Susan Schachterle's The Bitch, The Crone, and The Harlot
Reclaiming the Magical Feminine in Midlife

You were born complete; everything you need to be an extraordinary individual, and to live in an extraordinary way, you carried with you into life. I remember so well the moment at which I first began to grasp this. A man I had loved wildly had suddenly, and in a painful way, left me. Our five-year relationship had been shaped by creativity, humor, elegance, and passion. I grieved deeply for months, mourning the fact that I would never again be creative, humorous, elegant, or passionate. After all, I reasoned, this man had been the source of those things between us; I had simply tagged along, enjoying the fruits of his exceptional essence. I found myself feeling dowdy, boring, and superficial without him to open the door to that way of being I had come to appreciate.

One day, at about the six-month point in my sorrow, and feeling stuck in an overwhelming despair, I raged toward heaven, accusing Spirit of snatching from me the only source of joy I would ever have.“How could you do this to me?” I whined; “How could you give me a glimpse of all those wonderful things and then take them away? You are a cruel and thoughtless God.” Suddenly, in a blinding flash, I understood. My lover had not been the source of everything that had made the relationship remarkable; he had been a catalyst, a vehicle to assist me to find those things within myself. He was a unique and outstanding man and I had loved him deeply. However, he had not created the things I had felt with him; those things were already in place within me. He had only helped to bring to the surface qualities and capacities that were part of me but that I hadn’t been aware of. This realization changed things almost immediately for me. Although I still missed him, I now understood that I carried in me the ability to experience all the things I had loved about the relationship. That meant that at every moment, even all by myself, I have the opportunity for joy.

This was an important thing for me to remember, especially as I headed into midlife. It was at that point that I found myself faced with a choice: How would I enter this next part of my life? I could regard it as an indication that the end was near; that I no longer had value and should make room for younger women who were more significant than I—or I could recognize the potential inherent in this stage of life, and choose to move more deeply into the power, wisdom, and sensuality that has always been part of me. It was up to me, and the choice I made would have a profound impact on the rest of my life.

Everything you need
to be an extraordinary individual,
and to live in an extraordinary way,
you carried with you into life.

In the minds of many, midlife signals the beginning of the end, that final stretch of road leading directly and relentlessly toward death. The result of this perspective is often either a desperate and sometimes embarrassing attempt to cling to youth, or an I’m-powerless-in-the-face-of-aging resignation that has one going through the motions of existing, instead of living large. Because society places such emphasis on youth, beauty, and sexuality, anyone approaching midlife still looking for validation from external sources is heading for a fall.

Women are especially vulnerable; more often than not, as young girls we learn the importance of being cute, just delicate enough to need help occasionally, and as sexy as possible. This is the formula that almost guarantees a secure future. Or so we’ve been told. It can all begin to crumble, however, when those qualities that characterized us during the first half of life no longer fit; as we metamorphose into beings whose value lies at a deeper place, we must be willing to change the formula.

The archetypes that shape women’s early choices become obvious when we are children. They may include the Good Girl, the Bright
Student, the Seductress, and later the Good Wife and the Nurturing Mother. Each of these has elements that teach us well, and some
elements we will struggle to break free from, like a snake shedding a skin that it has outgrown. But positive archetypes appropriate to midlife are difficult to find. I’ve seen plenty of negative ones, like the Exhausted and Resentful Old Broad, the Woman Who Gave Up Long Ago, and the Worn Out Old Lady Who Figures She No Longer Matters. None of these brings passion, possibility, or joy.

Rather, I suggest three models for a midlife that is a comprehensive expression of the power, wisdom, and sensuality inherent in the
feminine:

The Bitch. The woman who makes things happen without doing damage.

The Crone. The woman who has constant access to a depth of practical wisdom younger women haven’t had time to develop.

The Harlot. The woman whose sensuality is not used to manipulate, but rather to express her profound connection to all of life and its source. She has also had the time to develop and refine erotic moves that younger women have yet to learn.

Each of these uncommon beings lives from an aspect of the feminine that is often left either undeveloped, or underdeveloped. As a deeper exploration of each reveals, all are available to every woman.

The Bitch
Several years ago I was leading a discussion about relationships with a group of men ranging in age from twenty-three to eighty-one. In the course of the conversation I asked the group to define “bitch.” One of the younger men responded that when he called someone a bitch it meant “a woman who won’t do what I want her to do.” There were nodding heads and murmurs of agreement among the members of the group.

At every moment,
even all by myself, I
have the opportunity
for joy.

Then a quiet voice broke through from the back of the room. It was the oldest man in the workshop. “To me,” he said softly, “‘bitch’ means a ‘woman who gets in a revolving door behind me, and somehow gets out ahead of me’.” There was a stunned silence in the room. This stooped old man, in the midst of a group of selfproclaimed studs, had put a whole new face on a term that had previously been used to belittle and denigrate strong women. The room was quiet for several minutes as the men considered the possibilities in the old man’s words. Those words changed the tone of that day.

The commonly accepted definition of “bitch” has, intentionally or not, tied women’s hands by reinforcing the idea that there are two options possible: bitch, defined as mean, selfish, harsh, unkind, unattractive and unacceptable; or good girl, defined as lovable, obedient, eager to please, and acceptable.

With those two options for defining who we are, stepping beyond them is dangerous. This becomes even more frustrating at midlife; if we continue to live as Good Girls, we become invisible, and get rolled over by those who consider us a quiet and well-behaved backdrop to life. If we choose to look for respect by being demanding and inflexible, we are regarded as pissy older women who must be placated but not taken seriously. Neither of those options serves us; a new definition is required.

Anyone approaching
midlife still looking
for validation from
external sources is
heading for a fall.

A positive archetype of a Bitch at midlife is that of a woman who has become so comfortable with who she is that she doesn’t hesitate to take appropriate action in any situation. Her actions are no longer so governed by what others think, but rather by what she knows to be true. This is a woman whose intuition is so well-developed that she knows in her gut what to do. Part of her personal mission is to perform actions that are shaped by integrity, insight, and compassion. This woman can make things happen anywhere but, unlike the street-defined bitch, there is no selfishness, no unkindness about her; she takes action and creates results that are the highest and best for everyone involved, within a framework of wisdom and love.

This may sound too good to be possible and, indeed, it is—if we operate strictly from the limitations of personality and ego. But the divine Bitch has chosen to live from a deeper place; she has chosen, as a result of all she’s learned, to be an expression of the Divine in everything she does. She has also learned, through the experiences of the first half of life, to see both the big picture and the small pieces of any situation.

Historically, bitches were women who made things happen. They often did so in a fashion that caused pain and chaos, and their motivations were frequently self-serving. However, we can’t ignore their ability to take action and create results. The new model is a woman who is so powerful personally that things and people part before her like the Red Sea, yet is revered for being respectful, compassionate, and loving. Midlife need not offer us the either-or choice of being loved or being effective. We get to be both, but it requires the willingness to remember who we really are, and to transform negative beliefs and emotional barriers we’ve been carrying, so we can live from the power that remains.

Midlife need not
offer us the either-or
choice of being loved
or being effective.
We get to be both.

The Bitch has learned to see the big picture—then to break it down into manageable small pieces. This allows her to be both the misionary and the implementer. She can be consistently effective at both because she has come to trust her gut, and because she has learned to put emotion aside once she has determined what needs to be done. That doesn’t mean she has no feelings as she uses her power; she has a great capacity to feel. But she knows that unchecked emotion can cloud her judgment, so once she is clear about the goal, her action is based on commitment to that goal. She doesn’t waste time and energy wondering if she’s made the right decision, or if she’s good enough to pull it off, or if someone else could do it better. She knows that second- guessing herself only dissipates her power and insight.

At fifty-eight, Dorothy felt confused, insignificant, and anxious. “I feel old and invisible,” she said. “I don’t know where I fit or who I’m supposed to be now. I guess it’s part of getting older; I’m just not of much value anymore. But why be alive if you have nothing to offer?” It was heartbreaking to hear her pain, and to watch her struggle against tears that had built up over years of neglect, loneliness, and fear. Her grown children, she went on to say, had always treated her like an afterthought, not unkind, but also not aware of her depth. They took her for granted. At work it was simply assumed that she would always be available to do whatever others didn’t want to do, and her work went largely unnoticed. “It’s OK,” she assured me; “I don’t need to be in the spotlight. I just wish I could feel like I matter somewhere.”

But it wasn’t OK. Dorothy had a world of learning she could contribute, a number of opinions she only admitted to behind closed doors, and several things she dreamed of doing but never had, having scared herself out of doing anything that wasn’t familiar. “What if I’m too old, too stupid, too weak?” she wondered. “What if there isn’t enough money? What if I try something new and fail?” Thoughts like this had become her mantra and her prison.

Dorothy was an excellent example of a woman in need of Bitch energy. She had spent her life in the shadow of numerous other people, serving, nurturing, supporting, and becoming depleted in the process. In many respects, though almost sixty years old, she was still unformed. Although she had opinions and dreams, she had never given herself permission to express them—much less live them. She had set herself up to feel insignificant by her willingness to fade into the background of life and stay there. All this could change, but only if she was willing to step out of the box her life had become, and begin to live out loud.

The Bitch has
learned to see the
big picture—then to
break it down into
manageable small
pieces.

As we worked together, Dorothy found options that allowed her to show up differently in her life. She learned to step into a state of calm from which she could access her own courage, power, and focus. She learned that she was much stronger than she had realized; able to set a goal, recognize its meta-outcome, and take action. She developed an internal strategy for finding an unwavering focus, and for saying, “no” when she needed to. As we worked together, the timid, helpless, and uncertain woman who had initially contacted me was replaced by one who spoke with authority, had more energy, and who felt at home in her own skin.

Dorothy called me three months after we had completed our work to report that, at a family gathering, she had told one of her kids not to interrupt her, and to treat her with respect from that time on. This was unheard of. After all, it had always been her job to cook, serve, clean up, and not to be heard. She had spoken up at a church council meeting, calling for action on a serious matter before the council, and volunteering to head up a committee to remedy the situation. “They were shocked,” she said. “I don’t think I had ever spoken a word in those meetings, and here I was taking over and initiating change. I was nervous at first, but I knew it was the right thing to do, and I didn’t doubt that I could make it happen.” Without raising her voice or behaving in an aggressive way, this tiny, quiet, middle-aged woman had pointed out the path to resolution and rallied the group around her cause. There may have been those present who resented her for requiring accountability and change, but this new Dorothy, this woman to contend with, was no longer shaped by their opinions.

The last time I heard from Dorothy, she had begun taking tango lessons and was planning a trip to Africa, simply because she’d always wanted to see Africa but in the past had found the prospect overwhelming. Not anymore.

The Crone
I recently researched the word “crone” and was surprised to learn that its original meaning was very different from its current definition. The most commonly accepted definition is “withered old woman,” a definition based solely, it seems, on the physical. However, in the fourteenth century, the earliest definitions of “crone” meant “cantankerous or mischievous woman.” Such an interesting and disempowering journey we’ve taken, in the minds of those who create such definitions, from cantankerous (which can also mean feisty) and mischievous, to withered and old. Consider the impact of this shift in meaning. Who has more power, the woman who is feisty and mischievous or the one who is old and withered? And which one might be found more threatening?

There is an entire world left out of this “withered old woman” designation, and it’s a world that, at midlife, we must explore. In a number of ancient fairy tales, reference is made to the “wise old crone,” the older woman whose wisdom, insight, and healing power were sought by younger people who had not yet developed their own. In these stories, people in need went to those who had been alive long enough to find the magical divine nature within, and generally those were older women. Young men were sought for their physical prowess, and young women for their ornamental quality and childbearing ability; but when the need to understand, to intuit, and to heal arose, everyone headed to the wise old crone’s place.

In the first part of
life, knowledge is
more valued than
wisdom.

At midlife, we have accumulated a body of understanding and insight that allows us to contribute to life very differently than when we were younger. Whether or not we realize it, we have been gathering everything we need to perceive, interpret, and respond at a level deeper than the surface appearance. In the first part of life, knowledge is more valued than wisdom. We get another degree, we develop new skills, and we memorize formulas and philosophies, often with self-serving intentions. But wisdom and knowledge are different, wisdom coming from a deep place within. In the second part of life, with a greater emphasis on the internal, we are able to implement what we have learned in a wiser and more effective way. Our intentions have shifted, our focus is different, and we can see beyond the surface and into the deeper meaning. We can step beyond the limitations of ego, and into a much vaster realm of possibility.

Recently I met a woman who teaches at one of the toughest high schools in a major metropolitan city. She’s fifty-three, average-looking,
unpretentious, and about as far removed from “cool” as one can be. The school where she teaches has a long history of violence, student to student and student to teacher. The police are frequent visitors, and several teachers have been attacked in the schoolyard, or in their classrooms. For most, it’s a scary place. But for Jean, it’s a tract of fertile ground. She’s greeted warmly by even the toughest kids.
Students who have customized their cars, sport new tattoos, or had their noses pierced seek her out to show off their latest treasures. She has time for everyone and, according to colleagues, is the only staff member who never speaks disparagingly of anyone.

Sensuality has
nothing to do with
one’s hormone levels;
rather it is a product
of the choice to live
in a very present
state.

“When I was younger,” she told me, “I would have felt scared and defensive in this place. I would have taken all these behaviors personally, and would have probably lashed out to protect myself. But I don’t feel that way now. When I look at these kids, it’s as if I can see into the core of each one and sense what’s possible once they learn to channel their energy in a different direction. I ask myself what might be motivating their actions, and I know it’s that they’re scared, sad, and lonely. How can I feel afraid or hostile toward anyone in such pain?”

Jean chooses consistently to look beyond the behaviors to the soul of each student, to regard each as a spiritual being, and to respond with a love, respect, and acceptance based on who each one is, not what each one does. She comes down hard on unacceptable actions, but no one ever doubts her love and respect. For many of these kids, Jean’s classroom is the only place where someone cares about and believes in them. And through her exceptional wisdom, she is magically shaping and saving lives.

The Harlot
Ancient harlots lived by their senses, and their survival depended on their ability to stimulate the senses of others. In many cultures, women expected to provide sexual services were carefully trained in the art of pleasure. While I don’t endorse meaningless and indiscriminate sexual behavior, there is something important to learn about sensuality from these women—who were despised in public yet desired in private. Harlots were openly committed to the pleasures of the senses and, in order to do their job well, worked to refine their own sensuality and their artfulness.

Each of us must similarly explore and refine our natural sensuality if we want lives that are filled with beauty, joy, and wonder as well as physical pleasure. Women of all ages are sensuous creatures, and our sensual nature demands our attention.

Rarely do I find the words “sensuous” and “middle-aged” in the same sentence. One of the myths that convinces women to give in and
give up at midlife is that sensuality is believed to be the privilege of the young; that after a certain age and particular biological changes,
we are no longer sensuous. Yet sensuality has nothing to do with one’s hormone levels; rather it is a product of the choice to live in a very present state, very much aware of one’s senses. Sensuous women of any age see, hear, feel, taste, and smell their lives in vibrant style.

Sensuous women, through out history, have been considered intriguing and dangerous, in great part because early in life sensuality seems directly connected to the immense power of sex, and behaving sensually is a way to draw attention, attract a mate, and to bask, temporarily, in the illusion that sex and love are the same thing. Later, however, as one moves into midlife, sensuousness reveals itself as something grander and more profound.

Sensuality means living through the senses, a much more expansive arena than simply the act of sex, and women who are sensual live thoroughly aware of all their senses. It is through the senses that we all take in information about the world around us, but those who are truly sensuous not only take in such information but also honor it by responding with energy and grace. They have learned to move in rhythm with the Earth, with the elements, with both the subtle and the riotous beauty in nature, and with the spiritual kinship among all living things.

Sensuality means
living through the
senses, a much more
expansive arena than
simply the act of sex.

True sensuousness is the domain of those who choose that awareness. Because of the early focus on sexuality, many subtle sensuous
experiences go unnoticed. But at the midpoint of our lives, having been invited to move our attention from the expectations of others to the comfort of our own souls, we can better notice and appreciate what our senses are telling us. Simple things: an intricate flower almost buried in tall grasses; early morning sounds that announce the day; the sensation of a graceful breeze across the skin; the way it feels to move to music, are often passed over by those younger and more concerned with climbing corporate ladders, finding sexual outlets, and establishing themselves as worthwhile members of the community. Having already done those things, those at midlife can shift their awareness to the Mystery around them.

This is not to imply that women at midlife can be sensuous but not sexual; the depth of sensuousness we carry can open the door to
remarkable sexual experiences. The other evening I went to a dance club where I watched as a middle-aged couple did an impressive
salsa routine. As I watched them move together, their eyes locked on each other, it looked like foreplay and I felt like a voyeur. I can only
imagine what the rest of their evening involved.

As I sit writing early in the morning, I notice a window washer on a platform midway up a high-rise building across the street. The rising
sun throws shadows of the long ropes holding his platform across the face of the building. As the ropes sway, the huge shadows dance
gracefully along the entire height of the building. A simple thing—but as I watch I am captivated by the beauty of the scene. Would I have even noticed this when I was younger? Perhaps, but not with the same degree of awe I have now. Life has brought me to a place from which I notice things I missed earlier. It is only now, with half of life under my belt, that I am equipped to understand the power of the sensuous realm.

So here we are, having been through the joyful wringer that is the first half of life; and having, in the process, gathered everything we need to make things happen, to move through life with unparalleled wisdom, and to find wonder and delight in every sensuous moment. We know more now than we have ever known, and have the possibility of making life a greater adventure than we had ever before imagined. The question now becomes, what will we do with all we have gained? The answer, I believe, lies in a story about the Sufi poet Rumi and his friend, Shams of Tabriz. It is said that Shams took all of Rumi’s books and threw them in a fishpond. “Now,” he said to the startled Rumi, “you must live what you know.” And so it is for each of us.

 

Susan Schachterle, director of the Ahimsa Group, has spent twenty years assisting individuals and organizations find and implement their inherent power, wisdom, and joy. Her work is based on the fierce and unwavering belief that just about everything is possible for just about everyone, once they have the tools necessary. In her practice, Susan uses a wide range of cutting-edge tools, most notably neurolinguistic programming (NLP), to ensure that her clients can
access their own natural excellence in any situation. This chapter is an excerpt from her upcoming book The Bitch, The Crone, and The Harlot.
More at
www. AhimsaGroup.com
. Photo of Susan by Susan Goddard.

 

 

 

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© 2006 Susan Schachterle
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