Winter’s hungry hand has taken another powerful and precious older woman. No one knew Ellen beyond her family and friends, her church and her neighbors. She was 90, a nurse, faithful to her church and of service to her community, and quiet in manner and tone. In my work in elder services over 25 years, I have come to know many Ellens, older women who have labored relentlessly in their homes or in the outside world for little recognition or financial recompense but who have made a tremendous difference in the lives of other. For reasons that may have to do with the harshness of New England winters, or maybe just coincidence, or maybe only perception, winter seems to be the time when they leave the Earth and we are bereft.
Ellen and the many older women I have known like her do not fit into any standard or feminist image of a powerful woman. They do not generally challenge the status quo, except with occasional complaints about unfairness to women in comments to friends. They may not feel comfortable labeling themselves as “feminist.”
They will never leave their church, synagogue, mosque or other traditional religious organization to attend a Solstice ritual or croning ceremony. Yet, when they die we sometimes find out how powerful they have been. People come forward whose lives they have transformed with a few words or acts or through years of nurturing and care. You hear how they quietly advocated for some small change in policy in church or community that led the way for greater progress. Their volunteer service or professional accomplishments get calculated and it is clear how much good work they have done.
Yet, these outward measures are only a shadow of their true power. Each of these women lives on in those whom she has touched. They have a continuing presence in the lives and memories of the individuals and communities who they have served that is deeply cherished. Their influence reaches down generations because they improved the wellbeing of people who then benefit others.
One of these women who volunteers countless hours at the elder services agency where I work sometimes comes up to me and tells me that someone is “fading.” By that she means that the person is still physically present, but that her spirit seems to be slipping into some other realm; not that the person is physically failing, though that may be the case, but is simply moving into another plane of existence. I have found that so often these powerful, yet unsung, older women begin the process of dying by gradually moving into their new spiritual home, always without regret or anger.
And so it seems to me that perhaps they begin their journeys in winter because this is the time when they can most easily slip into the profound Darkness of the days before the Solstice. When I think of this December Darkness, I think not of its cold, harshness, and endings, but the embrace of its softness, deep peace, and mystery that is so like the souls of these women. Like them, the pre-solstice Darkness has an inner strength and influence that is overlooked in the bright glare of the Light. I look up into the sky and see the spirits of these women flying behind the dark moon to their true home, into the Darkness, even as they live on in the outside world through those left behind in the Light. As I celebrate the Solstice, I rejoice in the coming of the Light, but also honor the power and majesty of the Dark.