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  • Review of Home by Marilynne Robinson

    HomeHome by Marilynne Robinson
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    I loved Gilead by Marilynne Robinson so much. The review is here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....

    But with Home, I had a different experience. I wasn't compelled through most of the book. At about the three-quarter mark, things started to happen and I felt my interest quicken. But here's a summary of my impressions, and my apologies to those who loved it so much they recommended it to me:

    1. I was disappointed to see this other, peevish, nasty side of Rev. Ames.
    2. I didn't like the Rev. Boughton very much at all.
    3. Jack is tedious and pathetic.
    4. Glory almost breaks free but then doesn't.

    Robinson really makes me wait for it, building my conflict between compassion and resentment for Jack. And just when I lose faith in him, there's a scene where the old misogynist/bigot Rev. Boughton asks to see Jack and his brother together in his room, and Jack insists Glory be included. As if he sees her as an equal to the men, rather than just the servant her father expects.

    In this, I felt Jack himself was a Rorschach test for the reader, in that while he seems almost feral, a man born without skin with which to hide himself from the world, easily wounded and always untrusting, you want to abandon him, but can you? If so, who are you? What are your values - what are your limits?

    So now Glory has decided to stop being codependent with her "fiancé", and switch her ministrations and self-sacrifice to her dying father and her feral brother. This is an arc? This is growth? What is Robinson's meaning, at the end of the story, when Glory decides to stay in a town she has said she hates, in a house she agrees to preserve as a monument/mausoleum to the family? It can only be read as failure to respect oneself in favor of service to others! This troubles me deeply.

    I apologize for the length of this next excerpt, but I have to reproduce it, because it's so telling:

    "(Glory) had tried to take care of (Jack), to help him, and from time to time he had let her believe she did. That old habit of hers, of making a kind of happiness for herself out of the thought that she could be his rescuer, when there was seldom much reason to believe that rescue would have any particular attraction for him. That old illusion that she could help her father with the grief Jack caused, the grief Jack was, when it was as far beyond her power to soothe or mitigate as the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. She had been alone with her parents when Jack left, and she had been alone with her father when he returned. There was a symmetry in that that might have seemed like design to her and beguiled her with the implication that their fates were indeed intertwined. Or returning herself to that silent house might simply have returned her to a s state of mind more appropriate to her adolescence. A lonely schoolgirl at thirty-eight. Now, there was a painful thought.

    "She recalled certain moments in which she could see that Jack had withdrawn from her and was looking through or beyond her, making some new appraisal of her trustworthiness, perhaps, or her usefulness, or simply and abruptly losing interest in her together with whatever else happened just then...She found no consistency in these moments, nothing she could interpret. He was himself. That is what their father had always said, and by it he had meant that Jack was jostled along in the stream of (the family's) vigor and purpose and their good intentions, their habits and certitudes, and was never really a part of any of it. He had eaten their food and slept beneath their roof, wearing the clothes and speaking the dialect of their slightly self-enamored and distinctly clerical family..."

    God! Who hasn't known people like this - men like this, children like this - who take and take and take from an ever-hopeful spouse or family and yet never seem quite able to be satisfied, or fulfilled, or happy! When all the sacrificial loving family member ever wants is for that feral person to be happy. Or at least safe.

    Like I said, Rorschach.

    And in this, I have to admit, Robinson delivers again, most profoundly, in pulling back the curtains and showing us, right down to the faint beat of a pulse along a pale wrist, the impact on a family of such a lone wolf. Not that the wolf doesn't suffer. Not that we don't all feel empathy as we struggle to surface from this mire, gulping and gasping air, sorry for Glory who remains below, yet intent on saving ourselves.

    View all my reviews

  • Review of The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

    The Beginner's GoodbyeThe Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    After reading some of the reviews, I felt a bit off-kilter, as if I'm seeing something that wasn't intended by the author.

    Nevertheless, here's my impression: this story is about a man who, because of his physical limitations, resists closeness with other people, to the point that he marries a woman who seems certain to want the same, arm's length relationship. It's only after she dies that he begins to sense that he was wrong about that. During the grieving process, he comes to realize he's been living an arm's-length life.

    I love stories about people who come out of a fog and change their lives, empowered by the realization that they've been missing something important - that their reasoning was flawed, but it doesn't have to remain that way. And Anne Tyler is such a great wordsmith, anything she writes is wonderful. This book is perhaps a bit too subtle to win the raving applause it deserves.

    View all my reviews

  • Review of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

    Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to LeadLean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    As I read Lean In, I was intrigued at being able to get inside the head of a dynamic, smart woman who is one generation younger than me, and see the corporate world through her eyes. One of the cultural questions she answered for me was this: why are younger women so averse to the terms "feminist" and "feminism"? Apparently, Sheryl Sandberg and her contemporaries believe(d) the following:

    1. Equality having arrived, there's no need for feminism anymore
    2. Feminists are man-haters who resist makeup and the shaving of one's legs

    Okay, #2 was a bit tongue-in-cheek. However, having observed conditions in the real world for a few years now, Sandberg has come to see that the playing field is not and will not be level until more women occupy positions of power in the corporate hierarchy. She doesn't suggest that this is due to any malicious intent on the part of men, but rather it's simply a matter of ignorance.

    To illustrate, she describes having to park far away from her office door when hugely and uncomfortably pregnant. When she designated preferred parking spots to accommodate pregnant workers, no one complained. It was seen as logical. But prior to her taking her place in the C-suite, the issue hadn't been raised.

    Sandberg talks about not slowing down out of consideration for what might happen in the nebulous future. The example she gives, now famous, is of a young woman confiding her fears of not wanting to accept a job with a lot of responsibility due to the impact it might have on her family. The woman was planning ahead - she didn't even have a boyfriend yet.

    With this example, Sandberg makes the point that women, having been highly trained and educated, are waving off promotional opportunities. The jury is still out as to why, but she suggests, and I agree, that part of the reason is this: in corporate America, a woman's decision to go through pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and child-rearing is viewed as a private matter that should not impact her ability to work long hours and irregular schedules, including lengthy and frequent travel as needed. Rightly fearing this may drive her insane, a woman who wants a family may leap off the corporate ladder at a very early stage.

    Sandberg argues that if a young woman stayed on it long enough to secure a more powerful position, she would be able to exert more control over her work life (a perspective the young woman must trust will happen, since at her current low place on the corporate ladder she can only see her lack of power and control.) After a few promotions, she will be able to delegate some of her work to subordinates, afford more help at home, and influence workplace policies that unfairly impact women and families. Who can find fault with this argument?

    Sandberg is honest about her own mistakes, and I found that charming. For example, I was amazed that, for all her intelligence and education, she didn't originally intend to negotiate her starting salary with Facebook. Luckily a nice man (her husband) set her straight, and she made a counter offer to Zuckerberg. Reams of guidance have been written about how this error could have impeded her in later years, both at Facebook and with future employers, yet she didn't know. For other women who have not yet made this horrifying discovery, please read Ask for It by Babcock and Laschever (http://www.amazon.com/Ask-Women-Power...) which in addition to being enlightening and entertaining, offers tons of strategies for preparing yourself to negotiate. And not just for salaries. After reading that book I saved $150 on furniture I was going to buy anyway, by asking one question.

    But back to Lean In.

    I was also surprised that she wasn't well informed about how women can sabotage other women in the workplace, particularly women in power. This is an unfortunate truth with roots in biology, and is brilliantly explained in the amazing book, In the Company of Women by Heim and Murphy (http://www.amazon.com/Company-Women-I...) which I reviewed here:
    http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... This also suggests the reasons Sandberg was hit with such a backlash for the well-intentioned Lean In.

    There is so much more to say about Lean In, but let me close with this: I enjoyed learning how this stellar corporate executive struggled, made mistakes, and ultimately learned some strategies that will enable her, her family, and the women (and men) in her corporation to thrive. It's not perfect, and sometimes it's not even pretty, but part of the lesson is to let go of the need for perfection.

    The other message, younger women, is to get as far and as fast as you can before starting your families. Don't opt out just because it looks too hard from where you're sitting now. The view improves with each rung on the ladder.

    View all my reviews

A Contemplation on Mortality

Just before dawn on a cold October morning in 2008, I boarded a puddle-jumper out of North Dakota after my father’s funeral. Mom, my two siblings and I were returning to California, and it felt like we were abandoning Dad. As I listened to Rainbow by Jia Peng Fang and looked out the window at the dots of light representing isolated farmhouses of South Dakota, then Wyoming, then Colorado, the song burned a powerful memory into my mind. Every now and then I hear it, and it reminds me, and I’m flattened, stunned stupid with grief all over again. So then I wonder,

Why the hell did humans have to get stuck with knowing they’re mortal?

It’s such a burden, and it’s a special gift to humans alone. Animals have no concept (although sometimes I wonder about elephants). Think how comforting it would be to have the limited consciousness of a dog, for example. You eat, sleep, poop, and watch for opportunities. You don’t think about your eight missing litter-mates or parents.

And then this is amazing: we humans adjust. I can go a whole month or two without feeling bad about Dad. What an underrated coping mechanism! We not only get used to the idea that we’ll lose our loved ones, but once we do suffer such a loss, we adapt and move on. The drive to survive wins out over grief, and even allows us to repress the knowledge that some day, we’re going to deliver that same blow to our loved ones.

Recently I noticed Bill was moping around. He was missing his parents, he said, but when I tried to comfort him, he declined. “The pain reminds me  of the love I felt for them. They were good parents.” Bill, who doesn’t believe in a God or afterlife, believes he will live on through the people he’s influenced positively.

I get fearful sometimes in the wee hours, when the arithmetic seems more stark and life more of a crap shoot. Like you, I’ve survived tragedy; I’ve dealt with situations that made me feel almost mentally ill at the realization of a horrendous truth, or some kind of great loss. Sometimes it seems we humans know too much. One way to alleviate that burden is a form of denial: you stay busy and productive, enjoy the sun on your face and the fragrance of new-mown grass, and try to ignore it.

I finally told Bill about my existentialist woes. I didn’t want to bum him out, because he’s always such a Pollyanna and I didn’t know if he could handle my dark side. He shrugged and said, “Life is wonderful, but it IS a ticking bomb.” Cracked me up. I felt relieved. We  know we will die. The choice is what we do with that knowledge.

I’ve pretty much decided to ignore the fact in favor of energetic productivity, and let the chips fall where they may. What about you? What’s your strategy for dealing with this?

Leave a comment


  1. Lynn, I actually find human consciousness a gift. Our awareness of awareness allows us to make high level choices in life, an evolutionary step not available to animals lower on the life scale rung. Knowing that someday I’m going to die helps me be aware of how I live my life today. I find that knowledge invigorating, inspiring and in a way – comforting that I’m not the only living thing going to die. It’s a phenomena that all living creatures share.

    What’s important is to have no regrets. It’s not that we won’t make mistakes, nor should we live life trying to avoid them. The key is to learn from them, grow from them and not resent having made them.

    Working in hospice for the last three years has certainly helped my growth toward appreciation of life and its acceptance. I used to crave exceptionalism – like the Broadway show character Pippin, I wanted to live an extraordinary life. I’ve grown to love mundane, because a mundane life is still life – which, by definition, is exceptional.

    Thanks for another good piece!

    • Hospice would teach a person a lot about priorities, and about perspective. I love what you said about mundane. It takes a big person to appreciate simplicity.

  2. I’ve been trying to come to terms with this over the winter. This is my first one when I did not have to go to work, drive into the city, struggle through winter storms. It was hard. Turning 65 in April this year loomed all winter. I have so much I still want to do and see. But severe illness three years ago has made me aware that it isn’t going to go on forever.
    I think though that what I fear is more being incapacitated than death. I mean, when I’m dead, it won’t matter to me anymore. But if I can’t look after myself, it will be prolonged dying, and that I do not want.
    I’ve been seeing a counselor for a few weeks, to try to come to terms with it all. I have almost always bounced back quickly from setbacks, but this one has been harder.
    I am trying to keep pushing the thoughts to the background, to let survivor skills surface, and enjoy what time is still given me, rather than mope around and waste it worrying about the time being over.
    I do not believe in an afterlife, not in the form that most religions suggest there might be. I tend to believe energy goes back to the universe at the moment of death. Whether it returns in human form, or takes a different form, I don’t know. So, onward with contentment I hope.! Carol

    • Wow, Carol, I wish I could do a whole blog about your reply. Because it’s the 3 a.m. blues that we have to be able to deal with, and none of the slap-happy affirmations of positivity that work during the day are enough to insulate me in the wee hours. I remember a scientist, an atheist, saying that she believed in “enjoying myself, and being of service” in life. Those were her two core principles. If nothing else, know that I’m here, too. Thinking of the same big questions at 3 a.m. Best wishes. Stay in touch.

      • Thanks, Lynne. I ‘ve had little depressions before, last a couple of days and then I’m ok again. Even when hubby had a car accident that saw him go through two bouts of pneumonia and toxic shock before dying seven weeks later. That was hard; all my friends were far away; but new internet friends helped me through. I always thought that retirement would be wonderful and that I would not miss work at all. And I don’t miss work, but facing the aging and how few years are left~I wish I had gotten back to writing 30 years ago and feel like so much wasted time. And then over the winter began to fear every little ache and pain. Anyway better now. And right now I am replying from Utica NY, more than half way to a retreat in Massachusetts~ and I made it out of my driveway! Yay!


  3. Marsha Boyer

     /  May 11, 2012

    I feel the same way Bill does about leaving a positive legacy to my family and friends. That will be my “immortality” and so I try to keep all my encounters with them as positive and giving as possible. A few years ago I was going through a rough few months of chemotherapy and decided that I wanted to laugh every day and have fun with my closest friends and family. My daughter brought my one year old grandson most afternoons to read to me his favorite books. My son, who works in the medical field, made suggestions to help counteract the effects and just provided a calm atmosphere.My husband sought out wonderful funny books for me to take to treatments and my friends brought food and laughter. My nurses;who knew I crave chocolate; made sure I had some waiting for me in the treatment room every week. All of these little acts of kindness and the laughter got me through and still is in the forefront of my mind all the time. When I was finished; my family invited all my friends from every part of my life to a huge surprise party to celebrate the end of my chemo and my recovery. I try to live my life using the wonderful example they set with all their love and caring and hope that at my end; they will all have a big party and laugh while they remember the good things I brought to their lives.

    • Marsha, your beautiful words exemplify the art of living a life with deep appreciation in spite of horrible circumstances. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, and best wishes in your continuing recovery.

  4. want45sweetz

     /  May 11, 2012

    I fear dementia far more than death itself. I can’t face the idea of someone having to clean me up and feed me and take care of me every day because I can’t remember how or why to do the basics of living.

    It’s especially scary because we still don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias or how to treat them. I cope with the fear by doing the things which some research suggests “may” help prevent dementia and hoping for the best. It’s worked so far, but I’m also aware that the risk increases with each passing year.

  5. want45sweetz

     /  May 11, 2012

    I fear dementia far more that I fear death. I don’t even want to think about someone having to clean me up and feed me every day because I don’t remember how or why to take care of myself.

    I worry that we still don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s Disease (or other dementias) or how to treat them. I cope by taking good care of my health and doing what studies show “may” prevent dementia. All of those things are things I should be doing anyway, such as being active physically, mentally, and socially. So far, so good.

    • (Madeleine, are you sneaking into people’s houses and borrowing their email addresses?) But totally agree. i don’t fear death. I fear dying.

  6. Lynne, Thanks for the post. This is the Big Question that we all struggle with. The comment above was from me.

    • Thanks for clarifying that, Madeleine. Good to hear from you. (I always picture you behind the wheel – is that what they call it? – of your plane, with the goggles and scarf. You rock.)

  7. Lynne, my deep faith sustains me in this one. I firmly believe in an afterlife, that once again I’ll see my loved ones and there will be no more pain or suffering. I’m comforted by this. It probably sounds like Little Mary Sunshine, but it works for me! I find it hard to be depressed for long when there’s so much positive to look forward to, after my sojourn here!

    • Deb, my mom is going thru hell right now, and if she didn’t have her faith, I just don’t know how she’d manage. She says so, too. I’m glad she has it, and I kind of envy her that comfort.

  8. Peggy

     /  May 11, 2012

    Lynne, this is a difficult issue to address for most of us. Like Bill, I am a “non believer.” What I leave behind is any good I’ve done that in some way made life better for someone else. To me, that is what matters. As for death, or being afraid of dying…I don’t fear my death, nor do I need to be comforted by a belief in an afterlife, but I do fear and dread the death of those I love. My mother is getting close to her time and I know I will miss her terribly. I sometimes already find myself grieving. My husband, who is healthy, is nonetheless 13 years my senior. I see him as a 70 (about to be 71) year old man and I wonder how many more productive, active years we’ll have…and it scares the shit out of me to think that maybe not so many, and unless an accident or some unforseen illness takes me before my time, I’m likely to be a young widow and that thought breaks my heart. So, I do my best NOT to think about death, to be grateful for each day I’m alive, to enjoy each moment to the best of my ablity, and appreciate what time my husband and I have together right now.

    What I find interesting is that even though we all know we will die some day, we don’t know when that time will come. Could be I’ll live to be 110. Could be that my husband will outlive me. Could be that any of us can suffer an anurism or stroke and die one minute from now. Might as well just have some fun, do some good while we are here, dwell on our “living time” rather than think about our “dying time.”

    • Peggy, you are reading my mind. I worry about being widowed, but who do you think catches all the colds and flu that come around? Not my “old man”. If we could find the sweet spot between living in the moment and planning ahead, that’d be the ticket, wouldn’t it?

  9. Since i consider myself a bunch of molecules, genes, chromosomes, chemicals, I feel I will go back to that in the thousand years it takes for my body to disintegrate back to where it started. My soul will be out there in space, maybe part of the Black hole or anti-matter we know little about. My mom, when dying, said she did not believe in after-life. I told her I firmly believed in after-life, but perhaps in unknown form. She is still part of me in my genes, memories, and actions. My daughter say they become more like me as they get older–in different ways. We become part of the universe–so much more than the house we lived in together, the town, on earth. Early science classes taught, “Matter is neither created not destroyed.” We do not know if that holds true now, but it looks like our substance will still be around when the last breath leaves us.

    • Iris, you speak of something I can’t quite get my mind to accept: that even though matter is finite, what happens to all the energy we exert trying to learn, to mature, to grow? (Some might call this the soul). I would hope reincarnation is real, because I’d like to believe that wisdom isn’t wasted.

  10. Morgan

     /  May 12, 2012

    After my health problems the last few years, my joke is that “if what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, then I’m immortal!” I pop off with that line, but at the same time I know it’s not true. I know I will die, sooner or later, and I’ve made peace with that. I don’t fear it for myself, but I’m sorry for those I will leave behind (right down to my cats and dog). I’ve defined my purpose in life as “to live, to love, to learn, to laugh.” I’ve managed to do all four of those, and with that I’m content. I hope I can leave with some positive impact on others’ lives, and immortality of a sort in their memories. Maybe even an inspiration, by what my roommate called “persistent, resilient adaptation.” And for what’s on the other side? I’ll find out when I get there.

    • Morgan, the world is a better place when it’s got people with your strength and common sense in it. Best wishes.

  11. Lynne: I, too, often entertain notions concerning the fragility of life. You expressed many of my own thoughts. However, I’m not sure that animals don’t think about their missing offspring…we really don’t know what our pets (or other animals) are thinking…or if they do, in fact, think. I suspect that if, or when, we discover just how much their thought processesses parallel our own, we will no longer be able to rationalize our behavior towards them.

    • Cheryl, you’re right, of course. We’ll never know. But it’s comforting to know that you have the same thoughts I do at times. See you soon.

  12. Lynne, I found you because we both follow Barbara Winter via Facebook. Your “voice” drew me in immediately, so I had to check out your blog. I’ve only read a few posts so far, but I love it! I enjoy the midlife-related topics you address and your open, conversational style, not to mention the thought-provoking comments of your readers. Thanks for writing–I look forward to reading more!

    • Amber, you are too kind. I’m so glad you like it. Look forward to seeing you around the place. BTW I checked out your blog, and I can’t believe you loved Idiocracy, too! One of my fave all time movies. Almost describes the current situation, doesn’t it?

  13. isthisthemiddle

     /  May 22, 2012

    I can so identify with this post and with so many of the comments. You were able to pack a lot of reflection into a few words. I have angst but no answers, unfortunately! Except that I’m glad I found your blog!


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  • Lynne Spreen

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    Lynne Spreen's book recommendations, liked quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (read shelf)
  • Review of Private Life by Jane Smiley

    Private LifePrivate Life by Jane Smiley
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    Maybe this book is better than my capacity to appreciate. I don't tend toward writing that is obscure, or dense (or makes me feel dense). However, sometimes it's better to roll along with the storytelling and let the deeper meaning work its way up from subconscious to conscious.

    The ending of this book is extremely powerful. Margaret, due to the traumatic incident that happened when she was five, lived in a fog her entire life, married to a wacko genius, and not waking up until she was in her sixties and everything/everyone is sad and tired. Yet she seems to catch fire, fueled by bitterness, in the very last 3 sentences of the epilogue. It was a long time to wait for the enlightenment.

    I gave the book 3 stars because there's too much backstory too soon, making it hard for me to develop an interest. Once there, I felt frustrated at the repetitious nature of Margaret's obtuseness, even though she's a bright woman, and her deferring to Andrew, even though this is what people - women especially - do.

    It went on for her whole life! That she was living in a cloud due to, I believe, the trauma of the childhood incident, and that she was ill served by those around her, didn't make it any easier to like this story. I know Smiley is a master writer, and I feel like a goof not giving her a better rating, but this is my honest reaction.

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  • Review of Up At The Villa by Somerset Maugham

    Up at the VillaUp at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Very much enjoyed this short book, which I read in one night. The settings are lush, dialogue snappy, and the characters realistic and strong. The plot and writing are compelling. I enjoyed it because a theme might be, "people are not what they appear to be." A character acts one way and you think, okay, he's good and upstanding. And maybe he IS, but the "why" of it is enlightening. Maugham is a respected author for a reason. What talent! A very good story.

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  • Review of Benediction by Kent Haruf

    BenedictionBenediction by Kent Haruf
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Ever in search of stories about midlife and beyond, I set up a page on facebook (www.Facebook.com/midlife.fiction) and asked for suggestions. I got 38 great recommendations, and I hope to read and review every one of them. Herewith, then: Benediction by Kent Haruf. What a masterpiece.

    Benediction centers around an elderly man who is dying, but the story encompasses many rich characters, and their small stories touched me. In fact, I think this is what made the book so special for me: I saw a little bit of myself in each of them. Each one resonated. I felt again what it was like to be a lost little girl, a lonely divorcee, a misunderstood introspective, a grieving wife, a person who is coping with serious illness. I longed for the small-town atmosphere described here (the Fourth of July fireworks over the high school football field is a stellar short story all by itself.)

    Although the central character is dying, the book is not negative. Far from it - Benediction reflects on the everyday goodness (and tawdriness) of people. His characters are beset by the normal difficulties of life yet buoyed by simple beauties and kindnesses.

    Yet, nothing in Haruf's writing is overly dramatic or in the least saccharine. In fact, that's one of the aspects of Benediction I enjoyed the most: being surprised by tears on the completion of a plainly-written paragraph, phrase or description.

    I couldn't stop reading excerpts to my husband, since he also loves beautifully crafted writing. This book put me in mind of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. If I could describe it in one word, it would be "elegiac."

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