The Fifth Season
Guest author Cori Howard writes about her discovery of a fifth season in many women's lives.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” -Rainer Maria Rilke
It was the end of the hottest summer in Europe’s history when I arrived in Tamariu, Spain, a tiny fishing village on the Costa Brava coast. The apocalyptic metaphors were everywhere: the world was dying, my old life was dying, my heart – certainly - was dying. I was staying at a friend’s beach house to rest and recover from the drama of dropping my youngest kid off at university in Paris. I had planned this trip intentionally, a week alone to recalibrate, get my bearings and hover close, but not too close, to my daughter’s new life – in case she needed me. She didn’t, of course. But I didn’t want to go home. Not right away.
Under the coastal pines, down a well-trodden dusty seaside trail, I walked to the edge of the sea, to what felt like the edge of myself, sat down and wept. I watched the fishing boats go in and out, the tourists jumping off the rocks, the cerulean sea undulating its hypnotic rhythm. And then I swam as far out as I could, as though it was a baptism.
I needed some kind of ritual. Somewhere to put my grief. The waves took it, as they always do, washing the last 21 years of motherhood over me, with all of its exquisite joy and heartbreak. The sea has always been a healer for me, but not this time. Even held in the warm arms of the Mediterranean, I felt unsettled and lost. I had literally and metaphorically come to the end of the path with no idea where to go next.
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Drawn to the warm water, the jellyfish were everywhere, with their elegant rippling purple ribbons. On high alert, I tried to swim around them, diving deeper if I had to, swirling, twirling, afraid. The sting from the Pelagia noctiluca isn’t that bad, but I knew I was no match for these tiny translucent creatures who survive without brains, hearts or nerves, ceaselessly pulsating. As I emerged from the water, I wondered if I was destined to swim alone like a jellyfish, adrift and lost forever. If I was, like the jellyfish, untouchable, waiting to be touched, poisoning those who come too close.
As the writer Gabrielle Bellot writes in Catapult, the jellyfish is “a symbol of boundary-breaking, a mélange of paradoxical philosophies. It is soft yet sharp, a ghost not yet dead. It is an example of how one may move through the world without needing to fit under an easy label.” Like so many women at my age and stage.
Walking back along the path, I knew I needed to find some way to mark this threshold moment, to honor all that I had been through: a long, difficult marriage, a divorce, a major career change, years of solo parenting and disaster dating. Mostly, I needed some space and time to sit with some important questions that kept rising, like the tide: what kind of life do I want now? What is home? What is my purpose? What am I longing for? And perhaps the most important – a question I have been asking myself daily since I came home - what can I offer a world in crisis and what gifts we have to help mother the world, now that I have moved on from mothering my own children?
As author Sharon Blackie writes: “Our creativity as elder women isn’t about birthing others anymore – it’s about birthing our own unique wisdom, our own unique gift to the world.”
But even out of the water, I felt as adrift as a jellyfish, far from home, far from myself – whoever that was now. Being lost is not in my comfort zone and not something I had let myself feel in many years. Sitting at one of the quaint beachfront cafes, alone amongst the families and couples, I fought the self-pity and read instead from Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a book I had also chosen intentionally: “Getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are.”
If I had taken cues from North American society, I would have gone straight home and carried on as if everything was fine. But I was not fine. Like many mothers facing the abyss of the empty nest and menopause. And yet, we rarely talk about it – until we arrive. And then in hushed whispers, some of us look deeply and soulfully at each other and ask: are you as lost as I am? Are you feeling this deep sorrow? What do we do now?
Granted, some mothers feel elated liberation, or a version of something much less sorrowful. But all women arrive at this threshold with some serious, unanswered questions about who we are now and where we are going. We all come to understand that the solitary task ahead involves a realization, a rethinking and a reimagining of our place in the world.
For most of human history, there was no empty nest, with extended families living together. If children left, mothers would simply turn to tending aging parents and relatives in the same house. For most of human history, there has not been this extended period of middle age where women – between the approximate ages of 50 to 70 – live alone or with only husbands or partners. These twenty years free to reinvent ourselves, didn’t exist.
“It’s like all of a sudden, there’s a fifth season, when before there were always and only four,” said my friend who had come to pick me up from her beach house.
We were sitting on her patio at sunset discussing the state of our hearts, the slow and then sudden emptying of our once busy, messy family lives.
“We don’t have any idea what to expect now - thunderstorms, sunburns, frozen windshields, none of the above. We don’t have the right clothes; our sundresses leave us feeling chilly, but our down jackets are suffocating. We don’t know what to do with this fifth season because we are, quite possibly, the first to experience it.”
“We are the new X factor,” I chimed, already deep into the wine. “Maiden, mother, what the fuck and crone. No chance are we going to accept being crones for fully half our lives. There’s a time for that, but we’re not yet there. We’ve got too much left to do.”
When I got home from my trip, I spent the first few months reorganizing my house, grieving the loss of my old life and just sitting with my sorrow. I had learned over the years that sitting with hard feelings is the only way through grief. The long, lonely nights led me to my pen and to poetry, to long talks with friends, many of whom were in similar situations. The solitude led me back to the questions. I leaned in to listen and one haunting answer kept coming back: I want an extraordinary life.
But then, that begged yet another question: What makes an extraordinary life?
What’s interesting about leaning into questions is that, given enough time and thought, the answers don’t take long to rise up and hit you in the face. For one long and tortured week, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I would define an extraordinary life: the freedom to travel, to write, to live a big creative life, an international life, with a hot new partner. I had visions of writing in a house by the sea, unencumbered by the demands of the business that kept me – and my two kids – afloat. Most of my visions did not include a paying job.
And then I had an epiphany. Well, first I fell in love. After literally a decade of disaster dating, and before that, a long, difficult divorce, I met a friend of a friend. We went on dates neither of us knew were dates. A widower, he was just on the cusp of accepting the possibility of opening his heart again. While I was just opening up to this new chapter of life with all of its many possibilities and privileges.
We were an unexpected, unlikely pairing. He was, and is, extraordinary, but I was initially resistant. Did I even want a normal heterosexual relationship, given I had the privilege of choosing whatever it was I wanted now? Could a hetero-normative relationship even be extraordinary? Did I even really want a relationship at all? Or should I just take a series of hot, young lovers like the older French woman in the popular TV series, Emily in Paris? She embodied the sense of the extraordinary life I was seeking, but it was not lost on me that she is a TV character.
My brain went into overdrive, and I tormented myself with my specialty: overthinking. To be fair, I had tried that life with hot, young lovers. But Tinder was exhausting and they all, in some way, broke my heart. As I got to know this new man, who had arrived in my life at exactly the right moment, I started realizing something about creating an extraordinary life. I had begun to answer my question with another question. What if it’s simple?
What if it’s not about things or ambition or travel? What if, instead, it’s a feeling? For me, extraordinary was quickly becoming a feeling of deep connection to another person. Knowing they see you in mind, body and spirit. Knowing they will hold your heart and keep it close and safe. Knowing you can trust them, that they love you and would do anything to support you.
Everyone has their own definition. But having never experienced any of those things in my many earlier relationships, I suddenly realized, I was asking the question at a time when the answer was flying like a rare bird into the cathedral of my heart, frantically throwing itself, again and again, against my hardened walls.
Cori Howard is an award-winning journalist with work published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Real Simple, The Independent, among many others. Cori is also the editor of the best-selling anthology, Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth about Motherhood, and an upcoming poetry collection.