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Elderwomen of the World Unite: Interview


Marian Van Eyk McCain
AHB interviewed Marian Van Eyk McCain, about her book Elderwoman (Findhorn Press). McCain is a psychotherapist, health educator and award-winning author who lives in Devon, England.

Ruth Dempsey: You have written on topics ranging from wellness, stress management and spirituality to environmental issues, organic food and alternative technologies. Why a book about women and old age?

Marian McCain: I love to write on topics, which have heart and meaning for me – things which are highly significant in my own life. All those things you listed have been, and still are, very important to me. So is getting old. I’m enjoying it, and I find the whole process quite fascinating.

You know how, when you are planning a trip to some place you haven’t been before, you go to the bookstore or the library and look for a travel guide? In my mid-sixties, I knew I was entering new territory, and I wanted Fodor’s Guide to Old Womanhood. And it had to be the latest edition. For in many ways, being an old woman in the 21st century is new territory for all of us, not just for me. But there wasn’t one. So I decided to explore this new territory and write my own guidebook, just as I had done for menopause, twelve years earlier. That’s why I often describe Elderwoman as a trail guide for the third age journey.

RD: In your work, you recall growing up in England, as the bombs dropped around you. How do these events shape your experience of aging today, or do they?

MM: There are two things that come immediately to mind. One is that since the men were away at war, I spent those wartime years in a world populated mostly by women, strong, coping women. And since all younger women were drafted into the workforce, it was the older ones – my grandmother and her sisters – who loomed largest in my life. They, too, did their bit for the war effort, growing food for their families, knitting socks for soldiers, caring for grandchildren while the mothers worked and being towers of strength for everyone else. They were resourceful, energetic, creative, optimistic and compassionate old women. They were my earliest models for old age.

Secondly, experiencing that era when almost everything was scarce, including food, taught me that happiness isn’t connected with being able to buy stuff. I learned to appreciate thrift and simplicity and homemade, homegrown things. So I’ve never had
any fear about living on a small pension, as I do now.

RD: The book suggests that when we awaken to the call of Elderhood, we become aware of new ways of being in the world. Can you speak to me about these new ways?

MM: Some of those new ways are really old ways rediscovered, for there was a time, a few hundred years ago, when old women played a very important role in the life of every community. They were the healers, the midwives, and the storehouses of folk wisdom. Now I’m not suggesting that we all have to qualify as herbalists or spend our time delivering babies and laying out dead bodies. But there are ways in which we need to reclaim our "wise woman" selves and our role as society’s elders. Those ways will, of course, be different for each one of us, depending on our abilities and inclinations, our personalities, preferences and passions, our circumstances and personal styles.

I see old age not as a decline but as the ultimate expression of our womanhood. If our youth was our budding and the middle years our flowering, then old age is our fruiting. What we have to offer, in these later years, is the ripe fruit of ourselves, in whatever form that takes.

It’s not that we have to be forced or self-conscious about it. We simply have to be authentically who we are, with the conscious intention of doing our part as full members of our society. That part may be campaigning, writing a book, answering a grandchild’s questions, saying a prayer or chaining yourself to some railings – it doesn’t matter. It is the attitude and the intention which matter. It’s about not just coping with old age but using it to grow into your full, complete self – a unique old, wise, wonderful woman.

RD: Creativity appears to be one of your most compelling characteristics. Whether working in your kitchen or in your garden, preparing a workshop or writing a book, creativity is evident in all you do. Can you talk to me about creativity and aging?

MM: I think of creativity as a universal force rather than a personal characteristic. The Universe is amazingly and magnificently creative, and this huge work of creation appears to be ongoing. New stars are still being born. People love to speculate, theorize – and often argue – about how, why and precisely when it all got started. But one thing we all agree on is that it’s awesome.

Since we are all part of this awesome Universe, we are all part of its creativity, whether consciously or not. My body is creating new cells even as I sit here at my computer. So I think that what we refer to as personal creativity is really just the degree to which each of us is able to hook into that universal, creative force. Like a San Francisco cable car hooking on to the cable, it carries us along. The trouble is, some of us have our hooks bent and broken when we are young, making it more difficult to connect to that cable.

My own experience of aging is that the older I get, the more aware I become of the interconnectedness of everything. The more connected I feel, the easier it is to hook into universal processes like creativity.

RD: Elderwoman has been praised for its gentleness and for the sense of rightness and naturalness it brings to the whole process of aging. During the course of researching and writing the book were there things that surprised you about what you found?

MM: I like it that it is a gentle book. Gentleness is always connected, in my mind, with peacefulness, and I’m all for peace. It isn’t a milquetoast kind of book though. Old age, like death, is not something you can smooth away. The Buddha, who was so gentle he wouldn’t knowingly step on an ant, used to instruct his monks to sit in the charnel-
grounds and contemplate corpses, so as to grasp the full reality of life, death and impermanence. In the same way, when a bird flew into my window one day and died, I left its body on the windowsill and watched it change, week by week, until – after many months – it was just a tiny handful of dust. Aligning ourselves with natural processes means all of them, not just the pretty ones.

But you asked me about surprises. I think what surprised me most was realizing just how all-pervasive ageism is in our culture. I hadn’t really noticed it before. Once you start noticing ageist attitudes, ageist language etc., you discover ageism absolutely everywhere. So we all have a lot of work to do to stamp it out. Being called "old" is NOT an insult. By the same token, being told you don’t look old isn’t a compliment!! The website gives some great examples of ageist remarks and some helpful hints for countering them and making people wake up to all the subtle ageism around us. I like that.

RD: According to the UN, one in ten people today is over the age of 60. By 2050 this proportion will have doubled to one in five. You see the numbers as an unprecedented opportunity for older adults to make a difference in the world. I wonder if you can give me some suggestions?

MM: Traditionally, in many societies, it was the elders who made all the important decisions. They were the ones who had the most knowledge, the longest memories and the greatest stores of skill and wisdom. But now, in our rapidly-changing, technological times, things have gotten a bit topsy-turvy. The old still have their wisdom and their accumulated skills, but the young often have more up-to-date knowledge. In this electronic, push-button world, many of the skills you and I have developed over a lifetime of practice are now considered redundant.

But what with global warming, environmental crisis and so on, modern Western lifestyles have become increasingly unsustainable. Since we older folk are the ones who still remember how to make-do and mend, how to cook, sew and scythe, how to save money, grow things and walk to the corner store, we are the people of the future. We are the ones who will truly know how to live when the oil runs out!

Meanwhile, I believe that it behooves us to stay informed, stay involved – in whatever way and at whatever level feels comfortable – with the larger society of which we are a part, and to keep learning, exploring, pondering, speaking out, sharing our wisdom and doing whatever we can to make the world a better place for future generations.

Whether it’s writing letters for Amnesty International, marching with Code Pink (Women For Peace), planting trees, stuffing envelopes, networking online or having a bake sale, there is certainly plenty to do for those with the time, the inclination and the willingness to do it.

We’ll all be "oldies" if we live long enough. But authenticity, attitude, intention, participation – to me, those are what turn you from "oldie" to "elder."

You can visit Marian Van Eyk McCain at: