Elderwoman: book by Marian van Eyk McCain

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Jan 012017

Is elderhood different for men and women? Yes and no!

The question of gender differences in elderhood has been a big one for me as I approach leading a mixed workshop on this theme for the first time, at Findhorn February 23 – March 1.

I’ve discussed the gender question with women and men elders I know, and by reading Elderwoman, and comparing it with my very different, forthcoming book on elderhood for men, Old Farts or New Starts: A Guide to Happiness for Midlife Men.

This blog will inevitably offer generalisations, and your comments or corrections are welcome.

It intrigued me, as it may you, to unpick the differences due to the writers, and those due to the subject matter.  I really enjoyed reading Marian’s book, and believe it would be helpful to women: the style and approach are inclusive, conversational, fluid, full of personal anecdote.  All of this could, I believe, make most men impatient: by contrast, my book is more structured, objective, with lots of practical solution-focussed advice.

I’m also struck by frequent references to Marian’s grandmother and daughters, and the sense of female wisdom shared down the generations, in a way I’ve almost never heard among men.  There’s been a lot of poor fathering over the years!

From Elderwoman, I conclude that one of the big gender differences in elderhood is that women face it more collectively.  Men often face the challenges of ageing alone, and need new skills to find the collective support and wisdom they also need.  Marian uses phrases like “the stages of our female lives”, which it’s hard to imagine mirrored in a book for men.

An encouraging parallel, based on these two books, is the potential of elders to be activists, whether by presence or more actively, around the big issues like sustainability.  Another is the opportunity to “start again from scratch” as she puts it.

Elderwoman is a book which faces the losses of ageing, but within an affirming and practically positive context.  It encourages people to become elders in their own way, and finally loosen the pressures of other people’s expectations, and the consumer society.  I support Marian’s view that the elders are best placed to break Western society’s addiction to its consumptive, materialist way of life.

Marian sees the most important elderwoman principle as “radical aliveness…the art of saying ‘yes’ to life, remaining fully open to all experience, whether pleasant or painful.”  I’d regard this quality as vital for male elders too.

Why African Fact is Happier Than Fiction

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Jan 012017

Recently I’ve been reading The Granta Book of the African Short Story.  When I travel, I like to read something connected with my destination, so this book went with me on a recent trip to Kenya to see the work of Farm Africa: a UK Charity who enable peasant farms in East Africa to adapt to climate change and other challenges.

Frankly, many of the short stories in the Granta collection are pretty depressing.  A lot are about Africans living abroad, unhappy at the many problems of their original home and their new one.  Two stories actually set in Kenya are equally sad: one about child prostitution in Kivera, the biggest slum in Nairobi, the other about tourists, guides, and all the pretence that can happen between them.

It’s good to know about the problems, and there are plenty of them.  But this book helped me to look hard at the reality I saw around me: not only in Nairobi, but also three days of travelling deep into rural parts of western Kenya.  What I saw is a society which is basically working, in many ways, for millions of people.

There are many things which could be better, in Kenya, as across Africa.  But in the West, we don’t hear enough about what’s already good: all the people who are basically happy, fed, housed, and at peace.

Nor do we hear enough about the extensive development support which the UK, European Union, US and others provide in Kenya and elsewhere.  Increasingly, this support is geared to helping the local economy work better, not to the relief aid that many in the west still think is happening.

Farm Africa were pioneers in this new approach, which is why I have been one of their donors since 2005.

Kenya has under-used fertile land, and low farm productivity, so there’s huge scope to improve the incomes of subsistence farmers, and help Kenya to feed itself.  The Farm Africa projects I saw are clearly achieving this, and it would be great if they can be expanded to a larger scale.

So if you want to get a flavour for Africa, you may want to read the Granta collection, but do balance it with a trip around the Farm Africa website.


Nov 192013

David LodgeTherapyNovel

 Therapy: the book by David Lodge

The ‘hero’ of this book is Tubby Passmore, 58: balding, bulging, and thoroughly lost.  Although he’s outwardly successful – well-off, modestly well-known as scriptwriter for a top sitcom, with a steady if dull marriage, Tubby is depressed and confused.

Through the book, we piece together his life story, and share his angst and his varied attempts to resolve it, which include various therapies.  This guy would benefit hugely from Out of the Woods, if he could only find the will to read it.

This story illustrates many of the features of a classic midlife crisis.  In his lostness, Tubby becomes deeply self-obsessed, and this proves the last straw for his wife of thirty years, who demands a separation and insists it’s too late for mediation.

I believe the root of the midlife crisis is spiritual, and Tubby’s case supports this.  Despite being resolutely ‘anti-religious’ since childhood, his first girlfriend is a devout Catholic, and he joins the RC youth club to be with her.  Near the end of the book, he ends up in Santiago de Compostela, and is clearly touched by it.  And his obsession with Kierkegaard brings out the paradox of desiring the spiritual but rejecting the religious.

The first one-third of the book is slow-moving and a bit two-dimensional, but it gathers pace and substance as it goes on.  The section with first-person accounts from the other key characters in the story is superb, and this could be a good tool for anyone wanting to understand their crisis (and its effect on others) more deeply.

Likewise, Tubby’s return to memories of his adolescence is a rich episode which rang true for me.  Part of the healing that can emerge from a midlife crisis is revisiting, reliving, re-framing one’s formative years.

Another feature of the male midlife crisis which Tubby exemplifies is the bizarre things that happen when the immature, often sex-driven impulses of an adolescent are paired with the resources and contacts of a midlife man.  Few teenagers can afford a London pad, a flashy car, or flights to LA to pursue a sexual fantasy, but some midlife men like Tubby can, and the results are often embarrassing.

So, it’s an entertaining, touching, and instructive read.  But if you’re choosing one book about midlife crisis, Out of the Woods is the more practically useful!