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!