Sunday, May 25, 2008
"The Last Gift Of Time"
My book group had an interesting discussion last week of The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty by Carolyn Heilbrun. Not being over sixty myself, and never having heard of Ms. Heilbrun, I wasn't expecting to relate much, but whatever. Most of the rest of the group is in their 60s and beyond, so I was interested in what they had to say. Turns out there was plenty to think about. Last Gift is a collection of essays about some universal themes of women's lives, brought into sharper focus through decades of experience and reflection. However the essays are of uneven quality, and as I found the ones toward the beginning of the book pretentious and dull, it was kind of hard to get into.
Heilbrun begins by saying she'd always planned to commit suicide at seventy, feeling that useful life would probably be best wrapped up at that point. However, reaching seventy, she chose not to do herself in. Thinking of her life thereafter as "borrowed time," each day actively choosing to live on, gave it more power than she might have felt it had otherwise. Fair enough. She goes on to discuss the need for solitude, a theme to which I expected to relate, but to my reading her essay about it came off peevish. She has three adult children and a companionable marriage, a Central Park West apartment and a house in the country. Plenty of space. Yet at sixty-eight, she buys herself another house, to be alone. And at this point I am thinking... yay you, Carolyn. And I mean it -- I think it's great that she had both the self-awareness and the means to create the kind of place that makes her feel most fully realized as a human, and the fortitude to carry it through in her later years. But this was written from such a place of privilege -- luxury, really -- that I'm sorry, but it's dull as dirt. I wouldn't publish my journal, please don't bother me with yours -- especially as I've just come from reading Greg Mortenson's powerful book about his work building schools for impoverished girls in war-torn places. You know, making the world better for people in real need, instead of sitting on one's ass thinking about how it might be made better for oneself.
Eventually I found points to relate to and admire. Heilbrun's essay On Not Wearing Dresses was short and to the point; she relates, with humor and satisfaction, her decision to dispense with ever again wearing dresses and nylons. Her true self, she feels and has always felt, is androgynous. What freedom to declare in one's sixties not to be subject to what society expects you to wear by the accident of your assigned gender. I thought it was terrific - a bright spot among the forgettable pages of introspective muck.
Having since learned more about Carolyn Heilbrun's distinguished career and accomplishments as a writer, critic, professor and feminist, I can judge all the introspection somewhat less harshly. Still, it isn't the kind of thing I most love to read.
Incidentally she did kill herself at 77, leaving a note that said simply, "The journey is over. Love to all. C."