Thursday, December 20, 2007

In the Deep Midwinter ...

Despite the cold wind roaring in from the north-east and freezing my face till my cheeks ache, and despite the clatter of a JCB just down the lane, digging trenches to fill with stones and drain a waterlogged field, there is a deep quietness about this time of year.

As I walk through the woods and between the hedgerows I can feel it. The restful silence of midwinter.

Tomorrow is the Solstice. The turning. Here, in the northern hemisphere, it is the sweet, imperceptible turning back towards the light. But for now – and for more weeks to come – everything feels quiet. Waiting. Hibernating.

Of course I know everything is gently ticking over. My blood still circulates and I am breathing. I know that deep in the soil the bulbs are moving. In another month or so the first snowdrops will emerge. Squirrels are still coming out, late morning, to scamper around in search of this or that, children still need to play and the birds, as always, are doing their thing. I did my 'timed tetrad visit' a few days ago, counting species around here for the new Bird Atlas. Yet despite all that, it still feels like Nature's quietest time of year.

As above, so below. Or rather, as outside, so inside. It is my quietest time of year, too. A hermit at the best of times, at midwinter I feel myself turn inwards even further, in towards myself, towards our life here in the cottage, towards contemplation, meditation, reading novels in the cosy warmth of the woodstove, playing on my computer.

I like the idea of a ritual to mark the promise of the returning light. So we shall have our private celebration, our small, midwinter feast in honour of the Solstice. But we long ago let go of that whole Christmas stress-out that so many people seem to get caught up in. Dashing round the shopping malls buying stuff? Forget it! It is entirely the wrong time of year for frenetic activity.

But the same mindless, ugly consumer culture that has turned Christmas into a shopping spree and a simple Christmas tree into a lawn full of hideous, plastic crap is the one that has driven a wedge between humans and Nature. If we were really listening, really tuned in to the energies around us we would not be hurtling around Wal-Mart. We would all of us, here in the north, be sitting quietly by the fireside by ourselves or with our loved ones, breathing gently like the quiet hedgerows, like the bare trees, like the silent, resting land around us, waiting for the light.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Any Thought in a Storm

When I set out for my daily walk this morning it was 9:00 a.m. but the sky was so dull and dark and heavy that it felt as though night had not yet fully retreated. It was raining and a strong wind was blowing. The hedgerows were sodden and there were parallel streams of water running down the margins of the lane, heading for the already swollen river at the bottom of the combe. I set off downhill, head bent, huddling into my wet weather gear, ears tuned, just in case a car or tractor should come down behind me, the sound of its engine drowned out by the roar of wind and water.

I paused on the bridge to contemplate the river, rushing and roiling, churned to the colour of of our local clay, and thought ruefully that I should have done my quarterly otter survey before the rains began. There will be little to record now, for any prints or spraint will have been washed away in the torrent.

I climbed the hill on the other side of the combe. Once at the top, out of the shelter of the trees, I met the full force of the westerly wind, as it drove the rain into slanting sheets – the kind that penetrate the gaps around cuffs and collars, sending trickles of cold water through the layers of clothing, like clever spies on a mission to discover skin.

My walking boots are sturdy, and although they leak a little I wear thick wool socks inside. So it was more than half an hour before I noticed the squelching. From then on, however, it felt as though my feet were encased in sphagnum moss.

There was something else I noticed, too, at around the half-hour mark. Which was that I was still there. I mean THERE there. There with the wind, there with the rain, there with my squelchy socks. There with the bare, stunted wind-sheared trees that grow in the exposed places, there with the damp sheep in the field, munching on wet grass, their tiny stick-like feet sunk several inches into the sodden ground. There with the few crows and seagulls still attempting to get somewhere but forced into detours by the insistent wind. There with the tiny, pink faces of the last half dozen campions, stragglers of summer, still blooming in their sheltered microclimate at the base of the hedge, their petals bruised and drooping.

Usually, by that time, I am just coming to the realization that I have walked for thirty minutes without seeing anything except the pictures in my mind. Usually, half an hour into my walk, I am reproaching myself for being 'out of my body' and off on a journey to one of the four places to which, like everyone else, I go whenever I leave the Now: i.e. the past, the imagined future, the 'me-world' of my troubles and schemes or my conceptual 'you-world' of all that is not me.*

Most days, the half hour point is where I realise that I have gone missing, so to speak, and remind myself that as well as good exercise, my morning walk is also, potentially, a meditation. But it can only be that if I stay present.

This morning, in the twenty miles an hour westerly wind that gusted to nearer thirty on the corners, in the drenching rain, with cold water trickling down my neck, I didn't go off anywhere. I stayed. And in the staying, I became aware, once again, of what Martin Buber called the 'I-Thou' relationship. Nature is not something to use. It is not wallpaper. It is not an 'It'. It is a 'Thou'. When I touch a tree, the tree also touches me. When I see a bird, the bird sees me also. As Thomas Berry says, "The world is not a collection of objects. It is a communion of subjects." Oh amen, amen, amen.

Why, this morning, did I find it so much easier to stay present to the here and now? Do we need 'bad weather' – floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, drought, global warming – to wake us out of our collective, sleepwalking state and propel us into a better, more mindful way of being in the world? Hmmm. Perhaps we do.

(*as described by Richard Moss
in his latest book,
The Mandala of Being)

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.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Don't Do Something. Just Sit There.

Here I go again. Still trying to resolve the 'doing/being' issue. "What have you stopped doing in your old age?" was the question Ronni Bennett asked readers earlier this month on her popular blog 'Time Goes By: what it's really like to get old'. And that's what started me off again on this train of thought. What have I stopped doing? And what can't I stop doing?

"What have you stopped doing?" was a popular question. Men wrote in to say that they had given up shaving and wearing ties. Women exulted over the freedom they had discovered in ceasing to torture their bodies with pantyhose and high heels. They no longer bothered with make-up or with shaving their legs and they now felt delightfully able to abandon a book they didn't like instead of reading doggedly to the end. Many reported an increased casualness about housework.

I didn't wait for 'old age' to give up most of those things. I haven't worn high heels, pantyhose – or a bra – in thirty years or more and it is at least twenty years since I gave up make-up, leg-shaving and book-finishing. We haven't had a television since 1985 and giving up that colossal time-waster was no problem at all. There's no way I'd ever have another. I long since relinquished my driver's licence, not because I'm old but because I hate driving (and we don't have a car now anyway). Housework has never been something I indulged in much, beyond the basics of hygiene.

So what, I asked myself, have I given up in my old age? And what remains a challenge? As if I didn't know! Achieving, of course.

In old age, all types of conformism seem easier to give up. But the deeper you go, the harder the layers are to peel off. Things that were programmed into us at a very early age can be difficult to shift. So whilst the things we took on in early adulthood, like shaving our body hair and wearing high heels, can be shed easily and with relief, the older programming needs more effort to release.

At 71, what I am challenged to give up now is my need to accomplish things. I've been going on about this a lot lately, I know. But it keeps coming up. It's such a tough one for the ego. "What have you achieved today? This week? This year?" I ask myself. When the answer comes back "Nothing much," I feel guilty. As though I am taking up space in an (unsustainably overcrowded) world and not doing anything to justify it.

When I was young, the goals and achievements used to be personal ones – a university degree, a better job, more money, a husband, a family, a house, another university degree, a book published – but in later years, the emphasis shifted. Now it's "What have you done today to help reduce global warming/cut carbon/lower your ecological footprint… etc?" But the pattern remains the same.

So that's the big challenge. I keep reminding myself – and others keep reminding me – that even if, at the end of the day or the week or the year my ego has nothing to carve notches about, it is still OK to be here. But how do I settle into that feeling? How do I sit quietly in that chair, not do anything to help the planet yet still feel good about my day? Any helpful hints would be warmly welcomed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Aquatic Ape

I live two and a half miles away from one of the most rugged stretches of coastline in south-western England. Many a ship foundered on these jagged rocks in centuries gone by, and even now the lifeboat crews remain always at the ready. This picture gives an idea of how it looks at low tide.

To swim from our local beaches, you have to know the weather and the tides and where the sandy bits are likely to be (they shift, from season to season), and watch out for the rocks and the rips.

Although there are several sandy beaches further down the coast, the ones round here are made of pebbles – beautiful, grey pebbles with white markings, from pea-size to boulder-size and everything in between. So you move slowly, stepping carefully from one smooth pebble to the next and being careful not to turn an ankle on the wobbly ones.

It is not a comfortable world, this one; not the sort of place where you can stretch out in the sun or play frisbee or volleyball. But it is awesomely beautiful, and I love it.

I love, too, that I can walk from my home to the edge of the cliffs in forty-five minutes and that sometimes, when the wind blows from the west and the night is still, I can hear the sound of the waves in the distance and smell the sea.

Why is it, I wonder, that for some of us there is a deep need to be close to the ocean? Whenever I go too far inland to be able to walk to the water's edge, I start to feel claustrophobic. I remember how one year, when we lived in California, we drove north up the coast and then turned and began a journey that would take us all the way to the East coast. And as I took my last look at the Pacific Ocean I felt something akin to panic. A certain tension arose in my body that did not dissipate until at last I was able to run across the beach at Plum Island, in Massachusetts, and step into the frothing, salt water of the Atlantic.

The best explanation I can think of for my need to be close to the shore is what is known as ' the aquatic ape theory'. ( See which postulates that five million or so years ago, our ancestors lived in the shallows.

Maybe somewhere, deep down in my cellular memory, the aquatic ape is still alive and well. I like to think so, anyway.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On NOT Packing the Pea

As I pack for yet another journey – this time from one end of the country to the other for the GreenSpirit Annual Gathering – I fine myself once again struggling with the twin impulses to:

(a) take with me everything that I could possibly need over thee next few days, 'just in case', and–

(b) travel light and feel wonderfully free and unencumbered.

Before every trip, those two impulses wage war back and forth across the battlefield of my psyche for hours (sometimes days) on end. The result? I usually finish up somewhere in the middle; regretting the absence of something I really wish I had brought and yet feeling somewhat disappointed and overburdened by luggage that is heavier than I would like it to be. A very unsatisfying situation all round.

On our latest trip, since we were heading towards a warmer and sunnier place, I left my slippers at home. But the first couple of days the weather was slightly cooler than I expected and I ended up shuffling around on a cold, tiled floor in my socks and feeling grumpy about it because I hate the feeling of walking in socks. A couple of years ago, packing for a conference in one of those large and ancient English 'stately homes' that are almost always cold and draughty, I packed my sheepskin boots, only to find the central heating turned up so high that my feet got unbearably hot and I had to take the boots off and walk around barefoot.

As what's known in pop psychology as an 'HSP' (a 'highly sensitive person'), I find it enormously difficult to tune out any personal discomfort such as scratchy labels, tight clothing, restricting shoes or being too hot or too cold and not being able to fix it. Being physically uncomfortable in my clothes seems to addle my brain, somehow. Even if I wear jeans and trainers to go out, the instant I get home I change into sweatpants and slippers so that I can relax, breathe freely and think.

All HSPs know this feeling. Everything has to feel just right or we cannot function properly. Other people might think we are fussy or mad, but we who know the reality of living in a body that reacts to every tiny stimulus as though it were a thunderclap also know that we simply cannot help being the way we are. We are born like that. It is, as Elaine Aaron and others have pointed out, simply another version of normal (15-20% of the population are HSPs). And we owe it to ourselves to honour that aspect of ourselves and arrange our lives accordingly.

So when I pack to go somewhere else, whether it is for a few days or a few weeks, I have to make sure I get the balance right. The obvious answer, of course, is to plan for all eventualities. But then I finish up taking more than is necessary and having to cope with the discomfort of dragging a heavy bag around and feeling not only overloaded but disappointed in myself for not achieving my ideal of travelling light.

Arrgghhhhh !!!

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Cup of (Tribal) Comfort

Since our ancestors lived in tribes for millions of years, the feeling of belonging to a defined group of people – an 'us' that sets us apart from the undifferentiated hordes of 'them' – is almost certainly hard-wired into our psyches.

These days, most of us don't live within our tribes any more. Yet the feeling of identification, the sense of belonging to a discrete group of fellow humans set apart from all the rest is still a basic need. When we don't have our tribe, we long for it. So we search for it. We may search for it in our local communities, but more often these days we search for it in sub-cultures. No matter how unusual or bizarre our preferences and preoccupations, through the global interconnectedness of modern life it is possible to link up with other people who see the world through the same sort of lenses as we do. And when we find those individuals or those groups, there is an 'Aha' moment, followed by a long, sighing 'Aaahh' of pleasure. Something in us has come home to itself. 'There are people out there just like me'. We no longer live within our tribes; nowadays, our tribes live within us.

So rich are the possibilities that modern communications like the Internet have given us that, unlike our ancestors, many of us nowadays feel part of several tribes at once. When I think about my own life, I am aware of being part of at least four major tribes apart from my biological family and my professional colleagues. One, I became part of not simply by passing through menopause but in writing two books about aging and, through those, linking with various branches of the world-wide tribe of 'conscious' elders who are reclaiming elderhood for our times.

Another, I am part of by virtue of my love of our precious, lovely Earth and the Earth-based spirituality of Thomas Berry, Matthew Fox and dozens of other, inspirational writers. That is my tribe of 'green' people. It, in turn, has natural and obvious links with another of my tribes – the folks who live, as my partner and I try to do, lives of voluntary simplicity in which we take as little as we can of the planet's resources and give back as much as we are able, in service, in compost, in love and in writing.

It is writing that unites me with the fourth of my major tribes: the tribe of writers. We are everywhere, we are legion and we really, really need each other. For there are some things – a lot of things, in fact – that writers feel and experience and talk about that no-one but another writer could possibly understand. Writing is, for most of us, a solitary pursuit. Yet without the knowledge that there are others just like us, sitting at our computers, dealing with precisely the same sorts of struggles and doubts, pleasures, pains and questions, we would probably not be able to sit there very long.

It is for this reason that writers band together in writers' groups and encourage others to do likewise. And it is for this reason that writers love websites, discussion groups, magazines and books that explore this special, tribal world that writerly folk inhabit.

What I am (slowly) leading up to telling you is that a wonderful anthology by and for writers was published a few days ago and I just received my copy yesterday. It is called A Cup of Comfort for Writers.

I am telling you this, not because it has an essay by me in it, although I am very happy to say that it does (my essay called 'The Baptism' is on page 236). I am telling you because I have been reading some of the other essays in the collection and I know that if, by any chance, you are a writer, they will speak to you, just as they are speaking to me. They may well give you an 'Aha', followed by a nice, long 'Aaahh'.

And if 'writer' is not one of the labels you wear, I encourage you to find – and rejoice in and talk about and blog about – the tribes of which you are a part and which, in turn, are part of you.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Blast of Cold Air

Washington DC. July. Temperature nudging ninety degrees in the shade. My father-in-law invited us out for a meal. Lovely, Italian restaurant, with attentive staff, a good wine list and food to die for.

There were some tables outside, but the place was on a busy, noisy, downtown street so we opted for the peace and quiet and starched, white tablecloths of the interior. Which was fine. Except that in the summer skirt, short-sleeved cotton blouse and sandals I had been wearing on my walk around town, I now froze. We all froze. It was like the inside of an ice chest. I had not thought to carry a sweater. Well why would I, in midsummer with an ambient temperature of eighty-nine and high humidity?

The dessert menu included one of my top favourites – coconut sorbet – and I ordered some, since I rarely get the chance to taste that delicious concoction these days. But my teeth were chattering as I ate it and my fingers were numb. It was the strangest sensation, eating that yummy stuff and shivering with cold; a mixture of pain and pleasure.

It was a relief to get out on to the hot street again.

Next day, needing to go to Boston and being the greenies that we are, we took an eight hour journey on Amtrak, instead of flying. Lovely, comfortable carriages, a wide, clean window and interesting landscapes to gaze at along the way. But once again, air-conditioning so cold that we had scarcely left Union Station before we had to haul down our suitcases and find sweaters. My partner, who had been wearing shorts, had to go into the toilet and change into long pants. The people around us were complaining too. Someone put on a woolly hat. One woman was forced to wear her raincoat, as it was the only other garment she had with her.

We complained to the conductor, who shook her head and told us there was no way of controlling the temperature. The air-conditioning, she said, had just two states – 'on' and 'off'.

Well, my preference would certainly have been for 'off', if only there had been windows that opened to let in the breeze, as there used to be in the old days. Not any more. We had no choice but to suffer.

The conductor came back a while later to tell us that the very last coach was warmer than all the rest and there were not many people in it. Would we care to move? We investigated and found that she was right. It was a much older coach and more decrepit and the seats were nowhere near as comfortable, but at least it did not feel like the North Pole, so we dragged ourselves and our luggage all the way to the back of the train. We noticed that when our friend the conductor had finished her rounds she chose to sit in that coach too, and read her magazine until we got to Penn Station in New York, where she went off duty. We thanked her again as she left.

Three days later, we took a bus from Boston up to Bar Harbor, with a stopover in Portland. The same story, all the way. Hot weather, icy buses, and the Greyhound station in Portland so cold that we chose to stand for half an hour out on the forecourt amongst the traffic fumes rather than to freeze our butts off inside.

We both came down with colds soon after that and I am sure it was because of these experiences. Getting chilled is known to lower the immune response. It is lucky we didn't catch pneumonia.

So why do things have to be this way?

Is there some engineer out there who can explain to me why the thermostats on heating systems are so effective that you can choose the exact temperature you wish to live at and yet Amtrak's air-conditioning systems are either on or off?

Why does a restaurant, a bus or a bus station need to be so cold that everyone has to pile on winter clothes in mid-July?

Or is it that some people actually like freezing to death in the height of summer? Do they enjoy doing this mad dance between the extremes of heat and cold? Do they get some kinky thrill from having the sweat beads on their bodies suddenly turn into icicles? The whole thing strikes me as totally crazy. Not to mention environmentally wasteful and utterly unnecessary.

I guess it is just as well I live in England where we wear our sweaters for nine months of the year anyway and nobody needs air-conditioning anywhere. I always thought it would be nice to live in a somewhat warmer climate, as I like hotter summers than we have here, but if that involves freezing to death the minute one goes indoors, then forget it!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Journeys with Giants - a reminiscence

Journeys with Giants, England, 1946

Once there were giants, giants of iron,
giants that travelled on seven-league wheels.
Fire-bellied giants, roaming the countryside,
filling the air with their belches and squeals.
Giant can take me. Giant can tempt me.
Lean out the window as far as I dare.
Wind in my face. I'm in disgrace.
"Marian, DON'T! You'll get smuts in your hair!"

Over the stream, over the fields,
glimpse of a manor house, cottages, pubs.
Slow down and stop. Suddenly quiet.
Station with shrubs and bright flowers in tubs.
Bang of a door. Make room for more.
Song of a skylark and fragrance of hay.
Giant's slow huff. Starting is tough.
Huffs gather speed and we're back on our way.

Field becomes lawn, house becomes factory,
lark becomes pigeon, that becomes this.
End of the line. Into the terminus.
Pull to a stop with a hissssssss..... Then a kiss.
Aunt Jane from Chiswick, lives on her own.
Sensible shoes, and her hair in a bun.
"Welcome to town.. my how you've grown..
...we'll have ice cream when the shopping's all done"

Into a world that's made to fit giants.
Slow-moving forest of trousers and skirts.
Down escalators, up escalators.
Mummy is holding so tight that it hurts.
Man with balloons playing the spoons;
blur of red buses and people and shops.
Roaring traffic. Whistling cops.
A huge, restless city where sound never stops.

Corner House lunch, down in the Brasserie,
strawberry ice cream with wafer so thin.
Then the Museum of Natural History.
But I'm too tired to take it all in.
Back with a giant, giant of iron,
rumbling home under darkening skies.
Such a long day. Such a long way.
There's lead in my eyelids and grit in my eyes.

Fields are dark. Gone is the lark.
Stations are dim-lit, mysterious places.
World become small, nothing at all
in the window except our own, town-weary faces.
Take off my shoes, lean towards Mummy.
She snuggles me round and I curl up my feet.
Falling asleep to that comforting sound,
the ticketty-boom of the giant's heartbeat.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Hare's Dilemma

It is now more than twenty years since I gave up working in a full-time, nine-to-five job and twelve years since I left the workforce altogether. Yet all those years in the workplace – not to mention the twelve years of school, the five years of college and all those years of round-the-clock parenting – have programmed me in ways that make it really difficult for me to replace 'doing' with simply 'being'.

I have noticed that a busy day with many tasks accomplished leaves me highly satisfied whereas I tend to feel vaguely disappointed if I get to the end of a day and cannot point to anything significant that I have done since I got out of bed. (Who is assigning significance? Me of course!)

Sometimes I think I am getting the hang of this 'being' thing. Then a deadline approaches. Like, for example, the departure date for a journey. Soon, I find myself compiling the inevitable 'things-I-must-do-before-we-leave' list. Redirect the mail. Weed the garden. Buy a new suitcase. Get my e-mail up to date. Clean my shoes. Re-charge the camera batteries …

It's not the list that is the problem. Nor even the utter glee with which I cross things off it. The problem is the feeling of vague dissatisfaction I get when a day goes by with nothing crossed off and nothing to show for having lived another twenty-four hours.

As long as I can remember, I have had days of pottering interspersed with days of prodigious output. I am like the hare in the hare and tortoise story who alternated between napping and sprinting. I can totally relate to the hare.

But of course he lost the race. The plodding tortoise is the hero of the story. Our industrial culture rewards the person who works at a steady pace, just like a machine, and has a full 'out' basket at the end of each day. That is what many of us learn to expect of ourselves, regardless of how well that pattern actually suits who we are.

Such an expectation, fully internalised by the time we reach adulthood and reinforced in the workplace, makes it difficult ever to recapture the pure, joyful present-centredness of early childhood. Instead, we become addicted to Getting Things Done and for many of us the addiction persists into the years of so-called 'retirement'. (Even into really old age. I have a 91-year-old relative who frequently chides herself for being 'lazy' and 'not doing anything').

Not that retirement means we should forego the pleasure of doing what we enjoy or of doing a whole lot of things we never had time for before. Being busy is fine. But we should never feel driven. Never, ever, ever.

I often write about the importance – and the pleasure – of living in the Now and substituting 'being' for 'doing'. But do I practise what I preach?

Well yes I do, sometimes. On my daily walks in the countryside, or on vacation, or just strolling around my garden simply observing and breathing instead of weeding or planting, I am often able to do what Richard Carlson calls 'slowing down to the speed of life'. It feels really good.

But the rest of the time? Hmm … not so much.

And by the way, have you noticed that even this post is couched in terms of achievement? I am trying to achieve a state of not being preoccupied with achievement. Arrgghh!! That's enough to drive even a Zen master to drink.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Of this place ...

The foxgloves are everywhere in the hedgerows now and the sweet scent of honeysuckle is in the air. I love June in the English countryside. Well as a matter of fact I love the other eleven months of the year in the English countryside also. But it is in the Spring and early summer that the scenery here is at its most beautiful. Especially down here in Devon where we have, as most people would agree, some of the most beautiful areas of countryside in all of Britain.

I cannot claim to be 'of' this village, since we have lived here only a little over eight years. But I certainly can claim to be 'of' Devon, since it is where I come from and my ancestors have lived in one part of of this county or another for the last however-many hundreds of years.

As a child, I assumed that all countryside, everywhere, was like this – green and lush, with woods and fields, moors and streams, pretty villages with thatched houses and hedgerows thick with wildflowers.

It is not, of course. As I found out when I was older. There are lots of beautiful places, but to me the Westcountry is extra special. So every time I leave, coming back is a homecoming for my heart.

Like salmon, who swim back up the river at spawning time to find that one, particular patch of pebbles that is special to them, many people have a tendency to form a special bond with a place. Not just a place they like or admire, but whatever place it is that they feel 'of'. For many – perhaps most – that is the place of their birth or their childhood. For others, it is a place they have found which for some unknown reason feels more like home than home ever was.

It may not be anything as specific as a village or a town or even a county or state. It may not even be a country – though it often is. But it is a certain feeling. The smell of the air, a certain sort of vegetation, the shape of the terrrain. The atmosphere. My partner, though he has the adaptability to live contentedly anywhere – and nowadays lives a full and contented life in England – has a special affinity with the Southwest of the USA. It doesn't matter much whether he is in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah or wherever. The place where he feels the most alive is the place of deserts and mountains, red rocks, dry air, the scent of sagebrush and piƱon pine, the big sky, the feeling … the indefinable something that he cannot even name. He is not 'of' the Southwest (he was born and raised in Indiana) and yet, somehow, he is. Maybe in a past life he was a cliff-dweller. That certainly feels right.

I love that area too. I also love the redwood forests of California, the chaparral, the misty, rocky coast of Maine, the mountains and olive groves of Italy, the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean, the whitewashed villages of the Spanish Alpujarra and the unspoiled southern coast of Crete. All these places are special to me. I love to go there, to drink them in, to revel in their beauty and enjoy their sights and sounds and smells and the taste of the local food.

But here, where the foxgloves bloom in early summer and honeysuckle twines in the hedgrows, where little streams run through small, wooded valleys to the pebbly shore of the ocean and a day of full sunshine is like a special blessing … this little piece of the funny, patchwork island called England is not only where I am 'from', it is also where I am 'of'.

If I didn't live here (and for many, many years I didn't) I would have to come here from time to time to take a sip from it. Just as the Italians, wherever they are in the world, feel the need to return to Italy once in a while per rinfrescare lo spirito – 'to refresh the spirit' – so do we all need to do that if we possibly can. Some can't, of course. And even though they accept their lot, somewhere deep inside, they pine for the place they are 'of'.

I would, too, I know. So today I give thanks for being alive, here, now, with the foxgloves blooming and the scent of honeysuckle in the air.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Comings and Goings

I don't know much about astrology but since I have so many friends who do I'm never short of someone to explain me to myself in terms of the stars. Right now, still jet-lagged from a trip that whisked me from England to California to New England and back to Old England again, I am reflecting – for the hundredth time – that travel can be especially tough on us Cancerian types who are loth to leave our sheltering shells.

First, there's the preparatory grief about leaving home. This time, I had to depart just as the bluebells down in the woods were reaching a state of perfection, the hawthorn tree outside our bathroom window was bursting into leaf and the dawn chorus each morning was a crescendo of delight. It's a particularly tough time of year to have to go away, especially when one is a keen gardener. But when family members set their wedding dates they don't usually consider the annual bluebell cycle or the needs of seeds. So this time, I had no choice.

The pain of leaving, when blended with the excitement about the forthcoming trip and reunion with distant loved ones, always creates such a weird state of mind that checklists are for me an essential guide to staying sane and focused in the week before departure. Thanks to my lists, I usually make it out of the door with everything I need and all the necessary switches and taps turned off. Even so, I worry for several hours that I have forgotten something important that will cause the house to burn down as soon as I am out of sight (despite the fact that it has been sitting there intact since 1733).

Then there's the travel itself, with all the physical and mental disruption it causes. I really don't think it is good for the human body to be hurtled around the stratosphere in a pressurised, steel capsule at six hundred miles an hour, strapped into a narrow seat, breathing stale, endlessly recirculated air, and eating weird substances out of little plastic containers. Neither is it easy to find oneself disgorged at the other end into a completely different time zone. The reward, of course, is the ecstatic hugs of reunion that wait just beyond the customs hall. I'd suffer anything to get those.

Despite the delight of being there, homesickness still grips me the very first night away from home, just as it did when I was a child on a longed-for visit to grandparents. Like many other animals, I sleep best in my own, familiar den, where the walls hold me safe, the night-time creaks have known origins and the sheets smell right. During my youth, I learned to suppress the homesickness but now I am in my seventies it seems to have become worse again, for some reason.

I adjust, of course. And within three or four days, I feel perfectly fine and normal. But then, all too soon, the trip is over and we have reached the most horrid part of all – the tearful, agonising goodbyes. "I just can't keep doing this", I said to myself this time, between sobs, while tying my shoelaces back up again on the other side of Security. But I can, of course. And I shall. For as long as I am physically able. It is what goes with having a geographically distributed family. My daughter and I like to think of each painful parting as a beginning – our 'payment' for the next batch of happy reunion hugs.

Now I am back home, waking late, dealing with a mountain of mail, a garden-turned- jungle and all the problems of re-adjustment. Nothing feels normal again yet. But in a few days, it will. It always does.

The view from the bathroom window is like a snow scene now, for the hawthorn tree is flowering. So are the wisteria and the campions, the hedge parsley and the wild garlic. While I was away, the swallows returned. I wonder if they find their annual comings and goings easier than I do. They probably do. Since most of them hatch in May, they are not Cancerians. That must surely help.

And speaking of help, I have some in the form of Bach flower remedies. There is honeysuckle for the homesickness, walnut for coping with change and mimulus for fear of all the things I am afraid of, like flying. I also take melatonin tablets for a few days at each end and try to get as much sunshine as I can, both of which help to re-set the body clocks.

There's to be another family wedding in July. Two overseas trips in one year is bad news, environmentally, and I feel guilty about that. But I am going, anyway, and will try somehow to balance the carbon debt in other ways. So I've just started on a new checklist. And I have already paid for the arrival hugs. They cost me a lot but they will be worth it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

People Power

One of the members of my Elderwoman Discussion Group reminded us all, this morning, about a wonderful organization called Kiva.

It is a way in which ordinary people in the so- called 'first world' can help ordinary people in the 'third world' to get themselves out of poverty by means of 'micro-loans'. A man or woman in, say, Africa, wants to start a very small business, selling vegetables for example, or keeping chickens or weaving cloth. But he or she has no money for the first lot of seeds or the chickens or the loom or the yarn. All that is needed is a tiny loan, just to get the project going. That's where we come in.

The Grameen Bank, in Bangla Desh, pioneered these 'micro-loans' as they are called, by lending small sums to women. It worked really well and was so successful that the Bank and its Director, Prof. Muhammad Yunus, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

Kiva provides a way in which we can all do this same thing and help thousands of people move out of the trap of poverty.

How much better this is than the World Bank and other monster organizations that repress and enslave the very people they are supposed to be helping!

It makes me realize, yet again, that this is how we need to heal and rebuild our world. People thinking globally and acting locally. Ordinary people reaching out to other ordinary people across the dividing lines of language, politics and power. Working together. Building local structures. Re-empowering ourselves and revitalizing our own neighbourhoods. Let's face it, Government and Big Business will never do it for us. Politicians are focused only on staying in power and Big Business has its eye only on the money.

If we want to clean up the mess that our planet has gotten into, and survive the perils of climate change and the bottoming-out of the oil supply on which our system currently depends, we have to roll our sleeves up and do it ourselves, tiny piece by tiny piece. Shopping locally, simplifying our lives, opting out of the consumer ratrace, riding a bicycle, growing our own food, farmers' markets, veg. box schemes, CSAs (community-supported agriculture), learning to make do and mend, sew and darn and patch, cook from scratch -- there are a million ways in which we can, each one of us, take charge of the situation instead of waiting for politicians or technology to rescue us. And a million ways in which we can help each other along the way. Kiva is just one of them.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Children and Nature

As a child I roamed free in the woods and fields and ranged around for miles on my bicycle. My friends and I hid secret messages in hollow sticks, cut willow to make bows and arrows, climbed trees, and swam in the river unsupervised. Most people my age have similar memories. Even those who spent their whole childhood in the city remember playing outside, walking to school etc.

My own offspring, though they grew up in the suburbs, still made mudpies, climbed the huge tree at the end of our garden, played for hours outside, biked around the neighbourhood and walked unaccompanied to school, shops and municipal swimming pool.

Sadly, many youngsters in our modern, Western cultures now live indoor lives. Nature is something on TV. Grass stains, daisy chains, muddy knees and frogs in your pocket have been replaced by consoles, joysticks, mobile phones and virtual reality. Imagination has been hijacked by the Disney Corporation and most playthings come in plastic.

There also appears to be an 'epidemic' of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a condition little-known before the 1980s. An estimated six million children in the USA are now being given amphetamine-like drugs to control their unruly behaviour and unfocused attention.

Are these two phenomena – children's loss of contact with Nature and the alarming rise of ADHD – connected? Since human beings co-evolved for millions of years in deep, reciprocal relationship with the natural world, could it be that moving out of that relationship into artificially-created, urban environments has negative consequences for our wellbeing as a species and for the healthy development of our young?

This is not mere conjecture. Author Richard Louv has researched the connection very thoroughly and in his book Last Child in the Woods he presents sufficient evidence, both experimental and anecdotal, to suggest that by keeping our children indoors we are creating something he calls 'nature deficit disorder'. It is not a clinical diagnosis – not yet anyway. But it is a wonderfully apt name for the condition we our producing.

Why do we do it? Why do we keep our children inside when they should be out playing in the countryside, the park or even just in the backyard or the street?
Louv explores all the reasons. They range from the fear created by media focus on the (small and actually not increasing) number of children harmed by strangers or in accidents, to the officious attitudes of planners and local government officials for whom parks are neat and tidy places and to whom ten-year-old fort-builders appear a menace.

As a grandparent now, I am thrilled to see the delight my grandsons are taking in being outdoors, in the woods, in the park, even splashing in puddles. I've noticed they even spontaneously hug trees. (Must be genetic!!) And I'm thrilled that their parents give them plenty of opportunities to do all those things.

The latest edition of Orion Magazine has a splendid article by Richard Louv entitled "Leave No Child Inside". If you are as interested in this subject as I am, click here to read the article.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Unsung Heroes

Spring is coming in fast, where I live. The daffodils are nodding brightly, primroses are appearing everywhere and celandines too. The fist butterflies are venturing out. And I noticed several bumblebees yesterday. No honeybees yet. But they will be around soon.

Or will they?

I live in England. And so far, according to what I have heard from beekeeping friends, everything seems normal here as regards honeybees.

But across the pond, it is not normal at all any more. For millions upon millions of honeybees have suddenly disappeared, all over the USA. Vanished without trace.

Since bees are so crucial to the pollination of crops, especially fruit trees, a lot of people are very, very worried right now. Livelihoods are threatened.

And everybody is perplexed. Why is this happening? It is not that the bees are necessarily dying. Beekeepers opening their hives are not finding piles of dead bees. In fact they are not finding any dead bees at all. They are finding totally empty hives. The bees have simply vanished, leaving no sign, no clue, no note on the mantelpiece.

They are calling it Colony Collapse Disorder. But merely giving it a name gets us no nearer to understanding what is going on.

However it is rather strange that it is only happening in the USA, isn't it? Are the bees trying to tell us something?

Yesterday, I read a possible explanation for this phenomenon. A certain kind of electro-magnetic signal that has a disorienting effect could be preventing the bees from finding their way home. Hmmm. It sounds very plausible to me. See what you think. I'd like to bet, though, that there will be a chorus of denials from everyone with a vested interest in these transmission systems. Specially the military. You watch. They will say the so-called 'war on terror' (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is far more important than a few bees.

The trouble is, it is those millions of little, seemingly insignificant creatures like bees and ants and earthworms -- and the even smaller ones, like bacteria -- that keep everything going. It is on them that our whole wellbeing depends. They are the unsung heroes. Without them, we starve. Without them, we die. It's that simple.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Media Consumption Diet Meme

How do you live a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, many, many miles away from the city and yet feel totally connected to the rest of the world?

How do you keep a sense of what is happening in the world-at-large when your own interests and activities diverge widely from the mainstream of your own culture?

How do you keep tabs on world – and national – events yet not become swamped by despair at much of what you read? Buddhist teacher and activist Thich Nhat Hanh warns that we should avoid over-consumption of ‘bad news’ and stories of war, violence and environmental destruction because it tends to weaken and disempower us. We know the bad stuff is happening; no need to wallow in the details. Better to save our energy for working on the solutions than to keep reading more and more about the problems.

How do you stay au fait with mainstream culture when your favourite magazines etc. are all ‘alternative’ ones?

These are questions that are important to me. So when Ronni, at 'Time Goes By' suggested on Monday morning that we all follow her lead and talk about how we get our info, I thought it would be interesting to join in the discussion.

I really related to Ronni’s comment that she reads a lot of news because "It’s not just information about what goes on the world I’m after, but a sense of the zeitgeist, of what the culture concerns itself with." That’s important to me too. Not just because I am a writer but because I remain really interested in all of that stuff. And it is becoming increasingly important as I get older and less 'out there' in the world in a physical way.

The older one gets, the more longitudinal is one’s view. I find it fascinating to be able to look back as far as the 1940s and track all the various changes that have taken place in my own liefetime. Also, the more parlous our planetary situation becomes, and the closer we come to the edge of the cliff, the more I feel the need to tune in – usually in the hope that I’ll discern signs of positive change.

So what are our preferred ways of getting all this information? Here’s my own list:

Web:I have Google Alerts on topics that are of special interest to me, particularly aging and simple living. It is fascinating to see where these take me to each day – blogs I would never have discovered otherwise, articles I would never have read in newspapers and journals I’ve never even heard of.
For mainstream media, I subscribe to the headline service for the New York Times and The Independent (UK) and I also check the main news stories on the BBC and The Guardian each day.
For alternative media I subscribe to Alternet and Grist. (Plus Dahr Jamail’s 'Iraq Despatches' though I can’t always face reading them).
Then there’s a whole bunch of e-zines and newsletters that come via e-mail, particularly writing-related and environmental ones.

Music: I love to dwell amidst silence and birdsong so I only listen to music when I go to a concert. Or very occasionally – about once every couple of months – I play a CD. If I listen to music I do just that and only that. I like to sing and drum though, so most of the music I hear is DIY.

As for TV, we haven’t had TV in our house for over twenty years and don’t ever plan on getting one. I hate TV. It trivialises important things, sensationalises unimportant things and turns people into zombies. No, I don’t even want to watch the wildlife programs. I like to go out into the woods and fields each day and be with the wildlife here, now, in real time.

Communications:I read e-mail on my Web host’s mail server and only download whatever needs answering. I have a Gmail account too, but rarely use it. Have a landline phone but no mobile. Yes, cell phones are useful gadgets (and my beloved son-in-law owes his life to one) but I detest the thought that people can interrupt me wherever I am. (And I suspect the radiation is unhealthy).
I subscribe to a Swiss phone company that gives me the ability to make calls to the US from England at a mere half a penny per minute. Rather than being tied to my computer, as I would be with Skype, it means I can take the phone all over the house (important when one is sharing a small space with a partner who may be trying to work or read a book).

Movies:Since we live in the depths of the countryside and don’t have a car, I rarely see movies. And movie theatres are uncomfortable places for me nowadays because I’ve noticed that they turn the sound up much louder than they used to. But when I visit my daughter, she rents DVDs or videos of movies I have said I’d like to watch and we watch them together. (I could watch them on my computer, but I figure that I spend quite enough time sitting there already).

Magazines:I subscribe to The Ecologist, New Internationalist, Vegetarian Times, Writers News and Mslexia and all the myriad organizations I belong to have their own magazines also so there’s always a huge pile of magazines and journals next to my armchair.

Newspapers I never buy, and even the local freebie doesn’t get read. It goes straight into the compost. Printers’ ink makes my eyes itch.

Books:I get a lot of books to review and I also borrow books from the library so there’s always a ‘to-be-read’ pile. There’s also a ‘part-read’ pile. I like having several books on the go at once – usually one novel and several non-fiction books about different subjects – so that my reading can suit my mood and energy level.

So that is how I live a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, many, many miles away from the city and yet feel connected to the rest of the world. Well … perhaps not totally connected. Without TV, there is another whole layer of the world that I don’t tap into. But that’s a layer I prefer to live without. And maybe it’s as well that some of us remain outside that layer. On a ship full of sleeping passengers it's good to have a few people on watch.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

'The Glow (of Money)'

Someone has just drawn my attention to an article in the latest AARP magazine about skin care in the second half of life. Forwarding the link: she wrote: "It gives a lot of info about caring for our skin as we age -- with illustrations showing women in their 50s, 60s, 70s -- along with product names. Titled "Go with the Glow," it is about care of the skin, not about staying young, and it illustrates the point with some beautiful aging women. A specific dermatologist gets a big plug as the scientific/medical expert, and a number of specific products are recommended. … it is an illustration of an issue that pertains to many of us. No promises to stay young, but info on keeping our skin healthy. It does place a lot of value on spending for skin care products at the same time it addresses basic protection measures of caution about sun, not smoking, eating healthy, etc..."
Hey, that’s great, I thought. If the world’s highest-circulation magazine for ‘seniors’ can publish an article on skin care while avoiding ageism, well things are really looking up.

They are not. (sigh)

The article, I’m sad to say, is as full of ageism as any other article I have ever read about skin care for the over-fifties. The ageism is just a tad more subtle, that’s all, and overshadowed by the use of older models. Here are some ageist quotes from the article (with my emphasis added):

"Other changes aren’t as pleasant… freckles, fine lines, and wrinkles can become more prominent. But advances in skin-care technology mean many of these problems can be addressed, so long as you use the right products—and see a dermatologist regularly"

"…she hasn’t taken any preventive measures to ensure her skin stays youthful-looking."

"Beverly is lucky; her parents and grandparents looked much younger than they were, so she has some genetic protection. Doctors aren’t sure what genes are at work, but if your parents looked young, chances are you will, too"

"Seventy years later, those preventive measures—and a lifelong diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and fish—have paid off: Joan looks years younger than she is"

"She could also use a facial cream that prevents sagging, which is a concern at her age."

Yes, it is the same, tired premise: looking young is better than looking old. And that, my friends, is ageist. Totally. But ageism is so deeply woven into our culture that most of the time we don’t even notice it. The person who forwarded the article obviously didn’t notice it. Although she asserted that the article is ‘not about being young', as you can see from the link its actual title is ‘Erase Ten Years’!! I don’t want to erase ten years. I like being 70. Why should I pretend to be 60?

Where skin is concerned, I think the problem is this. Babies have smooth, soft, peachy skin that is delicious to touch. Most healthy, well-fed children retain the softness and fullness of their skin until adolescence when the hormones start to kick in and we get our first ‘blemishes’. So healthy, smooth, soft, peachy skin inevitably signals ‘youth’. And healthy, youthful skin that is once again free of blemishes means we are through adolescence, which is the classical look of the nubile ‘maiden’.

The trouble is, no matter how old we are, we naturally like our skin to remain healthy and to feel soft to the touch and be free of blemishes. I mean, who enjoys zits? If our skin starts to feel dry, we moisturise it. Fair enough. Nothing wrong with that. But because healthy skin and youth are so linked on everyone’s mind, the advertisers, instead of saying ‘moisturise your skin with this if it feels too dry’, say ‘buy this, it will keep your skin looking young’.

To cap it off, the natural changes of aging, such as freckles, age spots, wrinkles and crows’ feet, instead of being seen as badges of honour for elders, are now neatly redefined as ‘blemishes’ in order to put more money in cosmetic manufacturers’ pockets – and the massive chemical corporations who supply their raw materials.

I did some deconstruction of the AARP article. The ‘world renowned dermatologist’ they feature works for an outfit called The University of Miami Cosmetic Center. This center "..specializes in clinical trials, cell cultures, bioengineered skin and porcine models that evaluate cosmetic dermatology and skin care issues." (Which, roughly translated, means they work on behalf of industry to try out new cosmetic products on tissue made in the laboratory from, e.g. pigs’ guts.)

So who do you think shells out the cash for their salaries and all their batteries of fancy equipment - scientific UV camera, spectrophotometer, ‘Tewameter’, laser doppler, ‘Visioscan’ and all the rest of it ? Why, Big Pharma, of course. It is a very cosy arrangement. (And, sadly, a typical example of the way things are nowadays, with university research departments funded by Big Business and all the well-known compromises, fudged data, loss of objectivity and cover-ups which that so often entails).

So if we look at this story closely and ‘follow the money’, we see that the UMCC gets lots of juicy funding in return for handing back the much-coveted stamp of scientific respectability to the manufacturers and marketers. The product-peddlers can then use impressive terms like ‘clinically evaluated’ and ‘scientifically proven’ to fool more people – primarily women – into paying good money for ever more ‘scientific’-sounding cocktails of petrochemicals (with the odd herb or three thrown in for good measure) to slather on their skin in the hope of looking ten years younger than they are. Those guys are laughing all the way to the bank.

We are being conned, folks. The con gets cleverer and subtler but it is still a con. We are now being conned into needing supplements to combat Vitamin D deficiency because we’ve been so busy slathering ourselves with the sunscreen they managed to convince us we needed. We are being conned into spending millions on fancy products to moisturise our skin when simple, traditional things like olive oil and shea butter (and washing our faces just with water to preserve the natural oils) would serve us just as well – in fact better because they aren’t full of dodgy chemicals like parabens.

Above all, we are being conned into believing that looking exactly like the old women we are is not OK.

Don’t fall for it.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


What fun to find Cate turning up on my blog page . (Thanks for stopping by, Cate).
It makes me realise that the 'blogosphere' is a lot like my village in some ways. When I walk up to the Post Office I always see at least one person I know -- usually three or four -- and there is something that feels really cosy about that. These people are going about their daily lives and I am going about mine and our paths intersect somewhere along that little five hundred yard stretch of street, just long enough for a greeting, a remark about the weather, an acknowledgement of our relationship as co-inhabitants of this small patch of Earth.
In the same way, despite the vastness of cyberspace, one often meets familiar figures there and that, too, is a cosy thing. And quite remarkable, when you think about it, given the millions of people thronging the Internet.
Somewhere, recently, I read a definition of the Internet as being 'the place where we meet our own tribes'. I like that concept. Whoever and wherever we are, and no matter how geographically isolated we might be, with a few clicks of the mouse we can link with our tribes. Tribes, not of blood but of a different kind of kinship; the kinship of shared interests, beliefs, worldviews...
Like many people, I have several different tribes. One is the tribe of elders -- particularly elderwomen. Then there is the simplicity tribe -- all the folks who are turning towards a way of life that is simple, sustainable, eco-friendly and non-consumerist. And of course there is my writing tribe. They all span the globe.
In my village, there are one or two representatives from each of these tribes, and their presence here is precious to me. But out there in cyberspace, there are hundreds, probably thousands of them. I meet new ones almost every day. What a wonderful thing it is to be able to do that. And then, of course, the next time I meet them we are no longer strangers. It's cosy. I like it.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Trampled Tradition
How St Valentine's Day used to be

Back in my high school days (1947-1952), February 14th was a day of sweet but semi-secret excitement. For it was the day when some unknown person – or several of them if you were really lucky – might send you a valentine.
If you got one – and we all hoped and prayed that we might – it meant that someone, somewhere, fancied you.

For us girls it meant that a boy (usually one who was too shy to ask us out or even too shy to speak to us) had been watching and admiring us from the shadows. But of course one never know who he was. That was the whole point.
What was special and different about a valentine card was that it was never signed. That was the beautiful mystery of it.

On February 14th I would also hug to myself the delicious thought that whatever handsome, wonderful, unattainable boy I was secretly lusting after at the time would on this special morning be holding in his young, sweaty hands the card I had screwed up my courage to send him, and wondering who on earth it was from.

Of course, the day might come and go and no cards would fall through the letterbox or appear, tucked under the lid of your school desk, at morning recess. Inevitably, (especially if your best friend had scored a sheaf of valentine cards and had walked around all day looking smug about it), you would go home feeling like the ultimate no-hoper and spend the evening moping around in a stew of low self-esteem and squeezing blackheads. But hey, life is like that. It is all part of growing up.

In the years that followed, I remember receiving a few valentines from prospective suitors but usually I could guess who had sent them. And any time I was ‘going steady’ with someone, I could guarantee that he would send me a card. Though still unsigned of course, even if he didn’t bother to disguise his writing. For that was the tradition.

Once I was married, there were no more cards. Not that I recall, anyway. The only thing that might happen on February 14th was that one of us might say “Hey it’s St Valentine’s Day today. Will you be my valentine, darling?" And we would have a hug.

Fast forward to 1987. My kids are grown up, I’m divorced and I’m now re-married – this time to an American. February 14th and goodness gracious, here in the mail is a valentine card. Who on earth can that be from? It is not my husband’s writing. Surely I don’t have a secret admirer, do I?

Imagine my surprise, consternation and… well yes, embarrassment .. when I open that card and find that it is from my new mother-in-law. My mother-inlaw? !! She fancies me? Good grief! Oh surely not...

No, my mother-in-law had simply fallen foul of the Hallmark Conspiracy. Later, when I went to live in the USA, I discovered, of course, that St Valentines Day over there had lost all its meaning and its mystery. Now it had become yet another day for people to buy cards and chocolate and teddy bears and all kinds of consumer stuff. (As if we didn’t already have too many opportunities for that.) Yet another sweet tradition trampled by the muddy boots of commercialism. What a shame.

You might say, in defence of all this indiscriminate sending of (signed) cards and chocolate hearts to anyone and everyone including daughters-in-law, that it is simply a nice way of telling someone that you love them.

Well OK. But I think there are better ways – ways that don’t buy into the whole consumer culture. If you love someone, just tell them so. Any old time, not just on February 14th. Give them a hug, a shoulder rub, a foot massage, a pot of home-made jam, flowers from your garden. Walk their dog, baby-sit their kids, help them with their homework. If they are far away, send them an e-mail, telephone them, write them a poem. Tell them how special they are to you.

Poor old St Valentine was martyred and lost his head. There's no way I am going to lose mine and get caught up in the Hallmark Conspiracy. No cards for me please. (Unless, of course, you are a secret admirer who is too shy to tell me you fancy me... now wouldn't that be interesting?!)

Thursday, February 08, 2007


When someone asked me the other day in an interview what my favourite animal was, I replied that it was a hare.
Why? I don’t know exactly. I just love hares. I love their long, lanky legs and the funny way they gallop and their long, sensitive ears. What particularly endears them to me is their strange habit of running towards me rather than away from me like most other wild animals do.
Sometimes, when I am out for my morning walk, I see a hare in the middle of the lane. I stop and wait and almost always, after a little while, the hare comes lolloping towards me. He (or she, I can’t tell the difference) will sometimes stop for a moment, look around and sniff. And then run a bit further. There have been times when, if I continue to stand still, the hare will run right past me. Other times it will change its mind and disappear into the hedge instead. But the encounter always leaves me with a special feeling of having been somehow touched by magic.
It was said at one time that witches could shape-shift into hares and back again. I have often wondered where that idea came from. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that the ‘moon hare’ was the totem of the pagan goddess of springtime, Eostre (the ‘moon-hare’ was of course the original ‘Easter bunny’ who laid eggs for good children to eat).
Be that as it may, I take a special delight in hares.And it occurred to me yesterday that the hare and I have something in common. Remember Aesop’s fable about the hare and the tortoise? Hare teased Tortoise about his short, stumpy legs, so Tortoise challenged him to a race. They set off, and of course Hare quickly pulled ahead. So far ahead, in fact, that Tortoise was soon out of sight. Hare, realising that he had plenty of time up his sleeve, decided to lie down by the roadside and have a little rest. He fell asleep, and when he woke up he realised that he had stayed too long. He raced to the finish line only to discover that Tortoise, in his slow, steady, plodding way, had beaten him to it.
Try as I may, I cannot behave like a tortoise. If I dealt with my e-mails every day, they would not pile up in my in-box. If I did a little bit of filing each day, I wouldn’t finish up with a towering, wobbly pile that threatens to engulf the whole room in an avalanche of paper and I wouldn’t have to set aside a large chunk of time to get it all tidied away. If I pulled a few weeds each afternoon, I would never need to exhaust myself by spending the entire day on a weeding marathon.
But one of the things I have learned in my 70 years on this planet is that there are some things about ourselves we need to change and there are some things that are so much a part of our basic natures that we cannot change them. The wisdom is in knowing the difference.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Greeting the Tiger.

I got into a patch of despair again this morning. As usual, it was triggered off by reading the news. This time it was a report about plans to spend millions of pounds on hugely enlarging Stansted airport and making it even bigger than Heathrow.
The report said that the Department of Transport expects the total number of passengers using UK airports to rise from 228 million per year to 465 million. This of course is totally incompatible with the UK Government’s plans to cut carbon emissions by 60% by 2050. However the Department for Transport says that although domestic aviation emissions are included within the carbon reduction targets, international aviation emissions are not. This enables the Government to allow the growth of flying unchecked while still claiming to be cutting the UK's carbon output. Talk about hypocrisy!!
Then I read about how a huge oil company (Exxon) had paid a million and a half dollars trying to bribe scientists to undermine the most recent, objective and pretty well definitive report on climate change.
I went for my morning walk with these things chasing each other around in my mind. After half a mile or so or inward musing and fuming, I looked up and became fully aware of the beauty around me – the green fields, the emerging snowdrops, the swelling buds on the trees, the birds …
Suddenly I found myself weeping, sobbing from sadness and despair over what greedy, selfish humans are doing to our beautiful Earth and how powerless I feel to change things. Despair washed over me like a tidal wave.
For a few minutes I stopped, my hands on the friendly bark of my favourite tree, listening for advice (that tree frequently gives me handy hints about how to cope with whatever is bothering me). I didn’t hear anything today. So I walked on. But a little way further down the road I found myself mentally stepping slightly aside from the feeling of despair and just simply looking at it, without judgement. I said "Hello despair."
It’s funny, but whenever I can do this – not just with despair but with any feeling at all – something always seems to shift. It’s like that old piece of advice that I have heard many times about turning to face the tiger that is chasing you and calmly greeting it.
It’s not that I finished my walk with any better idea about how to solve the world’s problems. But the powerlessness was gone, replaced by my usual feeling that by doing whatever I can to ‘be the change I want to see happen in the world’ I am playing a useful part, even if it's a very small one.
After all, I am not just walking round on the surface of a planet, I am an intrinsic part of the fabric of this planet. A tiny fragment. The fragment cannot know the fate of the whole. All it can do is play its part as well as it possibly can and trust the process.
I felt as though I had, once again, faced despair and moved through it. I walked home singing. And I noticed that there was blue sky in the west as the clouds gradually rolled back.

(Note: If you wish to join the campaign to stop the Stansted airport expansion please contact Stop Stansted Expansion.)