Menopause meets me, pistols drawn and gunning for a showdown, in the middle ground of life. I prefer to mount my horse, gallop in reverse, slam on the brakes, and stop the clock. Mix metaphors and juggle words tossed into thin air. Whatever does the trick.
Meno? Minus? Hopefully not a Minotaur charging through the labyrinth of my midlife madness! Who knows? Personal direction used to seem to lead somewhere. Sometimes it did and sometimes not. That was beside the point. I felt grounded on the terra firma of my future goals, written on to-do lists for the day-to-day. Then—poof—everything, or my perception of everything, changed. Menopause and its even less attractive sidekick, mortality, kicked in.
Now I perceive myself in a backwards-facing mirror. A second puberty? Alice up the rabbit hole? Curiouser and curiouser. The snotty delinquent morphed into adulthood, and then transformed through menopause into the crone bitch? I’d put a glossier spin on it but lighting can only do so much—especially in mirrors that repeat ad infinitum. I am not the only woman to have lived to tell about this.
I was never any good at picture-perfect anyway. I’d gotten picked to be a model for an advertising agency at thirteen. My friends had been jealous and my excited mother was about to shell out two hundred bucks for the portfolio. But I changed my mind at the last minute and turned down the offer. My mother was furious and I felt more miraculous than any saint of my catechism after winning that fight.
A word, feminism, had punctured the homogenized seal and deflated my sheltered upbringing. Blame the public library where I borrowed books by Gloria Steinem for that. Once a girl starts to question beauty pageants as the hype of male dominance, modelling is next in line to lose its glamor. Even at that age of tender ignorance, I knew better.
Fast-forward to fifty-two. My socially unacceptable edge stills cuts, but it isn’t the sharpest tool in my shed these days. After all, I have a mortgage to pay. I’ve recently staged more of a down-home rebellion to annihilate the lawn. Any lawn-related tool I own is rusting to oblivion and, with it, I severed all ties to the suburban utopia my mother embraced. I hold fast, my feet planted between perennial spreaders, against the norm.
Then a short-term disability from my day job body-slammed my spirit like a crime and a punishment. The stiff plastic chair seemed to stab my back as I waited—and waited—for a HEAP handout. I know a woman in the field, a salt-of-the-earth type I trade inside secrets with. She divulges insight into social services in exchange for tidbits from what I call the Borg of Ed (where “resistance is futile”). Social services, it seems, can be designed to make people squirm like vermin scraped off their Payless shoes. Single, motherless women my age rank low on the totem pole of categorized needs. A withering travesty, a pariah, a parasite leaching the lifeblood of the overpopulated world. C’est moi.
What can I say? I need to stay out of debt. One hears too many horror stories of middle-aged women being plunged into homelessness. They live in cars, on the streets, or worse, fill in the blanks of epitaphs that no one will ever read. Why?
I used to schlep art supplies up and down five flights of stairs to over seven hundred kids a week for a living. Agonizing pain had begun to shoot up my leg and I could no longer handle the stairs because of what I’d believed stemmed from a foot injury. I resigned in the wake of sweeping cuts to arts education and was told how “impressive” it was that I’d gotten interviews. My resume had risen to the top of hundreds piled on a principal’s desk. Do I suspect that a younger, less experienced teacher got the job? Sure, I do, and impressive still doesn’t pay my bills.
I’m trying my damnedest to hold this middle ground. In the meantime, I need to resort to a more drastic perception. I’m drawn to an otherworld, to hunker down and hide in a corner of my internal self. There was an old stock painting entitled something like “In Disgrace” of a sad-eyed girl, sitting like a lost soul in the corner. Little kids used to be punished by being made to sit in corners to face the wall. (Are they still?) I’ve clocked some childhood time there myself.
Now they tell me the sciatica in my leg stems from a cyst on my spine, thankfully, benign. Not thankfully, the medical powers-that-be didn’t catch my too-polite complaints as the degenerative thing crushed against my nerves. “No one is hearing my pain!” My shout echoed down the sterile corridor of the orthopedic clinic. There was a frozen pause before they took x-rays of the correct body part then.
The line “Do not go gentle into that good night” ^1 has always stuck in my head like a rallying mantra. In 1998, I’d forgotten the paperwork for a mammography and was told to wait three months for another appointment. My shout of “My mother just died of fucking breast cancer!” was a sword that hacked through the Macedonian Knot of their red tape. “We’ll take you now.” They quickly ushered me out of the waiting room.
Today I’m too doped up on painkillers to squeak out more than a feeble whine. Like I said, my tools were much sharper then.
Meanwhile, huddled over in the HEAP corner: I note the elderly widow with requisite brood of grandkids to the right. A thirtyish het couple in retro hippie dress is seated on plastic chairs to my left. I straddle the middle ground again. Outside Social Services, a jumbo-sized camper faces the building like an in-your-face American Dream Machine. I thrust up my head and look away from the window and, this time, I don’t shout. I don’t feel the need.
I am menopausal—hear me roar inside my brain! Another mantra, “. . . there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind,” ^2 has found a home within my thought life. I think, read, write, and reason, therefore I do not cease to be. I am remade into and of myself, no gentle or fragile being. I choose my weapons as the pen and paintbrush and this tabula rasa on which to express what I don’t care to shout. I am cornered and a meditation-yoga-what-the-hell space has evolved in my bedroom as a testament to that.
Pause can mean to hold the breath. I decided to stop pausing; to just release and let time unfold to do its cyclical thing. To stop feeling punished by this corner life allotted to me. I embrace this midway path of my womanhood—for better or for worse, dull or sharp, invisible or not. I continue to heal and to create myself without the trick of mirrors with each new dawn.
©2013 by Doreen Perrine (For more about the author go to http://doreenperrine.tripod.com/)
1. Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” The Poems of Dylan Thomas (New Directions: 1952)
2. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (Harcourt, Brace & World: 1957), 90