“Home, for these whales, is not a place. Their home is each other. This profoundly affects the behavior of the killer whales, because the pod’s well-being is essential to their own.” Of Orcas and Men by David Neiwert
In my mid-thirties I was having many lucid dreams. In those dreams, whales were common companions. A Blue Whale showed me the way in becalmed black water and skies, where I could not tell the horizon from up or down. I floated in an abyss. Quietly the whale came up by my bow, lighting a little candle with each breath, showing me the way. I just had to row. A pod of Orcas visited me often, showing me the way in many kinds of seas from murky to clear. I was always in the water too deep, swimming aimlessly down-down-down. I could not turn back. When I was out of breath, they would come and magically gave me the ability to go on. They kept telling me to go deeper and farther. They would nudge me around and sometimes playfully give me rides to where I needed to go. They took me to underwater caves to heal old gaping wounds and gain new insight. Once, in a dream, a humpback came and ate all my assailants, swallowing them up with its gaping mouth then swimming back down deep deep into the black. It told me I wasn’t alone, that I was being cared for. Still to this day when I can’t get to sleep, I picture myself swimming down into the night sea looking for the whales. I undulate a tail in these visions, dolphin kicking my way gracefully into the depth of the sea. When I find them, they always look at me with knowing and wise eyes, I know I’m safe and I fall asleep.
I’ve been lucky in my life to have many encounters with whales. I’ve been four feet away from a Grey whale named Scarback in the early 90’s outside of Newport Bay, Oregon. I remember seeing all his barnacles and a deep rift of scar tissue in his back where he was injured somehow, most likely from a large ship propeller. He looked right at us, his eye as big as a dinner plate. He stayed for some time watching, the sentience and curiosity was palpable. I’ve seen the J, K, L pods many times over the years in the Salish Sea. I remember in 2000 seeing baby Alki J36 that spring. We saw the whole pod sleeping, rhythmically going up and down in synch with one another. All except for Alki, who like any baby didn’t want to nap. Her mother, Slick nudging her as she jumped continuously and did some tail slaps. I’ve been to Kauai a couple of times and saw Humpbacks in their breeding grounds, full breeches to the right and left. I’ve seen them in Alaska too, their feeding grounds, surfacing in great numbers hunting for food.
One of my greatest whale memories was doing a night dive in Kauai. We went down to see giant green turtles sleeping on a reef. The phosphorescence was all around us and as we floated neutrally buoyant, we turned off our lights and watched our every movement and air bubble sparkle and dance with light. In the background was whale song, Humpbacks singing. It was so loud you felt they would emerge right beside you, yet they were at least two miles away. It was awe inspiring and magical. My whole body felt the vibration of the sound. I still feel deeply privileged to have that experience and can recall it in my cellular memory at will.
I’ve been trying to get closer to the sea and whales since my early twenties and my first visit to the San Juan Islands. It has taken me half a lifetime to get here. As I type this on my little boat, swaying back and forth, I am filled with gratitude and wonder at the process and journey it’s been to arrive here. You see, I am setting myself up to be quiet. To listen. To observe and be a greater part of the natural world. There is wisdom here I need, I think we all need, especially now in this phase of life. Transformation is happening on a cellular level as I am in Perimenopause. I believe, like in my dreams, that the sea and whales will show me the way as I venture into the second half of my life.
Besides my long-time personal association with whales, what do Perimenopause and Menopause have to do with these creatures you ask? Frankly, due to a misogynistic lack of science for women’s health and experience, we still don’t know much about Perimenopause and Menopause. Like: even why or how exactly it happens. As I hot flash my way into my mid-forties I have been devouring as many books and research as I can on the topic to learn. I was reading Flash Count Diaries by Darcey Steinke recently and she started going off about Orcas. I thought: REALLY? AGAIN? These animals sure do have a way of showing up in my life when I most need them. I was awestruck to find out that Orcas, Narwhals, Short-Finned Pilot and Beluga whales are the only animals that we know of on the planet besides human women to also go through Menopause. We know the most about Southern Resident Orcas, due to years of dedicated and solid research. After they go through their transition, they become the leaders of their pods. The matriarchs hold all the memory and stories of where the best fishing is, they are revered wise elders of their clan and essential to the health of the pod.
Unlike female humans, who become culturally invisible and worthless with age and lack of fertility. Elder female Orcas hold the fabric of family, and therefore, home together. Resident Orcas, like humans, have their own dialect and displays of true empathy. They have rituals and routines, they play, have culture. As Tahlequah J35 showed us last year with her baby she carried for seventeen days after she died, they grieve. J2, known as Granny, lived to be over 100 and died in 2016. She hunted for the young, was seen doing behaviors that seemed to teach and babysit, when together she led the J, K, and L pods. All residents would defer to her lead. Like the dreams, I am not sure where my exploration will lead me. I just have to trust and follow. I am suspicious though, that part of the message Orcas and menopause convey is about a deeper level of interconnectedness and empathy. A message of community and leadership.
Maybe, like Orcas, we are meant to go from nurturing and mothering our own people and lives to leadership and kindred in a broader sense. Clarissa Pinkola Estes has a large body of work around women’s stories and archetypes. She speaks of the “Dangerous Old Woman,” who holds the wisdom and fierce love and boundaries for the community. The grandmother who is the listener, the truth sayer. She equally loves and smacks down in order to help her people thrive. She is the crone in all her glory earned from years of being a maiden and a mother, there to deepen wisdom and protect. (Note: I use grandmother and mother as archetypes here, not as literal. Being blissfully child free I look at these as more universal terms of innocent adventurous youth, nurturance and generativity, and wisdom with leadership.)
Today, we live in so many acute paradoxes. On one hand we are more isolated and nuclear than ever. In the United States and other industrialized countries, people are increasingly lonely. There is a lack of a sense of belonging and care. Conversely, we are more of a global community than ever before. Our planet is in crisis and now more than ever in history we are indeed all in the same boat with Climate Change. My actions here in North America do have impact on someone in India and vice versa. Consumerism, industry and waste make it so. Certainly, our choices have greater impact on the planet now. The good news is we have a unique opportunity to come together in a way never seen before. I’ve seen this with the global marches for Women’s Day and Climate Change. Sadly, and especially in the US, we are more aware of our divisions than ever before. If, like the Orcas, we saw each other and the earth as not seperate from us, but as home, essential to our well being, what would we do to care for one another and the planet we live on? Is this part of the wisdom that we are invited to step into the second half of life?
I wonder what Granny and other Orcas and whales can help us understand about what it is to lead family. Especially if we take it in a broader context than just a chosen or biological few. What does it take to come together and speak truth? I wonder what the wisdom of my own body and its natural cycles will bring. Like a phoenix coming from hormonal hot flash ashes, what new way of perceiving and being will I step into as I age through this process and come out the other side. I certainly have my struggles in it. I have my fears. Our culture stigmatizes the crone, villainizes older women while devaluing them. Looking forward, what do we have to look forward to as a woman aging? We have only limited stereotyped options: crazy cat lady, bitter hard bitch, cougar, or milk and cookies cute granny. None of those are appealing to me. Culturally, instead of embracing age and hormonal change we are advised to try to medicate our way out of it. We cream, peel, Botox and lift. We hold onto the cultural ideal of what femininity is, rather than take the invitation to step outside of the binary and expectations and ask the bigger questions. Like: WHAT THE FUCK IS REALLY GOING ON HERE?
What if instead of trying to stay the same in a narrow cultural box we take the call of the wild, the quest? What if we adventure out and start a new vision of women aging? In her book, Steinke takes a feminist approach and said, “It’s not menopause itself that is the problem but menopause as it’s experienced under patriarchy.” From what I can see from the women who have come before me and engaged it with integrity and courage, there is some badass shit to come. I follow some middle-aged sailors, artists and activists that I think, “Yassss Queen, that’s how you do it!” Fierce goddess amazingness comes from heeding the call from what I can see. It’s like they proudly carry and weild two signs that say, “Give AF/Don’t Give AF.” There is a passion along with the wisdom of these women that I am drawn to. Is this what lower estrogen and a culture that has given you a lifetime of bullshit to cope through does? It clarifies and prioritizes in necessary and meaningful ways? I’m in. So, who wants to join me? Who wants to help lead the way? What are some of the messages you have gained through Perimenopause and Menopause so far? What do the crones and wisdom holders in my tribe want to tell me and the world? I would love to hear from you in the comments.