Archive for Aging

Going to “El Campo” with Bram

IMG_1701The other day I joined a group of Canadians celebrating the opening of a new library. The library was at a rural school not far from San Miguel de Allende. I’ve told you how outsiders living here are expected to contribute money and energy in support of the impoverished local Mexicans. Bram Morrison, famous for his performances with Shirley, Lois and Bram, spends the winter here in San Miguel. Bram often performs for charity. He’d been practicing songs in Spanish for the library celebration.

About fifty of us North Americans headed for the country in a convoy of cars. The ride started out smoothly enough on a paved highway. It was not much different from what you’d expect back home. Alas, the smooth ride was not to last. We turned off the highway and bumped and scraped along a dirt road’s sharp, pointy rocks.

At last we spotted the school, a white stucco one storey building. The new matching library stands beside it. Children, in grades one to six, all impeccable in their school uniforms, stand waiting for us under a tree. They giggle with excitement as we get out of our cars and gather to face them. Emma, the energetic teacher, speaks in Spanish to the children. I don’t understand what she’s telling them, but suddenly the children are moving towards us. Each child takes an adult by the hand, ready to guide us on the tour of their school and new library.

My little person, Nancy, turns out to be a grade one student. Her tiny hand is soft in mine. She’s clearly delighted to have a visitor interested in her and her school. Nancy is tinier than my five-year-old Canadian granddaughter. Most of the children seem small for their age. She takes me by the hand to her desk inside the school and proudly shows me her colouring book. She opens the page to a princess. Nancy has coloured her princess purple. My granddaughter also has a fondness for princesses. Purple is her favourite colour too. My heart melts.

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Next, Nancy leads me to the playground to show me how she can teeter totter, slide and swing. She squeals with delight when I push her high on the swing.

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It was about then that I noticed that Nancy’s tiny teeth are spotted brown. The water, that’s what did that. We go inside on this warm day and all the children head for the one tap. They drank from it and wash their cups with their hands and no soap. I started wondering about potable water.

That’s when Nancy and I double back to take another look at the new cistern behind the library. Emma tells the story. For years she’d been asking the government to provide a cistern so that the children and their parents in the village would have safe drinking water. Four years passed before a large truck drove up and dumped off all the equipment needed to build a cistern. Who was going to build it? No labourers came with the supplies. Resourceful Emma organized the children’s fathers to take on the job. When I visited, the concrete was still drying.

I didn’t see the village but I hear that unemployment is about 100%. The men are mostly bricklayers and, apparently, not many bricks are being laid these days. I learned, too, that there isn’t a car or a truck in the village. Its inhabitants are complete strangers to flat tires and overheated engines. Emma carries her bicycle in her car as she drives to and from the school.

We are called to sit down at picnic benches. The mothers have prepared a meal. Black beans, rice, chicken and molle. Molle is a sauce containing chocolate. It‘s labour intensive and the culinary prize of these women. They make it once or twice a year in large quantities. Emma buys many jars of molle for her freezer.

Meanwhile, Bram is settling in under a spreading tree with his guitar. He’s surrounded by uniformed boys and girls. They actually know some of his songs in English but, as promised, he sings mostly in Spanish. The children are enthralled.

Then it’s time to cut the ribbon on the new library. We gather in front of the door. A red ribbon is pinned to the doorframe. Before cutting the ribbon, a fellow Canadian, one of the people responsible for this volunteer project, speaks of the importance of libraries to Mexico’s children. We all troop inside. The students take their places at their assigned desks. We adults head for piles of brand new books with prices marked on them. Now it’s our turn to help by buying the books, writing our names and where we’re from in them before donating them to the new library.

Bumping over the road on the way back to San Miguel, I contemplate the meaning of what I’ve just witnessed. There are thousands of isolated villages in Mexico’s countryside where children grow up without any sense of a wider world. Imagine, first of all, interacting with us strange Canadians who are rich enough to change their lives for the better.

Then there are the books. I visualize a youngster picking up a book and reading my strange name and that I’m from a place called Canada. Wouldn’t that pique a child’s curiosity about a world beyond poverty and isolation? Then there are the books: What better way to absorb the importance of clean water and a decent standard of living? These people are so hard working. They manage to exist on amazingly little.

Expats living here do a lot to improve the lives of local people. Where will all this lead? Will there be a revolution once people realize how impoverished they are compared to those living north of their border? Or are the Mexican people really as happy as they seem as they celebrate their many festivals with firecrackers and good-natured singing and dancing in the public square? I’ll be watching with interest to see how Mexico goes forward in the coming years.

Feel free to leave your comments. I’d really like to hear your thoughts.

Leaving A Long-Term Marriage Late In Life

IMG_0764I’m part of a new societal trend

When I left my marriage of 54 years, I thought my decision to leave was pretty unusual. Now I realize that my wish to separate is part of a startling new demographic. Divorces among the over-fifty crowd have increased dramatically and it’s most often the women who leave. Could this be the next stage in the women’s movement?

The Grey Divorce

I learned about this new trend when I tuned into the Sunday Edition on CBC. Host Michael Enright’s guest, Ashley Walters interviews older women who have left their marriages. The programme is called Til Grey Do Us Part. The women’s accounts touched me deeply. Some were similar to my own experience. Others were probably common, but differed from mine. I’ll tell you the women’s experiences in regular print and add my own in italics.

One woman said, after thirty years of marriage: “The hardest part of the divorce was coming to the decision.”

I tried for months to get the words out of my mouth. “I want to leave and live on my own” just stuck somewhere in my upper chest. I simply couldn’t say it.

Another woman said, “I have no regrets beyond perhaps wishing I’d done it earlier.”

How many women, like me, want to leave but can’t get up the courage to give themselves the life they long for?

IMG_0737Women seeking autonomy

Consider this woman’s description of her new found autonomy. “I feel wonderfully freed up to see and be with whatever friends I choose without censoring myself in order not to antagonize him or cover up for his social awkwardness.”

I relate personally to this woman’s sense of freedom in social situations. I’ve never been very good at standing up for my own needs and wishes. The words “I want” and “I need” are hard for women generally.

Women take the lead

Women most often take the lead in leaving. When I tell couples I meet of my decision to live alone, the women almost always congratulate me and comment on my courage. The men, on the other hand, look upset and worried.

A woman on the Sunday Edition programme had been married 38 years when she gave up in despair. She was ready to do something for herself, but found no support for her wish to grow. When she announced she was leaving, her husband said, “Well, I didn’t stop you (from growing.)”

I recognize the response. I too was easily detoured away from my own wishes in the face of disapproval and criticism. On the other hand, I had full support in fulfilling myself professionally.

Another woman, an 80-year old, was 74 when she left a 48-year marriage. She referred to “spouse retirement syndrome.” Her response to her husband’s retirement was to get sick.

My husband was dedicated to his work until just before we moved out of our Toronto house. There we were in our new house, surrounded by unpacked boxes, both of us exhausted and no careers to distract us. Face to face it was not a pretty scene. It became obvious that if I

stayed with this newly retired husband, something terrible would happen to me. I’d get a life-threatening illness, become alcoholic or seek some other harmful escape. Desperation gave me the extra push I needed to say the words and go into action.

Positive outcomes of leaving

“I can have fun in my life again. I’m more afraid of being with someone who doesn’t actually like me. Women don’t have to accept a life that doesn’t accept them. They deserve to be with people who don’t undervalue them.”

“We can expand and grow. We don’t have to shrink and be mean. I had to leave the marriage so I could be who I am. Six years later I have him as a friend.”

Sometimes we have to leave a long-term marriage. It’s about aging and staying in charge of our lives.

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Do you have a story to tell? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Joining The Mexican Protest March

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All over Mexico at the same hour on the same Sunday, Americans and Canadians joined with Mexicans to protest Trump’s treatment of his southern neighbour. Here in San Miguel de Allende you can feel the people’s stress. Everyone has a family member or at least knows of a fellow Mexican who lives in the USA and fears deportation. Likely they also know of someone who has actually been shackled and escorted to the border.

On the Sunday of the protest, I joined Mexicans, tourists and expats in the march to protest the wall. Winding our way through the narrow streets we chanted, “Puentes no Muros.” (Bridges not walls) Mostly we outsiders were gringoes and Canadians. (Canadians are not “gringoes.” The word comes from the green uniforms American soldiers wore in the war to seize Mexican territory. “Green Go Home” was the cry.)

Proceeding through the narrow winding streets, the flag of Mexico held high, the march headed for the central square of the town. All along the way, Mexicans came out of their homes and shops to express their joy at seeing support for their country. The protest probably won’t do much to influence Trump’s inhumanity, but it certainly gave local people a show of moral support.

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I have a Mexican friend down here. His parents were Mexican and he was raised in the USA, in a Texas border town. He has personal knowledge of the problems faced by Mexicans. He tells me of the huge disparity in incomes. He estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty while twenty percent are affluent by any standards and ten percent are incredibly rich.

Here on the streets of San Miguel de Allende poverty is less evident than in Mexico City. Still, even here where Snow Birds spend the winter and generously support children’s education and health, there are women sitting cross-legged on the street, a small child on their laps, their hands outstretched begging for pesos from the passing crowd.

A trip outside the town reveals poverty that is shocking to us North Americans. People live in unimaginable poverty. Whole families live under a corrugated roof where they all bed down for the night on the floor. One bare bulb hangs down providing light. Food is basic: beans, corn and rice. Historically, it’s just lucky that beans and corn, the traditional available foods, happen to combine to form a complete protein. Water is scarce and not safe to drink. Affluent people drink only bottled water. Plastic bottles are ubiquitous. The poor drink water that would never pass the test in the United States or Canada.

“Mexico needs a revolution,” remarks my Mexican friend. “It’s the only way things will get better here.” He explains that the bosses and the rich keep a tight rein on the population to prevent chaos. It’s like a country seething with terrible deprivation while the countries to the north are perceived as rich and comfortable.

I went to the internet and found the following:

“Mexico is the country of inequality. Nowhere does there exist such a fearful difference in the distribution of fortune, civilization, cultivation of the soil, and population. …The capital and several other cities have scientific establishments, which will bear a comparison with those of Europe. The architecture of the public and private edifices, the elegance of the furniture, the equipages, the luxury and dress of the women, the tone of society, all announce a refinement to which the nakedness, ignorance, and vulgarity of the lower people form the most striking contrast.”

As the writer Augusto Monterroso wrote in 2002 (p.60): “the unique, truly hyper-real characteristic of Mexico is its social inequality; the misery that marks the everyday life of the immense majority of Mexicans.”

In my next post I’ll write about my trip to a rural school to cut the ribbon on a new library funded by San Miguel’s expats.

A Year After Leaving My Marriage

pexels-photo-286207I’m sitting on a balcony in the warm sun. Hummingbirds and bumblebees whir and buzz in the azalea bushes surrounding me. I’ll call this my first day in San Miguel de Allende since most of yesterday was lost when icing conditions kept the plane from leaving Toronto’s Pearson Airport. I arrived here close to five in the morning on Saturday.

Today is Sunday. As is my custom, I set out for the 10.30 Unitarian Universalist service. I remembered the white stucco building from last year, but when I got there, there were no welcome signs and no people. Turns out it was 9.15 local time, not 10.15. Nobody told me there was an hour’s difference in the time between Toronto and Mexico and in my worn out condition, I didn’t pick up the clues.

Coming to the Unitarian Universalist service when I travel is like coming home. The greeter smiles at me, just as our greeters do back in Canada. This particular greeter, an attractive woman with a warm smile, suggests I make a name badge, including where I live. Once my chest is emblazoned with the bright pink sign, members of the congregation welcome me and ask about my stay in San Miguel. I look over the church bulletin and realize my coming week could be filled with interesting talks, women’s breakfast meetings, dinners and events. For a single woman travelling alone, this is very reassuring.

I take my seat near the front where I can look out on the ornate carved spires of la parrochia, the Roman Catholic church. Its architecture warrants the title of “cathedral,” but since San Miguel de Allende has no bishop, it cannot claim this title. In front of me, the pianist and a violinist take their places. Music is important to Unitarians. The subject of the morning is silence and its importance in our lives. I sink into the peaceful surroundings. My whole body soaks up the music. I’m at peace. It’s all so different from last year when, newly separated, I was tense and unsure of who I was without my husband of 54 years beside me.

This morning I sat in the Sunday morning service, free to feel and experience. A sense of release and relaxation came over me. This was the sort of freedom I’d longed for when, a little over a year ago, I moved out of the matrimonial home to live on my own. I knew I needed to be in charge of my own life, free from another’s opinions and criticisms.

I’m not the only one to benefit from my decision to live alone. My husband is also free to live life as he wishes. He’s healthier and happier than he’s been for decades. He takes excellent care of himself and looks years younger. He likes puttering around the house and tending to the garden. I don’t. For me, being a tenant is freedom from irksome jobs like home repairs. And on it goes. Different interests, different ways we want to use our remaining years.

Aging and Being in Control of Your Life: that’s what’s important to me at this stage of my life. I’m all set to get the most out of my wonderful month in Mexico. I’m truly grateful for my good fortune in being able to experience Mexico again.

Recently I became aware that late-life separations are part of a growing trend. That was news to me. I’d thought I was the only late-seventies person ever to leave a long-term relationship. I’ll talk about this new trend in my next blog post.

Meanwhile, let your opinions be known in the “comments” section below. What do you know about this growing trend? Do you have personal experience with a long-term relationship? Let us know about it.

On Being Allergic to Cold Weather

cold-snow-forest-treesPlease don’t laugh when I tell you I’m allergic to cold weather. It’s no joke. The allergy to cold actually exists. Cold Urticaria symptoms are similar to allergic reactions to seafood or peanuts. My face, being the part of my body exposed to freezing weather, turns mottled red and puffy. I don’t have a wrinkle to my name. That’s the result of the body’s histamine rushing in to protect the body reacting to the allergy. It’s not just my face. All the tissues in my body swell. It’s like having your abdomen and your chest squeezed from within. When it gets bad enough, I feel really sick and head for bed.

Cold Urticaria is not new to me. I’ve had it since I was in my thirties. In those earlier years when I went skiing or planned to be out in the cold for long, I took anti-histamine to counter the rush of histamine. As well, I always carry a neck warmer or face mask to cover my face.

I’d pretty well forgotten about the allergy when it hit me this winter. Last year, winter was mild. During the only really cold period back home, I was in Mexico. This January, I somehow forgot my allergy. Anyway, for whatever reason, I got careless.

It was a bright and sunny day in the dog park, the sort of day you see on Christmas cards. The snow was pristine and the sky was bright blue. I was really enjoying myself watching Sammy The Poodle and his pack of canine friends running and playing together. The following weeks were miserable. I had to get away.

pexels-photoSo here’s my good news. As I write this I’m sitting in Pearson Airport waiting for my plane to Mexico City. From there, I’ll take the three-hour drive to San Miguel Allende, the beautiful little town in the interior. That’s where I went last year shortly after leaving my marriage of 54 years. It was “a first” in many ways. I was travelling alone. (Some friends were expecting me at the other end.) I’d never taken a winter holiday without my husband. It was a first time for shaping my days exactly as I wished: no compromising and no disappointment over not doing what I wanted to do.

This year I’ll be interested to experience myself twelve months further into my single existence. Will I feel less alone? Will I be braver when it comes to seeking out new people? Will I have the courage to go alone to events where normally only couples go?

In my next post, I’ll tell you what it’s like a year later.

Do you have experience travelling alone? Please leave your comments below for other readers.