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"There was an old woman who lived in a shoe..."

If the Shoe Doesn't Fit, Don't Live in It!
by Morgana Morgaine

Are you in your 50's or beyond and now single and/or living alone (for whatever reason)? Are you discovering that your own particular shoe no longer meets your needs economically, socially, emotionally, or physically?

The US Census 2000 tells us that 18,700,000 women 65 years of age and older reside in our country and that 55.7% of these women are unmarried. In addition, 25.5% of American households are single-occupant households, around 26,724,000 people. Of these, many more single-occupant households are female than male. This earmarks a good-sized population of women who may have living situations that do not really work for them. Why? Because living alone puts the burden on one individual to financially provide and maintain all the goods and services that are needed to maintain a life. We can all look at the costs involved in everyone having their own house, their own lawnmower, washer and dryer, car, and on and on. It is hardly an efficient arrangement economically and we haven’t even talked about the labor expenditure for one person to “do” a life!

Then there are the social and emotional needs of women. Much of our social lives revolve around dinners with friends, belonging to various groups and participating in other community activities. Nothing is wrong with this, but it is true that the opportunities for intimacy, dailyness, and a natural flow of sharing with others is more limited.

With the baby boomer generation giving us a bumper crop of middle aged women, it may well be time for a huge cultural shift and an opportune time for women to reinvent living arrangements.

Historically, there have been women who have envisioned AND created new housing/lifestyle arrangements that have fostered a community spirit and provided a safety net for women by changing and improving the economics of householding.

The most exciting and inspiring lifestyle model for women that I have found was established and flourished in Europe in the 12th, 13th centuries and beyond. The founders of this cultural shift were called the Beguines. These Northern European women established a variety of living arrangements to meet their economic, spiritual, and social needs.

In a time when the prevailing options for women were either to marry or join the religious life in convents/monasteries, these women chose a different path. Many did not want the strictures of a traditional marriage nor did they want to be bound to the patriarchal hierarchy of the Church Fathers in a nunnery. Also, many women did not have the necessary dowries to join the established religious communities; an option more readily open to women who came from wealthy families. As women of middle and lower class economic status who did prize a spiritual life and a measure of economic security, Beguines ingeniously created shared lifestyles through a variety of community models. For some, this involved living in large groups similar to convent life, but without the vows and restrictions that the Church mandated. Other Beguines opted to share a home in common, perhaps in groups of 4-6. Still others would buy houses in close proximity to each other and share a spiritual, social, and sometimes work life. There were well known Beguines as well who were artists, writers, wealthy patronesses who financially supported their Beguine “sisters”, and there were women whose wise leadership encouraged the mystical life.

An intriguing aspect of Beguine life involved their property agreements through which they willed their houses to one another so that the Beguine lifestyle could be sustained. Dayton Phillips, a researcher who examined the wills and addresses of the Beguines of Strasbourg, ”reveals that a whole section of town was inhabited by women who shared houses, rented to other women, bequeathed property to their Beguine friends, and ensured that other Beguines could become tenants after the present residents moved on or died.”

At the peak of their popularity, more than 3000 (known) women lived in Beguinages of one sort or another, primarily in Holland, Belgium, and Germany. By the middle of the 15th century, there were reportedly societies of Beguines in almost every urban area of Europe. The movement became so popular as a successful lifestyle option that the Church, threatened by these independent women, exerted pressure to close the Beguinages. Some women were forced into Church-directed convents, others were forced into the streets, and still others were burned as heretics. Nevertheless, a small number of women calling themselves Beguines still survived in the 1900’s!

I believe that the Beguines inspire us to take a look at our choices and perceived lifestyle limitations. They inspire us to entertain other options. They remind us of the precept that form should follow function, although it seems that we often maintain forms (structures) that don’t really support our functions at all. Because these structures are so culturally ingrained and affirmed, we just make do and watch our money and energy drain away in inefficient systems!

Now, for all of you who are getting nervous about independence and privacy and “the hard work of relationship” etc., let me say that the key words here are options and choices. What the Beguines teach us is the “art of possibilities and opportunities”; that a variety of lifestyle designs can support a sense of community, belongingness, and financial relief.

Not every woman wants to live in the same house with another.

Some women might consider small efficient bungalows built on shared property with some common areas for gardens, social dining, celebration. Others might consider an apartment building owned in common and re-modeled to allow individual units as well as common spaces. Larger homes might be re-designed in such a way as to house 4 women or more. The point is to move out of the shoe box, to focus on common needs first, then talk about individual requirements and then design housing arrangements to meet the needs.

I encourage women to take a look at their current lifestyles and consider alternatives that might better support a more nurturing and economically balanced lifestyle. Dream a little about how spending less individually on the goods and services needed for daily living might free up monies to take that trip to Tuscany or work less hours or follow whatever dreams you have tucked away inside. So much of our TIME, ENERGY, AND MONEY goes to maintaining individual lifestyles, that for many the hope of a dream nest egg is a dream of diminishing returns! Re-structuring our lives would open many exciting doors for middle age and beyond.

Now, to wind this up and get you fired up, here are some things that “Wise Women” have said or are doing:

“Nesting” is definitely women’s work. We all do it in one way or another. I recently read in a study by the McAuley Institute (mcauley.org) that “women around the country are building quality, affordable housing as they try to help their neighbors, friends and themselves improve their lives...women executives lead 46% of community development corporations and other community building initiatives based on a 10% sample of 1900 community-based organizations.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her book Women Who Run With Wolves, said: “ If she (a woman) cannot find the culture that encourages her, then she usually decides to construct it herself. And that is good, for if she builds it, others who have been looking for a long time will mysteriously arrive one day enthusiastically proclaiming that they have been looking for this all along”.

Dolores Leckey, an educator, suggests in her essay on “Women and Creativity” that: “women’s creativity has been enhanced by structures that:

-> allow for spiritual exploration by providing time and space and study opportunities;
evoke community, where life can be shared and consciousness enlarged;

-> evoke community, where life can be shared and consciousness enlarged;

-> articulate a common purpose or common cause;

-> provide opportunities for solitude where the soil of creativity can be cultivated, where seeds barely formed can take root and be protected and nourished until strong enough to become visible.”

Don’t you think it is time for the Old Woman to dump her Shoe? —get out of the box—design households and lifestyles that support our real economic, emotional, physical and soulful needs? Oh, and yes, add to that, doing it in a JOYFUL manner!

Read more about it:
Beguine Spirituality edited by Fiona Bowie from Spiritual Classics Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1990
A Passion for Friends by Janice G. Raymond Beacon Press Boston 1986

©Morgana Morgaine

Morgana Morgaine lives in Asheville having relocated from New Mexico. She is the Coordinator for Clown Programs at The Health Adventure where she teaches classes in clowning and directs a Troupe of volunteer clowns. She strongly feels the call to community (in some form) and perhaps her passion for the Beguines stems from enjoying such a life in the distant past!.

Read more about it:
Beguine Spirituality edited by Fiona Bowie from Spiritual Classics Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1990

A Passion for Friends by Janice G. Raymond Beacon Press Boston 1986

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