It is May, the delightful season of flowers and birds and bunnies and all sorts of other suggestive displays of fecundity. It is time for the busy-ness of reproduction. It is also time to eat fresh grown food and remove some of the layers of clothing and open the sealed windows to let out months of stale air and finally breathe in freshness. May is when we honor mothers and watch our growing children graduate to new maturity. It is when we uncover and tune up the grill and plant out the peppers and tomatoes. It is when the hearts and minds of young folks turn to… baseball! Among other past-times.
It is, however, a difficult season in which to be old and single. Or maybe the difficulty is in being newly divorced; I’ve not yet got my sea legs under me so I can confidently stride off into this new horizon. Still, I suspect it’s hard on anyone in this culture who is alone. Midwinter might be hard on empty-nesters, but spring is the worst for those who no longer have a nesting compulsion. The whole world seems to be conspiring to remind us of our fruitlessness, which in this youth-obsessed culture means unwanted-ness — or at best unsavory abnormality.
I’m not normally bothered by aging. I’m not normally bothered by solitude. I rather prefer both. But this year there was a newly tangible finality to being alone combined with the lingering effects of pandemic isolation combined with being on furlough from the garden center while there were no customers combined with the fact of winter weather limits on doing just about everything combined with ever-darkening news from the world of men, and that all served to underline and magnify the timeless message from Spring to old folks — ‘You are no longer part of all this’.
So I was feeling isolated and depressed, and with resolve thus weakened, the message that I needed a romantic partner to be happy insinuated itself into my subconscious and took root like some kind of nasty cerebral jimsonweed. (You just can’t get away from that toxic stench in May…) And then I made a critical error — I signed up for the free elements of a reputable online match-maker. I did this in the late night hours (which seems to be common, by the way, given the number of head shots framed by pillows…). By morning, I had already realized my mistake. As I was wading through demands on my attention and trying to convince my email program to grant me access to these messages that I really didn’t want to read, I finally understood what I want from this new life horizon. And it was not this.
I don’t think I’m unusual, so I thought I might pass on my life lesson so that others don’t have to learn it the hard way. Or you might… but now you have fair warning…
Romantic love is for kids. It is shallow. It is boring. It is ephemeral. It is barely sufficient to bring the two halves of our species — two ways of being that I am increasingly convinced are mostly mutually incompatible — together long enough to make new humans. Beyond that, it is worse than useless. It is degrading and wasteful.
To begin with, there is the focus on body image — which, yes, becomes a central concern even when one is older and presumably wiser, or at least comfortable with whatever body is remaining. But agree to date in old age, and suddenly you look in the mirror and see your sags and puckers through the eyes of someone who is judging you solely by your appearance. Let me be clear, you can’t even join one of these services without a picture (I tried…). Facebook started as just that, a database of the faces of Harvard women (along with their financial prospects). When you take on one of these matching programs, the questions you will be addressing and the vast majority of comments made are focused on the body — most particularly on fitness. Not on health, mind you, but simply body fat. These online services might lay bare what was once hidden in the subconscious — because there are now no consequences to admitting to such shallow attractions — but one might note that they are successful because those shallow attractions exist and are everywhere. (Though, what is online seems far more male than female, both in terms of numbers of users and in the focus and appeal of the format.) But anyway, yes, dating means that you will be judged solely on your face and commitment to burn fat. This is hard to accept in old age when the face isn’t what it was and the commitment is pretty much gone with the reproductive urge that fed it. (There is quite a lot of blatant lying…)
What is annoying about that is that the urge is gone. Our need to look good to potential mates is not a life-long obsession, beauty industry messaging notwithstanding. This may not be as true for men as it is for women. Male human bodies do not have to invest as much into reproduction and so therefore can afford to carry on with canoodling until death or erectile disfunction. The male imperative is very much youth-centered and focused on the mating, not on the long term care of the next generation. Most male primates don’t even live as long as females. Their whole life is dating, essentially.
But not women. We have biological clocks for good reasons. We put more bodily resources into producing the next generation, and then we are usually responsible for raising those infants to adulthood. Our bodies simply don’t have the capacity to produce babies in old age and maintain an aging body. Moreover, making more and more babies to care for is incompatible with our role as care-giver. It is physically and socially maladaptive to make babies when we have left our younger years behind, and so naturally we lose the hormones that drive all the urges to make babies. With those hormones goes the need to be sexually appealing. (Which, for many of us, is not as strong as the beauty industry would like even when we have those hormones…) Old women used to take pride in their face wrinkles and body fat. These were the signs of wisdom and prestige — signs that they had successfully navigated a long and abundant life. (I mean, have you looked at those all those obese Neolithic ‘Venus’ figures!) It is only very recently that women have adopted the male imperative and tried to force our bodies and minds into lifelong sexual activity — and we are not winning that battle with nature. (Like all our battles with nature…)
So the drive to date and mate is gone, and there is much less patience to be spent on such things. You may not be aware that you’ve lost these needs or that patience because there is substantial messaging telling you that you have them and need to act on them… now! However, if you have been off-market for any substantial time and then rejoin the madness as an older person, you will be forcibly shown that that biological clock has run down and will not be rewound no matter the marketing. You will be reminded that you need quite a lot of stamina and resources — and that desire, ladies, that has been largely lost with all your viable eggs — to put up with this romantic nonsense.
Dating is expensive and time consuming. In something like eight hours — time when the respondents in my limited geographical area should have been asleep like me — a couple hours of work were generated for me. Now, I did have to convince Mail to allow me to see the messages which took up more time and effort than it probably should have. (I’ve since taken the program’s extreme reluctance as a sign…I finally gave up trying.) But once permission had been granted by my computer, then I faced all these further demands on my time and on my capacity to care about random strangers (which is not very great…), largely coming from people that were clearly not within the parameters I had taken time and care to set. (I don’t want to be the most well-read person in the room, nor do I have any intention of interacting with those with ‘conservative values’.) This is not effort that I want in my life. And there are no benefits earned in these efforts. There is not even a potential for reward. Except a date.
And when that happened — far sooner than I expected or was emotionally ready to deal with — I realized I was facing something I could not afford — or ethically engage with. I simply don’t have the time or the money, but I also can’t believe what I do and be who I am and yet do this dating thing. I don’t eat out or go to movies merely because I’m alone now (and there’s this plague, you see…). I don’t do those things because I can’t justify the time, the expense and the material use — and waste! — on what is basically ‘entertainment’, usually of a nature that is less pleasurable than what I can experience cooking my own food and doing all the myriad things that I already do to stimulate my monkey brain — writing, reading, gardening, walking the hills, talking with the birds and trees, sitting quietly in the spring sunshine. It costs quite a lot to eat a restaurant meal or go to the movies, and even where the food is fair trade and locally sourced (which is not very common), there are mountains of trash behind every one of these venues. These dating protocols squander more carbon and other resources than our planet can afford. And yet doing this dating thing is never as satisfying as my own cooking and curling up with a good book. I just don’t see how this is fun, never mind beneficial. And if it were to go away? How much of the entertainment industry, of travel and tourism, of random gifting and greeting — and of course the ubiquitous dating services — would just implode if adults were to stop engaging in these juvenile mating rituals and leave dating to the kids — who do not have money or resources to squander! Look at how far we could get toward decarbonization just through eliminating this pervasive perverse thing that few people actually enjoy and many people actively dislike!
But that is, I suspect, the reason for forcing romance into maturity. If it were left to the kids who do not have expendable incomes and access to resources, whole industries — maybe most industries — would die. There is so much at stake here. Those who extract money from need (which is all industry) have essentially three options for generating the bulk of those peddled needs — food, shelter and reproduction — and the third increases and perpetuates the other two. If romantic love were left to the kids who actually feel it, so much market just melts into air. Well, that can’t be allowed.
So we have marketing and messaging and whole industries created explicitly to perpetuate this desire that most of us do not feel natively. Look at the titles in the self-help section of a book store. Do those shelves contain much advice on how to fix the plumbing or instructions on learning to play cello or even basic knitting patterns? Nope. Even the books on finance and household order — which should contain those tips on plumbing and maybe knitting — are about maintaining appearance. They are about presenting your life and your body as a fit, viable and high-status reproductive mate.
We could blame this, like many other present woes, on the neoliberal boomers. After all, we are taking life advice from quite possibly the most self-absorbed, socially blind, and grotesquely greedy group of humans ever to blight this planet. These people have a huge monetary interest in perpetuating your misery, not merely as a reproductive human, but in general. If you are happy, then they are out of work, wealth, and status. For them there is no good resolution to this equation except your continual dissatisfaction with life. They don’t want you to help yourself achieve anything. They want you to forever throw your time and money into the pursuit of a happiness that is forever out of reach — because it is unreal! So all their life coaching is promotional material to generate a desire for what does not exist, for what you do not naturally feel.
And now, mistakes having been made, I viscerally know that I don’t feel it. I don’t want to date people. I don’t want to be romantically in love. I am well done with all that and should know better, except that the marketing reaches even into my well-feathered and softly insulated nest.
But it’s more than that. I don’t want to share my life with a romantic partner. It’s not only that I don’t want to do the romantic partner try-outs; I don’t want the end result. I don’t want marriage. I don’t want a live-in relationship. I don’t want someone else breathing in my space every day. I like solitude. I like being utterly free to be my own person at this stage in my life, even when that includes talking to the trees (or maybe especially then…). I think most people do. Sure, it’s easier to share some burdens — like fixing the plumbing and cooking the food and calling the ambulance when ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’ — but those can be shared with any close friend. In fact, they are better shared with a friend than with a romantic partner. Romance is singularly self-focused and not particularly caring. Friends are the ones who will take care of each other in old age. And truly, family is best — whether it be a family of blood or of choosing — because family is a reciprocal relationship that is more or less freely given. By being a family, you are automatically enrolled in life care.
(Which the neoliberal boomers also do not like because they can’t make money off those relationships… hence the great need to destroy the family so that all the duties of care become market opportunities… yet they will maunder on about the associated loss of patriarchal authority when the family is broken apart…)
So while I’m not going to say, ‘Don’t do it’ if you are feeling lonely, I would maybe encourage you to sit down and analyze that loneliness before signing up for a dating service. What do you really want? Do you want a friend? Do you want someone to listen and to care? Do you want help with the plumbing? Or do you just want something to do to while away the hours of anomie? I suspect romance is the ideal path to none of those goals. Not even the idle entertainment. I suspect dating is running in the opposite direction from achieving whatever it is you want from life, especially if you are an older woman whose biological clock has moved well out of reproductive time. But even if you want to find a mate that can turn into a friend for life, dating is not the best way to accomplish that. Or maybe even a viable way to accomplish that given the vast failure of marriage in this culture.
After all, what are you looking for in a friend? Body type? Sexual fitness? Someone who needs entertainment? Probably not. You probably want someone who has similar interests and life goals. You probably want someone who shares your values and your views of the world. You probably want someone who specifically does not need the stimulation of a date night or sex or physical attraction to bring you together. You want someone who is going to care about you, not your capacity to please themselves. Romance sure seems to be the hard way to go about finding that person. It’s much easier to find that person in living the life that you want to embody and being open to those who are living the same life around you. (Hell, it’s probably easier to find a compatible and caring life partner through a marriage arranged by loving parents than it is by pursuing romance.) So… for whatever it is you want in a friend, I suspect the best way to find that person is to do the things that you want to do, be who you want to be, and look around to see who else is in your vicinity, doing and being just like you.
There is another side of this. If you simply want to feel part of something, if you are feeling unseen and unnecessary, romance, being self-concerned, is not going to help… but… the world actually does need you! If you have time on your hands, give it away. I talked about this last year. Before the ‘privatization’ of every last thing, a good deal of the necessary work in society — along with much of the socialization — was done at no cost, by volunteers.
Think back to the days before Margaret Thatcher proclaimed society to be non-existent. Who provided the bulk of child care for working parents? Grandparents. Who ran children’s sports and clubs? Who kept the food bank open and staffed the shelters? Who made and delivered care packages for every need? Who assisted classroom teachers, served as museum docents, filled in all the cracks in hospital staffing? Who keeps PBS funded and operational? All volunteers. Many, but not all, elderly. As a teenaged volunteer, I ran the Saturday story times at our local library. Volunteers like me also shelved most of the books. There were exactly two librarians on staff. Operating expenses were minimal, and therefore well in line with a small-town budget. We could even afford a couple computers when that was still a very fringe benefit. This used to be normal. These days, my librarian friends tell me that libraries are stressful places to work because they are so short-staffed and yet perennially short on cash as well. (This is partly because unions have perhaps rightly cracked down on volunteer labor that was taking work away from those who need wages, but there has been no equivalent increase in library budgets to meet these wage hours… so…)
The problem here is that for post-boomer generations, there are far fewer people who can afford retirement and so there is a commensurate shortage of volunteer hours. This is happening while the market is pirating public services and institutions and while the insidious atmosphere of privatization has slashed operating budgets even in the remaining non-profits. There is more need for volunteer labor and far less of it to go around. So if you have time, you are needed! Choose something you believe in and do it. It is likely you will meet other people who share your interests while you are doing this necessary work.
Or… run for office! This really can’t be overstressed. For most of human history, elders — who have both the wisdom of experience and the time free from reproductive work — have governed society. In many cultures, this was obligatory. When you hit a certain age, you joined the Council. And while there are many cultures that divide the women’s group from the men, there are very few that aren’t egalitarian. We, in the West, need to take note of these successful ways to run society and emulate them. To get there we need far more participation in government now. So get out there and help. Run for school board, library board, city council, state representative. If you have specialized technical knowledge, run for oversight boards in that field. Whoever you are, if you are reading this, then you probably have the care and wisdom that is needed for good government — and society needs you. Desperately!
On the other hand, if yet more hard work is unappealing (totally understandable!), there are many other ways to feel like you belong. Join a book club. Or make one. (All you need to do is put up a reading schedule on your library’s message board and people will come… especially if there are snacks.) Or go rent a plot in your community garden — even if you have your own garden, go garden with other people. Sign up for community softball or an adult swim club or some other low-stress team sport. Or learn new skills. Take a dancing class. Learn to play the recorder. Join a theater or choral group. Sit in on chess matches in your local park. Buy art supplies and go plop down on a street corner and practice. (It’s astounding what sort of expert instruction you can get just by doing things in a public space… again, especially if there are snacks…) And if you have skills of any sort, teach others. Community colleges, senior centers, LGBTQ centers, and many other organizations hold classes and workshops on just about everything under the sun, often for free. And because they are free — and generally poorly funded public services — they need volunteer teachers (and snacks!).
There is one final point in this… I made this dating game mistake because I felt obliged to become part of another duo. That to participate in this world properly, I needed a mate. Doing things alone is generally frowned upon. Enter a concert hall or theater by yourself and try not to notice the looks you get… In any case, I was feeling that my choices to be alone were wrong, strange, perhaps even detrimental to my health. There is quite a lot of noise made by this market and even by well-meaning people, claiming that humans are not solitary. This is largely focused on mating, pairing up romantic partners, but it also repeatedly shows up in health and psychology. We are bombarded with studies that show that we need other humans, that loneliness is a lethal condition, that we wither without contact. And it is largely true… except… it’s also not…
We absolutely need care and contact from humans in infancy and childhood, though even then we are more well-adjusted as adults if as children we also have deep relationships with the more-than-human world. At the other end of life, we need intellectual challenge and a reason to keep enduring the increasing discomfort of aging bodies, but this does not need to come from human relationships. (And let’s be honest here, old age is the lethal condition… regardless of contact… that ‘eternal youth and ridiculously extended lifeline’ thing is another boomer fantasy…) A dog is just as much comfort in old age as a spouse, maybe better for some personality types (like mine…). A garden is a whole world of contact and challenge. Engaging with things you never had time for when you were younger, learning new skills, creating art or music or that book you think you have in you — all these are also life and health preservers. But notice that many of these things require solitude. Or at least very long breaks from the distraction of human contact with all its words and messaging and endless, unceasing obligations.
Humans are undoubtedly a social species. We are dependent upon each other our entire lives. But we are also dependent on a great many other beings — from soil and gut microbes to air and water, mountains and weather, dogs and the spirits of trees. We are interdependent and can never get out of that web; and we do best, physically and emotionally, when we nourish all those relationships, not merely the human entanglements. We don’t need direct and continual contact with other humans; we need direct and continual contact with life. And when we are old and have accomplished much of what we wanted from human culture, we tend to drift away from the demands that no longer mean as much to us. For many of us, this means in practice that we are alone. By design. And there is nothing at all wrong or dangerous about that desire for seclusion from other humans so that we can be more fully alive to the rest of the world. It is a normal and healthy part of being human, especially of being an aging human.
I would even go so far as to say that we can’t be fully human if we are constantly socially engaged with other humans. What art or music or literature or science or philosophy or craft or much of anything would ever happen if we could not be alone for long stretches of time? Solitude is a time to immerse yourself in this world without the intrusive thoughts of others. Solitude is necessary to understanding and to the ingenuity based in that understanding. I might be in the minority here, but I do not think creativity happens in committee…
And so… if you want to be alone, there are very good reasons to heed that desire. If you want human companionship, then seek it through shared experience and interests. If you want entertainment, you probably would be just as satisfied with a book romance as with a human one — there’s no mess or break-down in the book covers. So, there truly isn’t any need for romance ever — but dating really becomes a waste of time and resources when you have aged out of reproduction.
You don’t need to engage with this human idea of perpetual romance or enduring sexuality. In truth, it is better for both you and the world if you don’t. But just as importantly, you do not need to justify — even to yourself — a wish to be left alone. Solitude is not anti-social. Solitude is the foundation upon which all human relationship is built. And I’m pretty certain that it is the only true path to engagement with the more-than-human world.
After all, how else can an old body truly savor Spring?
©Elizabeth Anker 2022