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 http://www.primitivism.com/aquatic-ape.htm) 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.