Incredible Shrinking Woman

John F. Kennedy - NARA - 518134

In 1963 I cried for JFK.  His assassination silenced a voice that I thought spoke for me, a voice that spoke of universal rights, personal freedom. He was the champion of my world, facing down the USSR and saving us from total immolation as we hid beneath our school desks. He offered a vision beyond our world, challenging mankind to put footsteps on the moon and to leap for the stars.

You see, as a 13-year-old, I cared passionately about the world and the future of mankind.  Five years later, the voices that expressed my passions were silenced. Martin Luther King Jr could no longer have a dream. Bobby Kennedy could not carry on for his big brother. The world fell into the hands of hard uncaring men in gray suits. LBJ stood for a dirty war against a bunch of peasants, who killed stoned American teenagers in green rags and tin hats by the tens of thousands.  Tricky Dicky proved beyond doubt that the gray suits lied.

As a flower child, I tried to reject materialism (easy when you have never been poor), tried to reject politics and practicality. I really wanted a world where “all you need is love”, but confused sexual experimentation with caring.  And so did much of my generation, who aimed for blue skies and fluffy clouds but too often found a sordid and grubby existence as fading hippies. In fact a new peasantry, new targets for America’s guns, as at Kent State. Our generation abandoned its responsibility, allowing the gray suits unchallenged freedom to wage Cold War with frequent hotspots.

My flowers wilted, my kaftans went to rags, and I set out to see if the world offered any hope.  I shared a cabin on the Soviet liner Alexandr Pushkin with three other people – a newly rich girl blowing her inheritance on Russian champagne, a bible smuggler, and a fellow seeker.  I spread the word that UK customs at Tilbury would be fierce, so a ship-full of backpackers who had embarked at Montreal with enough dope for their gap year sought to consume it in a week. The only place the Soviet officers could not see was the empty swimming pool on the afterdeck.  I could get stoned just by breathing nearby.  And the various treats were being shared big style – hash brownies a favourite. And so I arrived in London in style.

The parties were fantastic, with colourful clothing attempting to express the pschychadelic trips of designers or wearers. Disco lights, plexiglass floors, the BeeGees. I found a place in Earl’s Court, one room of a Georgian house divided unsympathetically to create an impossibly tall but tiny sitting room, a claustrophobic galley to cook in, and a sleeping platform above it.  I got a job in the Youth Hostel Association’s sport shop near Embankment tube station, about 5 miles from Earl’s Court.  It took 40 minutes by tube plus a good walk at each end; or an hour by car and then the impossibility of parking. So I got a bicycle, a Dawes Galaxy. It took less than 20 minutes and the bike was secured in basements at home or the shop, it cost less to buy the bike than to get a tube pass and much less than running a car. I was very fit, and always in danger from kamikaze black cabs or car drivers who were furious that I was passing them so easily. On weekends I would explore Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Thames banks and Grand Union Canal towpaths.  Because of my job in the sports shop, I went climbing in Derbyshire and Wales, rambling in Yorkshire, skiing in Scotland, sailing dinghies in the Lake District. I had learned those sports in Canada as a teenager, developing a passion for solitary adventures, as a relief from the school bullies, but also from a love for our natural world. I had a fling in those days with a guy from the Huron nation, and learned to respect aspects of their religion and culture that he was trying to revive. Outdoors was never, for me, an attempt to conquer the mountains or tame the rivers or exploit the forests. It was more a desire to blend in, to become one with nature, to appreciate the world as it is. Or as it was.

Then I met Malcolm. The excitement of exploring each other took the place of exploring the world. The heat of arguments over matters now inconsequential. Respect and deep love grew to outshine the dominance of sexual passions. Our world revolved around each other for a while; sometimes after 35 years it still does.

But with relationship and maturity came stability of sorts. I went back to school, got a couple of degrees, got respectable research jobs, sat behind a computer. When I looked up, I had become middle-aged. My outdoors got lost behind spreadsheets and databases, my fitness turned to fatness. In a time when we both had good salaries we bought a cruising catamaran, a floating flat with sails – a desperate grab to regain some outdoor life. The sailing lifestyle got us some now forgotten friends. But it also introduced us to the boating trade, so when my employer lost Eurogrants, I took redundancy and Malcolm joined me, living on the boat in a Plymouth marina.  We got involved in a boat business, but Malcolm’s partner “forgot” to pay a VAT bill and Malcolm faced bankruptcy. The catamaran was sold to pay into the business. We ended up in a caravan in the middle of the boatyard. Plymouth council said we were homeless, so we could not get benefits. They also said the caravan was our home, so we had to pay poll tax. I still hate them.

So we clawed our way back up, running a business that involved scraping paint from yachts, often in winter rains, then painting more on. And I became an outboard motor mechanic. Until one day when the bankruptcy was discharged and I travelled to Canada, a miserable and abortive attempt to find work with no local references, no local knowledge, no local friends, and hostility from my father. So back to the UK, social housing, and a low-grade civil service job. Back up the ladder, slowly. Malcolm became less and less able but still fought to hold a job, although he had to have both hips replaced, a pelvic reconstruction, and cataract operations. Eventually we had a small house, a lovely garden, dogs, chickens, and a few good friends.

Then, on my 60th birthday, we jacked it all in, claimed my pensions, and moved to Turkey. We have each other, a dog, a smaller house, a lovely garden, no chickens.  We can’t make many friends nor can we see much of our new world, because of language limitations and Malcolm’s very limited mobility. We have a lot smaller income too. But there are some very good people here, and a lot of Facebook friends.  I am taking up new pastimes – archery, swimming, kite flying. I hope to sail again, and cycle again.  We have a TV but it seems less and less interesting, The BBC World offers a link to outside, but I don’t bother.

My concern for the world has become concern for the bargains at the market. And I wonder, has the world got bigger? Why has it become so incomprehensible? Yes, the population has trebled. But that is not why my cares and options seem more limited. Am I so self-centred now?  Do I try to encounter a spiritual power because I may not have much longer on this world?  Why did the black vs white of my youth become shades of grey?  Have I lost the capacity to care as passionately as I did 40 years ago because many of my causes were doomed?

Or have I become a lot smaller?

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5 thoughts on “Incredible Shrinking Woman

  1. I just found a ‘follow’ on my blog from you. When I clicked it, it brought me here, to the Incredible Shrinking Woman. Even though I realised, this was 2012, I started to read…..I never thought this is where I would end up – that’s some journey you took me on in one page….Thank you 🙂

  2. I was reading about Neil just before reading your lovely piece. I was thinking about perspective, how we view the world. He said it far better than I ever can – Ashley.
    “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small”
    -Neil Armstrong

  3. Not smaller, but wiser. To seek contentment in older age despite the world and all its faults is the best any of us can do. At least you ask the question of yourself, something perhaps you wouldn’t have done when you were younger and more idealistic. What adventures you’ve had – not always great – but adventures nonetheless. Great post.

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