Embracing the Crone
I’m not quite a half century old, but I can see it from here. And our modern, 21st Century culture doesn’t know what to do with a woman like me. Amy Schumer’s now legendary “Last Fuckable Day” sketch may be comedic gold, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also uncomfortably true — our cultural iconography around women gives them an expiration date, past which they should expect to become virtually invisible. No longer seen — not as a potential sex partner, not as a contributor to the social discourse, not as anything worth noticing. Many of my older friends have told me about that moment when they realize that they can enter a room, or walk down the street, and they are no longer feeling the uncomfortable, inquisitive, acquisitive, pernicious demand of the male gaze. At certain moments I’ve noticed it myself.
The time of the Crone is almost upon me.
Without my paganism to inform that statement, I would be a lot more fearful of it. Modern paganism, in its worship of both a god and a goddess as equal parts of the central divine force driving the Universe, sometimes conceptualizes the Goddess as having three incarnations — Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Each is considered an equally important expression of the Goddess, and each represents her as the embodiment of a life stage that women experience. Some take a rather rigid view of tying it to the menses. Maidens are the unblooded girls who have not yet experienced full transition to reproductive fertility, Mothers have their monthly cycles and are capable of bearing children, and Crones are post-menopausal, and have finished having monthly courses.
Most of the pagans I know take a much more elastic view of the Goddess in three forms, one less obsessed with the finer points of biological functions. The Maiden is the ingenue, the expressive, nubile woman who has all the energy and curiosity of youth, unsullied by the responsibilities of family or career. The Mother is as her name implies — the responsible one, in charge of her family and of that which she creates. She is fertile (with children: whether human or creative product) and fully adult, and has full authority over her world.
Last comes the Crone, sometimes portrayed as a tired old hag, who is neither beautiful nor strong of body, and her responsibilities have long ago grown out of her immediate grasp, but she is powerful nonetheless because of the wisdom bought through many years of life. She stirs her cauldron, and she knows things. She is your granny, only more powerful and sometimes a lot scarier. In her most popular incarnation she is not “fuckable” in the manner of the Amy Schumer sketch, but she also “ain’t nuthin’ to fuck wit’”in the manner of the Wu Tang Clan.
Thanks to my pagan practice, I do understand that the Crone is not a throwaway character in this triumvirate conception of the Goddess. And that has a certain element of liberation in it. Our pagan communities do not dismiss the old woman with the long hair and the even longer memories. We know her to be powerful, and worth listening to. Our craft is something one learns for a lifetime, so a woman who has spent decades learning her stuff is to be heeded. A pretty young thing could be the baddest of badass witches, and will attract attention at a festival, but chances are just as good that the old woman with the long silver braid who walks with a cane and wears a muumuu can do more to bend the Universe with a flick of her hand than a coven full of pretty young things at a full moon ritual armed with every manner of athame, chalice, cord or bell.
The Crone is sung about, seen and valued in pagan culture, in a positive way, which is more than I can say for the rest of the world. The triune Goddess is a great gift to modern women, in that it allows us to see the divine in ourselves at every phase of our life. Unlike the American cultural demand that women never look a day over 30, paganism actually allows women to see themselves as acquiring power even as they become old and grey. The changes in their body may signify the end of something, but also the beginning of something else, something just as divine and worth becoming.
But even this more granular understanding of womanhood in modern paganism leaves me approaching my inexorable transition to crone-hood with more questions than answers. Do I really have to start thinking of myself as a dried up old hag? Crones are powerful to be sure, but they are not exactly beloved. Am I doomed to a lonely existence now, stirring my pot by myself? What happens to my sexuality? What happens to my sense of fun? Do I have to resign myself to being this creature now, put on my fuzzy bedroom slippers and bathrobe and let the world go on without me?
For one thing, I’m not ready to put myself on a shelf sexually. I may not be able to contort my body into all the positions in the Kama Sutra anymore (I may never have been able to, but that’s another problem altogether…), but a woman of my age and experience understands things about her body, her partner’s body, and about the nature of and entitlement to pleasure that younger women often struggle with. Ironically, reaching the age at which you can legit tell the world you have no fucks left to give has interesting (and rather enjoyable) implications for fucking. Intimacy, it turns out, has greater depth and richer textures when what you’re sharing are thoughts, feelings and experiences drawn from the full range of adult life.
I’m also not ready to give up on my creative potential as Mother either. Many of the women writers I know and admire are doing their best work now in their 60’s, 70’s and even in their 80’s. We don’t blink at the notion that Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones might still want to make rock music. Many women in the visual arts world don’t get the kind of recognition they deserve until very late in their lives — Maria Lassnig didn’t get her first retrospective at a major contemporary art museum until well into her 60’s, and that’s not unusual for female painters. If we’re supposed to give up our creativity when we hit “a certain age,” then that puts most modern women out the door before they even begin to get recognition for their work. (And it certainly explains why so many people seem to think that Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton should “step aside” or “go home and knit” while men like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are still considered viable candidates with something to offer.)
And even though I am far away from being a Maiden, that doesn’t mean that I can’t connect with that part of me that understands wonderment. In fact, I find it’s much easier now as a “woman of a certain age” to be floored by the senseless beauty of a moment than I ever did when I was a jaded teenager who thought I knew everything. Put me under a night sky in the desert with a vault of endless midnight blue and a sea of stars and I will gawk, speechless. Stand me in front of an Alaskan glacier in all its serene power, tense stillness and frosted glory and I feel the smallness as if I am a toddler faced with my very first snowfall. Perhaps because I have known all the cares of adult life, I appreciate the moments when I can jettison them and give over to movement, to song, to love, to anything that allows me that space to forget myself, even for a moment.
Because the fact is, much like the Goddess herself, I can at any given moment embrace any one or all of these three characters at once. I am still Mother to my teenage son, and still a creative force to be reckoned with professionally. And there are moments where I can be like the Maiden, filled with wonder and joy and freedom. And yes, sometimes I am the wizened old lady who knows too much and wants to sit and stir my cauldron in peace and scream “get off my lawn” at the young’uns who dare wander near. I am all of these things, each of these things and none of them, all at once.
I was with a friend at a bookstore recently and I told her I was almost 50. No one believes me when I tell them that. Most who guess say something between 38 and 42. Such is the power of a good colorist, a non frumpy wardrobe and a solid devotion to daily moisturizing for more than a decade. It can be gratifying to get carded because invariably the eyebrows of the dude proofing me will go up. He might even do a quick double take, and then I get the faint smile and the nod. Because I was old enough to get in before most of the kids he’ll card tonight were born.
I told my friend that there’s a part of me that is actually looking forward to my coming Cronedom. “Don’t say that,” she said. (She isn’t pagan.)
But I laughed. I’m a pagan and a witch. I am, in many respects, already a Crone. And I am still, when I must be, or want to be, also Maiden and Mother. I won’t always be able to pass for it in the eyes the world, but that’s really kind of the point of being a witch in the first place. No one can tell me who I am but me. That the world wants to assign me a role does not obligate me to play it. As the kids say today, “You can ship it, but I ain’t signing for it.” That’s why witches are scary. Why people in power want to burn us. We will not be ruled by your expectations.
No one knows that better than a Crone.