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Ivana Kobilca, Coffee drinker, 1888
All through my sixties I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters. Being 'over seventy' is being old: suddenly I was aground on that fact and saw that the time had come to size it up. (Athill, p. 14)
Diana Athill's recent autobiography is neither guidebook or How-To book, but it does provide detailed insight into one woman's thoughts about growing older and dying.
At what age do most people become concerned (or obsessed, even) with this so-often suppressed subject? Sure, there are many articles about plastic surgery and the like, but how often do we really stare the fact of our physical decline in the face?
For me, it was the approach of 40. Definitely.
(Is this an early, late or fairly average age to start fretting about getting older? I wonder about these things and it slightly bothers me . . . just like it bothers me that I cannot help but look at other women near my age and wonder how old they are. Of course, it's not the speculation that matters; it's the implication of the comparison that is bothersome. Do I look older or younger than I am? Who will arbitrate?)
When I became 40, I felt almost exactly like Athill felt at 70: I was middle-aged now, and it was time to take stock. There is the surprise that the first 40 years have gone so quickly, particularly since I still feel the same as ever, and then there is the disturbing idea that one is half-way through life already . . . or maybe even more. When John Updike recently died, my first thought was, "Oh no, he was too young to die." (76 seems to be getting younger all the time.)
When I turned 40, one friend had died of cancer that year and another was seriously ill with it. Many of my friends had parents who were ill, or dying, or dead. It is an inescapable fact that the older one gets, the more one's life - just as a matter of proportion - will be taken up by paying the piper. A lot fewer babies, a lot more funerals. We've danced all night, and now we have sore, aching feet. (Athill complains about the deterioration of her feet.)
Athill speaks candidly on a number of discomfiting, if not downright taboo, subjects: sex, atheism, dead bodies, the burdensome chore of care-giving, worn-out body parts. The startling thing, I think, is that she deals with all of these subjects in such a no-nonsense way. Her tone is intelligent and sensible, and even when she reveals information of a most personal nature, she manages to sound rather dry and matter-of-fact about the subject. One realizes that the "taboo" bit, then, is largely down to her age. Athill was 89 as she wrote this book. Not only does her age give her a different perspective, but it is inescapably a perspective more personal than theoretical.
Diana Athill was born in 1917, and thus her life has spanned most of the last century -- not to mention a decent glimpse into the current one. She is particular sort of English person - a recognizable "type," which still exists but is probably not made anymore. Athill describes her character as a mixture of bone-deep security -- derived from growing up with the knowledge that one was English and upper middle-class and therefore one of the "best kind of people" -- mingled with an almost total lack of self-absorption or regard. She describes this as a Do Not Think Yourself Important teaching that was drummed into pretty much everyone of her generation. This healthy ego, combined with a lack of modern "ego" (in the sense of needing to sell oneself), enables Athill to be remarkably frank on the subjects of money, success and the meaning of life. I found her voice completely compelling -- and often thought-provoking.
Athill doesn't try to give advice or "tips" on making the most of old age, but she does describe the things that have helped her or people she knows. There is one anecdote, in particular, which stayed with me. When speaking of a painter, who had endured many difficulties but still retained an interest in life, Athill made this observation:
She was an object lesson on the essential luck,
whatever hardships may come their way,
of those able to make things.
I didn't find this a depressing read, not at all; in fact, it was rather bracing. I did think, though, that I better get cracking!