“None are so old as those who outlive enthusiasm,” according to Henry David Thoreau. Lately I’ve been enthusiastic about exploring aging and death, so I have three books to recommend. (How like a baby boomer to think even one’s impending demise is a wonder to behold.)
First is “Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper” (WJK Press), by my longtime friend and colleague Lori Erickson, an Episcopal deacon and travel writer from Iowa City.
Her book is a deeply researched and often funny genre-bending mashup of travelogue, memoir and spiritual reflection. I had the pleasure of reading it as it was written, so I feel a midwife’s joy as it is brought forth this month.
In it, the author globe trots from compellingly creepy Aztec temples to the inside of a pyramid in Egypt (where she found herself fretting about airborne germs) to the halls of a nursing home in Decorah, Iowa, where her mother lives.
In one exchange Erickson asks a Maori chief how you would know if an ancestor sent you a message. His answer: “Some things are of you, and some things come through you. The things that come through you are from the ancestors.” Hmm — chew on that.
Erickson’s book was propelled by the twin shocks of her brother’s sudden death and her mother’s decline into dementia. I laughed with a catch in my throat at this passage about visiting her mother in the nursing home: “We walk down the hallway to the dining area, where the radio plays a soothing melody and a woman sits in a recliner cradling a baby doll wrapped in a blanket. As we pass her, my mother shakes her head and says matter-of-factly, ‘She doesn’t realize that baby is dead.’”
Published earlier this year is “Borrowed Time: The Science of How and Why We Age” (Bloomsbury USA) by Scottish science writer Sue Armstrong. The author examines everything from the premature aging condition Hutchinson-Gilford syndrome to the question of why the roundworms carried on the spaceship Columbia were the only survivors of its explosion.
I confess I skimmed when I was unable to follow Armstrong too deeply into the weeds of trials for Metformin (a diabetes drug) and the shortening of telomeres with age, which hastens our expiration dates.
But I loved her broader questions: Do advances in health care slow aging or just prolong dying? Does aging have to be accepted and endured? Should aging be considered a disease that can be cured? What will be the consequences of the fact that by the end of this year, the number of people worldwide older than 65 will for the first time exceed the number of people age 4 and younger? And finally, I was moved by the plaintive question Armstrong’s mother posed near the end of her once vibrant life: “I’ve had enough; why do I simply keep on going?”
Finally, I was enchanted with a 2013 memoir, “Dancing Fish and Ammonites” (Penguin), by the aptly named Brit author Penelope Lively. To me, reading this slim, lively book was like sharing a pot of tea or a thimbleful of sherry with an older friend who has enough similar interests to bond with you, and enough different ones to intrigue you.
She begins in the preface: “This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.”
Lively grew up in Cairo and has had a lifelong interest in archaeology (both exotic to me) but like me, has weathered breast cancer and has been a writer, traveler, mother, and avid reader. “Can’t garden. Don’t want to travel,” she writes of her perspective at 80. “But can read, must read. For me, reading is the essential palliative, the daily fix.”
Reading, she says, is “the only entirely benign mind-altering drug … perfectly legal and I don’t need a prescription.”
Readers, what have you read lately that you love?