The Art of Growing Old…

I’m too old to be young and too young to be old.  This quote from Evelyn in Fried Green Tomatoes sums up what I’m feeling these days.  I’m not ready to start polishing up my obituary, but I recognize I am entering my third act.

When I contemplate the remaining chapter of my life, I know I want to be the author.  When you are a child, your parents write your script.  On my own from 18-23, I had no clear direction. I know there are individuals who in young adulthood take control and endeavor to forge their own paths, but I think they are few and far between. I did make the choice to marry at 23, but in retrospect I think that decision was largely driven by social expectations and limited exposure to our wondrous world. Luckily, I chose a mate well.  Then we had our sons and when you are raising a family, they become your focus and direction. But now, pushing 65, life has grown simpler.  I am lucky to be basically healthy, all our children and grandchildren are healthy, and Mr. Smith still loves me. I’m not naïve enough to think my remaining years will be all champagne and beach sunsets, but I hope to direct them as much as possible.  In looking for guidance, I went to the place I always go.  Books.  

The Art of Growing Old, Aging with Grace by Marie de Hennzel was referenced in several articles I read about aging, so I decided it was time to check it out.  Marie de Hennzel is a French clinical therapist, largely focusing on the art of aging well.  She is also the recipient of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honorary decoration. I found her book to be positive and heartfelt, drawing from many of her life challenges and personal experiences.

There is no doubt that we live is a society obsessed with youth.  If you feel you have an issue with your appearance, there is more than likely a cosmetic surgery procedure you can undergo.  But Dr. Hennzel believes that in order to age gracefully, we need to dwell less on the physical aspects of aging and focus on the positive emotional changes.  Accepting that we may be slowing down and acknowledging that this slower pace will allow you new observations and insights is just one of the positive aspects of aging.  She doesn’t ignore our inevitable physical deterioration and provides practical life plans for dealing with the fears of becoming a burden on our families, illness and isolation.  

I do think my time spent reading this book was time well spent.  I will share that for me, it read a bit like a research paper full of academic references and studies. What I was really seeking in a book about aging, was something with a more conversational tone.   Like sharing a cup of tea with my beloved Aunt Ruby while she shared her best wisdom for growing older and remaining so loving and kind.  I’ll take inspiration from both.

C’est la vie

Who doesn’t love a list?

In July of 2013, I began keeping a written record of the books I read. I no longer remember the catalyst for this list keeping and I’m sure I’ve neglected to record a few along the way, but when I look it over, I see a roadmap of my life.  It reflects my interests, conflicts, and challenges through the years. Where some titles are like running into a familiar old friend, some I barely remember.

Last Saturday I was recording my last read in January when I noticed it had been a banner month.  I normally average three books a month, but in January I had read seven!  Mr. Smith did have a two-week cold in January which resulted in us spending more time than normal at home. I obviously put those hours to good use.

Early in January, I wrote about a couple of the titles I read, Rules for Visiting and How Reading Changed My Life.  Of the remaining five books I read in January, one that I won’t soon forget is The Fires of Autumn by Irene Nemirovsky.  Born in Kiev, Ukraine, Ms. Nemirovsky was of Ukrainian-Jewish origin. She lived more than half her life in France, but was denied French citizenship.  By the 1930s, Nemirovsky had become a hugely popular and critically acclaimed writer. Then came the war and the Vichy government’s anti-Jewish laws. Nemirovsky was dropped by the literary establishment and was no longer able to publish under her own name.  She was arrested as a Jew during German occupation and died at Auschwitz at the age of 39.   Her husband, Michel Epstein, was arrested shortly thereafter and also died in Auschwitz.  Their two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, survived the war due to the kindness of neighbors who hid them from the Vichy Government. The girls did not know the fate of their parents until after the war ended.  Miraculously, a suitcase containing some of Nemirovsky’s writings survived the war.  In the suitcase were family photographs, diaries and other writings, including the manuscript for Suite Francaise, first published in the United States in 2006.  

The Fires of Autumn is considered its prequel.  Set in France, it revolves around a group of friends and neighbors from the beginning of World War I through the early years of World War II.  The main character is Bernard, a naïve young man still in short pants who wants to fight for the honor of France.  Witnessing the realities of war, he quickly loses his idealism and becomes cynical.  He returns home from World War I addicted to obtaining wealth and success. His doting mother feels she no longer knows him.  His lover eventually leaves him. And then comes World War II. The book does start out a little slowly, or that may be just me.  I’m always a little impatient with “setting the scene”, I want to get right to the point.  I stuck with it and my reward was a satisfying read that taught me a lot and made me think.  What more can you ask of a book?

 A difficult read, but one that I didn’t want to put down, was JoAnna Goodman’s The Home for Unwanted Girls.  At one level it’s an age-old story.  Young girl gets pregnant, parents reject the boyfriend and force the girl to give the baby up for adoption.  The baby, Elodie, is raised in Quebec’s impoverished orphanage system run by the Catholic church. On a deeper level, it tells the story of a dark time in Quebec’s history.  Elodie’s life takes an even more tragic turn when, along with thousands of other orphans in Quebec, she is declared mentally ill as the result of a new law that provides more funding to psychiatric hospitals than to orphanages.  Not only are the orphans declared mentally ill, these young children are forced to be caretakers of the truly mentally ill, feeding and bathing them, all while trying to avoid the wrath of the nuns. There were moments while reading I had to remind myself that this horrendous offense against thousands of orphans truly occurred as it is hard to understand such greed.  But the Duplessis Orphans scandal, orchestrated by Premier Maurice Duplessis, a staunch Catholic, was real and took place in the 1940s and 1950s.  Duplessis’s time as Premier is now referred to as “The Great Darkness”.  This book is going to haunt me for some time.

I am considering making other book lists.  One would be Books That I’m Searching For.  A small notebook kept in my purse that I would have when I happen upon an extraordinary used bookstore would be just the place to record these titles.  I may also start a list of books I’d like to purchase for my grandchildren, sharing some of the books I loved growing up as well as more current fare.  After all, who doesn’t love a  book list?

C’est la vie.

In winter she curls up around a good book and dreams away the cold. Ben Aaronovitch

Just as reading was the salvation of my lonely youth, it is my reprieve from the January blues.  I have often used reading as a reward.  As a young mother living in our big old house in Indiana, I would get my boys off to school, set a timer and clean for an hour.  I would then read for an hour, repeating the process until I could simply read.  Now I use reading as solace for my winter doldrums.  Since our little apartment doesn’t need as much attention as our old Victorian, I no longer need to set a timer, I just tidy up after Mr. Smith has left for work and then I dive into my current guilty pleasure.

This December, I finished reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove as part of My Three Son’s book group.  I read it years ago with my Indiana book group, but I found I enjoyed it just as much the second time around.  My son Elliot was taken with the friendship between Call and Gus.  They were friends, no stipulations, no questions asked, noting that friends like that can be hard to find.  Our next read is The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje.  Mr. Smith has been devouring many of Ondaatje’s books and recommended this one about the adventures of three adolescent boys traveling alone who meet on a ship crossing the Indian Ocean bound for England in the 1950s.

Last week I read Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane.  Her character, May Attaway, is a forty-year old woman who sets out to explore friendships in the digital age.   She is employed as a gardener for a university and the book is full of fascinating information about trees.  May is an introvert, more comfortable with plants than people, leading her to lean heavily on Emily Post.  When I started it, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to bond with the protagonist, but like Alana Masad in her NPR review, I ended up loving May and I’m glad I stayed with it until the end.

Presently, I’m reading Anna Quindlen’s How Reading Changed My Life. My girl crush on Ms. Quindlen was validated when I read about her mother trying to chase her outside with “It’s a beautiful day,” when she only wanted to curl up in her favorite chair, lost in a book.  I was delighted with Ms. Quindlen’s adamant belief that despite computers and e-readers, print books are here to stay. Admitting that while reading lists “…are arbitrary and capricious…”, she acknowledged that she loves them and ends the book with several different lists.  Lonesome Dove appears on her “10 Big Thick Wonderful Books That Could Take You a Whole Summer to Read (but Aren’t Beach Books)” list.  I did come away with two more titles for my reading list:  The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers and Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.

My library card is one of my dearest possessions.  I was over the moon when we were living in New York and snail mail brought me my library card from the New York Public Library.  Anyone who lives, works, attends school, or pays property taxes in New York State is eligible.  The card gives you access to millions of materials, resources and services.  And you get a really cool card!  I no longer live in New York, but I still receive an email every morning with a Book of the Day recommendation. 

Mr. Smith and I have lived in many different states.  I have gone through many different library cards, but they have all been my key, opening the door to the joys of intriguing stories and new adventures.  I hope this will continue as long as I love books – in other words – forever. 

I am simply a ‘book drunkard’. Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotees. I cannot withstand them.

L. M. Montgomery

C’est la vie.

This is the gift of the grandchildren…

As a grandmother of seven and a prolific reader, the title Unconditional Love, A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today by Jane Isay grabbed my attention. Ms. Isay is a former editor of Yale University Press and this is her fourth book. The book is well researched and draws heavily from Ms. Isay’s own experience, as well as from the hundreds of interviews she conducted with grandparents.

The book is written as a guide to help grandparents navigate their new role in a manner which keeps family conflicts to a minimum and strives for harmony. When I first started reading, I wasn’t sure it was for me. The beginning focused on “grandparent prep” with suggestions on how to get up-to-date on the mores of today. Since I no longer have any infant grandchildren, I have no reason to check out Websites and blogs discussing the pros and cons of babies sleeping with parents. Then I got to the section where the reader was asked to close their eyes and take themselves back in time to the months when their child was first born. The frustration of not knowing how to calm your baby, the panic when a feeding didn’t go right, no shower, no sleep and no end in sight. Even though it’s been decades, I could still feel the fatigue and isolation. And even though the baby days are long behind my daughters-in-law, I wanted to go hug them all and take them out for a cocktail. And while they are hopefully all getting to sleep through the night at this point, the challenges of parenting continue. No matter how many books or internet articles you read, parenting is still on the job training.

Ms. Isay acknowledges that when our children take on the responsibilities of parenthood, they also take on new power. They get to set the rules! With a grandparent’s years of experience and perspective of time, some of these rules may seem silly, but they are to be respected. And who doesn’t want respect?

Just as much of parenting is learn as you go, so is grandparenting. Isay doesn’t provide you with a definitive list of things to do to be the perfect grandparent. But she does provide oodles of real life experiences. I was inspired by stories from the different grandparents who were interviewed for the book. Many found grandparenting to be a second chance, an opportunity to provide grandchildren with the time and attention they couldn’t afford their own children. My grandchildren consist of a single child, a set a three brothers and a set of three sisters. It is normally quite hectic when we are visiting one of the sets of three. This book reminded me of the importance of carving out some time alone with each child, even if it’s simply a walk around the block. The benefits of a grandparents individual attention are priceless.

The book also addresses the issues of grandparents who become caregivers when their children are incapable of parenting, long-distance grandparenting and fairness with time, money and resources in a straight forward manner. Unconditional Love was worth my time. I picked up a few thoughts on how to maintain close relationships with my grandchildren as they grow older. What I most appreciated was the reassurance that grandparents can be a powerful influence on how grandchildren show up in the world and that our time and conversations with them will exist as “tiny shards of color in the great mosaic of understanding.”

I want my grandchildren to feel unconditionally loved. I grew up without grandparents, but I was extremely lucky to have my beloved Aunt Ruby who exemplified unconditional love. I can only remember one occasion when she even came close to being short with me. I was nine years old and my younger brother and I had been spending a week with her and my uncle during our summer vacation from school. We had cousins who lived in the same town and we spent hours playing together, running in and out of Aunt Ruby’s house. On the day my parents were coming to pick us up, she was busy cleaning house and preparing food for their arrival. We must have run into the house once too often. She told us to go outside and stay outside and not come back in unless the house was on fire. We did as we were told and were well rewarded. A neighbor started a fire in a burn barrel, an ember blew over into the yard and started a grass fire. We were full of smug self-righteousness as we marched back into the house to announce the yard was on fire! But being Aunt Ruby, she simply came out into the yard, put out the minor grass fire and went back to work. I am lucky she is a part of the mosaic of my life.

C’est la vie.

“Everything I learned, I learned from movies.” Audrey Hepburn

Whether it’s at the cinema with popcorn or your own home with much more affordable – and quite possibly better – popcorn, most of us enjoy a good movie.  Movies allow us to escape. They take us to places we’ve never been and they broaden our horizons, offering us a window into wider worlds. Over the past four decades, Mr. Smith and I have indulged in many an afternoon or evening at the movie theater.  However, these days it seems to take something quite tantalizing to entice us away from our comfy sofa and pay the hefty ticket price. Plus, there’s always a chance of sitting next to someone who thinks he must narrate the entire film to his friends.

Today, with Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and all the numerous services available in the comfort of our own living room, we have too often chosen to hunker down at home and take advantage of the unlimited inventory of movies available online. On any given evening while perusing what’s assessable, we often check out the perspective films’ ‘Rotten Tomato’ ratings, then make a choice and hopefully don’t fall asleep! 

 Recently my movie watching stars aligned and I found myself at an actual theater three times within a two-week period. Here are my quick impressions of some current theater fare.

Book Smart

On my last road trip, I spent a Wednesday afternoon at the theater seeing Book Smartwith my sister and her daughter-in-law.  Directed by Olivia Wilde and written by four women, it is a coming of age/end of high school romp.  Two academic overachievers and best friends are shocked to discover that students they had labeled as losers had somehow managed to balance hard work and play during their high school years. They had gained admission into good colleges and universities despite partying their way through high school and weren’t doomed to spend the rest of their lives asking, “do you want fries with that?”  Because of this revelation, the bookish friends set off to cram four years of fun into one night so they won’t graduate without ever having attended a wild party.

Chandler Levack, Globe & Mail, wrote “Book Smart is a love letter to any young woman who has ever stayed home on a Friday night to watch a Ken Burns documentary.” 

 I think I may be a little too old to entirely bond with this movie.  I was hoping for something a little more bookish, but there are certainly many hilarious and poignant moments.

Non-Fiction

Father’s Day turned out to be a rainy, chilly day, so Mr. Smith and I ventured out to our local independent theater to see Non-Fiction,written and directed by Oliver Assayas. This gabfest of French sophisticates is sexy, witty and fun!  I’m not always a fan of movies that are dialogue heavy, but I found Non-Fiction to be marvelously entertaining.  It revolves around a revered Parisian publishing house and the future of books and literature in the internet age and who is sleeping with whom. Lots of talk and plenty of sex. Word to the wise: if you are going to use your affairs as fodder for your novel, you may want to be careful who you are sleeping with!

Late Night

Mr. Smith was out of town and I was drowning in house moving details, so what’s a girl to do?  I went to the movies!   I left work a few minutes early on Wednesday to grab the 5:00 showing of Late Night, written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra. The talented Mindy Kaling wrote Late Night specifically for Emma Thompson, despite never having met her but hoping she would accept the part!  It was in inspired choice as Ms. Thompson played her part with just the right amount of elitism despite being a late-night talk show host whose ratings are in a nose dive and has been informed she’s on her way out the door.  With a reputation as “the woman who hates women”, Thompson, hired Kaling as a writer for her show to prove she doesn’t hate women and per her producer’s suggestion, fills a “diversity” slot. Late Night deals with many familiar workplace issues, illustrating that diversity is also about class, gender and age.  At first the all-male writing staff seemed hopelessly chauvinistic, but as their separate personalities emerged, the tensions eased. As in many good movies, there is more going on than meets the eye.  You have an opportunity to see people in more than one dimension, complete with their flaws and frailties.  

For awhile I thought I was going to have a private viewing of Late Night, but I was eventually joined by six others!

The Rotten Tomato ratings for these movies were relatively high.  But what is Rotten Tomato?  I always thought it was a movie review company. Turns out it is the leading online aggregator of movie and TV show reviews from critics.  The Tomatometer score is based on the opinions of hundreds of film and television critics.  

I was surprised to see Book Smart had the highest Rotten Tomato rating of the three movies at 97%.  I’m guessing they got the youth vote.  Next was Non-Fiction at 89%, followed by Late Night at 79%.  Personally, I give them all two thumbs up.  They provided a much-needed break from the current chaos of my life.  Even with all that’s available on your TV at home and no matter how big your TV is, I don’t think people will ever give up the occasional trip to the movie theater. As I read somewhere, people still go to restaurants even though they have a kitchen in their home.

C’est la vie.