As the moon hovered on the edge of Chanukah, thirty six —a magical number— of my women friends assembled to celebrate not only the Festival of Light, not only my fiftieth birthday, but also my menopause. Thirty-six joined together to end an age-old silence. We had gathered not only to speak about menopause but also to celebrate it. Just as my journey beyond menstruation would be unknown to me, so this ceremony was a journey unknown to them.
Why did I think it so important to end the silence about menopause? Three months before my thirteenth birthday, I "got the curse," and "became a woman," to use two of the common euphemisms about menstruation. My mother whispered the news to Selma and Mrs. Goldstein who lived next door, and it was thus I learned about "women's things" —and about whispering. In my seventh grade classroom, other girls/women were, like me, embarrassed to talk about the changes that had, or had not yet, happened to them. Nothing could have been more on our minds and less on our lips.
Silence is profound. When we cannot speak about what is happening in our bodies, in our hearts and in our souls, we draw some reasonable but damaging conclusions. We learn that what is public is limited to the world of our minds and, more likely, to the most superficial layers of our minds. We then begin making the distinction between the inner, consuming conversations we have alone or with an intimate few, and the outer disconnected ones we have with others. The disconnections are not only from others but also from ourselves: We lose the at-one-ment we could feel when we perceive ourselves whole and holy in relation to others.
For much of my adult life, I have wanted to speak about the unspeakable. Some of the desire is unconscious — what comes to my mind comes, uncensored, to my lips. Some of the desire is conscious, even rebellious — I want to talk and hear about things that matter to speaker and listener. And I want to move the body and the emotions and the spirit out of the shadows, where they appear hidden, trivial, shameful, even dirty, into the sunlight, where they are real and central and acceptable. For me, it is the process of making the inner experience a public one, shared with a community, that helps me to see my experiences as normal, to speak my experience with passion and surety and to feel myself integrated within and without.
In my 49th year, I began to experience the ending of my own menstruations and I decided to break through the silence hovering over this passage, with two circles of friends: women, ranging in age from twenty-one to fifty-eight, gathered from all over the country and from various parts of my life, and the women and men of the P'nai Or Havura and other members of the extraordinary Jewish-Renewal neighborhood of Mount Airy in Philadelphia.
For the Mount Airy crowd, we held a Shabbat-morning service and a Saturday-night Hanukkah and a Saturday-night Hanukkah-and-birthday party. But in the late afternoon of Shabbat, which was on the winter solstice weekend and just before Hanukkah was to begin, I gathered with my women friends to celebrate my menopause.
To these women, I proposed that we celebrate a "seder of womanhood" — the order of the stages of womanhood as I had experienced them in my life. As with the traditional Passover seder and the increasingly familiar Tu b'Shevat seder, we drank four cups of beverage as we told our individual stories. We are taught by Pirkei Avot that fifty is the age of advice-giving; but in keeping with modern feminist practice, rather than giving advice, we shared lessons we had learned from each stage of our woman-life.
For the first cup, I brought out a bright red sangria. (Cherry-apple cider was served to non-alcohol drinkers.) Sangria, the "drink" of my adolescence, represented my first stage of womanhood, focused on menstruation. The group shared stories, some funny and some sad, about first periods and the silence around them; about later periods and their weightiness in our lives — hoping to get them when we feared we might be pregnant, hoping not to get them when we prayed we might be pregnant. We recognized ourselves over and over in each other's stories, and so we drank the first cup.
As we moved on, I suggested a guideline for the remaining three cups: Since everyone in the room had already reached the stage of menstruation, we had all been able to speak from our own experience for the first cup. For the next cups, women could speak only if they had themselves reached that stage of life represented by that cup.
The second cup, a sparkling champagne (sparkling apple cider for the non-alcohol drinkers), was for my second stage of woman-life - the bubbly, heady introduction to sex and love. Again, we spoke about the silences that had heralded this stage of life: how little we had known about our own bodies, about our own pleasures, about loving partners (women as well as men). This was not the bawdy, bragging talk of the locker room; but rather the sad, sweet talk, long overdue, of innocence and ignorance, surprise and delight.
The third cup, milk (soy milk for non-dairy drinkers), marked my third stage of woman-life, that time of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, child-raising. Not surprisingly, we again spoke of silences -: the silence of abortion, of adoption, of not having children, of the sensuality of nursing, of the passionate protection for and connection to our children.
The fourth cup, water (mineral water for purists), represented the totally open possibilities of this fourth stage of woman-life: menopause. Only about eight of us had reached menopause, and there was a significant difference in our sharing. What I had imagined would be the most silent of the life-stages, and potentially the most depressing, now appeared quite the opposite.
The silence of menopause had already been broken publicly. In spite of our youth-centered culture, several books about menopause had appeared, as well as a Newsweek cover story focusing on turning fifty. Many of us now felt about reaching fifty what Gloria Steinem felt at forty. "You don't look forty, " someone remarked to her. She quipped, "This is what forty looks like." Rather than experiencing an empty nest at the end of our biological reproductive lives, many of us at my ceremony felt giddy with freedom, with the chance to forge a new path of our choosing, without obligations. We were asking ourselves, some for the first time, "What we want to do with this new opportunity?"
While the menopause ceremony had some of the awkwardness and lingering embarrassment that accompanies a lifetime of silence, it was filled with the laughter and sorrow of recognition, relief and understanding. I hope the silence that has enveloped so many other important life-turnings will, by the strength of our ceremonies and rituals, our books and our conversations, be similarly broken. Ceremonies and rituals today, like those of old, make each life-stage a time for self-revelation, first to ourselves, then to one another, and then to the larger human community—for breaking out of the tyranny and alienation of silence.
At the end of the ceremony, I read a Marge Piercy poem. When at last that lifelong leak of blood comes to an end, she says, "I will secretly dance and pour out a cup of wine on the earth." Now the dance need no longer be secret. Now menopause may become what the title of her poem called it: "Something to Look Forward To."