The Crone’s Passion – a woman’s story (a longer than usual read)
I read an invitation I received from Hystersisters to participate in the Bloom study: “The primary purpose of this study is to determine the safety and effectiveness of LibiGel®, an investigational medication for Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD).” Today, I savoured the last lines of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s 1928 novel Break of Day. And today, I am compelled, driven by a compulsion, to write to you about a coming of age story. This is not the usual pimply-awkward coming of age story. Rather it is about the full-bloom-turning-at-the-climax-of-life coming of age story.
As with the finest stories, I shall begin by sharing with you the end I have in mind. The question is posed by Colette near the close of the one-hundred and forty-one page publication of Break of Day, which Judith Thurman clarifies in the introduction: it is not really entitled Break of Day but more accurately translates as Birth of Day. The question is “how many of us see the day appear?” The narrator does not stop to allow pondering of an answer – she gives it immediately, as freely as a lover’s kiss on our naked skin. Her reply: “the ageing of the sun, which each morning shortens its course, takes place in private.” I agree. Too often this is true.
Thurman’s introduction to the novel imparts “here, as throughout [Colette’s] oeuvre, the male of the species is the weaker but nobler creature, while the female monopolizes the ‘will to survive.’” I have not enough knowledge of Colette’s work to argue this analysis. However, I propose that perhaps Break of Day is not about the male species at all. Perhaps Break of Day is primarily about desire. About love! In fact, perhaps it is primarily about female desire and love. Not precisely about the womanly desire or love for another but the actual physical ability to hormonally suffer lust at the expense of common sense. Perhaps Colette’s male character, Vial, and possibly all the characters in the novel, are props to bring our attention to what all women shall experience – if they live long enough, no matter how many “investigational medications” are invented, – the loss of sexual desire. Contemporary medicine’s concoction of “hypoactive sexual desire” as an unbecoming “disorder,” may well be a defining outbreak caused by a society which is unwilling to see the day appear. Is it possible that we have willingly sold our crone rites of passage for the mythology of an endless summer in youth?
Beyond the financial fortunes to be harvested by soliciting our fear of aging, why might this be? Wine cannot be made if the grapes are left to wither on the vine past their full plumpness. Do we want those plump grapes so badly that we are willing to forgo their picking, tramping and bottling into sustaining comfort during the second half of our lives? This is my fear – your answer will be “yes.” I am compelled – driven – before even waiting for your reply to barter with you, in fair trade, for a chance that you may be able to bottle your best! Come with me . . .
From the beginning of Break of Day, Colette winds inseparably between the light of day, and the passage of time as desiring women… “A little wing of light is beating between the two shutters, touching with irregular pulsations the wall or the long heavy table where we write or read or play, that eternal table that has come back from Brittany, as I have come back.” In the middle of her long paragraph describing such things as her favoured yellow plates, she states “a woman lays claim to as many native lands as she has had happy loves. She is born, too, under every sky where she has recovered from the pain of loving.” Colette concludes that her time that she now has under the blue sky is “doubly” hers with its light air and grapes that have ripened so quickly – except, she has spent a lot of time “not knowing of it!” I ask of what she has not known. Colette’s narrator answers: “That noble bareness that thirst sometimes confers on the soil, the refined idleness that one learns from a frugal people – for me these are late-discovered riches.”
The story’s mistral brings the beginning of transformation with “a strange tribute of withered petals, finely sifted seeds, sand and battered butterflies” being pushed under the door – as with the Bloom study, conjuring up our fear of the worst, not so much the fear of dying but more the death of our youth:
Be off with you, I’ve discouraged other tokens before now; and I’m no longer forty, to avert my eyes at sight of a fading rose. Is that militant life over and done with then? There are three good times for thinking of it: the siesta, a short hour after dinner when the rustling of the newspaper, just arrived from Paris, seems oddly to fill the room, and then the irregular insomnia of the small hours before dawn… Humble as I always am when I’m faced with anything I don’t understand, I’m afraid of being mistaken when I imagine that this is the beginning of a long rest between myself and men. Come Man, my friend, let us simply exist side by side! I have always liked your company. Just now you’re looking at me so gently. What you see emerging from a confused heap of feminine cast-offs, still weighed down like a drowned woman by seaweed (for even if my head is saved, I cannot be sure that my struggling body will be), is your sister, your comrade: a woman who is escaping from the age when she is a woman.
She goes on to describe the bodily changes that come with the middle-of-our-supposed-age, then declares “let us remain together; you no longer have any reasons now for saying goodbye to me for ever.” With fact and possibly astonishment, she imparts her final recognition: “love, one of the great commonplaces of existence is slowly leaving mine.”
Instead of succumbing to the palatable urges to grasp, strain and cling to desire, such as the Bloom Study will rely on to fill their voluntary study quota, Colette grips her truth as “the arrogant song of a blackbird comes rolling up to me like big round pearls dropping from a broken thread.” I ask us as women and as women leaders to do the same. Why you might ask – when science, cosmetics, drugs and fashion can forestall this necessary and eventual truth? I ask us because I fear we may misplace gifts we have to receive beyond our bodily sexual desire. For there will come a time, as the mother of Colette’s narrator confirms, when we will be and may want to be alone:
it’s the final return to single life when you refuse to have any longer in your house, especially if it’s a small one, an unmade bed, a pail of slops, an individual – man or woman – walking about in a night-shirt. Ugh! No, no, no more company at night, no more strangers breathing, no more of that humiliation of waking up simultaneously! I prefer to die, it’s more seemly.
If we should spend our middle years gripping and clinging to our youthful expression of sexual desire, we shall again, as with our youth we are grieving, miss out. We shall miss out on the rich harvest available to us. If only we have the courage to press and bottle our voluptuous memories, sipping and tasting their lushness frequently, before time passes and we must make the final passage to death solo, single, alone.
In our time that finds us void of nature yearning, we may cry “if only I had known!” In fact, I did lament and grieve with such a cry. Colette’s eloquent rendering of this struggle is reflected in my own journal writings from a few years ago:
I am obliged to face this alone-place amidst so much beauty and love. I am forced to acknowledge an old and familiar feeling of being bound, trapped and held too tight. What is it that creates this dis-ease – this desire to break free? What is it that has kept me still and waiting this time? A waiting that holds the belief that this too shall pass, and I will arrive on fresh uncultivated ground and rediscover something of great value under the virgin soil. Stay still I tell myself. Breathe into it! I am birthing another phase of my life in which I am virtually baron of sexual sensation. The well traveled paths of intimacy have been erased from the surface of my breasts, thighs, and pelvis through the removal of all that is female. I can climax it is true but without the deep tremor and contractual satisfaction that was granted my body before surgery. Loving hands are met at best with curious compliance and at worst with clawing and scratching reminiscent of running my hand backwards over the coat of a cat. I no long greet these trespasses with involuntary moans and straining-rhythmic pleasure as these gifts are so freely and lovingly given. I can no longer slide close and nuzzle these caresses to my love without involuntary gasping and franticly fighting to free myself of every blanket and point of body contact. I grieve this loss! If only I had known, I would have engaged with even greater abandon in the arms of my many lovers! I would have stored these delights with the vivid vibrancy only afforded trauma memories. I would have found a way to keep these sometimes rash and sometimes delicate human contacts from becoming only ghostly glimpses just barely retrievable in my present day thoughts. Damn it anyway!!
The age of forty-eight seems much too young to be groping around in the dark for lost sensations of pure pleasure. Whose body is this anyway?! I want mine back! I want my body that sang from the touch of boys, men, women and the sensation of a child nursing my breast! How cruel to say in such calm repose, “Let’s take your ovaries as you are so close to menopause”. Could it not have been said “I am so sorry; we recommend this life saving measure knowing that one of life’s great pleasures will go with these small body parts?” I wonder if I would be less angry, experience less sorrow if I had known? The answer is probably not… for I could not have foreseen the loss until after, when it is too late. I selfishly grieve for me and in great compassion I grieve for my love/my lover/my partner/my friend – my friend who forlornly replies “you know it is the same for men.” I know that he feels this to be true and to some degree it may be true. Impotency is common for men. “Drugs help” he says, “they are working on these drugs for women as well.” But my heart is breaking. I silently cry… how can I express my love to you without my body?!!! How will you be able to express your love to me! We are so much more than “just friends.” How will we discover new ways of intimacy? Where are the possibilities? As you stay cloistered in your den below and leave me to toss back the covers alone in the open attic of our sleep chamber – I wonder how we will discover new intimacy? As you sleep late and I wander the downstairs with care not to disturb you – I wonder how we will discover new intimacy. I can hear the cast iron bed shift under your waking. I must leave to face the day and smile, remember to smile as the sun kisses the valley floor!
I can assure you, in the months and years that followed this lament, we did find new ways of expressing our love and experiencing our intimacy – welcoming surprising, lush late-blooming beauties with nonsensical abandon, carefully bottling them for long twilight sips. I beg of us not to wile away precious years clutching the last rose of our sexual desire. Sip your wine that you have put down before the grapes withered on the vine! For as Colette surmises “‘autumn is the only vintage time’ – perhaps that is true in love too.”
Complete your rite of passage. Enjoy the crone’s passion. As you admire the last shriveling treasure of your desire smile and proclaim as Colette’s narrator proclaims, “in future I shall gather nothing except by armfuls. Great armfuls of wind, of coloured atoms, of generous emptiness that I shall dump down proudly on the threshing floor.” Seek to be awake to see the day appear – even if it means you are chilled from sitting through the night air so not to miss its arrival. In the natural rhythm of life, you will have time for sleep later.
Note: References are hyperlinked. Originally posted with image of “Last Rose” in October 2009 on the now-defunct Gaia Community website.
Sprout Question: Has the passage of time influenced your creativity?
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