My name is Nor Hall. I went through menopause starting the week of my 50thbirthday, and I’m 68 now.
I’ve practiced as a post-Jungian psychotherapist for almost forty-five years; I’m in retirement now, although I still have a few patients. I’ve also been a writer throughout my professional life, and in the last fifteen years I’ve worked in theatre as a research dramaturg.
The first time I articulated the desire to be or do anything as an adult happened on a car ride from New Jersey to Vermont with my grandfather, a very interesting man who had a great influence on me. In fact, I just finished a six-year project of getting his letters from China published. During that trip, he was talking about language and the origins of words, and I remember being excited by this and telling him that I was going to grow up to be a linguist. Then in high school I always had a workbook with me and enjoyed taking notes—even when I was on a camping trip with my father and he’d be talking about something of interest I would write it down. I took notes in church, at basketball games—it wasn’t practicing to be a writer or journalist, it was more of wanting to be a scribe to my own experiences and thinking.
I don’t have childhood memories of people around me going through menopause; I didn’t even ask my mother about it until I was post-menopausal, and by that time she was the age I am now. She didn’t remember it very well, but looking back I’m quite sure there were other things happening to her in the realm of physical ailments like arthritis and psoriasis that were hormonally connected. Her mother died when she was 42, and they were both bipolar, which effected me in my career quite a lot. I think my early interest in mythology in my undergraduate years, specifically the story of Demeter and Persephone, derived from what I saw my mother and grandmother going through in this cyclical, periodical way. At first, I connected it to menstruation and fertility, and then later I began to focus on what we call the third phase of moving into menopause.
When I wrote The Moon and the Virgin, I was using the Hesiod story of the Hymn to Demeter and Persephone, and he has a particular sentence describing Demeter disguising herself as an old woman, and the description appalled me at the time: “past the age of child-bearing and the gifts of garland-loving Aphrodite.” And I thought no way, that’s not going to happen to me. I was really insulted and thought it so obvious that a man had written that, because it had nothing to do with a woman’s experiences and everything to do with how she’s perceived from without. But as I got older, especially as I was approaching and then in menopause, I was stunned to experience the invisibility of age. When I was young and working as a professor of humanities, I did some art therapy work in Minnesota Correctional Facility at Stillwater, and I remember thinking then I can’t wait to be old enough to not be noticed by all these men in prison, because it was extremely difficult. That was the first clue that there was something in me that knew there was going to be this physical change. When I was in my earliest stages of womanhood, being associated with the sensuality and sexuality of Aphrodite was quite appealing. I connect Aphrodite with love and fullness and sensuality; she does have children, but is not maternal like the other goddesses. Of course the Romans called her Venus. Prior to that, I was much more identified with Artemis, at least until sex and libido kicked in. Artemis I think of as being the goddess of virginity, meaning that she belonged to herself, but was also in the company of women, primarily her nymphs; the only male companion she had was her brother. She’s associated with the most ancient goddess who says no man has lifted my veil. She was most comfortable in the untamed wilderness, and lived an undomesticated and highly physical life. Then, as I began going through menopause, first there was this big bump in the Aphroditic interest, and then it started tapering down to the Artemesian singularity of wanting to be on my own, and my relationship with my husband became much more of an Artemis/Apollo brother/sister kind of connection. During the seven years right around menopause, I was working on my book about iron and fire and the furnace, and the meta-poetics and erotics of the element fire, and coincidentally that was the only time in my life that I’ve been sexually interested in both men and women. It was a surprise to feel that opening and liberating desire to express; it felt Maenadic to me too—Maenads were female followers of Dionysus made periodically mad by being called by him to leave their domestic scenes and pay tribute with wine and music and dancing in the hills—and I wanted to be dancing and physically celebrating, even though my body was changing in a way that threatened to lose all of its juiciness. It was curious to have all those things going on simultaneously, and I believe it’s so representative of the suppressed desire in women to go temporarily mad in their lives. If you don’t do it then sometimes that can turn into pathology, and it’s something I saw a lot of in my practice. But then this other diminishing of that fire started to happen, and it intrigues me that the erotic connection of this phase of my life is much more intellectual than physically sensual. I’m aroused to a feeling of aliveness and attraction by making intellectual and emotional soul connections to people with whom I can talk, rather than in a context of sexual desire, much the same as during my pre-sexual life.
I am a grandmother to thirteen. My own daughter alone has five biological, three adopted and two foster children. She was an only child and always wanted an instant large family and children she could play with. I was her introverted mother sitting around surrounded by books and quiet, and she did not like it.
I’m very grateful that I have time in my present to relate to children and to my older friends in a different way. When I was younger and identified more as a writer, I could turn off relationships for weeks or months at a time when I had to focus, and I’m not capable of that anymore. I feel as if my work identity and my intimate identity have changed in the last twenty years. Working with the artistic director of a theatre company, for example, created a decade of intense collaborative work, which is so different from holing up in my own room and writing, and I enjoyed that. It suited who I thought I was at that time, and allowed me to be more involved in another kind of creative world than the one I inhabited in my own head. Now, in the last few years, I’ve started working on this archetypal graphic memoir project called The Ancestry of Friendship—one of the interests that seem to come with this time in life has to do with archival matters, a kind of psychological legacy and lineage and collecting things that establish those connections in an artistic as opposed to historical way—and in doing that I’m slowing down to working again by hand, writing and drawing these conglomerate sorts of pages. It’s a kind of work that allows for interruption in a way that book writing never did. It’s a very specific working identity and style.
In terms of post-menopause cycling back to pre-puberty, I don’t have the kind of memory I had pre-puberty. I don’t seem to be able to hold on to connections and make as many rapid-fire associations as I used to. I notice that largely in social situations—dinner parties, cocktail parties, receptions. If I’m sitting quietly with a group of friends those things come more easily. I guess my mind is more distractible.
I read articles and books on menopause, including Germaine Greer and Gail Sheehy, but I felt like there was no one talking about the wild swings and transformations of personality and emotion. Martin Prachtel told a story about how women in Guatemala wore beautifully embroidered long white tunics called huipils, and in village courting ceremonies young men would follow these girls around and step on their embroidered hems to stop them in their tracks as a gesture of flirtation. There came a time, in older women’s lives, when the custom was to reverse the placement of this brilliant embroidery so that it was worn around the neck to bring color back to their faces. That kind of story was helpful to me, and it also gave me a way of talking to my daughters when I did that flame-passing ceremony at my 50th birthday, the heat of womanhood as I had lived it being passed on to the next generation. Nobody was talking about what happens to your own heat and color and the flame of your own vitality. It’s not only about hot flashes and vaginal dryness and depression.
One of the times that made me withdraw was during a conversation with a group of friends, and one woman was talking about her brother, who was in his eighties, having an intense attraction to someone, and I had to say something out loud about how appalling I found the Viagra television ads to be in terms of the commercial imposition of desire upon our aging processes, by sending the message that in order for us to have a successful old age we had to want to have sex until we were a hundred years old. At that point, my libido wasn’t high for physical sex, and one of my future aims was not going to be to try and rejuvenate that part of myself. I was fine the way I was, and my husband and I have a great relationship that doesn’t need to have sex at the center of it the way it did for many years, and I felt as if there was nobody to talk to about that. When I was younger I thought that there were all kinds of ways of being a woman, but I’d never considered that could also be true in our sixties, and that’s been a big surprise. There are as many ways of being that are as exciting and acceptable in this time as there were when we were in our twenties, but no one’s ever pursued that line of discussion. I personally react very negatively to the term crone, even though an etymological dig-back might change my mind, because it’s like the old Hesiod woman dead to love and labor, which I see as far too restrictive and unimaginative a word for describing another phase of life.
I imagine the womb in early life as being like many of the Chinese temples I’ve visited, loud and lively and everything painted in brilliant red and hung with all sorts of paper prayers and wishes, and people bowing and leaving offerings on altars and vendors outside hawking their wares, just replete with the activity and hustle-bustle of life. And then there’s the compete serenity and peacefulness and total absence of red in the Japanese Zen rock gardens I’ve seen, and I think of the difference between those two places as the difference between my womb as a younger woman and now, in this middle part of life. I identify with the interior of the Zen garden, the interior image of the absence of the blood and the quiet of that space.
I would say that for women in peri-menopause it’s very important to talk to people. There’s no one way or avenue to proceed, but it’s as complex and exciting a time as the one into becoming a sexual person. I would want to talk about hormones, too; I did some replacement therapy for a while, but all that needs to be considered so individually. If it’s somebody I know and love, I would want to talk about the mythologies of identity at that point, and for that there are clues from the past. There’s a wonderful group of women who used to wander the roads of Scandinavia dressed in black clothes and cat-skin gloves. They were story collectors called the Gossips, and were associated with Hecate. They went from town to town, and the one who became most adept was called the king’s conversation woman.
One of the first physical things that made me aware of being menopausal was the development of the jelly belly, like that belly on a cat that just hangs down low, and I thought where did this come from on me. For the first time in my life, I took a ten-week breath-dance class from a local choreographer, and I did this three times a week for two hours each time, and that really worked. Since then, I’ve been highly aware of how much more exercise activity I need every day to maintain my sanity. I do Tai chi, and I walk, but to do the amount of walking I require calls for at least two hours a day. I feel privileged and grateful though that I have the time to devote to it, and that I’m physically able to.