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.
7 thoughts on “Honoring the Older Women of December’s Darkness by Carolyn Lee Boyd”
thank you for this reflection.
We come from a long line of women, known and unknown, stretching back to Africa.
Bless your beautiful piece and bless all the women known and unknown whose lives you remember here!
Beautiful and articulate — thank you!! Your piece expresses so well my feelings about my mother in law, Ruth, who died a little over two years ago. I did not fully appreciate all that she was until I heard stories from others after her death, and I can cite specific ways that I emulate her now in my own life.
If my mom had died before my traumatic season of deep remembrance, I would have quickly numbered her in your description with a sense of pride, awe and reverence. Now, though, I realize that before she can go into the darkness you describe, she may have to transition out of the darkness of denial. No doubt, she belongs in the circle of women who have shifted the status quo, but from the unenviable place where survival and dissociation became their own separate reality. I wish for her the consolation of our Mother when, in her fading, she experiences personal awareness. Indeed she is the woman of change I have always known her to be, but she lives now between the uncomplicated myths she tries to keep polished and a daughter’s complex knowing of a different narrative.
Carolyn, I hope someone like you will be with her in that season. Sometimes there are solid reasons why the daughter seems distant and emotionally unavailable in that period. More is going on than a few months or years at the end of a life reveals.
Thank you Carolyn, for honoring darkness and the crone. All too often our culture only celebrates youth and light. Your essay beautifully brings to light the old woman fading into darkness.
This is a lovely blog on an important topic. My recent novel, Secret Lives http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Lives-Barbara-Ardinger/dp/1466251786/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1316117982&sr=1-7 is about grandmothers (crones) who do magic. Here’s the conclusion of the chapter in which the eldest woman dies. She is visited by deceased friends.
The seven circled her bed again, and she reached out with both hands to join them. There was soft green light under their feet.
Everyone was so young! Look—there was Yewell, looking just like he did before he’d gone off the fight in the mud in France. And others were joining the circle. Young Secunda Evans, freckles and all. Her best childhood friend, Alpha Coates. Her sister, Cora Rose. But wasn’t she in a nursing home in Poplar Bluff? No, she was dancing right here, pigtails and pinafore flying as usual, she was always in such a hurry to keep up. And there was Nellie Mae, the middle sister, gone ten years now, a good Baptist woman, and Martha Mary Hall from over to the next holler, her rival for Yewell’s love. All the young’uns, all together again.
She danced with her friends, and now they were dancing on new grass above a spring of jade and azure water. It was getting darker, and now they danced around a tall pole, around a dark fire, dancing in and out among the rocks. Now they were on another hill, dancing on hard-packed dirt around a solitary stone that leaned to the north, a stone that had circles and dots carved in it. They were all so young, just children, and so happy, even the tiny dark girl with the wild black hair who laughed like a wild animal.
And now it was light again, gray, misty light, and they were naked children, and great gray birds circled above them, crying in the wind.
And they were in a forest, babies moving in a strange circle pattern on a green path around a tiny dark woman holding a staff and wearing a mask that looked like a heron.
And now everyone was dancing, everyone was dancing among the stars, an endless spiral of dancers, hands joined, heads thrown back in laughter and singing, dancing to their own music, round and round and round again, dancing an intricately simple pattern, in and out, back and forth, round and about, weaving the starstuff in loops and circles and spirals, weaving in songs and celebrations, dancing, always dancing.
Thank you for a great article and a wonderful blog! I’ve been struggling with Christmas, Christianity, and my interest in the Goddess, and your blog posts have been helpful. Unfortunately while I was reading one I accidentally did something wrong and the print became too tiny to read. I’ll have to figure out how to fix that!