I believe in alchemy. These four words keep surfacing from somewhere just as I am falling asleep or on the verge of waking up or when I am walking down Bethnal Green road to buy vegetables. They first surfaced while I was watching Philip Corner, the 83-year-old artist and musician a couple of weeks ago perform at Café Oto. As he and his diminutive wife, collaborator and muse, Phoebe Neville enacted his ‘Piano Movement’ by literally moving a piano, it happened. I realised that a piano is not merely an instrument, it is an object, a sculpture, a piece of work in and of itself. It not only makes music, but takes up space. Corner did eventually sit and play the piano, but throughout the evening, the instrument became so many things. By the end of the night, it sat shrouded in paper and covered in flowers and torn fragments of paper. By this point it had become a monument to Philip’s friend and fellow Fluxus artist, Ben Patterson, who died this past July. Patterson was known for his ‘Paper Piece’ in which he asked audience members to make sounds using paper. Corner enacted his own version, while he and Neville wrapped the piano in thick, brown sheets. They crumpled and ripped the paper and stabbed at the keys. The noise was incredible. And angry. In those sounds and in their movements I sensed the grief at losing a friend.
So, a piano becomes a memento mori. An object that can be silenced and repurposed with grief and mourning.
Since witnessing Corner and Neville’s performance, I keep thinking about this alchemy. Today during a Yoga class, I stared at a poster on the wall of the studio in an attempt to keep my balance in a one-legged pose. The poster was one of those small laminated things telling you that you can’t use the door because it is alarmed, or something. I couldn’t actually read it. But the key point was that it had two blocks of colour on it. In my mind the poster became a Rothko. It didn’t look like a Rothko at all, but my brain morphed it into one of his red and brown canvases.
And this has been happening to me frequently. Objects are morphing from one thing to another, from one use to another, from one state to another. And I think I know why. I, myself, am morphing from one state to another. The change. The half-century mark. I am there. The child-bearing years are coming to an end, the days of being able to be called ‘young’ are coming to an end. My body is being replaced by another one. I am feeling it physically, but it is manifesting itself in me psychologically in more profound ways.
It is odd that no one talks about perimenopause (the period leading up to menopause). It is a sort of bizarre edgeland in one’s life. It goes unmarked and yet, as I am experiencing its effects, I feel it should be marked with something like a wrapped piano or something equally magic. Our bodies at this point are losing their ‘use’ value and becoming something else: a shrouded vessel. There is mourning needed for the loss of what we once were and also some celebrating in order to welcome the new person we are becoming.
Why are there no rituals around this time in a woman’s life? Women are reluctant to talk about it even amongst themselves. There is a reticence and a shyness around menopause. Is it because so much of our value is measured in our ability to procreate, attract a mate, look ‘hot’, be ‘sexy’, satisfied that we are the subject of locker room banter? I am finding the transition difficult, there is no doubt, but the struggle lies more in the challenge of convincing myself of my value as a woman who is heading past her shelf life.
We have seen in this farcical competition between Hillary and Trump how the disregard for women has become so normalised as to barely register. If there is one thing to come out of the disaster that is the Donald, it is that men are coming out and saying, “Wow, I had no idea you women were treated like this. I didn’t know you had it so bad!” We are often treated like this and we do have it so bad. We are badly paid, we are beaten up by our husbands and family members, allowed to die in childbirth, set on fire, forced to marry people six times our age, sometimes when we are eight years old, sold into prostitution and slavery, forbidden from using contraceptives, we have our clitorises sliced and we have acid thrown in our faces. We are not listened to and we are ridiculed for aging. Our cellulite is circled in tabloid newspapers and our stomachs mocked for being saggy after childbirth. We are not allowed to get wrinkles and god forbid our hair should go grey. But it doesn’t end here. We are expected to be nice. And we are the ones who take the day off work when our kid is sick. We also do seventy percent of the household chores and the cooking — even if we are the main breadwinners*. When our parents or even our partner’s parents get old, we are the ones who do the caring. We buy the birthday presents and make the soup for sick friends. Of course there are exceptions—many exceptions and many incredible men who love and care and do the lion’s share. There are men out there fighting the fight on our behalf. But they are rare and we love them.
At the moment as I approach this physical and psychological change, and experience the alchemy inside me, the image I have in my mind is one of running between carriages on a moving train while someone is offering me lunch. No thanks, I can’t stop to eat, I have to get into the next carriage. I’m moving fast and I have no time to sit and chat. There is life all around me and I feel it pulsing inside. It isn’t a child I am about to bring into the world, it is something else. Equally valuable, equally demanding and important. Equally beautiful. We just have to watch and see what it becomes. I think we might all be very surprised. Alchemy is magic.
*In Britain women still do 70 per cent of the housework. Analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that eight out of 10 married women do more household chores than their husbands, with only one in 10 married men doing an equal amount of cleaning as his wife.