Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Teddy Bear, Seagulls and Some Thoughts on Evolution

There was an uproar in Britain this week when a foreign government arrested a middle-aged English teacher and threatened her with a public whipping and/or imprisonment for allowing her class of little children to name a teddy bear Mohammed. (The kids' idea, it should be noted, not hers).

No doubt the UK government is happy about that diversion. Getting scandalised and indignant about fundamentalism 'over there', takes people's minds off the corruption (e.g. 'disguised' donations to party funds), hypocrisy (e.g. carbon-lowering rhetoric combined with plans to expand airports) and pathetic impotence (dancing always to the corporate tune) of our own so-called leaders. It's easy to decry what happens 'over there'. When deplorable things are happening 'over here', that is harder to cope with because it means we need to DO something rather than merely grumble. We usually don't, though. The British have made grumbling an art form but we are not good at revolutions.

The Americans were good at revolutions once, but these days most of them seem too busy watching TV or trying to earn a living to notice that the hard-won 'freedoms' they have been taught to believe in since their first day at school are being rapidly taken away from them by a government that's becoming just as scarily repressive as the one that disallows certain names for teddy bears.

Since the tragic events of 9/11, there has been what one journalist described this week as "…a virtual avalanche of legislation and commissions designed to protect the country at the expense of the Bill of Rights." It's a one-two punch, and the final sock to the jaw is likely to come from the passage of a new bill that has the potential to turn any citizen or resident into a 'terrorist' just by jiggling a few words and definitions. (Like they jiggled the definition of 'torture'). Everyone who reads Ronni Bennett's blog, 'Time Goes By' already knows about this. (And if you haven't read what she has to say about it, please do, and forward the link to anyone you know in the USA.)

The problem with revolutions is that they don't usually work. Whatever group seizes power from dysfunctional leaders generally ends up being dysfunctional itself. We may belong to the family of primates but I often think that human beings are more like seagulls than they are like any of the primates I have ever seen. We seem to find it so much easier to fight and squabble – over territory, over belief systems, over just about anything you can name – than we do to co-operate. We talk about democracy but we have really never had it. Not really. Whether it was kings and dukes. governments or multinational corporations, there have always been the rulers and the ruled, the haves and the have-nots, the powerful and the powerless. It never changes. It merely changes form, from place to place and from era to era. Let us not kid ourselves.

I believe, along with many others, that there is only one path out of this morass and that is not north, south, east or westwards. It is upwards. We need to work on changing our own consciousness. To start with our own inner seagulls, watch how they operate, get them talking – and listening – to each other for a change. Next step: learning the skills of interpersonal communication and co-operation. Co-operation, after all, is as much a part of our evolutionary heritage as competition is. Darwin only saw half of the picture. The other half is finally being documented and understood.

This, I believe, is the only way we can avert catastrophe, either political or ecological – and ultimately, both are the same. We face a stark choice now. Evolve or perish.

The one-celled organisms who were our original ancestors faced this same choice three and a half billion years ago, when the planet's oxygen levels rose so high that those CO2-breathing prokaryotes could no longer survive. They learned to breathe oxygen instead. They survived. They learned to co-operate and become multi-celled organisms and all life on Earth is the result, including you and me. But they each had to start with themselves and their personal habits.

So do we.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Murmurations and Mutterings

The first fourteen people have signed up to the new 'elderwomanspace' network and all sorts of conversations are already happening between them. I shall be sending out a fresh batch of invitations tomorrow. Wow, this feels so rich and interesting. Although I dislike most kinds of parties, I am certainly enjoying this one.

The rest of my life has been on hold since last Friday. Soon, I shall have to go back to some of the more difficult tasks I have been avoiding. Like trying to get my novel published.

It's the first time I have tried to publish full-length fiction, and it is so much harder to place than non-fiction. With all three of my non-fiction books I was able to find a publisher fairly easily, but this time I decided to try and get an agent, as I don't know the fiction market very well.

I have approached a lot of agents, but none of them want to take it on. They all say it's very well-written and they enjoyed reading the sample chapters but "the fiction market is really tight right now." I think what they are really telling me is that the publishers' marketing departments won't want it because it's not chick lit, it's not crime or sci-fi or historical romance and the main character is a woman of 51. Grrr!

The trees are all bare now and we have had our first frost. Squirrels are busily caching their winter supplies. The huge flocks of starlings that come over each winter from eastern Europe are already making their fascinating, aerobatic swirls across the sky. I love to watch the patterns they make. And I love it when I am out on my morning walk and suddenly the whole flock swoops low over the lane with the strong, soft swoosh and flutter of a thousand wings.I can even feel the movement of the air current they create as they pass over me. There is something that feels so lovely about that. It's like a sort of avian blessing.

Yet an hour later, when I am home again and I see half a dozen of them dominating the bird feeders, squabbling and driving all the smaller birds away, I find myself muttering crossly at them and wishing they would go back where they came from, like some anti-immigration fanatic.

Life is so full of contradictions, sometimes, isn't it?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Champagne Day

The new networking site is up and running and I just sent out the first batch of invitations. I wonder who will get there first?

I feel as nervous as though I were throwing a party. But the good thing about this party is that I can sit here in comfort, in my old sweatpants and ny favourite slippers.
And there won't be any dishes to wash afterwards, either.
What's not to love about that?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ready, set ... LAUNCH!

Wow, things are really moving fast. I have had a terrific response to my suggestion about a social networking site for elderwomen. Some of you have responded here in the comments - thank you very much for that. And some have emailed, either directly or via the Discussion Group.

Almost everyone seems enthusiastic and there is a high level of consensus about what form the site should take. It should be private, by invitation only. And for women only. Those were my preferences too, but I wanted to see what others thought, first. So I am glad we agree.

Encouraged by your response, I have spent most of this weekend setting up the site. I am calling it 'elderwomanspace'. This is what it looks like (at the moment, anyway, though we can always change the design if someone else comes up with a better one):

And some time in the next twenty-four hours I am going to send out invitations to the first twenty potential members. These are the 'first responders', the people who answered my questions so promptly and expressed their enthusiasm for the project.

You twenty are the foundation members of elderwomanspace. Together, we will set the tone for the site and make it something that elderwomen everywhere will want to be part of.

I have never set up a site like this before, so it is a big learning curve for me. What I am hoping is that as you sign up, explore the site and start adding content of your own, you will give me feedback about what is missing, what needs changing, what works and what doesn't. This way, we will shape the thing together. I see this as very much a co-operative venture.

Over the coming days and weeks, I will send out several hundred more invitations. And I hope that you, too, will invite everyone else you know who may be interested.

To set the site up, I am using what is known as a 'white label' company. In other words, I am building the site on a platform developed by somebody else - a company called Ning - and offered to us free, on their servers. ('Ning' by the way, means 'peace' in Chinese. I like that.)

Like Yahoo and Google and Facebook and all those other companies who offer free services, Ning makes its money by allowing advertising on members' pages. I'm pleased to say, though, that the ads on our site take up just one small section on the right hand side and are fairly unobtrusive.

I anticipate that once we get going, we'll probably find ourselves attracting ads for some of the age-denying things we all dislike so much. But once we have a few hundred members we can ask everyone to chip in a dollar (or 50p), and that way we'll have enough to buy the ad-free, premium service for at least a year.

If anyone else who is reading this would like an invitation to sign up for elderwomanspace, please go to this page on my website for details of how to get one.

I am feeling very excited about this new venture.

(PS: Jill and Mary - please see note on previous post)

Friday, November 16, 2007

A New Venture

This morning, I announced to the members of my online Elderwoman Discussion Group that I am just about to create a social networking site – one that elderwomen might find more appropriate to join than, say, Facebook. I want it to be a site that encourages deeper, more thoughtful interaction than any of the existing social networking sites seem to do.

I asked members of the group to comment on this and help me decide exactly how the network is going to be run. For instance, will it be an 'invitation-only' group, where members invite other potential members, or will it be open to anyone who sees it and wants to join? Will it be just for women, like our Discussion Group is, or should we open it to 'eldermen' as well?

If there are any readers of my blog who are interested in a network like this and would like to add some ideas on how it should be shaped, I would love to hear from them.

You can either leave a comment here or email me at marian(at) (and please put the letters OKEM in the subject line of your email to ensure that your message gets safely through my spam filters).

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Musings on Firewood, and Other Earthy Things

A Woman Gathering Faggots
at Ville-d'Avray, ca. 1871–74
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
(French, 1796–1875)
Mr. and Mrs. Isaac D. Fletcher
Collection, Bequest of Isaac
D. Fletcher,
1917 (17.120.225) Metropolitan Museum of Art

I've spent several hours this morning doing something that I find marvellously satisfying, and that is gathering firewood and breaking it all up into the right sized pieces for our ancient kitchen range.

I suppose some people would think that is utterly mad. In this push-button age of oil-fired central heating, why would anyone want to go wandering around collecting sticks in order to keep warm in the winter? Don't we pity those poor souls from earlier centuries who had to chop wood and carry water, wash their laundry by hand, grow their own vegetables, sew their own clothes …? Well actually, no. (Except for the clothes, that is. I never did enjoy sewing). When I have to spend any length of time cocooned in indoor spaces and surrounded by labour-saving devices like dishwashers and microwave ovens, I start to feel marooned, alienated, separated from the real world.

I love the physicality of firewood. The satisfying snap as you break a dry stick in your hands or against your knee or under the heel of your boot. Now that we live in a small cottage, all I have to do with those broken pieces is to pile them in a basket. But years ago, when I had to carry the pieces some distance, I used to enjoy making them into sturdy bundles. 'Faggots', as in the title of this Corot painting. What a lovely, old-fashioned word that is. It makes me feel connected with all the other people, all down through history, who have brought their firewood home this way.

I love the physicality of gardening, too, and the deep feeling of connection that comes from plunging my hands into the soil. As I pull weeds or plant seedlings, I see the robin nearby, head to one side, waiting and watching with a black and beady eye in the hope that I shall turn up a juicy earthworm, and suddenly we are companions in the task, each with our own reason for being there. I feel the breeze on my face and in my hair, and in the air I smell the season – right now, the moist, mushroomy aroma of autumn. In moments like that, despite all the problems in the world, everything feels OK.

My back aches a lot these days. Seventy years of walking upright and sitting in badly-designed chairs and all those decades of overriding the deeper needs of my body in order to earn a living have all taken their toll on my spine. And physical tasks – particularly gardening – all bring with them, these days, the possibility that some thorn, some jagged edge, some projecting object will pierce this unbelievably thin skin of mine. The merest bump, like brushing too hard against the corner of a table, will tear the skin on my arm as though it were tissue paper. I stare in amazement at the oozing blood and say "Gosh, all I did was …" Now I understand why elderly patients in hospitals are so prone to bedsores. Our skin has lost its robustness.

Yet paradoxically, as my energy ever-so-slowly declines and my body gradually becomes more subject to aches and bruises, my delight in the physicality of living close to the earth seems to increase. I can't do the hugely physical things I did years ago, like building a house and backpacking around the world. But the small, physical tasks I do outdoors, like pegging out a line of laundry in the garden, spreading compost, planting seeds, collecting kindling for the fire, bring a measure of delight to my days that I would sorely miss.