Ursula K. Le Guin on Change, Menopause as Rebirth, and the Civilizational Value of Elders
By Maria Popova
We know that “to every thing there is a season,” that everything changes, everything passes, transitions from one state to another, from one stage to another — and yet, in our irrational longing for permanence, we try and try to hedge against change, denounce it as deterioration, dread it as a prelude to death.
Nowhere is this dread more acute than in the changes incurred by the body, that crucible of the soul. And no one has offered a greater salve for it than Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) in one of the essays from her altogether indispensable 1989 collection Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (public library), which also gave us her reflections on writing and where ideas come from.
Living through one of the profoundest changes a human body-soul can undergo — menopause, long cottoned in the euphemism “change of life” — she writes:
The woman who is willing to make that change must become pregnant with herself, at last. She must bear herself, her third self, her old age, with travail and alone. Not many will help her with that birth.
Although biologically particular to female bodies, Le Guin goes on to observe, menopause is a lens on the universal experience of change and our civilizational bias against old age. With her characteristic largehearted, vast-minded, mischievous wisdom, she writes:
If a space ship came by from the friendly natives of the fourth planet of Altair, and the polite captain of the space ship said, “We have room for one passenger; will you spare us a single human being, so that we may converse at leisure during the long trip back to Altair and learn from an exemplary person the nature of the race?” — I suppose what most people would want to do is provide them with a fine, bright, brave young man, highly educated and in peak physical condition… There would surely be hundreds, thousands of volunteers, just such young men, all worthy. But I would not pick any of them. Nor would I pick any of the young women who would volunteer, some out of magnanimity and intellectual courage, others out of a profound conviction that Altair couldn’t possibly be any worse for a woman than Earth is.
What I would do is go down to the local Woolworth’s, or the local village marketplace, and pick an old woman, over sixty, from behind the costume jewelry counter or the betel-nut booth. Her hair would not be red or blonde or lustrous dark, her skin would not be dewy fresh, she would not have the secret of eternal youth. She might, however, show you a small snapshot of her grandson, who is working in Nairobi. She is a bit vague about where Nairobi is, but extremely proud of the grandson. She has worked hard at small, unimportant jobs all her life, jobs like cooking, cleaning, bringing up kids, selling little objects of adornment or pleasure to other people.
With an eye to our troubled cultural model of aging — something Le Guin would address several years later in her exquisite meditation on the art of growing older — she adds:
The trouble is, she will be very reluctant to volunteer. “What would an old woman like me do on Altair?” she’ll say. “You ought to send one of those scientist men, they can talk to those funny-looking green people. Maybe Dr. Kissinger should go. What about sending the Shaman?” It will be very hard to explain to her that we want her to go because only a person who has experienced, accepted, and acted the entire human condition — the essential quality of which is Change — can fairly represent humanity. “Me?” she’ll say, just a trifle slyly. “But I never did anything.”
But it won’t wash. She knows, though she won’t admit it, that Dr. Kissinger has not gone and will never go where she has gone, that the scientists and the shamans have not done what she has done. Into the space ship, Granny.
Complement with Simone de Beauvoir on how to grow old without letting life become a parody of itself, Bertrand Russell on the key to growing old contentedly, and Grace Paley’s almost unbearably wonderful instruction on the art of growing older, then revisit Le Guin on storytelling and the power of language, suffering and getting to the other side of pain, the magic of real human conversation, and the poetry of penguins.
Published September 30, 2023