In this excerpt from Miki’s forthcoming book Reweaving Our Human Future, she presents a vision of elders contributing to the next generation. This is one of the book’s twelve “Wisdom Tales from the Future.”

Starting Life Again

Her face didn’t betray her panic. She didn’t want anyone to know what was going on. She, Ayelet Shoshani, famed inventor of a breakthrough process for synthesizing customized, 100% non-toxic polymers,[1] couldn’t think through the mathematical puzzle in front of her. This was the second time in three weeks. No matter how much she concentrated, one variable or another dropped out of her mental grasp.

She had gone to the doctor after the first time, where she learned she had a degenerative disease, incurable. The doctor told her it would be gradual. Initially it would only happen when she was particularly tired, or at the end of a long day. Then, slowly, she would be challenged more and more often. Her useful days as a scientist were coming to an end. Yes, she could lecture, and do other things. She didn’t imagine she could continue on the creative edge she had been on for all these years.

What was she going to do? She was 74. Many people her age were shifting to being with the children. It was the standard approach to what used to be called childcare. She didn’t know what she would do with children. Their interests didn’t capture her imagination, and playing was not her thing. And yet she never forgot what it was like to be a child. She liked to think of herself as poorly socialized, which she didn’t consider a bad thing. She still hadn’t learned how to say things in the right moment. Like children, she tended to say things when they were true. This often got her in trouble, though she usually got out of it because of her stature. All in all, she had a lot of respect for children, despite her awkwardness with them. How could she not, given her history?

She had discovered chemistry when she was eleven, and it was all she did since. At thirteen she was playing with computer models of complex polymers, and writing letters begging scientists to let her work in their labs, which all but one of them politely declined. That was all she needed, one person to support her. By the time she was fifteen she made her first invention. At that time she was still in Tel-Aviv.

By then, talk about the rapid disappearance of oil, and the immense costs of using oil-based chemicals in particular, was no longer confined to the environmental movement.[2] Ayelet, buoyed by her early success, secretly decided she was going to solve this problem. She didn’t tell anyone at the time, not even her benefactor. She was smart enough to know that no one would take her seriously. Young and female, she proceeded on her own, grateful to have access to a lab, and for the freedom it gave her to play and experiment. Having produced something of value so early in her life, she was confident she would never have to worry about making a living.

She read Marconi’s[3] biography, finding solace and inspiration in his determination as a young man to persist in his experiments despite ridicule. Like him, like all inventors, she didn’t feel bound by linear logic. Everything was fair game. Nature took millions of years to convert dead organic matter to the complex substance known as oil, that rich, formerly abundant source of easy energy and the basis of so much of what humans came to take for granted as part of life, the polymers that filled every household. She held on to the obstinate conviction that there had to be a way to make that process faster, humanly manageable, and non-toxic.

If not for the transition happening, she might not have made it. She was skeptical at first, not an early adopter. She was worried about the predictable things. In retrospect, she was poignantly amused. So much unnecessary heartache. At the time, she thought the whole thing would collapse. Somehow she couldn’t believe enough people would have enough willingness to do enough of the more unpleasant work that had to be done. She wasn’t actively opposed to the transition, just skeptical. In fact, some of what shifted her was seeing how the strong opponents were handled. She couldn’t believe so much love and patience would be given to them. Now, all these years later, she thought: how much conditioning, over how many millennia, have gone into having so little faith in people.

And then the call came out listing all the intractable problems left over from the collapsing civilization, and asking for support. Lo and behold, they listed the problem that she’d been working on, the polymer issue, as one of the key obstacles to a truly sustainable life. She had just been on the verge of giving up, because everyone she talked with dismissed her simple idea as impractical, and no one wanted to fund it. And suddenly there was opportunity. She was no longer alone. Someone understood it enough to put it on the list. If she hadn’t had housemates she would probably have been dancing and screaming in delight. Instead, she just sat down and cried.

Within minutes she started writing a proposal. It was odd, because there was no request for a budget. How could that be? Instead, they wanted to know things like exactly how many people would be needed and what kind of equipment and infrastructure. That was clear and easy enough. And then they also wanted to know an estimate of the effect on communities, the carbon footprint, and a host of similar questions. It took some work. It was much harder to do than putting together a budget. As she was answering all the questions, slightly annoyed by the level of detail, the word “resources” was taking on a new, more precise meaning. Instead of thinking about how much money something cost, which in some ways was hiding the true cost, she had to really think through the ramifications of what she was proposing. She had a lot of respect for the thinking that went into working out what questions to ask.

Her proposal was accepted, she moved to Baghdad to participate in the first implementation, and the rest was history. Now, her initial version was wholly outdated. It was so perfected that anyone could write down the specs of a polymer they wanted, and with minimal investment of resources a computer program analyzed them, identified the molecular structure, and named the most likely naturally occurring substances that could be used to produce it locally. The process itself was simple enough that most requests could be handled locally, too.

How many people in the history of the world could claim they invented or discovered something that made life dramatically more livable for everyone? She remained shy and soft-spoken despite her fame, mostly avoiding social settings unless called to speak about topics about which she was passionate. She had only ever been truly comfortable with a few people, mostly a few other scientists and her partner Ilham who had just died the previous year. Ilham was the only one who had known Ayelet’s passion fully, and her inner struggles. She would have been the only one to know that she was starting to fail. Now, more than forty years after her pivotal piece of work, Ayelet didn’t want to be alone again. She had to talk to someone. Who could it be?

It happened to be the day of the weekly neighborhood meeting, and she had the urge to attend. She had been a few times in the early days, and couldn’t stand the long-drawn-out pace. She thought, and even felt, so quickly. She understood the issues, and everyone’s needs, and had solutions ready faster than people could even process the information, and it was just too painful to wait for people to catch up to her. And here she was, clear that she wanted to go, not knowing why. She only knew that in all matters in her life she trusted her intuition. She had chosen to have a lifelong relationship with Ilham within minutes, when they were both in their early 20s. That, too, was an unlikely decision. Ilham was not a scientist, though she loved listening to Ayelet’s discoveries and understood everything she said, and fast enough. Her passion was practical art. She produced an infinite variety of objects of great beauty that were used by thousands of people around the world in their daily lives. The only condition of having any of Ilham’s products was that one could only use it for a year, and then pass it along to another. Still, within thirty minutes of meeting Ilham, Ayelet told her that she thought they would be ideal life partners. She was even more amazed when Ilham immediately agreed. In all their years together they had had only seven fights, never the same one twice. She was bereft when Ilham died.

Knowing herself, she obeyed her instinct, and went to the meeting, despite the intense aversion and resistance she felt alongside the draw. She was super curious when she walked in. Curiosity, after all, was the main motivator in her life. The first few minutes, especially the check-in, held her interest. In all her shyness, she always found it fascinating to know what people were thinking and feeling. It didn’t last, though. As the facilitator read the list of items to decide, she sank into a funk. If only they still allowed dictators, she thought wistfully. She could make all the necessary decisions, and even better ones that attended to more needs, within minutes. It took all she had to stay through the entire two hours. It was hard to be in this position of liking her own decisions better than most everyone else’s. Ilham was the only one with whom she could truly think things through together. She was tired of remembering Ilham again and again. Would she ever recover from this loss before she died?

Finally the meeting was coming to an end. She thought of getting up to leave, defeated and confused, when one person asked if any new service opportunities had come up that week. That was all Ayelet needed to hear. She glued herself to the chair, even though she was ready to jump out and run, because she knew she needed to hear more. Someone objected to using meeting time for looking through things everyone could read at home. Someone else said that it was important to do, because sometimes some things just wouldn’t be filled otherwise. The rotating facilitator logged in, meanwhile, and started reading out loud information about permanent community service posts with transportation and health, and temporary ones with food distribution to the sick in the neighborhood and with children. She wasn’t giving him her full attention until she heard the word innovative. She was too embarrassed to ask the guy to repeat. What could be innovative about children? Then it hit her, and the loop was closed.

That night she put together a plan. The next day she let the laboratory personnel manager know that she would be phasing out. She would be doing all she could to find a replacement, although they both knew without saying a word that no one would step into her shoes. She didn’t know how long it would take, it all depended on how soon her plans would fall into place. For now she was just going to leave earlier, or come later, or both. Over time, she would shift into just mentoring new scientists, or consulting.

When asked what she was planning, she mumbled something about assuming her role as an elder. The manager didn’t press her, knowing how private she was. Inside, she was rejoicing. She had figured it all out. How could it have taken her so many years to understand why almost everyone, in the end, chose to be with children? It was clear as day. This was what humans always did, since time immemorial, and until some time in the twentieth century. Elders were with children, telling stories, preserving the culture, educating and nurturing the children, relieving the adults. Yes, that was what they had put together after the transition, she finally got it.

And she would be doing the same, in her own way. Except that her stories would be different. Not fairy tales, and not moralizing stories. She would put together a laboratory for kids. She would tell stories about science. Her plan, methodical as always, would work for children of any age. As soon as anyone knew enough and could articulate what they knew, they would be supervising others. Even younger kids could supervise older ones if they learned faster. Everyone would have something to learn, to share, to discover. She would be nurturing a new generation of scientists, right here in her neighborhood. She wouldn’t be alone.

[1] Polymers are large molecules composed of repeating structural units. There are both naturally occurring polymers (such as proteins, rubber, cellulose and other very familiar substances) and synthetic polymers, most significantly plastics of all sorts.

[2] In all the discussion about peak oil that I have seen, the focus has been on energy, and I don’t hear much significant discussion about how to replace the huge amount of plastics that are used in everyday life and in commercial applications. I do believe this is a problem as serious as loss of cheap oil for energy, which goes way beyond plastic bags.

[3] The inventor of radio transmission.