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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

The One Thing About Aging That You Can Control

As we get older, we face a lot of challenges. Our looks change, our strength wanes, we lose loved ones, and we’re minimized by society. We try to celebrate the good and stay positive, but so much about getting older is difficult, and there’s not a darned thing you can do about it.

Except this:

“The one thing that is up to you is whether you will see getting old as a tragedy, or embark upon it as another of life’s great adventures.”

What an empowering statement. I borrowed it from Dr. Carol Orsborn’s new book, Fierce with Age: Chasing God and Squirrels in Brooklyn. For a more complete review, see the lower right margin of your screen. I first learned about Carol Orsborn’s point of view when I read this wonderful post. In it, she says, “What a waste of the human potential it is to define successful aging — or life, for that matter — in youth-centric terms of productivity, activity and vigor.” She goes on.

…those of us who can grow large enough to embrace the dark side of aging can organically have what the Eastern traditions call an “awakening.” We don’t need books to help us understand the transitory nature of life. We’re living it.

I love her idea that we’re on a path to enlightenment as we age. It’s such a positive way of looking at things.

Contrast that with the discouraging tone in Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age. I wrote about it here. Yes, there’s some truth to what Jacoby says, like why would you become wise in old age if you’ve been average-to-stupid all your life.

The two authors view old age through different perspectives. If I were dealing with grief, ill health, or other horrific negatives, for example, that could change my perspective. I regret to say that, around the time she wrote her book, Susan Jacoby was caring for a loved one during a lingering illness.

In exercising choice, I decided to stop playing the youth game. Oh, sure, I tried it. I got Botox a few times, and once I even did filler in my lip area to try to combat the deepening purse-string effect. But I felt like a fraud. Plus those needles hurt. Did you know before they give you filler the doctor comes at you with one of those painkiller needles they use at the dentist? The ones that look like they are meant for horses? But I digress.

Back to the idea of choice in older age: it’s a rich new phase we’re in, Second-Halfers. You can change your perspective and decide how you want to see things. Look closely: the lock on your jail cell is rusting. If you give the door a push, you might be able to break free, scamper down the hall and out the door into the sunlight.

Leave a comment

33 Comments

  1. I’m with you Lynne – out in the sunshine!

    Reply
  2. Good post. It’s something I struggle with — not seeing aging as a tragedy. I must admit though that I did love the quote from Susan Jacoby. “Why would you become wise in old age when you’ve been average-to-stupid all your life.” I thought that was pretty great actually.

    Reply
  3. Snoring Dog Studio

     /  April 26, 2013

    The one thing about anything you can control is your attitude towards it. Finding one’s true self is so much more important it seems when you reach a certain age. I hope I don’t run out of time to find mine.

    Reply
  4. Wonderful post , Lynne. Attitude is everything. Whenever I find myself longing for those younger years, I remember all the trials and challenges it took to get where I am now and I am instantly filled with gratitude for the life I am living. So hooray for my next birthday. It means I made it this far and I get to go out in the sunshine!

    Reply
    • Yes, Kathy. I think especially one of the reasons we feel so content in older age is the satisfaction of having made it through the hard times!

      Reply
  5. Watching mom age was a mixed bag. She aged well and lived long, but the last decade wasn’t easy for either of us. I don’t think I’m aging as well as she did at this point, but I can choose to emulate her perseverance and engagement with life, even to the end of her 101 years. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    Reply
    • Martha, I know you worked very hard to make her last years good ones. She was lucky to have you, and as you say, she gave you much in turn. Glad to hear from you.

      Reply
  6. Lynne – love your enlightened perspective on aging. For whatever reason I give myself no credit for, I have always thought life really began after 40, not before it. Every time I read one of your posts that thought is validated again. I admit, like all young people, I had moments of stupidity. But there were was at least one of brilliancy- the day I realized life really does begin after 40. LOL.

    Reply
  7. Hi Lynne, please don’t take this as a critique, but there is more than one thing we can control with respect to aging.
    …those of us who can grow large enough to embrace the dark side of aging can organically have what the Eastern traditions call an “awakening.” We don’t need books to help us understand the transitory nature of life. We’re living it.
    Essentially focusing on the moment and ignoring the myths associated with aging is awakening.
    We have choice and we must use that choice to view the positive in each moment. Our past choices have brought us to our present state of mind. The choices we make in the moment determine the quality of our remaining moments. Hopefully in the Sun.
    I always find your blog informative and enjoyable.

    Reply
  8. Lynne,

    I greatly enjoyed the post and the book review, and I intend to read the book. This point of view is essential, I think, if you’re going to have a chance at finally relaxing into your life after all the striving that most of us get lost in during our “first half.” If you sit still in a quiet place in your mind and watch your thoughts long enough, you will eventually realize that most of that striving is completely irrelevant to both the present moment and the future. And I’ve found, as I look back, that it was all just so much distraction. Now is the time to step aside and open up to life, to stop fighting it, to accept the person you’ve become and be a friend to yourself. OK; I’m drifting into self-improvement cliches here, so I will close with the thought that I am working on contentment as a “previously important person,” using as my guide (and I’m no believer) the Serenity Prayer. And I simply try to find joy and wonder in every day. The older I get, the more successful I am.

    Thanks for the post. You have a terrific blog.

    Reply
    • Rick, I so enjoyed your comment. So much wisdom there. I particularly like this: “Now is the time to step aside and open up to life, to stop fighting it, to accept the person you’ve become and be a friend to yourself.” Magnificent! Here’s more, a poem by Derek Walcott, that seems to speak to what you and I are feeling: http://www.panhala.net/Archive/Love_after_Love.html

      Reply
  9. It may be that Susan Jacoby was reacting to a sense that the “New Old Age” involves changing the old stereotype of decline and decay to a new stereotype of wisdom and enlightenment with age.

    Or perhaps it is a matter of perspective. As you say, “If I were dealing with grief, ill health, or other horrific negatives, for example, that could change my perspective.”

    Here’s where things get really complicated. My perspective is that I can control my health–not just my feelings about it–to a great extent. For example, 10 years ago I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, but I’ve managed it well all that time (by diet and exercise) and have no long-term damage. I’m not wise enough to sort out why people react so differently when faced with a similar challenge.

    Reply
    • Madeleine, I have a lot of respect for you, and maybe that’s why I originally read your comment as, “I’m wise enough not to sort out why people react so differently when faced with a similar challenge.” And I think that’s the truth, too. Good to hear from you.

      Reply
  10. Another fine post, Lynne.

    Reply
  11. Thanks Lynne, as always a very positive post. What a great Friday post.
    Deb

    Reply
  12. What fantastic words of advice and encouragement, Lynne. I have a Maya Angelou quote on my bulletin board: You can either become an old female or a wise woman. I choose the double-W version – and reminders like yours here are appreciated for when I lean toward the former.

    Reply
  13. With apologies, I am going to assume. I assume that you and I share one thing, we are both early old. We have only experienced some of the loss that comes with age. There is more to come. So, while I agree, there are many in our shoes who could benefit with the philosophy of those of us who are dealing well with early old, how do we prepare ourselves for an ever tightening noose? I was with a man yesterday who for sixty plus years was in a care giving profession. His enthusiasm for others is still readily apparent. He spoke with excitement of he and his wife having a retirement home with 400 feet of lake front. Then, suddenly, his eyes teared up and his voice cracked as he spoke of his anguish of caring for his wife as she tried to deal with dozens of her physically diminished capacities.

    Reply
    • See, that’s the thing, Bob. There is so much that is overwhelming about getting older – let’s just say it: closer to death. I’m not wise enough to know how to counsel a person about how to deal with the reality of it. Much of what I write about is raging against the inevitability of decline and death by being appreciative and at peace while we still can. Because things change, and it can get very much worse, and then how do you deal with it?

      Mostly, I attempt to mitigate the reality of what lies ahead. Partly that’s because I grew up in a very negative household. As an adult I learned to believe the positive until I knew otherwise, because I couldn’t predict the future, and I came to understand that sometimes, things turned out okay. So I stopped what I and my siblings called “negative fantasizing.” .

      Even more honestly, sometimes I think death becomes, for some of us, an attractive end result. I remember my mother-in-law refusing to have her legs amputated. She was already wracked by emphysema and many other maladies, although her brain was sharp. I remember when we’d visit her at home, there was a length of clear hose on the floor, conveying oxygen from the canister to wherever she sat. At the end, when offered the option of amputation, she chose death. “I miss ___,” she said, naming her late husband. It was hard to argue. And she was a non-believer.

      Back to your question, how do we deal with an ever-tightening noose? I don’t know. I have a history of frightening (due to improper diagnoses and incompetent treatment) illnesses and ailments, starting very young. So I assume at some point it’ll happen again. And again, and again. I have designed my own strategy for dealing with a lot of it. I admit, some of it is avoidance. I distract myself, think about other things, find something to get excited about. But that’s if it’s me. If it’s another person who’s sick and I’m the caregiver, I’m not so good at coping.

      When my husband had hip replacement surgery, I ended up with my own cardiologist. I wasn’t good at taking care of myself during this overwhelming period. That was when I was about 50. I would hope, as I mature, I’ll be better at maintaining my own health if I have to care for him. I think it would have been a big help if somebody had come over to my house and relieved me to go see a movie, go out to a restaurant, or something. Take a walk. I didn’t know enough to ask. I think I will look for help when (not if) it happens again.

      Lastly, the tightening noose again: I have heard it said that man, being the only creature who is aware of his own mortality, is also the only creature who has also been given the gift of compassionate interaction. That’s not the actual name of the gift; I’ll try to find the writings that support this so I can do a better job of explaining, but from my memory, this is the element that causes perfect strangers to risk their own safety, reaching into a burning car to save another human. It’s the thing that causes us to feel better when we help, or when we receive help. It’s the thing that can make you cry with all your heart for a person you don’t even know, or rally to ease the pain of another. The thinking is that our brain chemistry changes temporarily while in this helping, compassionate mode. (If so, what better evidence could there be of a God, asks the agnostic Lynne.)

      If I were that man’s friend, I would do whatever possible to help him as he helps her. If I were the one sensing the noose, I’d do whatever possible to delay the reckoning, or to make it possible to accept the outcome with a peaceful heart.

      Reply
  14. Lynne, you comment in response to Bob is very wise. Thank you for going deeper into the question of coping with suffering. I admire your decision to deliberately focus on the positive, not as a way of denying the pain of aging but as a way of celebrating what joy can be found in these years, in this process, on this journey. And I agree that connection and compassion are some of our most powerful tools against despair.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Sarah. There’s nothing we can do about being mortal, or as Bob puts it, the reality of the tightening noose – nothing to stop it, that is. But given that we’re alive, we can choose how to best use our time, and to accept that there is magic in this dimension, that of human interaction. I appreciate your comments.

      Reply
  15. I love your closing metaphor and message!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Lisa. I hope you’ll stop by often – after this, your comments will post automatically. See you around.

      Reply
  16. Great article and quote Lynne. Very thought provoking. I also liked this quote taken from the Amazon book page: “Plummet into aging, stare mortality in the eye, surrender everything and what else is there left to fear? The way is perilous, danger on all sides. But we can be part of a generation no longer afraid of age. We are becoming, instead, a generation fierce with age.”
    If you ever like to write about this topic (or something else) at 40PlusStyle, let me know!

    Reply

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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.

    View all my reviews

  • 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.

    View all my reviews

  • 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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