In real life, our lipstick comes off when we kiss our lover goodbye. In real life, our noses run and our mascara meanders darkly down our cheeks when the people we love with all our hearts die too soon. In real life, there will be times when we stand alone at the threshold, not sure of who we are or who we are about to become.
In the Middle Ages, Italian poet, Dante Alighieri wrote, “when I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.”
For many of us, threshold times can be disorientating, painful, even terrifying. We may feel we’ve lost the path, strayed into the shadowed forest of self-doubt after a divorce, a death, or when a beloved child leaves the family home.
The Latin word for threshold is limen. To our ancestors, thresholds were liminal places, guarded by the gods and goddess: Janus, Hermes and Hecate. As we traverse the space in-between we may have lost our memory of those ancient protective deities as we follow the elusive lantern light of our becoming, through the shadowy dark night of the soul. Yet, even in these modern times, in medias res, in the middle of things, is a fecund state of birthing, where we are required to ask ourselves “Who is the I that stands at this point of no return?”
Ageing is a threshold crossing so often accompanied by loss and the need to adjust, re-calibrate in the face of irrevocable change.
In the affluent West, the Pluto in Leo generation (those born between 1938 and 1956) are offered a plethora of “anti-ageing” interventions to prolong life and maintain the illusion of eternal youth. Midlife has become a moveable smorgasbord, celebrated in cinema and song and glamourised in specialist magazines aimed at the over 40’s. In a feature entitled Fifty Shades of 50, journalist Lisa Depaulo writes with breathless ebullience about a brand-new breed of 50-plus women—stronger, smarter, sexier than ever, dubbed the New Alpha Goddess. She has a penchant for fast cars and luxury holidays, for travelling solo and for saying “it’s my turn”. The article bubbles on cheerfully, “almost every woman I know over 50 seems to be doing things that none of us were expecting to be doing at our age. We’re making choices, in both little and big ways, just for ourselves.”
Demographics and photo-shopped aspirational women’s magazines aside, New Alpha Goddesses were rare in our blood-soaked human his-story—there was no room for a brand-new breed of Alpha Goddesses on Mount Olympus. Despite the sacrifices of The Suffragettes of the 19th and early 20th century and the courage of the Feminists of the ’60s, between the shadows of our politically correct social constructs there exists today the very same polarisation in gender and power that has existed for eons. In affluent societies, many women in midlife and in their elder years live in straightened circumstances after divorce or the death of their spouses. Women still do not, in the main, earn as much as their male counterparts. Women still bear, birth, and nurture the children. Each one of us will have thresholds to cross. Yet not all of us will have the luxury of time or sufficient financial security to say, “it’s my turn” as we support our children through their college years, nurse our dying parents, care for partners whose once virile bodies are failing. Perhaps we might discover that we don’t have the physical strength, the financial clout, the confidence, or even the inclination to be an New Alpha Goddess. Perhaps we might discover that we’ve never wanted to travel solo or drive a fast car and that being just who we are is enough for now.
In real life, we mostly don’t die peacefully in our sleep. In real life, we may discover that this is as good as it gets. And so, in real life, we distill the essence, make something magical from the raw ingredients of life: The tender embrace from the one we love. The sight of the bumble bee hovering in the languid embrace of a still summer afternoon. The intoxicating scent that pervades a scuffed city street in Rome. The delightful discovery of a cloud of white jasmine that hangs heavily over an ancient wall.
In real life, it’s time that becomes the most precious commodity. Many men and women enter the second and third acts of their lives with less attachment to fast cars or yet another pair of shoes, less clinging on to the bricks and the mundane mortar of life. More reverence for the here and now.
“Opposites throw light upon each other”, said the philosopher Schopenhauer. Our lives are animated by the dappled shades of light and darkness, chaos and structure, a cacophony of sound and long stretches of silence. And it’s in the silence that we notice the brilliance of the rainbow as it arcs over the rain-washed sky. And how, quite suddenly, the swallows have returned for the summer.
In our life’s transitions, we may find our purpose, our passion. In our ageing and in our dying, we may discover the meaning of Love. And in the shadows of our inevitable parting, we may celebrate the brave brilliance of living our life just as it is. Not because we must continually strive for our “highest potential” and be that trail-blazing New Alpha Goddess. Not because we must walk the Camino to have a spiritual experience. But because we are here, now.
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life— Mary Oliver
Loreena McKennitt Between The Shadows