Canadian author Elaine Morin is the latest to embrace the ethos of The Mixed Zone’s She Who Dares initiative, the campaign to encourage women to move out of their comfort zone and into some kind of sporting activity
“Strong women. Sexy women. Funny, proud and beautiful women, living life to the full and in charge of their own destiny. Sometimes hot and sweaty, but never afraid.” So writes Jane Ussher on the cover of Writing Menopause, a recent anthology that I co-edited with Jane Cawthorne. In this collection of stories, poems, essays and interviews, we wanted to show that we’re a brand-new generation of mid-life women. We’re more opinionated, more interested in sex, and we’re getting out and doing things. Adventurous things like climbing mountains and skiing down glaciers.
In our late forties, Jane and I both took up mountaineering. We talk about this in the book. I was noticing how many other women in their forties, fifties and sixties were also pursuing mountain sports, some who were long-time athletes and others who weren’t. In the book, I ask Jane what she makes of this. She answers: “Maybe women our age have a deep need to get away from people, to go somewhere more elemental where the usual restrictions and expectations don’t apply.”
How vital women are at this stage of life is something we wanted to show in the anthology. We wanted to get deeper into the experience of women who were living this mid-life milestone in a big way; women who were ordinary, but with huge wills and an ability to get things done. So much of menopause writing is ridiculous or demeaning, or filled with terrible puns. Or it seeks to fix women. Our book doesn’t seek to fix anyone. We’re not endorsing taking estrogen or black cohosh. Instead, we want the book to be inspirational. We hope readers will find joy and community, and will return to the works again and again.
Recently, I watched Losing Sight of the Shore, a documentary film about the Coxless Crew, a team of four women who row alone across the Pacific. It’s so fantastic what these women did! They were very cerebral in their approach, very systematic about checking in on team psychology and not hiding anything. What’s even more fantastic is that around the same time, in a story reported by The Mixed Zone, a separate team crossed the Atlantic and set a record for the oldest women (average age, 47) to row across any ocean.
This kind of resolve is so powerful. In the book, we include a sailing poem, Pressed On by Carol Kavanagh, that speaks in a similar way to women’s mental fortitude, to our ability to keep on going:
I sailed her close to the wind,
trimmed her tight, ran her hard
until I got the best out of her.
After she turned fifty — a mutiny
… She warned
of our demise if I didn’t take heed.
And, I didn’t. I pressed her on.
When we’re young, we believe that youth is our biggest asset. We think that we have one over on people above forty. But what we don’t have are the gifts that time brings. Time seasons us. It hands us experience. When we’re young, we squander time. We find it so boring! We don’t even realise how little time we have. And then middle-age is upon us, and we’ve crested that hill, and suddenly we see the other side. And it’s interesting. But maybe not quite so nice. All sorts of monsters live there. Well, no wonder we have mid-life crises!
This past winter, my husband and I travelled with another couple on a glacier in Banff National Park. We were skiing hut to hut, and I knew the terrain because it was my seventh time there in recent years. But what struck me during the trip was how difficult it was to take a leadership role. Because of all the snow, there were no established paths, so route-finding was important. Yet when I gave my opinion about our route, the woman in the other couple kept saying that we had to defer to our husbands. She’s a tremendous skier herself, but she still wanted to defer, even though I had decent knowledge of our route.
So, maybe as women we have to make sure we are listening to each other and not defer to the male in the crowd. Or maybe we need to get out on our own. A recent study showed that post-menopausal killer whales use their vast knowledge of navigation to help their clans survive. Typically, the females outlive male orcas by quite a few decades. So, the elder female’s role becomes quite important, possibly because there are no elder males around. What’s also interesting is that the study is helping to debunk the idea that post-menopausal human females serve no purpose and are “simply alive beyond their evolutionary prescribed time”.
As I write this, my husband is searching for his climbing guidebook. He has searched up and down and come up empty, he declares. Instantly, I locate it in a pile on the book table where it usually sits. This is just another example of women’s attention to detail, a classic gender difference that is usually explained by our centuries of socialisation: women tending to the home fires, men hunting on the savannah. Which gives me hope. If I ignore my husband’s requests long enough and leave him to search on his own, he may be socialised one day to locate his things without my help.
By middle-age, our bodies have retained a lot of experience. We may not have firm skin, quick reflexes or energy abounding, but our muscles and brains have created efficiencies. As older women, we know what it’s like to get through hard things, long projects. We’ve gotten to the other side of childbirth, the other side of raising kids. These are brutally hard. Most of us, by middle-age, will have arrived at the other side of one or several injuries. I cracked my head open in a climbing fall a few years ago and battled post-concussion syndrome. I’ve come back from countless soft-tissue injuries, from sprained ankles and fingers to tennis elbow and a torn rotator cuff. And I’ve bled copiously, from bashed shins to torn forearms. But I’m proud of my battle scars. They’re my history.
Which brings me to one of the beautiful things about menopause: the end of all that blood. I am proud to be a woman, but when you’re on a bicycle or a mountain, the blood is a hassle. It’s been a year since I finished menstruating and although I experienced a small twinge knowing that this was the end of my reproductive years, I don’t miss my periods one bit. No more clothing emergencies. No more hauling around supplies. What a relief!
ABOUT THE BOOK
Writing Menopause: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry and Creative Non-fiction is a collection of writing about menopause, that highly charged and often undervalued transformation, with contributions from Canada and the United States, and two works by UK-born Maroula Blades. The anthology is a “revolutionary collection of work passionately and bravely confronting menopause, a topic society tends to avoid”, said This Magazine. “The writers explore every aspect of this phase in life, from perimenopause to hot flashes, and the feeling of loss to the stigma menopause has on a person’s mental state.”
The collection includes literary work from award-winning writers such as Roberta Rees, Lisa Couturier and Rona Altrows, and emerging voices such as Rea Tarvydas, Leanna McLennan and Gemma Meharchand, and an interview with trans educator Buck Angel. The works attempt to find the ground between punchline and pathology, between saccharine inspiration and existential gloom. The authors neither celebrate nor demonise menopause. These are diverse depictions, sometimes lighthearted, but just as often dark and scary. Some voices embrace the prospect of change, others dread it. Together, this unique offering reflects the varied experience of menopause and shatters common stereotypes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elaine Morin is co-editor of Writing Menopause: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry and Creative Non-fiction (Inanna Publications, 2017). Winner of the Brenda Strathern “Late Bloomers” Writing Prize, she lives and writes and finds outdoor adventure in Calgary, Alberta, just a stone’s throw from the Canadian Rockies.