A friend and I exchanged books for our birthdays. Being in our 60s, the books we gifted one another happened to concern navigating the territory of growing older.
I received a copy of Ann G. Thomas’s The Women We Become and as I read, I was led on a journey that I believe others will appreciate as much as I have.
Author Thomas asks, and explains:
“At a time when more of us live past menopause into old age, where are the wise old women? Ironically, few are there to serve as our guides. Although more and more of us are beginning to understand that old age is also a strange new land for which we need guides, we live in a culture that places little value on becoming old.
“Many old women have not become wise because they believe what the culture has taught. They see no value in their own old age. They accept the idea that their technologically illiterate generation has little of value to contribute, and they move away from us into retirement villages or nursing homes, unavailable. These elders take with them whatever wisdom they have gleaned”(3).
What a loss.
I am continually dismayed at how generationally segregated much of our population has become and how much mutual beauty and wisdom goes unshared by maintaining this societal structure.
Thomas reminds us that the reclaiming of our voices and healing from this cultural disregard starts with each of us recognizing our life wisdom and sharing this as we age and become elders.
In The Women We Become, Thomas describes many of her own experiences and those of her clients’, but what’s most enchanting and instructive are the folktales, the stories passed down over years and generations that contain significant life lessons and vintage wisdom.
What They Knew and How They Shared
“Within this book I have combined retellings of some powerful folktales with some of the cognitive information psychologists have learned about aging…Now we know what the tellers of these folktales have known for thousands of years: To have a healthy, hopeful old age, one must continue one’s emotional growth.
“What psychologists, religious leaders, and ancient storytellers from the days of the oral traditions all have understood is that while cultures, societies, and times may change, the inner nature of humans, along with the nature of the universe itself, remains constant. Those who are to reach wisdom and peace, the mega-goal of age, must venture on an internal heroine’s or hero’s journey”(x).
Some of these stories are cautionary, exemplifying what we may not want for ourselves in our later years. These darker tales encourage us to pause, look inward, and consider alternative approaches to more fulfilling later years. Other stories present women who have gone into the forest (chosen to do the inner work), know and understand themselves better, and create ways to move into their later years with increased insight and serenity.
“The stories speak directly to our unconscious as well as to our conscious mind. Like a poem, a sunset, or a winter storm, the folktale communicates on this deeper level, sending its meaning. It jars us, disturbs us, soothes or energizes us. When a tale is ours and has spoken to us, we remember it. It has stirred something within.
“The ancient ones who shaped these tales did so from their knowledge of humans and nature. These comprised their world. They understand both human nature and the character of the natural world. We have traveled great distances from our ancestral homes, learning much along the way. These old folktales provide us with an opportunity to retrieve some of the important truths we have forgotten. We have left earth-based wisdom too far behind”(102-103).
In her book, Thomas shares and helps interpret over twenty folktales, some more bizarre than others! Since these stories are the backbone of this resource, I must share at least one. This particular English fairy tale speaks to me. It exemplifies the importance of gratefulness, of being satisfied with what one has and what is, as well as not becoming overly attached to things.
The Hedley Kow [described as a playful, shape-changing creature]
Once upon a time, a woman lived in a village with her neighbors. Although she was poor, life was good and she was very happy. She did errands for her neighbors, helping where help was needed. They in turn shared their food with her so that she was never hungry.
One night as she was returning home, she spied a large black pot sitting in the middle of the road. She looked around to see who might have put it there. Seeing no one, she went up to look more closely at the pot. “Perhaps,” she thought, “it has a hole in it and is no longer useful. Well, I could use it as a flower pot, so I think I’ll take it home.”
As she bent down to pick up the pot, she decided to take a look inside to see if she could see the hole. But when she lifted the lid, the pot was filled with pieces of gold.
“Oh my,” the woman exclaimed, quite taken aback at the sight of so much gold. “Won’t this just take care of me for the rest of my days.” And, since the pot with all that gold was too heavy to carry, she tied her scarf through the handle and began to drag it toward her house. After a short time, she felt out of breath and stopped to rest for a moment. As she was resting, she lifted the lid to look once more at the gold. What she saw instead was a great shining lump of silver.
The old woman blinked and rubbed her eyes to be sure she was seeing what she was seeing. When she was sure it was indeed silver, she sighed once more. “If truth be told,” she said aloud, “I’m pleased it’s a great lump of silver. I was beginning to worry about how to keep all those pieces of gold from getting lost or stolen. This lump will be safer and easier to keep up with.” And she once again began to drag the pot.
In another short time, she tired again and stopped. She lifted the lid to look at the silver, for she was beginning to worry about how to care for it. The silver, however, was no longer there, and in its place was a lump of iron. “Oh my,” the old woman cried, “How very fortunate I am, for if truth be known, I was worried about the silver. Iron is easy to sell in the village, and it will give me enough money for this winter yet to come.” And she continued on her way, dragging the pot behind.
By now she had come to the gate leading to her cottage. She turned to look at the pot. Behind her attached to her scarf in the place where the black pot had been was now a stone. “Oh my,” she said. “What a beautiful stone and what a perfect size, for if truth be known, I have been searching for just such a stone for a long time to prop my front door open these fine balmy days.”
The old woman turned to pick up the stone. As she did so, the stone changed into a creature as large as a horse with two long ears, a tail, and four lanky legs. It let out a squeal, and then, kicking its legs high in the air and laughing, off it ran.
The old woman watched it until it was quite out of sight. Then she went inside to sit and think about her good fortune. “To have seen the Hedley Kow,” she said over and over to herself. “I am very lucky to have seen the Hedley Kow. Imagine. Just imagine. I saw the Hedley Kow and it was just this close. If truth be known, I must be the luckiest old woman around”(85-87).
I adore this tale. Here’s a woman of humble means who by helping others in her community, is taken care of in return. It is said she is never hungry, indicating she is content. She is clearly deep-seated in her fulfillment, for she is not thrown off by the possibility of something most would consider better or more desirable than what she has. She has done the internal work to help shield herself from disappointment and discontent. As Thomas says, in Hedley Kow “we meet a woman who has reached a level of self-contentment and security that comes when life has been accepted for what it is rather than what we want it to be”(87).
Also, Thomas explains:
“Sorting, in folktales, symbolizes the ability to differentiate one feeling, description, characteristic, or truth from another. Without this ability, we are vulnerable. We will not be sure of who we are”(88).
What do we need and want in life as we age? So much of our inner baggage can be sorted into what serves us now, if ever, and what we have outgrown and no longer want and need. Letting go while discovering what is most meaningful and valuable serves us well.
For me, it resembles unpacking and repacking for the next leg of life’s journey. Take it all out, reconsider it and decide what belongs, what is yours, and what to leave behind. Then perhaps there’s space for the kind of delight the woman derives from the Hedley Kow! How many of us experience an encounter with such a magical creature? It’s not to be missed and the encounter is to be treasured, for sure.
And then the old woman goes inside to sit and think, an important aspect to processing and appreciating our experiences fully.
Not all the stories involve such a wise woman. The Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle presents us with a woman who has more work to do to understand and accept the circumstances that are her life. She can get there if she chooses to.
Many of the stories Thomas shares involve archetypes that resonate for all of us.
“An archetype is inherited and will be similar for everyone because the qualities attributed to each archetype are universal qualities”(150).
Stories included involve such archetypes as the Dark Feminine, the Masculine Within (Father/King/Hero), and my favorite, the Good Mother.
“Discovering how to be our own Good Mother is another task of aging. Today many older women wear emotional scars. Injuries, sustained during childhood and buried deep within the unconscious, wait for healing.
“Other older women had caring mothers. These women, in turn, are able to mother others, but many of them have never learned to apply this mothering to themselves. We have lived for generations with the mistaken idea that for a woman to do for herself was selfish and indulgent. This mistaken value of selflessness has caused great harm to women, limiting them severely in preparing for healthy aging. When women are ignorant of their own needs, they are unable to mother themselves and they become helpless as they age. Before a woman reaches old age is the time to discover the Good Mother archetype. We all need her on this journey”(182).
Learning how to mother ourselves entails spending the time and energy to figure out what matters to us and what we need, and providing ourselves with these things without feeling selfish. The things in our lives that sustain, comfort, and bring happiness, both emotionally and physically, are critical to identify. If we don’t know this and provide it for ourselves, we risk becoming a martyr, being overly demanding, or possessing unrealistic expectations from those we feel owe us something. Or we may be downright miserable.
The Good Mother archetype teaches us the importance of being our own nurturing caretakers so we can be naturally generous elders.
Worth the Read and Venturing into the Forest
What kind of old woman and/or elder do you want to become? Thomas reminds us again and again that it’s a process that takes patience and a lot of inner work. By all accounts, it is more than worth it.
“To reach toward wholeness is the final psychological and spiritual task. Once a woman is on this journey, she discovers an outpouring of creativity, a renewal of energy, and a sense of simultaneously letting go and connecting”(xv).
Ann G. Thomas is a Nasty Woman Writer helping to shepherd women to “the mega-goal of age”: wisdom and peace.
© Maria Dintino 2023
Thomas, Ann G. The Women We Become: Myths, Folktales, and Stories About Growing Older. Prima Publishing, 1997.