Tuesday, June 7, 2011

a future black crone

One of the things I love about modern paganism is the concept of the maiden, mother and crone. When I first heard the word “crone” it made me think of a bitter, ugly woman. Not a word I would ever use to describe my future, older self. I just knew there was a better term to express what I would one day surely be, namely, an old black woman.

But eventually, as I got hip to the whole meaning of the triple goddess, I started to embrace the term crone. Shorthand version, the archetype of the crone is an old woman, embodying the virtues of wisdom and counsel, night, death, reincarnation, among other things. In other words, life’s deepest mysteries.
At 46 and still capable of birthing a child, I’m not quite a crone, but I am getting close. And I’m looking forward to it.
Modern American culture can be cruel to people as they get older. We are so focused on physical youthfulness, and the overriding message about aging we get is that it a) sucks and b) should be avoided at all costs. Hence the multi-billion dollar “anti-aging” industry. Which is really anti-life.
At the core of this attitude is the fear of death, with old age seen as nothing more than a long, painful decline. This perspective is a spiritual dead end.
We all know the manifestations of this dread of old age, and it hits us at all ages: from young folks expending precious mental energy dreading their 30th birthdays, to middle-aged people and those even younger getting botox and plastic surgery, to the ageism that makes employers not want to hire people over 50, to the phenomenon often seen in nursing homes where, in a late-stage re-enactment of high school social dynamics, the most frail residents are often shunned. No matter one’s age, ageism harms the soul and the psyche.

If one of the major themes in paganism is to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature, I can’t think of anything more in opposition to that ethos than the absolute fear, revulsion and denial of aging that we are taught in this society. 

Nature is a continuous cycle of birth, life and death. From the beginning till the end of time. And being pagan is all about rolling with these changes and (hopefully) accepting and finding the beauty in each of life’s seasons. 
But instead of doing that, we worship youth to the exclusion of all the other stages. This is true for both genders but it hits women especially hard, since a woman’s worth is often measured by how closely she matches the physical ideal of youthful beauty.
As we age, and our looks grow further away from that standard, our self-esteem can take a hit if we’ve bought into the dominant narrative that worth is defined by the outward self. Even if we don’t subscribe to that narrative, society will let us know its stance and treat us accordingly. The signs are not subtle, to name just a few:
You become invisible. You virtually disappear from the pop culture. Many women get dumped by their partners for a younger model. If single and looking for a partner, an older woman often finds that men her age don’t want to date her (I have friends going through this right now).

And everywhere you look, there is advertising telling you that what's happening to your body and face is ugly. It can be a difficult transition. Many women start to believe the negative messages.
So here’s my “black pagan” spin on this phenomenon: I think that black women have a distinct advantage when it comes to dealing with this particular aspect of growing older as a woman in this society. 
We have, after all, a lifetime of experience receiving the societal message that we do not matter. That we are not beautiful, that we are not worthy. And by the time we reach crone's age, we have had a lifetime to learn how to deal with it. 
Except for the minority of us who possess physical characteristics that come close to the “ideal” (white skin, thin, straight hair, blue eyes etc.) we learn from an early age that our kinky hair, ample rears, broad noses, thick lips and dark skin are largely unappreciated. Society’s prevailing beauty standard does not include us.
We are seen, generally speaking, as occupying the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to notions of feminine beauty. Black women heralded as the most beautiful inevitably display the least amount of African-ness (Beyonce, Halle Berry. Not to knock them, just making a point).
Who among us, as little girls, never draped a towel over our heads and looked into the bathroom mirror, imagining what we’d look like with straight, long hair. Who at some point in our personal history didn’t wish our hair was straighter, that our skin was not so dark, and nose maybe not so broad? Etc.
There are two responses to such a situation: you can go through life with an inferiority complex, wishing that you looked more like the beauty ideal (and spend lots of time and effort trying to approximate it), or you can learn at some point to embrace yourself. 

And know that you are beautiful even in the face of a society that tells you differently. Most of our collective responses fall somewhere on or between these two polarities, depending on where we're at in life.
That being the case, with a certain amount of inner strength, support and plain luck, we can learn to say “fuck you” to the negative messages about ourselves. We can learn to appreciate our hair, skin, lips, etc. 
We can also focus on attributes other than the mere physical. In doing so, we gain a lifetime of practice in defining ourselves on our own terms. This builds strong character in the long run. And it’s a useful skill to have, as one grows older in a culture that hates old people.
So having never fit in so well with the dominant beauty standard to begin with, it’s less of a big deal when we pass our “sell-by” date (as I’ve heard middle age for women described). We’re just living our lives as always.
The idea of the seasons of a woman’s life mirroring the seasons of nature, and the divine, is very healing. Instead of reviling old age, instead of seeing ourselves as increasingly ugly and weak and useless to wider society, we can learn to celebrate each new phase of life. It is the natural order of things. Everything changes, and we can see the beauty in all phases, even as we face our fears head on.
We can look at the creases on our faces and see in them the splendor of a stark, bare tree, full of lines and a lifetime of experience. We can increase our powers, however we may define them. Even as each stage draw us closer to death.
We can use this time to let go of the superficial, to explore new interests, dive further into older ones, change course, go within, form new and different relationships, deepen old ones, weed out the unimportant, mentor the young. 

I personally plan on getting rid of most of my crap and writing weird music. :-)
I am grateful for the older women in my life and in the public eye -- especially the black women -- who defy the stereotypes of old age and who embody those positive aspects of the crone. I thank the gods for life and love, and for this strange and beautiful journey of birth through death, and back again.

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