Time for change

Jen light 3 copyIf my blog posts have been a bit few and far between lately, it’s because I’ve been focusing my writing efforts this summer on the bigger project I have underway, the personal/political memoir I’ve been working on for some years now.

The political subtext will be somewhat familiar to followers of my blog these past two years: the necessity for more ordinary folks like me to wake up to the realities of climate change and environmental destruction, and begin to take action in both the personal and the political spheres.

The personal narrative will be somewhat familiar to friends and family who have followed my life, or pieces of my journey, these past 50 years.  Good moments and bad, easy stretches when everything seemed to be going right, followed by inevitable patches of heartache and turmoil.

In the course of charting my experiences in depth through this memoir project, I’ve realized that I have two qualities that have often led me into troubled waters.

One, probably because I grew up in a family with strong values of caring, respect and integrity, I have tended to be very trusting—to believe that people mean well and want to do the right thing by others.

And two, I have been slow to respond to situations that make me unhappy.  I tend to try to stick with whatever I’ve started or gotten myself into, to try make it work even when it’s become quite obvious—even to me!—that things are never going to change for the better.

I’m trying to make some connections between these personal traits of mine, and the larger social landscape that I inhabit.

For example, it seems to me that we have all tended to be too trusting of authority figures like politicians and business leaders, expecting that they have our best interests at heart.

As a kid growing up, it would never have occurred to me that corporations would produce, package and market products aimed to appeal to children, that would, over time at least, make us seriously sick.

I remember begging my mom to buy me Froot Loops and Lucky Charms breakfast cereal, which looked so yummy and appealing on TV.

I wanted Ring Dings, too, and Yodels, and Twinkies.  I wanted Coke, of course, and Dr. Pepper.  I wanted McDonald’s hamburgers, fries, and McMuffins.

I was lucky that my mom was not swayed by the seductive advertising, and went her own way with food, raising my brother and me on fresh fruits and vegetables (often grown in our own garden), premium meats, and homemade, preservative-free desserts.

Others, who bought the advertising and fell for the products, are finding themselves now, at midlife, with diabetes, cancer, asthma, arthritis and all the rest of our common American ailments.  To some degree at least, the explosion of health problems in the developed world can be directly traced back to our societal trust that Big Business, Big Agriculture and Big Government were doing their best to safeguard our health.

Turns out we needed to be more discerning—a theme that runs through both my private and public spheres.

Likewise, I can relate my own slowness to realize and respond to untenable situations in my personal life to our broader social reluctance, as human beings, to go against the flow.

Let’s face it, we humans are herd animals, as Nietzsche saw clearly more than a century ago. We run in packs, and we fear nothing so much as social isolation and disapproval.

For me personally, the kinds of situations that I’ve been slow to wake up to and act upon have been ones in which taking action means going against the grain of social expectations.

For example, my marriage.  It was very hard for me to let go of my own attachment to being married.  There are so many positive perceptions surrounding married people, while divorced people, on the other hand, are perceived as unstable, difficult, dissatisfied, disloyal, probably neurotic, bad parents, bad partners, bad lovers—in short, failures overall.

Even though some 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, these stigmas still hold a great deal of power, and for me it was hard to finally concede that I could go no further in my marriage.  After more than 20 years, I had to cry uncle and admit that yes, I had failed.  I could not make it work.

The thing is that once I got to that nadir, I didn’t care anymore what people thought, and I came to see the major life change of divorce as a positive liberation, not a failure at all.

Once I’d made the leap and let go of my inertia and fear of change, I discovered that it wasn’t nearly as hard as I’d imagined, nor were the repercussions as severe.

It turns out that most of the fears I’d had around becoming single—and a single parent—at midlife had much more to do with my own perceptions than with any reality out there in the world.

I believe that these kinds of fears in the personal realm apply just as much in the political realm.

CWindmillhome

Wind turbines on the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia

For instance, we know that our longterm relationship to fossil fuels is, in the words of JT, “driving us down the road to ruin,” but so many of us feel stuck, afraid to go against the tribe in seeking out new, more positive relations to energy use on the planet.

We tend to just go with the flow, running our AC on hot days, driving our cars, using our oil furnaces for heat in the winter.  Even though we’re beginning to see that this makes us unhappy—who, after all, enjoys prolonged heat waves, out-of-control wildfires, destructive storms and raging floods?—we still stick to what’s familiar, what appears to be socially acceptable, what everyone else is doing.

It’s time for each one of us to stiffen our backbones and be honest with ourselves about the situation we’re in now.

Climate change is upon us.  It’s past time to start working hard to cut carbon emissions by reducing use and switching to cleaner energy like wind, solar and geothermal.  We need to stand with 350.org and other environmental groups to pressure our government to do the right thing—to put the health and welfare of we, the people, ahead of the profits of them, the corporations.

On a personal level, too, we can also make changes.  We can use bicycles more, and AC less.  We can hang out our laundry to dry.  We can start weaning ourselves off disposable plastics, and put some raised beds in our backyards or on our rooftops.

It used to be that only “granola people” did things like this—“granola people” pronounced with a dismissive smirk.

It turns out that those crunchy folks had it right, and we’re the ones who have stayed in our unhappy fossil fuel-based relationship too long.

We may imagine that breaking with the herd and striking out alone on the path of ecological sanity is going to earn us smirks and sneers.  But a) this is probably just in our heads; and b) who cares, if it makes us happier in the long run?

Here’s what I’ve finally realized, at midlife, on both the personal and the political levels: life is way too short to waste time being unhappy if a path toward happiness is available.

Letting go of our attachment to the status quo is the crucial first step on that path, and it’s not easy.  But it is necessary now, given the critical juncture we’re at as a planet and a human civilization.

Think about it.  And then—act.

Looking for Valentinaville….

So far, my number one, all-time most popular blog post on Transition Times has been my 2012 Valentine’s Day post, “There’s More to Love than Cupid and His Arrows,” which was read by nearly 30,000 people worldwide in the past year.

In that post, I reflected on how the Valentine’s Day celebration of love could and should extend to more than just romantic love—we should celebrate family love, I said, the kind of love that runs “like molten gold at the core of a happy family like mine.”

A year later, and still without a romantic attachment this Valentine’s Day, I feel no different—but my thoughts on this issue are more defined.

marilyn-monroe-diamonds-gentlemen-prefer-blondes-blonde-movieIn American culture, and I am sure in many other cultures around the world, it is viewed as a shortcoming to be without a romantic partner.

To be alone, without a significant other on Valentine’s Day, is a source of shame.

Well to hell with that, especially for mature women!

I see so many women my age, midlife or older, without partners.

Is this just an American phenomenon?  I wish my non-American friends would chime in and let me know.

Here in the States, the divorce rate is astronomical, and we seem to have a surfeit of single women—either the 30- to 40-something put-career-first-and-never-married cohort, or the 40- to 50-something just-couldn’t-take-it-anymore divorced group.

And then at the upper edge of the age scale, there are the 70-something widows, too.

For men in all of these age groups, there are plenty of women to choose from.

After all, it’s not unusual for a man of 60 to take up with a woman 20 years his junior.

But when was the last time you heard of a woman of 60 partnering with a 40-year-old man?

For heterosexual women, the field narrows considerably as we age.

And the risks grow.  Why would I, as a 50-year-old, really want to take up with a man twenty years my senior?

If I were to enter the dating market now, I’d be lucky to find a guy my age to partner with.  Most guys my age are looking for younger women, and they don’t seem to have any trouble finding a match.

On Valentine’s Day, 2013, I’d like to affirm the fact that women don’t need romantic love to be happy.

I’d like to suggest that women be more appreciative of the love and support we get from each other, and from all kinds of non-romantic attachments.

In the old days, women who sought to avoid marriage ensconced themselves in nunneries, and had a pretty good life there (check out the life of Sor Juana for an example).

I am wondering if today we need a modern form of the nunnery, a place where women of a certain age could go to live full, empowered, mutually supportive lives free from the pressure of romantic attachments.

Maybe we should found such an institution, and call it Valentinaville.  Just for us.

Why waste away in Margaritaville when we can be happy in Valentinaville?

Cupid, you devil–go home!

I find it really poignant that so many people are Googling “love” and turning up my Valentine’s Day blog post on how I was very happy, last February, to be awash in family love, even though romantic love was absent from my life.

That my Valentine’s Day post is the single most popular post on Transition Times is just evidence of how many people are yearning for love, and happy to find affirmations that there are alternatives to the stereotypical “and they lived happily ever after.”

As the 50% divorce rate in the U.S. attests, very few of us live happily ever after.

For the other 50% who stay married, well—I would like to know how many of you folks consider yourselves truly happy.

My guess is that something like 25% of the people who dutifully marry in their twenties find themselves compatible enough to live happily ever after.

So what does that mean for the institution of marriage?

Is it good enough that a quarter of those who marry in their prime child-bearing years are likely to stay together through the rigors of raising children?

What are the alternatives?

Unfortunately, in our society, there are few alternatives.  Women of means can choose to have children via artificial insemination or surrogate motherhood, without needing the fathers in the picture.

But this is the exception, not the norm.

For most mothers, having the financial, emotional and practical support of fathers (or co-parents, in the case of lesbian couples) is essential.

Raising children is hard.  Raising them alone is much harder.  I can say this with conviction since I’ve been a single mother since 2009, and going it unofficially on my own for longer than that.

For the most part, divorcing women tend to argue hard for custody of our children. We can’t imagine being separated from the little ones we once carried in our bellies—even when they’ve become big hulking teenagers.  They are ours in a way that must be honored.

And yet…they are their father’s children too.  It never ceases to amaze me how fathers can be so casual about their offspring.  They will insist on custody to stick it to their divorcing spouses, but for the most part they don’t have the emotional attachment to their children that we women have.  Or if they do, it is something they are willing and able to forego if need be.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, guys—this is just what I’ve perceived from very unofficial observations of my own family and friends.

All this to say that those who are avidly reading my Valentine’s Day post should be aware that my feelings about love are very complicated indeed.

I love my children.  I love my parents.  I love my brother and his family.  My ex-spouse?  Well, I am grateful to him for the good times we shared, including bringing our two boys into the world.

I wish we could have survived as a couple.

And I am ready to move on.

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