wales. Behind her are the Cambrian mountains, and their highest peak, Plynlimon. She lives near forests, the source of the River Severn and ancient yew trees with rare breed sheep, hens, her husband, David, and her dog, Nell, who wanders in to say hello while we talk.
Her writing and teaching have made her a beloved and highly respected thinker and a legend in the ecofeminist and nature writing world. I, like many others, found If Women Rose Rooted empowering, a book that offers a quenching counter-narrative to patriarchal stories that limit or erase women, and offers new ways of belonging to the world. Hagitude takes menopause and the second half of life as its terrain – and their transformative power.
The challenges of menopause can of course be disruptive. The average age for menopause is 52 but it can happen much earlier (for one in 100 women, before 40). Four years is the typical duration, but it can be much longer (up to 12 years). Many women suffer significant difficult impacts such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, hot flushes and night sweats; a quarter of women describe them as severe. Until reading Hagitude, I had always dreaded it.
But Blackie tells us that this is not all it is. Her argument is that we’ve forgotten that menopause can also be a fertile, transformative time. Carl Jung, who Blackie is deeply infuenced by, believed that the second half of life was the time to grow into the person you were always meant to be. By seeing or portraying menopause as a disability or dysfunction, we are missing out on its positive and empowering possibilities, she argues.
Hagitude also blows apart cultural ideas about menopausal and post-menopausal women. It illuminates the flaws in our societal thinking which relegate ageing women to the shadows, invisible and devalued. The title for the book came to Blackie in the middle of the night. She spoke it aloud and knew it would be her next book. Hags with attitude.
While thinking about what it means to be an elder, she found “no clear image of enviable female elderhood in the contemporary cultural mythology of the West” but, in digging deeper, she found that myth and folklore told a far more interesting story. In our distant past, older women were respected and had meaningful roles to play. Blackie presents a varied array of potential role models: the Furies, Baba Yaga, the Henwife, the wise old woman in the woods, to real-life women in their older years with remarkable creative energies such as artists Judy Chicago, Paula Rego and the 11th century polymath Hildegard of Bingen.
The psychological impact of menopause was unexpectedly positive for Blackie. Firstly, it was clarifying. “The focus enables you to see what needs to be done,” she says, using the analogy of alchemy. “It’s as if you’re put in a crucible, and everything, except the essence of you, is burned away.”
Menopause, at its best, can be a “sacred pause in the hurtling trajectory of life”. It is a time when all the “dross” can be shed, all those years of compromising, adapting, pretending to be something we’re not, all the veils and masks we wear, as she writes in Hagitude. Instead we can live in a manner “more aligned with our passions and our longings”.
It has individual benefts, and also benefts for wider society, too. While reading Hagitude I was transfixed by the stories she told of learning to express anger, after years of suppressing it, as many women do. Menopause is often seen as a time of rage – a hot time, literally, for the body – and Blackie revisions this anger as a useful and honest force: a “righteous wrath” that can be directed at what is really going wrong in society. In classical mythology this wrath was connected with older women, most notably the Furies.
Blackie is loved for offering people wonder and enchantment – elements of the living world I, and so many of us, crave more of – and it is inspiring to hear about the new porousness she is experiencing in the second half of life. For the frst time, I feel intrigued, rather than simply worried and fearful, about ageing. I ask her where she finds wonder at the moment.
In menopause the barrier we imagine between us and the natural world just dissolves
“I find wonder and enchantment everywhere,” she says. “In menopause the barrier we imagine between us and the natural world just dissolves quite spontaneously and in strange and unexpected ways. It’s a very beautiful sense that all of a sudden the clouded water has become crystal clear and you can see all the organisms in it.”
How can we get to this place of empowerment and seeing older age differently? For Blackie, stories are the essential magic for capturing imaginations and creating “genuine and lasting transformation”.
“Stories really do change the world,” she says. “They show you a different set of outcomes and help you imagine yourself in different situations and imagine doing things differently.”
If women are told there’s nothing at the end of menopause, then they’re not going to handle it well. “But if you can go into that with a story that says: all of this discomfort is for something, it is supposed to happen, so that you effectively begin a new story, you become the essence of who you are meant to be, then you see that kind of suffering as worthwhile and you can hold on more easily to it.”
Certainly, conversations about the menopause are increasing. The House of Commons recently declared itself menopause-friendly. October is now the WHO’s World Menopause Month. But Blackie worries that this newfound interest might lure women into a false narrative, the idea that you can carry on forever as you were. “It’s so missing the point,” she says, talking about recent news reports about keeping women in corporate jobs for longer, or the obsession with staying young and beautiful. For those looking for support with a more transformative experience, Blackie offers a year-long programme for the Hagitude community.
The elder age Blackie paints is about meaning, gifts, play, wisdom and disruption, rather than stagnation or denial. It is a dynamite vision. I, for one, am excited to embrace hag power or crone power when my time comes. Which was her intention. “I would like it to make women excited about the second half of their lives, to see what happens as an opportunity, as a new story and a way of becoming more connected to the world outside us and giving something very profound to it.” Hags with attitude? Bring it on.
Hagitude: Reimagining the Second Half of Life by Sharon Blackie is out now, published by September Publishing
Main image: Mark Griffiths