Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Exploring Islands

I have been absent from this blog for a lot of weeks now and that is because I have been indulging my passion for travel, especially in the Mediterranean region and especially in Italy. 
This autumn, Sky and I returned to both  Sardinia and Sicily and explored five small offshore islands that we have never visited before. Here is my account of our travels: 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Engaged Elderhood

One day recently, two things that came into my email inbox at the same time set me thinking about the way old age is commonly portrayed in our culture these days. The first was a post by that indomitable blogger, Ronni Bennett, whose 'Time Goes By' blog about aging is read and relished by hundreds of people every day. In this post, headed 'An Old Age Better Than I Ever Expected,' Ronni wrote: "I never expected to feel as alive and vibrant and spirited and vital as I do at this time of my life." She was remarking about something that many of us have often said and felt but probably don't proclaim loudly and publicly and frequently enough, i.e. the discovery that elderhood has the potential to be one of the most enjoyable and satisfying of all life's stages.

Why should we expect it to be otherwise? Well, as Ronni goes on to say: "There is little if anything in our culture that would lead me to believe I would feel this good about being an old woman. The media relate to old age almost entirely via health, poor health - and mostly about dementia."

And she's right. The awful image so commonly presented by the media seems to be that once you finally give up the (obviously futile) effort to 'stay forever young', all that is left is just a slow countdown to death. Old age is portrayed as a time of sharp physical and mental decline, withdrawal from the world, misery, illness, incontinence, loneliness, incapacity, feebleness and dementia.

Which brings me to the second item in my mailbox. It was a helpful suggestion that since I edit a newsletter for elderwomen and have a website about women and aging I might like to add some links to useful, elder-related websites about...yes, you guessed it: illness, medication, incontinence, incapacity, dementia...

What the writer seemed not to have noticed was that my books, websites, newsletters—and sometimes this blog—are all focused on the hundred and one far more important aspects of this section of our life journey: our attitudes, our feelings and experiences, the role of elders in the community, the culture and the world, our personal and spiritual growth...and so on. Not on indigestion remedies.

Yes, for sure if we can no longer walk upstairs we may need to install a stair lift, but if so we simply Google 'stair lifts,' read some reviews and do some comparison shopping, just like we do for every other major purchase. We may want to find out more about prescription drug side-effects but the Internet is full of info about those (and also full of good advice about how to live healthily and drug free at any age). Why on Earth should I want to fill up my links page with info about the relative merits of various brands of incontinence pads just because my readers are all over fifty?

As William Thomas says in his brilliant book What Are Old People For? getting old does often necessitate a search for work-arounds that enable us to keep functioning optimally—in fact he sees elders as walking advertisements for the wonderful human capacity for endless adaptability. This ongoing process of adaptation to each change in the ever-changing body doesn't begin at 44 with the first pair of reading glasses however. It begins in toddlerhood, with shoes to protect our tender feet, bibs to catch the drool, high chairs to keep us from falling on to the floor and pull-up pants for toilet training. It continues through orthodontic appliances, tampons and nursing bras, dental crowns and hiking poles and all the way through to Zimmer frames. Humans are clever animals and we have become really good at finding ways to augment our bodies' functions and deal with their impairments and inconveniences. But these logistics of our lives are not what defines them. It is meaning that defines them. It is meaning that gets us up in the morning and meaning that makes our hearts sing.

Rather than being preoccupied with what we are losing, the key to an old age full of meaning is to look at what we are gaining and also at what we are giving. As Jung taught us, the second half of life is about individuation, about growing fully into our potential selves. And it is about sharing with the world the fruits of our personal harvest. Elders, rather than withdrawing from the world outside their skins are at their happiest and most fulfilled when they are engaged with that world. I call this 'engaged elderhood.' Our beleaguered planet, right now, needs all the engaged elders it can get.

So if there is anyone out there who dreads getting old and really does believe that old age is nothing but dyspepsia, aching joints and damp knickers, let me assure you that it doesn't have to be like that at all. Honestly. And if you don't believe me, read Elderwoman. Or, if you are male, pre-order this great new book by my friend Alan Heeks called Out of the Woods: A Guide to Life for Men Over 50. Alan's book is due for publication on September 19 and can be pre-ordered now from the author's website in the UK or from Amazon in the US.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Making a Mark

My Teva sandals have a distinctive tread on their soles and when the summer sun softens the tar patches along the lane the little kid in me can't resist pressing my foot's pattern into them. Then, next day, I look to see if my footprints are still discernible. They almost never are of course. By the time the sun has left the lane and the tar has cooled, they have long since been obliterated by tyre tracks.

Yesterday, though, I found one. The boots of those few others who had passed that way had missed it and, since it was near the centre of the lane, so had the vehicles. I felt strangely pleased.

I detest graffiti. Yet in a way I understand the impulse to leave a mark. So would I step in wet cement? No I wouldn't, out of consideration for others and because I would feel terribly guilty afterwards, just as I did when I was thirteen and carved my name on a beech tree. But I would think about it. I would imagine doing it. The temptation would be there to make a mark and then come back later to look at it as it set into that which, in this world, passes for permanence.

What is it about us humans that makes us so keen to leave our mark? Is it the ego's denial of mortality that urges us to create something that will outlive us even though we know that whatever it is will, like the statue of Ozymandias, eventually follow us along the path to oblivion? Nothing is eternal. Permanence is an illusion. Everything changes in every instant. The quantum universe is nothing but a vast, restless dance of energy and we and all our works blink in and out of existence like fireflies in the dark of unimaginable space.

I know that. I know that in another decade or two (or less probably) I shall be gone. Oh I shall live on a bit longer in the memories of those who knew me, particularly those who loved me. The books I have published will remain in print a few years maybe, and some of my traces in cyberspace might even persist till after I am dust. But as that which constitutes this separate me dissolves back into the All-That-Is, it will soon become just a faint outline, like yesterday's tar footprint, and eventually it will be as gone as a cup of seawater tipped back into the ocean.

Since some of my books were written with a helpful purpose, I hope they will remain a while. But apart from that, does any of this really bother me? Well, not so much, any more. I think I am learning at last the futility of trying to make a permanent home out of today's evanescent reality. And here is where I think I differ from the kid with the spray can who scribbles his tag on the wall and scuttles away. Because for me, as well as the tactile pleasure of a sandal pressed into soft tar, it is not so much about longing for permanence as it is about coming back and looking again. It is about wondering what will be different tomorrow. It is about noticing and being fascinated by— and yes honouring—the inevitable process of constant change and unpredictability that lies at the quantum core of everything. Even if the looking makes me sad.

Here's a sonnet I wrote thirteen years ago that seems to fit well...

I am so old that I remember green
grass hillsides where now mushroom villas crowd;
blue, endless space, and rising skylark seen
dark silhouetted, singing to a cloud.

Behind neat privet hedge, hydrangeas bloom.
Video library. Fast food for sale.
Car parks and garages. No longer  room
here for the spinney, or its nightingale.

Yet the old beech still stands, and in her bark,
carved long ago by thoughtless, teenaged hand,
my name, scar-tissued to the faintest mark,
may just be traced. At last I understand

forgiveness. Fifty uncomplaining years
the tree has waited for these healing tears.

'The Mark' © Marian Van Eyk McCain, 2000



Wednesday, June 05, 2013

A Summertime Flowering

This year, as the unusually late spring nudged up against the first days of summer, we have seen an amazing array of wildflowers along our lanes and hedgerows. The bluebells, which are usually long gone by this time of year, lingered long enough to co-exist for several weeks with the first pink flushes of campions...
...and even now, in a few shady places, there are still a few primroses to be found, and even celandines.
Mind you, at this time of year, the campions and the buttercups reign supreme.

There is stitchwort everywhere I look, and the white theme will become ever more dominant over the coming weeks as the various wild carrot species start to take over the scene completely. Meanwhile, in certain places the wild orchids are appearing. And soon, now, there will be meadowsweet all along the verges and the fragrance of honeysuckle will fill the air. 

Our hawthorn tree is blossoming and so are the apple trees. Bees are buzzing and swallows are swooping.
And as I walked around taking all these pictures yesterday, I couldn't help thinking...
How sweet and wonderful it is to be alive at this glorious time of year!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Getting From Here to There

We have just been doing some travel planning and that set me thinking, once again, about my relationship to modern modes of travel.

One of my early heroes was Ivan Illich, who died in 2002 at 76 (the age I am now). I was lucky enough to meet and converse with him at one point in my life and it is to him that I owe many of my ideas about simple and sustainable lifestyles.
Illich, as he was when I met him
Illich was famous for pointing out that in many areas of human so-called 'progress' there comes an optimum moment in time beyond which the trajectory reverses and whatever-it-is, instead of assisting us, starts at best to lose its potential for improving our lives and worst to cause us harm, either as individuals or as a species.

This turning point has often come much earlier than we thought (and is almost always unnoticed). For example, as Illich pointed out in his 1970s essay, “Energy and Equity,” so much human energy is used up in the production and ownership of cars that they can be shown to be far less energy-efficient than bicycles. Bicycles, he said, were the really great breakthrough. All increases in speed beyond that have ended up actually being counter-productive—not to mention being damaging to the planet's ecosystems.

Man, unaided by any tools, gets around quite efficiently, and is more thermodynamically efficient than any machine and most animals." said Illich. "Man on a bicycle can go three to four times faster than a pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals, as well.”

When I lived in town I used to ride my bicycle a lot. I rode it to work and back (on the days when I didn't walk) and I used it for all my shopping trips. The only reason that I don't use it now is that these days I live in a very hilly place and have to spend so much time pushing my bike uphill that it is easier and more comfortable simply to walk.

But whether walking or cycling, travelling at slow speeds keeps us in contact with the world around us in a way that car travel never can. Cars encapsulate us in little, fast-moving bubbles that somehow seem to create a barrier between our bodies and the environment through which we are moving. Of course, buses and trains, too, whisk us around at far beyond bicycle speed, but for some reason that I haven't yet quite worked out I always feel much more comfortable on a bus or a train than I do in a car. Maybe it is because I can move around more inside the vehicle—especially on a train—and because the space feels larger, airier and less claustrophobic.

Planes, whilst more spacious than buses, are a hundred times more claustrophobic—especially in the Economy section. Air travel catapults us from place to place and across time zones in a way that creates havoc in our body's energy systems, turns our vision of the Earth's surface into distant wallpaper, subjects us to all kinds of discomfort, indignities and airborne viruses (not to mention the awful food) and totally confuses our natural, animal sense of distance.

This is why, even though it takes us three days (and three buses, four trains and a ferry) to get to our favourite vacation place and costs probably four times as much as flying, I would still rather go there slowly.

(I only wish I had the energy and stamina to ride my bike from here to there instead. That way I would really see the countryside. But of course I'd still have to take the ferry across the watery bits)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Spiritual Teachers

Watkins magazine just published its annual list of the 100 most spiritually influential people in the world. It was interesting to see whose names made it on to that list, but I found it even more interesting to ponder about all those whose names didn't - and why they didn't.

How, I wondered, would you go about compiling a list like that? It seems they did it mostly by looking at how many times people entered those names into a search engine, but of course to enter the name of a spiritual teacher into Google you first have to know their name. It occurs to me, however, that at least 50% of the spiritual teachers in my own life have been people whose names nobody has ever Googled. Like the Scottish gardener for instance. Let me tell you about him.
Many years ago, when the daily walk from my home to my workplace used to take me through a small park, I often stopped to exchange morning greetings with the gardener who looked after the park. He was a short, bronze-skinned Scotsman with a happy smile and a jaunty air. And at least twice a week, as our morning paths crossed and we chatted briefly about this or that, he would make some seemingly simple comment that for some reason would echo in my mind for hours afterwards, a comment which, on later reflection, I realized was actually quite profound. It was no wonder, I sometimes mused, that this little park is such a pleasant spot; no wonder that the flowers shine so brightly and the grass is such a vibrant green, for this gardener, in his unassuming way, is encouraging them to grow, just as his words encourage growth in me.

It is experiences like this that have helped me gradually come to realize, over the years, that everyone I meet is my teacher and that every situation holds within it the opportunity to learn and grow. Yet as we go about our ordinary, everyday life,  this constant, two-way process of teaching and learning is for the most part something that happens below the level of our ordinary consciousness.

Then of course there must be a whole lot of spiritual teachers who do get Googled but presumably not enough to get themselves on to the Watkins list. Although I have been taught and influenced by many of those who names do appear on the list, the one whose influence on me has been the greatest of all is one whose name doesn't. Not yet, anyway. So let me introduce you...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Different Sort of Fresco

We spotted this bit of d├ęcor last month in a Fresc Co cafeteria in Barcelona (a welcome oasis for a pair of veggies like us in a country where, according to a travel guide I read, "The Spanish think the pig is a vegetable").

What a wonderful idea, posting the nutritional value of the food right up there on the wall – and in a pretty way, too! Well, with a name like 'Fresc Co' it is hardly surprising, I suppose. But I'm glad they thought of it.

Now how about posting, on the walls of certain other types of eateries, some info about the true health effects of trans-fat-full, GM corn-laden, over-salted, over-sugared fast food?