Peak Experience

Peak Experience

by Merle Hoffman

Everest — avatar of the Himalayas.
Everest — whom the Nepalese call Sagamartha and the Tibetans call Chomolungma “Great Mother Goddess of the Earth.”
The coldness – starkness – eminent loneliness of the thing.
Rising in self-contained purity, its summit draped in a constant cloud like some diaphanous shawl — worn with a bit of pique.
Just enough to make a difference,
to separate it from all the others.

Mother Goddess — sitting at 29,028 feet — the highest point on the planet.
Eternally indifferent to her lovers — paying ambitious self-centered homage to her dangerous challenges; performing physical rituals of her demanding worship — struggling over the landscapes of her contours.
No possibility of mutuality here — only the form, function, and paraphernalia of conquest — ropes, hooks, chains, oxygen.
And death as a constant companion.

On the eve of my fiftieth birthday, it seems oddly natural that I find myself in an old Russian helicopter rising thousands of miles over the Himalayas with a sense of destiny fulfilled. I have traveled to Everest, the ultimate metaphoric and material challenge, to stand in her presence in a sacred singular ceremony to mark my passage.

I needed a rarefied atmosphere to contemplate the meaning of life and the meaning of my life, and I found it at the Everest View Hotel at almost 14,000 feet, the “hotel at the highest point in the world.” Here, with the Great Mother Goddess outside my window, with no running water and no heat, where there is a history of at least one guest dying of altitude sickness, I wanted to deny physicality — to transcend the limits of my body and breathe only the oxygen of reflection.

Fifty. The number looms, stands apart, pulsates with external meanings. I wanted to pass through it like all the others, to diffuse the boundaries of time and date — the statistics of celebrity achievement at 50-plus, the inane jokes, the anti-aging propaganda — all the wisdom static that surrounds this particular passage. The world was definitely too much with me.

Erica Jong knew the feeling. In Fear of Fifty she wrote that “at fifty the last thing I wanted was a public celebration.” For her fiftieth birthday, “unlike Gloria Steinem,” she did not want to “rise resplendent in an evening gown, shoulders dusted with glitter and say, ‘This is what fifty looks like.'” Taking off for a spa in the Berkshires three days before her birthday with her daughter, Molly, her thoughts “alternated between terror and acceptance.”

Even so, Jong did not have the added pressure of becoming 50 in 1996. I who never was a joiner, who am an only child who never liked to be part of collectives and groups, find myself by pure accident born in the first baby boomer year to reach that milestone, fated to read about my birthday in The New York Times as the beginning of a “fateful countdown” that will have “a member of the baby-boom generation marking a 50th birthday every seven seconds every day for the next 18 years.” That’s more than 10,000 people “crossing daily into the ‘mature market.'” Yes, I want to escape from the culture that will now barrage me with appropriate products for this “point” in my life — from reduced-fat Campbell’s cream soups to a “boomer-relevant Mercedes Benz.”

To remove myself from materiality, I have come to Nepal, to a world that is, ironically, intensely physical. From Everest, where the rarefied atmosphere creates a constant focus on one’s breath, to Katmandu, where the fog of pollution and the stench of poverty and incense do the same, I find myself immersed in the body far more than at home, surrounded by an endless cycle of death, birth, and rebirth that triggers a rush of physical memories of my own history.

I who am so much a child of my time and place, who have spent so much of my life and work helping women to free themselves from “biology is destiny,” find myself in a place where separating the two is impossible, where the social and political conditions that allow Western women some degree of control over their bodies do not exist.

Katmandu, where abortions (illegal for all reasons) are done by inserting filthy chopsticks into the uterus; where women suckle their newborn babies on mats in cow dung because childbirth is considered ritually unclean; where there are no boundaries between life and death, the sacred and profane, clean and dirty, sexual and cerebral; where Hindu worshipers of Shiva prostrate themselves on cigarette-strewn altars with monkeys chattering madly above them and the smell of shit everywhere.

Katmandu, where yogis demonstrate their renunciation of the flesh by drinking urine and lifting 20-pound stones with their penises, and there is the daily ritual of families cremating a loved one — on public funeral pyres — with yellowed arms and legs dangling visibly through the flames while the ashes brush up against my face.

And the whole thing is going on at once, played out next to and through each other. It is a lived expression of a value system in which all reality is perceived as ultimately connected, where animals and humans participate equally in the divine, and life and death are signposts on an eternally renewable journey.

Katmandu, where I come face to face with a living Goddess.

Chosen at age four for her courage in the face of death (candidates are shown the head of a recently slaughtered animal), this particular Goddess is a prepubescent girl who reigns for the years prior to her first menstruation. The “Kumari” is housed in a temple with a female guardian where she remains for years, practicing the daily ritual of showing herself to mortals for a few seconds every 10 minutes.

I am told that repatriated menstruating Kumaris are not sought after as wives in their villages — something about them being too difficult, too different. Perhaps the loss of their temporary sacred power leaves a residue in the collective consciousness, or is it that all that time being worshiped as a Goddess really changes them forever? Photographs are forbidden, but money is expected as an offering for her upkeep. In a strange combination of voyeurism and prayer, I drop a few coins on the plate and eagerly wait until She appears — dressed in red satin, head high, a flash of fantasy made real.

Red: the color of blood, passion, and death. Sense memories bring back my first menstruation and the rituals that surrounded my physical and symbolic entry into female sexuality. I can feel it, smell it, see the redness that miraculously emanated from my body. I know again the sting of my mother’s hand as it struck the side of my face in an ancient ritual handed down from mother to daughter. The slap that means “your sex is your curse. Now that you are a woman you will know Eve’s legacy of childbirth and pain.”

What does being fifty mean for a woman — for a feminist? Is it possible to deconstruct the passage of time so that one remains purely intellectual in response to an aging self? If, as many theorize, gender is socially constructed, why is the color of biological determinism bleeding through everything I see here?

I think of Ecclesiastes, my favorite book of the Bible, the most philosophical and existential of all the texts: “Vanity, all is vanity.” Is the belief that one can truly escape one’s biological reality the ultimate vanity?

Here in the shadow of the Great Mother Goddess and in the presence of the living one, there is no room for rhetoric. I know that I am the result of my choices. I have transcended my biology for a time, but at a price.

Motherhood had never been part of my girlhood fantasies or lexicon of self.

Always shunning the domestic and maternal, I turned toward the mythic and heroic to commit myself to a movement and a vision. But it was always there, lurking just at the borders of my consciousness: the wish for a child, particularly a little girl, the ultimate vanity of desiring a flesh-and-blood repetition of myself. My diary entry the day before my abortion reads, “For one night I am a mother.”

Erikson wrote, “A woman who does not fulfill her innate need to fill her uterus with embryonic tissue is likely to be frustrated or neurotic.” But here in the fierce reality of the mountains, I am filled with the enormous possibilities for spiritual and creative generativity.

My inner space, not filled by embryonic tissue, is the field and grounding for the growth of my politics, my work, and my vision of women’s health and women’s freedom.

I think of the last 25 years: building Choices, defining and realizing a world where women’s lives and women’s realities were named and validated; the thousands of women who came expecting and receiving safety, compassion, and understanding; all the lives touched, all the lives that touched mine; the deferred dream of doing the same for Russian women; all the great and small political battles fought and those still to come.

I leave Katmandu on March 8, International Women’s Day.

On that day, the streets are filled with Nepalese feminists marching, shouting, and holding large placards that read, “We demand the right of property ownership.” I also learn that while I was there an international conference of peasant women was convened to name the issues of rural female oppression and begin to demand structural changes. And that work is being done to supply women with “clean delivery kits” to reduce the soaring rate of maternal and infant mortality. The feminist vision is taking hold.

Now back in New York, I know that I am changed but am not sure how. I have passed over to the next half-century of my life. I have gone to the highest point in the world to find myself thrust back into the depths of my being.

In an effort to transcend materiality I am even more grounded. In celebrating my ability to control and direct my biology, I have been radically reminded that it is a singular privilege to do so.

I understand that the struggle for women’s freedom is a global and generational one, and that I may never see the results in my lifetime. I also know that it is a gift to be part of the process.

MERLE HOFFMAN is Publisher/Editor-In-Chief of On The Issues magazine, and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc. and Choices Mental Health Center.