What a book! What a woman! I really wish I can retain this kind of energy throughout my life. Diana Athill invites us to chat with her about getting old. What does it mean to her, when did she realized she moved from middle age to old, how she deals with it. As with Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking‘ this is not a self-help book, it is an account of the author trying to understand and share what is happening to her. The tone however could not be more different. Athill does not sugar coat being old, she does not try to convince us everything is fine, but she firmly believes being old is a stage of life – life being the key word, she focuses on living, not on getting old.
She remembers her lovers, talks about religion, about her mother getting old. She tries to face thoughts of death, remembering how her family members died, and concluding she may get lucky and die quickly, because as always it is not death that is scary but also the process of dying. That is why Athill’s book for me felt so focused on living, because while we are alive we better live. She worries that she has no children and no savings to get care when she needs it, but again concludes by that time she may not even care anymore, because her mind may be gone, she tries to accept what she cannot change and move on.
Athill recounts things she lost while getting old, how she stopped being a sexual being, how she should stop driving, but feels reluctant about it, how she struggles physically. The way she does it is a bit ironic, because she knows she is not special, this happens to everyone and it does not mean the end is here yet, it is getting closer, but is not here. She tells us how she had to care about her mother and then takes care of her old friend who requires full time help, when she describes it she does not make it glorious or noble, it is a struggle, it makes her suffer, she does things to escape it, to not get limited to only being a carer. She writes how important it is to have those pockets of being yourself, for her it is gardening, reading, writing, drawing. She also writes how important her work was for her, how it kept her going and how when she retired she had to replace it with numerous other things to stay active and use her energy.
It was a very interesting book, all about loss and getting closer to death and yet so full of life and energy, so witty, candid and cheerful. I have to admit with all my moaning and complaining this book put me to shame and made me work on changing my mindset. Athill owns her life and refuses to be brought down, because everyone thinks she should be old and miserable.