Good Things

More Than a Woman

I’ve been reading Caitlin Moran’s latest book “More Than a Woman” and it’s having quite the impact on my wee brain. She is writing this now, as a 40-something woman, and it’s like she’s spent some time spelunking in my mind for research as she’s perfectly nailed so much of my life experience…. and it’s brilliant (her book, not my life experience). She talks about the ways that women tear each other down (a loathsome act if ever there was) and makes a point that I have been shouting from the rooftops for ages: why not just skip past tearing someone else down and focus on building ourselves up???

My real favorite part, though, comes towards the end when she talks about how freeing it is to get older – THIS IS WHERE I AM WITH THINGS. Read this (it’s long, I know – but SO worth it I promise):

Middle-aged women, you are just about to be born again…and what I have realized is that, this time around, you’re going to walk the earth as a hag. These are your Hag Years, and they are glorious.

We think of “hag” as a bad word like so many words associated with women—“fat,” or “slut,” or “bossy”—but hags are cool, man.

Consider the Hag archetype throughout history: when life expectancy barely reached fifty, and once a woman was no longer a bride nor a mother, she entered her Hag Years until she died.

Hags lived slightly apart from the villages and towns—in a cave, or some witchy cottage in the woods. They tended their herb gardens, and mixed up their medicines, and were surrounded by their animals—dogs, cats, particularly clever and charismatic crows. They wore a cape, and had a stick to poke things with, and they’d roam around and engage in mysterious hag activities like talking to trees or doing weird rituals by streams and lakes. They’d be the only women callow, young youths would be scared of—fostering a useful irascibleness that prevented all but the boldest from getting up in their grill and wasting their time. When trouble struck the wider community, in the end, the villagers would always end up having to bravely go and consult the hag, who would then provide them with a medicine, or provide wise counsel, or tell a story from days of yore that provided a solution to the current problem. And, every so often, they’d meet up with their coven of fellow hags and spend all night cackling in a way that terrified everyone else.

This, I note, in the twenty-first century, is exactly the life I am living now. I have Gone Hag. Observe my day, now, in my Hag Years. I’m living a Hag Life.

Dog walk over, I return to my metaphorical cottage in the woods—my Hag House—which I have spent the last decade finally turning into a comfortable and beautiful fortress of books, food, art, and bright rugs, to which very few are invited. In my Hag House, I have no fear of FOMO—it is where I return to with a sigh of relief, glad I no longer have to gad about meeting people, when I could be having a bath and reading a book instead.

Like a hag, I have an herb garden—I have a whole garden that I dote on, in that cliché of middle age. Making a cup of tea, I go out, into the early morning sunshine, and quietly say, “Hello” to the birds and the trees. In the last few years, this garden has become my dear love—a plain square of grass I have slowly turned into a green bower of birches, ivy, and as many roses as I could fit against each fence, pillar, and wall.

It is only in middle age that you have gained enough mastery of time to plan a garden for all seasons: that you can plant a tree knowing it won’t start to enter its full glory for a decade or more—but that’s fine, because the decades pass so quickly now, so that’s an easy commitment for you to make. An older woman can look at a garden in February—all mud and twigs—and lay over it, in her mind’s eye, the tulips in April, the roses in June, the maples in October, the frost on the hydrangea heads at Christmas. Mentally cueing in the apple blossom in three weeks’ time; knowing that now is the time to stake the peonies—for, by next month, they will have toppled, fat, into the roses.

A gardener can lose herself in a whole day of digging and planting—surrounded by her dog, her cat, the robins, and the wrens—talking to them as she goes: “There’s a worm, mate. Fill your boots.” She’ll be on the side of the blue tits gathering dried grass for nests and carefully leave out seeds, so they can feed their babies. She’s on the side of all mothers—however tiny and feathered they are.

At the end of an hour’s work, she can stand—back aching slightly—and feels she has made the world, this tiny part of the world at least, almost perfect.

I am dressed like a hag, these days. My wardrobe is full of Hagosity. I have long swishy coats with big pockets, and a stick to poke things with, as I walk. The clothes of middle age are, I find, the modern versions of Hagdom: comfortable, enveloping, all-weather, brilliantly unappealing to the young.

And my stick-poking walks are full of hag activities. I leave the house again at 10 a.m. ready to be fully pagan in my yomp. I am unashamed to go to the woods and lean against a tree to feel the unusual comfort of putting your arms around something a hundred years older than you—connected to every other tree in the wood—disparately engaged in much the same activities I am.

My mind was blown when I learned that every wood has a mother tree, which tends to the others. They send sap, through their root systems, to ailing trees; they send electrical impulses to the whole community when they’re under attack by insects, so they pump toxins into their leaves to kill off the predators. As a middle-aged woman generally unserved by stories in modern popular culture, and short on viable role models, I find I have more in common with the big beech in Highgate Woods than I do with, say, a sexy, kung fu lady scientist in a Bond film. We’re kind of engaged in the same things.

Also, as a middle-aged woman, a tree will be one of the few living things I will encounter in my day that doesn’t want me to feed it, worm it, listen to its problems, or give it a tenner. It’s good to hold on to something that just radiates a treeish, comradely vibe of “I get you, mate. Me too.”

I pass a group of teenagers, smoking fags on a bench, and their body language is not what it was when I passed similar groups when I was a teenager—these days, they are deferential. Callow youths are wary of me, now: my thin lips and orthopedic foot stomp make them instantly stop pissing around at a bus stop. No one shouts “Oi! Tits McGee!” at me now, as I walk down the street, which is the Hag Bonus, and prevents my wise thoughts from otherwise being interrupted by constant low-level sexual harassment. This means that when I am finally consulted for help in urgent matters of the village, I can pull fully formed solutions out of my head and cheerfully present them, for the good of the community, or the weeping toddler, as is appropriate.

And as for my mysterious Hag Activities out in nature, well, from May to October, I daily pilgrimage here, to my final destination, to the huge, cold, muddy ponds of Hampstead, where I have a single, wild determination: to jump in.

Previously, as a young woman, I was always too scared of swimming in the sea or lakes. The dirt, and the mud, and the things that might swim up inside you. Eels. I feared eels.

Now, of course—now I have known real fear; now I have looked the end of the world in the eye—eels seem laughably inconsequential. You could fill my whole house with cold, muddy water and I’d be like, “Oh. Eels. Odd choice,” before calmly brooming them out of the house. Long-term terror and misery do not bring many gifts, but the wholesale destruction of all lesser fears is one of them.

I notice that—like all the women in the park, with the dogs—the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond is another territory for the older woman. There are not many places where they are widespread and triumphant—but they are here.

There is a sprinkling of skinny, jejune young things in bright bikinis, of course—but they do not last long. Screaming at the cold, taking ages to descend the ladder into the water as the older women shout, “It’s just a bit of cold water, dear!,” they are in and out in minutes. Almost everywhere else is, but this is not a place for soft, young, sexy things.

Instead, the ponds are ruled by doughty matriarchs. Janets, every single last one. Veined thighs; stretch-marked bellies; bosoms like the prow of a ship; grey or white hair up in a bun, or else a jolly swimming cap—these are women who have raised children and grandchildren, seen houses burn down, prosecuted fraudsters, scrubbed front doorsteps, and scared off bastards.

I watch one, in a navy one-piece, briskly descend the ladder.

“Now I don’t care about my children,” she says, on the first rung. She takes the next step down, shivering joyfully as the cold water reaches her thighs.

“And now I don’t care about my job,” she says, gasping.

On the third—up to her waist—she yells, “And now I don’t care about my fucking husband,” and launches herself into the water, sculling off into the willows with a determined breaststroke.

I twist my hair into a bun and jump in.

Hitting the water, all I can see is golden, golden brown—the soupy water shot through with sunshine. The cold is the kind that makes your teeth crackle.

Uttering a single “Oh!”—which bursts out of me with my last warm breath—I swim, hard, for a minute, feeling my chest shudder and my throat close. And then—after exactly a minute—hot, sweet syrup fills my belly and radiates up through my heart, out through my fingertips, and pours from the top of my head like steam. I keep swimming. I have never felt like this before. I feel perfect. Utterly perfect.

When I get out, I lie on the hot meadow grass—turning to hay in the sun—absolutely naked and overwhelmed with how astonishingly lovely I am. I am an absolute god. I briefly saw my reflection in the lifeguards’ hut window, and it showed a middle-aged woman with straggly, wet hair with green mud across her breastbone, walking awkwardly, barefoot. Like I say—astonishingly lovely. I am smiling like I am in the photos after I had just given birth. I think I might have just given birth to happiness. Or: of who I am going to be next.

WHEN I GET home, still muddy, but still glowing, I sit at the kitchen table and look at my house. My little queendom. My Hag Pod. Girls—now women—looking for their car keys, or else cooking tea; a dog on the sofa; a husband putting away the shopping.

This isn’t the only happy ending for a woman—there are millions, equally satisfying, that don’t involve children, or husbands, or what appear to be seventeen tubes of Pringles—but this is definitely one of them, and preferable, I think, to having perfect tits, six billion dollars, or colonizing the moon.

What goes on in a house—behind a billion doors, on a billion streets—is still seen as, primarily, the work of women. The laundry and the broken hearts and the boiled cabbage and the teaching of manners to toddlers; the plans for the future and the way you face adversity and the tone you use on the phone, to customer services.

I remember, a few years ago, walking home from a fundraiser for domestic abuse. The stories I had heard were the kind that make your bones sick; women and children, in everyday clothes with everyday faces, telling everyday horror stories. The monster in the house. The war in the bedroom. The fear in just sitting in a chair, ears still ringing from the last explosion.

For months afterward, I found every street I walked down inescapably sinister—for who could know what was going on behind each door I passed? Once a door closes, anything could happen behind it: It is amazing how much atrocity you can fit into a small, semi-detached house. How many bones you can bury under a patio.

For a while, I became uncharacteristically negative, and dolorous, about humanity—I could not get over this image of how, behind every front door, there is a world that no one save those behind it really knows about. How every street, suburb, village, and city holds thousands upon thousands of microuniverses—all with different rules, vocabularies, and ideas of normality. This is where the women are, and their worlds are utterly secret to us. Women’s domestic lives are secret to us.

But then, a second, comforting thought: the majority of untold stories, happening behind every door, are good. They are breakfasts, birthdays, Christmases, and the whole family being excited to use the new fluffy towels; they are handles being glued back onto cups, and weeping friends being consoled, and the money being found, somehow, for a holiday with Nan. The laundry and the broken hearts, and the boiled cabbage, and the teaching of manners to toddlers; the singing of songs, and painting the walls, and running what is essentially a small company from which you don’t expect profits, or goods, but merely the endless production of calm and love. Adventures still happen, inside these homes. Quests are embarked on. Transformations happen.

But we do not hear of these adventures because we do not tell stories about middle-aged women and their lives. Their triumphs and woes. What we do is either seen as just boring, or else ignored entirely. The lifestyle choices of younger women—the wine drinking, the years of sexual buccaneering, the intense friendships, life lessons, and messy explosions—have, thrillingly, in recent years, taken on a cultural significance and weight. We acknowledge them in their sometimes swaggering, sometimes tearful stories—we see these girls. We know they are a new, established archetype; you can now buy cushions for twenty-five pounds embroidered with the legend “Hot Mess.”

We have been these girls, and now, older, we cheer them on, as they racket through the cities we once racketed through. I hear them laughing in the street at 2 a.m.—returning drunk in cabs—and I fall back to sleep, smiling. They are the shiny ball bearings tumbling through the pinball machine. They are the buzz of electric trainlines being hit by the rain. They are out there, conquering the world, as they should, scattering single earrings as they go.

I feel like I’m on my sofa, quietly content, and texting them, “Just so you know, guys—there is something even more marvelous waiting for you, when you finally land.”

AS NIGHT FALLS, I sally forth into the world to engage in the final activity of Hagdom—meeting my other hag friends in our coven.

When you are middle aged, you find other middle-aged women inescapably more glorious than any other kind of person. You may love the men, and the younger people, passionately—but it is only with the rest of your kind that you feel you can assume your true form: sharing stories and laughing hysterically about things in a way that could, yes, be described by others, passing fearfully by, as “cackling.”

We like to meet away from other people—were it warm enough, we probably would meet in the woods, and dance, naked, around a fire; but as this is Britain in September, we all go to my shed at the bottom of the garden, where we gather around a single bottle of wine that will last us all night. No one in this shed has the enzymes for alcohol anymore. But we don’t need them—for you can get drunk on the right people, when you’re older, and these are the right people.

Sal, Loz, and Nadia—oh, these are the right people, who have sustained me through these years. When I was younger, I believed Christopher Hitchens when he said that women just weren’t as funny as men. I grew up in a generation where “comediennes” were rare and regarded as a freak of nature—once-in-a-generation one-offs, like Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, and Victoria Wood. Some kind of genetic accident, mutated to make this rare “female humor.”

What I realize now is that Hitchens and I were, respectively, too male or too young to have ever been invited into a coven—of which there are millions, across the world. You are probably a member of one. If you are not, I truly hope you meet yours soon. Covens are where middle-aged women withdraw from the world to be with those who have, like them, gone through abortion, death, miscarriage, nervous breakdowns, funerals, unemployment, poverty, fear, hospital appointments, and broken hearts—where they sometimes weep and comfort each other, but more often make jokes, so pitch black they can only be laughed at by a fellow hag.

In your coven, you attend to your busy, vital Hag Work: drawing up the lists of idiots to curse and heroes to bless; forming your battle plans and schedules. Scheming the downfall of asshats, and the uprising of the righteous. You do this in a place where non-hags can’t hear you, because Hag Club takes a lifetime to join. And it is here where you launch into the comic routines that leave your ribs bruised from laughing the next morning: the bellyache of pain that only comes from other hags being truthful about their lives. The husbands sneezing, the hormones raging, the bosses perving, and the children being “a delightful challenge.” This is where you realize there is a whole book full of truths about being middle aged that you have only ever heard spoken—and never read. I keep notes on what our conversations span, in a single night: socks, socialism, anal sex, first loves, what we would do in widowhood, whether to buy a fake fur gilet, how to get a pay raise, where the best trees are, kettling, communes, Botox, Sertraline, sexism in its many forms, the glory of Nora Ephron. This is where, one night, in our coven, we found out the origin of the word witch: wych, in Old English, means the thin, whippy branches that can be used to bind things—baskets, fences, boats—together. A witch is a binding thing. Without it, things fall apart. We are witches. “Worldcraft” is what they called it in the eighteenth century. The knowledge that comes only with age.

It’s now 11 p.m., and we’re lying out on the grass, under blankets, looking up at the stars.

“If you could travel back in time, and meet your younger self, what would you say to them?” I ask, as we drink tea from mugs. Oh! 11 p.m. tea is the best! “What are the things they need to know about getting older?”

We all pause for a moment, considering this.

“Always pee after sex—it prevents cystitis.”

“And wipe front to back—God, I didn’t know this until I was in my forties.”

“Have a secret Running Away Fund, in a bank account no one—no one—knows about. You never know when you’ll need it.”

“Learn to drive in an automatic. Fuck it. You might as well. Who cares about gears?”

“Don’t throw away the things that have always made you happy—drawing, music, dancing, animals, being outdoors—because they suddenly seem childish. They are the things that make being adult brilliant.”

“Parenting has about fifteen stages, and you’ll be shit at some of them and brilliant at others. No one is perfect at all of them. But they all only last a year or so, so just when you’re feeling useless, a new phase will begin that you’ll be awesome at.”

“A teaspoon of Marmite in a baked potato will change your life.”

“Your women friends will save your life over and over and over.”

“You can never have too much toilet paper.”

“Every woman will spend their life oscillating between thinking they’re ‘not enough’ or that they’re ‘too much.’ Neither thought can be, nor is, true.”

“Oh God, yes, this!” I say, banging my fists on my knees. “I have lost count of the women I’ve met who worry that they are ‘too much.’ Do you know what women commonly do, when having their picture taken? It is an action that is so ripe with symbolism it hurts. They stoop. They crouch down. They apologize, simply for standing there: ‘I’m a giantess!’ or ‘God—I look like Hagrid,’ or ‘Sorry—I’m Brienne of Tarth in these heels.’ NO YOU AREN’T! YOU ARE A HUMAN BEING WITHIN A PERFECTLY NORMAL HEIGHT VECTOR! STAND TALL! Or they pull their stomachs in, bowing away from the camera, murmuring apologies for how ‘fat’ they are.

“Stand up! Don’t apologize! Relax your stomach! TAKE UP YOUR SPACE. Take up your space, middle-aged women—take up your space. You spend all day saving the world; yet, you still feel you are physically too much. My God, hardworking women—you have earned your place. You have earned every inch. Straighten up, and take it! Oh, I wish I could shout this at every middle-aged woman I meet!”

Lauren starts laughing, then says: “‘It gets so much fucking worse.’ That’s what I’d say. Then I’d wait for it to really sink in, and then say: ‘but then it gets better than you could ever imagine.’”

We all nod. Yes, yes. These are all useful truths.

“What about you, Cat?” Nadia asks. “What would you say, if you could go back and talk to yourself?”

I ponder. “Well,” I say, eventually. “I’d want to warn her, definitely—so it didn’t all come as a shock. And I can’t deny I’d want to wind her up just a little bit, because that would be funny, and she would appreciate my dark humor. But I think, mainly, I’d just want to tell her that I love her. She gave birth to me. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. So, I think I’d just give her a hug. Oh! Imagine if women had time machines! It would change everything. I’m sure we’d make good use of them. I’m sure we’d say the right things and be of comfort to our younger selves. Because we are so fucking wise right now.”

We all sigh. There is a long pause, whilst we all reflect on the last ten years of our lives: The middle age so many presume is dull, and uneventful, and bland, but which actually manifests like an epic Ring Quest, all conducted without leaving the house. Heroes, and demons, and sex, and work, and doubt, and despair, and hope—storms whirling onto and through the house, over and over, even as you still get the washing done, and try to end every day having said, to those who inspire it, the only thing, ultimately, ever worth saying: “I’m glad you’re in my life. I love you.”

The silence lasts almost three minutes, before I break it, eventually, saying: “But, even more than that, I wish we had some fags.”

I know this was LONG read, but it’s absolutely extraordinary, isn’t it? I can’t stop thinking about this. I’m going to be 47 in a couple of weeks, and while people think it’s funny that I’m roundin’ 3rd and heading for 50, I think it’s a MIRACLE. I’m alive. I’m happy. I’m (mostly) healthy. I still have my own teeth, and a crackin’ sense of humor. As each year ticks by, I don’t feel closer and closer to the grave (though I most certainly am), I feel more and more free, more and more MYSELF. And I love it. It’s a great time to be alive – bring on my Hag Years. ✨