This week I am 51 years old. Last year on my birthday I began what I imagined would be a yearlong adventure gathering up those elements of my younger self that I had left behind but which I wanted back in my life. Much of my meandering took place in New York City, where I had lived in my 20s. I took two trips back there, and you can read about how I imagined the first trip would be before I took it in a piece I wrote for Moondance by clicking here. As it happened, the trip turned out to be almost exactly like that (without the red velvet jacket since NYC had a heat wave the April weekend I was there). The year culminated in the very recent publication of a novel I wrote, The Temple of the Subway Goddess, that has within it elements of my time in NYC.
In any case, the year has ended and it is time for me to leave that task behind me and move ahead into the second (or so) fifty years of my life. As I was thinking today about what that meant, I remembered one of my favorite stories, the Inuit story of the Goddess Sedna. Here is the story as it was told to me:
Sedna was a beautiful maiden who lived with her father in the Arctic. She married a Bird God and flew away with him to his nest, where she was very unhappy. So, her father came to take her home. As they were riding on the water home, the Bird God and his followers came after the boat. Sedna’s father knew that if they attacked, they would sink the boat and all would die, so he threw Sedna overboard. When she tried to climb back into the boat, he cut off her fingers and then her arms, tossing them into the sea where they became the sea creatures that feed the Inuit people.
Sedna sank to the bottom of the ocean where she grew old and became a Goddess. She took responsibility for sending up the sea creatures who willingly gave their lives that her people on land might live. But when the people disobeyed Sedna’s rules, her hands ached and she stopped sending the creatures and the people starved. Only when the people sent shamans—who had to go through many terrible trials to reach Sedna—to relieve the pain in Sedna’s hands would she relent and send the sea creatures back to the land.
I should say that I did not grow up in the Inuit culture so I am not claiming to be able to interpret, or even tell the story, correctly or at all. I am, at most, simply relating elements of the story in which I have found resonance for my own life. Really, it could be said that I am not telling the Sedna story at all, since I’m sure it is quite different within the context of Inuit life and faith, but a story that is similar and meaningful to me only, and perhaps to you, too.
That said, those elements of the story that I have heard seem to me to be a wonderful way of looking at growing older. It does not glamorize that stage of life, for Sedna has her disabilities in not only her painful hands (something that perhaps makes me identify with the story since arthritis also makes my own hands ache at times) but in her leg which she drags behind her. However, I find within the story a tremendous and active, passionate strength and power that should come with later life and its experience.
I sometimes look forward to my later years as a time of retreat and rest, of moving away from the maelstrom of life and sending out rays of good advice to grateful children and grandchildren when I choose. Later life is no time for such withdrawal, even for contemplation and meditation, according to Sedna. Sedna has retreated from the traditional roles, but is even more active in her world. She does not simply nurture her family, but all human life. She not only guides her children, but all people.
Sedna brings order to her world. She sets rules which, if followed, cause the people to live in peace with their world. Sedna teaches me that, at this stage of life, I know what is right and I need to stand up for those values of peace, cooperation, and respect for all people as they are that I have taken as core to my life and work. I need not justify my beliefs over and over, especially to those who would insist on my behaving in a more mainstream way. I have come to how I view the world through honest reflection on real experiences and my perspective is as valuable as anyone’s.
Sedna nurtures and feeds the people. Her hands and arms became the food that makes human life on the land possible and she sends it to the people that they may live. Sedna teaches me that, because I have been given many gifts over my decades of life, it is time to give back those gifts in my time, talent, and counsel. I have work to do and retirement, if by that one means giving up one’s role in the world, is not an option. In fact, it is time for be to more active, more vocal, more involved in the daily lives of those around me and across the globe because I have more wisdom to offer than when I was younger.
Sedna protects herself and that which is sacred. Not just anyone can approach Sedna, even to assuage her pain, but only someone who has the courage and intelligence to succeed at the trials that lie between the world above and her sacred realm. Sedna teaches me that what I have found to be sacred—the art, the stories and literature, to relationships, the ideals—are truly profound and are to be defended and protected.
Sedna becomes fiercer as she ages. She does not just hang onto the boat, but makes laws and punishes the people when they disobey. Or perhaps she states the laws that exist in nature and is no longer willing to sacrifice her sea creatures when the people flout those laws until they send their shamans as redemptive penitence. I look forward to perhaps even scaring people a bit with fierceness when I do what I feel needs to be done.
Sedna, when younger, did act from her naïve dream of a better life, as she did when she married the Bird God in her youth, but in later life surrounds herself with her reality and makes herself a Goddess of it. She does not hang onto the boat, pretending that her father who has thrown her overboard will help her back in, but lives completely in the ocean world in which she finds herself, making her own realm in it from which she comes to rule all humanity and sea creatures. I, too, must look at my world with honesty, at what I can reasonably do and what I cannot, and what I cannot reasonably do, but must try to do anyway.
Sedna seems to me to be a near perfect model for older women of our time. Just as we are active and have begun to work into our 60s, 70s, and beyond, so does Sedna. She takes life as it is and stands strong for what she knows is right, and so is it also right for us to value our life experience and lessons learned from it and be strong advocates for what we believe in. Sedna knows who she is and, as I read her story, I feel that I also know a bit more who I am, too.