Gathering in the Gorge: A Menopause Ritual

I wrote this piece in 1992.  It describes a ritual I created for myself as assistance for this huge and often overlooked transition.

My body no longer follows the moon’s rhythms. It’s been two years since the final bleeding that ended my lunar cycling. That last blood marked my exit from one stage of life, but I did not know it at the time. Unlike the defined moment of my first period, I wasn’t sure of the finality of the last until months later. My body struggled for a new balance as Nature tried to force one more ovulation, one more attempt to reproduce. Nature doesn’t give up gracefully. She struggles, sometimes with a raging battle, sometimes with a milder protest. Now, after two years, I’m safe from Her reproductive demands—no more babies, no more birth control. I’m relieved, but also sad. My cycles of bleeding, so central to the last thirty-four years, are over. I marked my life on the calendar of those cycles, I depended on their familiar rhythms, and now they are gone, irrevocably gone.Find ritual outdoors, and explore menopause, grieving, and other life transitions

Eight days ago, my youngest son left home, adding finality to my transition. He’s seeking his fortune three thousand miles away, far from my protective eye. I thought I was ready for him to leave, anticipating time alone with my husband, order and peace in the house, and the release of new creativity. My head wants life to move on from mothering, but my heart tells a different story. My chest aches in misery, and I can’t stop crying. Both sons are both gone now, and I can’t talk myself out of longing to know that my children are safe at night.

It’s Nature’s work again. She demands these young men be set free, and She gives me no choice. For twenty-two years, I held my children at the center of my heart. Now I need to hold them gently at the heart’s outer edge and leave the center open for something new.

Until now, I have only wept over my losses, but I need to do more. I want to cooperate with Nature’s design and mark this passage with a ceremony, so I called on three friends to help me. They all agreed—just as I would if they asked me.

After days of rain, the weather forecast calls for a clear, warm night, perfect for an outdoor gathering. The simple images of a ritual fall in place—the poem, the fire, the pictures, the burning. I spend the day writing down ideas, making arrangements with my friends, and packing my dilapidated backpack with firewood, duplicate copies of old family photographs, readings, tampons, sanitary pads, and my diaphragm. I used this same backpack during my first pregnancy twenty-two years ago.

Now I sit in the waning light at the top of a deep gorge. My friend Eve and her husband own this wooded property cut by a magnificent chasm whose stream hurries toward Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes in upstateNew York. I arrived early to have time to collect myself under the ancient hemlocks. The stream is hidden deep below at the bottom of the ravine, but I hear it–swollen, rushing, throwing itself against the shale walls of the gorge. This water-filled slit of earth and stone silences my mind, but my heart is pounding.

Eve walks along the path near by, her footsteps muted by the soft forest floor. Her dark hair and olive skin mingle with the shadows; her lean body moves with the watchful step of a shy deer. She is carrying a tray of bowls to the wooden deck overlooking the waterfall. As she passes, her dark, serious eyes meet mine, and she nods to me, but doesn’t speak.

Eve, lover of yoga and herbs, is a woman in her mid twenties. When we first met, only a few years ago, I knew we would be friends. Eve knows how to befriend a woman. She holds sisterhood sacred and surrounds me in an atmosphere of tender affection and acceptance. Her loving heart encourages my most supportive and nurturing qualities. Eve has no children, but has suffered the loss of a child in miscarriage.

I hear new footsteps, and Dotty emerges from the trees, beaming her affectionate smile. Her face radiates enthusiasm for this gathering and for me. Dotty, lover of flowers and books, is a student of healing and a master of attentive listening. I rely on her wise counsel. She is in her mid forties, and we have been close friends since our children were babies. Her only son has already left home.

Dotty settles near me on a moss-covered log, curling her small, deeply tanned body into a compact, protected ball, knees folded against her chest, arms wrapped around her thighs. Without speaking, the two of us wait as the evening darkens toward night. Eve finishes her preparations and joins us, sitting near us on the ground. The warm air is moist and still, filled with the earthy smell of wet forest soil. Waiting is pregnant, and the anticipation is sweet.

In the distance, we hear the slam of a car door, and in a moment, Lauren darts toward us through the trees. Her body moves with long-limbed agility, her straight brown hair flying behind. She whispers a hurried apology for being late, but we assure her we loved the waiting.

Lauren, lover of ritual and philosophy, is a jeweler in her thirties. Her silver and stone creations decorate my body. Lauren has two young daughters. I was with Lauren and her husband during the birth of their second child, a profound experience that cemented our love. Lauren has deep faith in the divine goodness of life—and the divine goodness of me.

With few words, we load our backs for a short steep journey. My pack is heavy with firewood, and Dotty and Eve lift it and guide my arms through the shoulder straps. I cinch the waist strap tightly around my belly, hoping my strength will keep me upright. A reasonable person would drop the pack and lighten the load, but my friends are moving into the darkness, so I follow.

Eve and Lauren walk only a few steps and disappear, descending a path that was close by but not visible, hidden by foliage and the sudden drop of the bank. Dotty follows them. I come last. The gloom of the gorge envelops me. The weight of the pack and the sheer descent make each downward movement a struggle. The irregular stone steps, dimly lit by flashlight, are wet, leaf-strewn, and slippery. Each step is a challenge, my feet groping for solid footing my eyes cannot see, my strong back and abdominal muscles fighting for balance, my sturdy legs taut and tense. Moving like a turtle to prevent tumbling down the gorge, I feel awkward and old and frightened, but I implore panic to step aside. Sometimes Dotty hangs close to me; sometimes I’m alone with the others ahead. The roar of rushing water gets louder and stronger until, finally, I hear nothing else.

I exhale with gratitude when the path levels and my feet feel the flat stream bed. I sit on a round boulder, resting the weight of the pack on the rock’s mossy top, remove my shoes, and slide my toes into cool water. My friends huddle barefoot in mid-stream, waiting for me to join them. Standing in the dark, ankle deep in wild water beneath high black cliffs, they look helpless and small. We need each other.

Together, we wade upstream, against the rushing current, shining flashlights into the water made muddy by torrential rains, searching for a glimpse of the slippery rock bottom with flashlights. My heavy pack is now a bearable burden, no longer ready to throw me off my feet. I fall to the rear again, trusting my feet, absorbing the power of each solid step. We move one-by-one against the stream, little beams of light flashing and flitting, inner and outer voices silenced by the roar of cascading water.

Eve leads us to a beach of flat rocks beneath the swollen waterfall. What a relief to drop my pack! We unload the wood and push aside stones to make a shallow pit. Together, we build a fire—one made neatly with criss-crossing order by four earthy women. The fire catches easily, despite the moisture in the air, and flares hot and high. We sit close together on one side of the flames, leaving a wide opening where the wind from the waterfall funnels the smoke.

Lauren has brought her singing stone to consecrate the site and the fire and to invite the Spirit. She found this stone on the shore of nearbySeneca Lake, when its slate gray, humanoid face looked up at her from where it was lying among ordinary rock companions. The smooth oval stone fits into the palm of Lauren’s hand and has seven holes that open into tunnels that cut through its rock head. Blocking some holes with her fingers, blowing into an opening, Lauren can make it sing five flute-like notes. Tonight, it cries out, shrill and eerie, piercing through the water-thunder, dancing off the cliffs, and circling back around us.

We huddle closer so my voice can be heard over the waterfall’s roar, and I read what I wrote eighteen years before for my youngest son’s birth ceremony:

In the moment of your birth, I knew the closeness of life and death. As my body yielded to Nature’s will, death entered my body as life and breath entered yours. An overwhelming tenderness filled our world, enveloping us in love.

Our separation was only physical, but as you grow, I must yield more of you each day in a slow separation of mother and child. Nature uses the parent as an instrument of love for the child. You are not my child, but the child of God and your own destiny.

May I learn to nurture without clinging. May I learn to take joy in your life without demanding it for my own. May I learn through the gift of motherhood the lessons of selfless love and the surrender of attachment.

I offer my prayer to the fire and watch the paper transmute into flame and smoke. Then I continue the burning.

“Goodbye to the infants.” (I throw baby pictures of my two sons into the fire, cringing as the flames tentatively lick the edges and then quickly devour the images of my children. Feeling remorse for the burned photos and the lost past, I plunge ahead.)

“Goodbye to the children.” (I add photographs of my sons as young, preadolescent boys to the fire. The flame, knowing its part, consumes them quickly.)

“Goodbye to the mother-child couple.” (I add photographs of my sons and me together, watching with cautious relief as the fire eats the images. I offer the next sentence with conviction and joy.)

“I welcome the young men who stand apart.”

“Goodbye to the blood.” (I throw tampons and sanitary pads into the flames, whooping and laughing without regret.)

“Goodbye to pregnancy and the fear of pregnancy.” (I throw my diaphragm on the fire. A wave of doubt crosses my mind. Is it ecological correct to burn this piece of latex? I let it go and enjoy watching the contraption melt and burn.)

“Goodbye to the woman who stands in relation to men.” (I burn pictures of my husband and me before we were married and a picture of the family—my loving mate, our two sons, and me. A deep solemnity returns as I watch these images disappear. In silence, I pray for the protection and happiness of my children. I pray that, as my sons become adults, we will create supportive and loving relationships as equals. Finally, I pray that this transition will bring new opportunities for even deeper love and friendship within my marriage. I am ready to offer the final words.)

“I welcome the woman who stands in relation to other women.”

“I welcome the Crone who stands alone.”

We sit in silence as the flames die back. In a few moments, Lauren pulls a large glass bowl from her backpack. She fills it with water from the stream and places it before me. Eve gives me a smaller bowl filled with flowers of all sizes and colors—white daisies, orange nasturtium, golden marigold, yellow lilies, and pink snapdragons. My friends ask me to remember the maternal years, setting one flower afloat in the bowl of water for each memory.

Slowly, silently, my friends close to me, touching me, I invite the images of my past. I remember the blessing of love and marriage and choose two flowers to float in the bowl of water. I remember a misty day suffused with joy in theCaliforniaredwoods when my husband and I knew we wanted children. Another flower joins the first two. I remember the magnificence of conceiving, carrying, and birthing our first child. I remember bringing him home, placing him on the couch between us, and weeping over the blessed gift. I remember conceiving our second child inItalyand my irritable pregnancy that ended in a peaceful and sacred day of birth. I remember nursing my babies, the joy, the sweetness, the exhaustion. These were beautiful years, the least complicated time of my life. I find an appropriate flower for each image and drop each one in the bowl along with my tears.

I also recollect the later and sometimes difficult images—adolescent hopes and disappointments, car crashes, the police at the door. I remember graduations, my oldest son’s painful departure for college four years ago, and the tearful goodbye to my youngest son at the airport just eight days ago. The bowl fills with blossoms and memories.

Walking slowly over the rocky ground, carrying the heavy bowl with my friends around me, helping me, I gently empty the water and flowers into the stream. The firelight illuminates the blossoms as they float away—emancipated memories growing indistinct in the dark. I watch them move gently downstream, following their paths until they are gone.

Eve piles the rest of the wood on the fire, and it flares for the last time. The intensity of the ritual slowly gives way to the quiet comfort of deep friendship in times of uncertainty and change. This is all the magic I need, but Nature is bountiful tonight. As the fire dies, the nearly full moon rises silver-white over the walls of the gorge, beaming her blessed illumination into the darkness.

Beneath the moon’s gaze, we cool the hot coals with stream water and gather what has not been burned. Leaving our ceremonial site behind, we retrace our path down the stream bed. My pack is empty, my body is light, and my heart unburdened. Lauren points out a few flowers still floating by, caught in eddies on their way downstream. They feel like old friends. We move slowly and softly through the watery world and leisurely climb the steep rock wall of the gorge. My ascent is made easy by the load left behind and by my friends ahead of me, leading the way back to the world.

At the top of the gorge, in the woods again, we gather on Eve’s deck, overlooking the waterfall we were just beneath. We sit under the round moon, the night so still that Eve lights a candelabra. Dotty and Eve have prepared a midnight banquet of vegetables from their gardens—a salad of spinach and delicate lettuces with goat cheese and sauted snow peas. We eat the vegetables with peasant bread and hummus and wine, ending our feast with blueberry pie.

Four grateful women on four sides of a small square table, four plates and four candles, four friends at peace with each other and the world. It’s late, nearly midnight, but we are unwilling to break the spell. Nature’s magic holds us, blessing us with a sense of beginnings mixed with all the endings.