The Oldest We've Ever Been: Seven True Stories of Midlife Transitions
Edited by Maud Lavin
University of Arizona Press, 208 pages, $15.95 paper
A middle-age optimist sees the value of experience. A pessimist of the same age looks back with a sense of opportunities missed. Both perspectives are given voice in the essay collection "The Oldest We've Ever Been: Seven True Stories of Midlife Transitions," but the dominant tone is regret.
Compiled by Maud Lavin, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, "The Oldest We've Ever Been" gives a forum to Lavin and seven sober-minded mid-life peers who take stock at that time in their lives when, as contributor Calvin Forbes notes, "you probably have fewer years in front of you than behind you."
That's as good a definition of middle age as you'll find, and perhaps a fitting rationale for this grab bag of ruminations that's heavy on discussions of death—death of a marriage, parent, sibling or friend—and leavened with the e-mail duet that reunited Lavin with her college flame.
With such a range of topics, you might conclude that the only thing these essays have in common is that their writers are of a certain age. But without too big a leap, something else emerges: a sense that, for this generation, ambivalence about life's ups and downs trumps acceptance—an intriguing idea that reminds us how previous generations had the luxury of operating according to necessity.
Or put it this way: The Baby Boomers, by virtue of affluence and expectation, were given unprecedented freedom of choice. Now, assuming Lavin and her associates are representative, they've come to a point where they wonder if their good sense lived up to their opportunities.
The book opens with its most compelling essay, William Davies King's "Nothing Gained," in which King describes his fetish for collecting food labels—tuna, soup, cereal, you name it, to the tune of 18,000 labels and counting. But you soon realize his topic is only superficially about collecting; more deeply, it's about disconnecting, and the divorce that cut King from his moorings.
"Once your goods get packed in the Ryder truck, where do they go to get better?" he asks plaintively, summing up the plight of anyone who is suddenly uprooted from the security of home and family. For King, his collection—"a celebration of material culture wrapped around a contempt for material culture"—gives him objects to hold onto as he steps into an emotional void. Because it is his and because it has its own history, it helps him see "the larger pattern in which my life is held."
Ellen McMahon's essay, "Through the Looking Glass," is also about a family coming apart, but from inside, not out. "At fifty-one I feel sick a lot of the time, probably a combination of exhaustion and my current imbalance of hormones," she writes. "It's obvious to me that the female body was not designed to be raising teenagers in its fifties."
Having children late is only one source of McMahon's fatigue. Her marriage is failing under the strain of her husband's work schedule and the pressures of raising their rebellious older daughter, Alice. She introduces another stock figure in the midlife play: a teen who eventually comes out the other side but meanwhile takes an overdose of Tylenol, visits juvenile court and acts like the adolescent from hell.
Menopause aside, McMahon engages in the contradictory behavior common to parents who feel the need to impose discipline but worry about further alienating an already alienated child. Accommodating Alice's 16th birthday wish, she serves wine to her and her presumably underage friends. Then, watching her daughter imbibe with gusto, she frets, "it scares me to see in her the serious drinkers of my childhood."
Contradiction also clouds Kim Larsen's life, according to her essay, "When the Middle Is the End." Larsen starts with a sympathetic rendering of Laurel, a 40-something friend with a young child who's losing her battle against cancer. But as she rewinds the tape to their earlier relationship she reveals a woman whose unyielding convictions tyrannized her.
"Laurel's template for friendship involved a kind of mirroring that I could not live up to," Larsen writes. The terminal illness that literally took away Laurel's tongue was what rescued their friendship.
There's a bitter truth here, about how you can let a voluntary relationship play havoc with your self-esteem. But Larsen's inability to gain parity until her friend was deathly ill seems so sad. Here again, ambivalence strikes.
Maybe Calvin Forbes has it right when he observes, "I wonder if it's possible to know anyone, to truly understand them." Having grown up poor in an inner-city family, Forbes' is, not surprisingly, the most wary voice in the book. His life seems less demolished by disappointment than muffled by low expectations.
Reviewing what he has learned from the deaths of his father, mother, two brothers and a sister, Forbes concludes unconvincingly, "With each death in my family I up the ante, and work twice as hard on improving the way I live my life and at building better relationships with the people I love."
Yet his essay reveals no evidence of emotional bonds beyond those early ones, and he sounds sadly realistic rather than hopeful. "The best thing the old can teach the young," he writes, "is that they too can survive the worst life has to offer."
Comfort: A Journey Through Grief
By Ann Hood
Norton, 188 pages, $19.95
'Comfort: A Journey Through Grief," by Ann Hood, is a mother's lament. The popular novelist already turned her grief into fiction with "The Knitting Circle," an autobiographical work about a woman who uses knitting to work through the grief of a child's death. In this small book she goes to the truth of the matter, describing the irreconcilable sense of loss that consumed her after her 5-year-old daughter, Grace, died of a strep infection. The story and her grief are beautifully rendered, pouring out in waves that often repeat the same information and reinforce the weight of sorrow. "Sometimes," she writes, "I feel like I have swallowed a pile of stones."
But even as she promises that grief doesn't go away, Hood details the steps that brought her back into the world: learning to knit, reclaiming her writer's voice, cherishing her family. "The feelings of grief and joy live side by side now in my heart. I did not know that they, such opposites, could coexist."
Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, And Politics
By Eleanor Clift
Basic Books, 337 pages, $26
A similar resilience marks Eleanor Clift's "Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics." During the same time in 2005 that liberal commentator Clift was covering the highly charged case involving the comatose Terri Schiavo, Clift's husband, fellow journalist Tom Brazaitis, entered hospice care. His fight against kidney cancer was over. Clift tells his story against the backdrop of the Schiavo family's fight to prevent removal of the feeding tube that kept Terri alive.
Although she hits hard against right wingers who made political hay out of the Schiavo case, Clift offers a balanced look at the underlying arguments on both sides. She was, after all, in a place that made her sympathetic to letting life go on. At the same time, she uses these two different sets of circumstances to show the way we die now. Emotionally, spiritually, financially and legally, dying has become complicated.
"In truth, Terry Schiavo died like some two million people do every year in the United States after a decision has been made to withhold life-sustaining treatment," Clift writes. But she addresses the smaller drama that faces countless millions more when she sends this e-mail message to a friend: "Tom is leaving us little by little."
Notes on a Life
By Eleanor Coppola
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 290 pages, $25
'Notes on a Life," by Eleanor Coppola, is bracketed by the death of her grown son, Gio, in a boating accident, and the birth of her granddaughter, Gia. Obviously, these life events trump the well-known names and rich-and-famous lifestyle she enjoys as the wife of filmmaker Francis Coppola.
But in this compilation of two decades' worth of journal entries, the celebrities keep coming. Despite Coppola's effort to shape a vision of one woman's struggle to combine personal self-fulfillment and the needs of her creative family, you end up wishing you could see pictures of her wine-country home.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun