I read a lot of books last year about grief and death. Preparing, like my mom’s illness was a test I could study for, and then ace. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t work that way. But, I still learned some useful things.

I recommend The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs because it is beautiful, the flip side of that (in that Riggs was herself dying and Didion is grieving), The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is a beautifully written book about her grief. I recommend both of Caitlin Dougherty’s books (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and  From Here to Eternity) because they will remind you that dead bodies aren’t dangerous and that our remove from death is both, a recent-ish development in the US and different from other practices around the world. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande is also worth your time, and may be the best to open conversations with the people in your life about what they want. Grief is a Thing With Feathers (Max Porter), the only fiction book in this list, is weird, but somehow perfect. Honorable mention to Promise Me Dad, which I did read after I started blogging about books.

But in February this year (after I lost my Mom) I decided, you don’t actually have to think about death all the time, and maybe it’s okay to escape a little. Of course, I am always picking up books I think will be escapes and then the mom dies or someone has Alzheimer’s. But, all this to say, I meant to read Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters last year, didn’t get to it, and then it slipped down the list. Maybe it wasn’t focused enough on death and dying and grief…

Recently I decided to pick up both No Time to Spare and Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. Mercifully, both books really aren’t about death, dying or grieving. Certainly, there’s a certain thinking about mortality element, but both are really more about living.

 

I’m surprised to report dear reader that I actually enjoyed I Am I Am I Am more than I enjoyed No Time to Spare. I was drawn in by the subtitle to No Time to Spare (“Thinking About What Matters”) but really, this book is a collection of book posts written by Le Guin over several years, not exactly an essay collection that she created to be published as a book. Parts of the book were delightful — I loved reading about her cat, her witticisms (“Old age is for anybody who gets there”), her thoughts about Greek tragedies, her memories of John Steinbeck (who was a friend’s uncle). And I just get this feeling that Le Guin lived more than some people do — the title of the book comes from a survey from Harvard asking grads about themselves including what they do in their “spare time.” Part of the list of spare time activities is “creative pursuits.” So Le Guin is sort of musing on the idea that all her time may be “spare” in this reading, and thinking about spare time, and she reasons:

I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always have been and it is now. It’s occupied by living…. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with constructing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and with traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing  the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-claves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it.

Le Guin’s book really isn’t concerned with death at all. She was clearly focused on living her life, and really living it, into her 80’s (she passed away at age 88 in January 2018). In this book you’ll also find her thoughts about writing, her thoughts on fantasy, her thoughts on politics and the state of the nation, her thoughts on science and evolution, her thoughts on answering fan mail, and her interactions with friends and family including watching a two year old discovering the world:

What it made me think about above all is how incredibly much we learn between our birthday and last day — from where the horsies live to the origin of the stars. How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires all of us.

O’Farrell’s book has more of a narrative and is more clearly the story of her life although it is not told linearly and jumps around so that you see her young and then older, younger again. It is pretty literally 17 brushes with death, which seems kind of excessive — O’Farrell has had some pretty crazy things happen to her (a larger number of people have intentionally tried to kill her than I feel is typical in the average life…). And she tells the stories well, in a compelling way. For her at least, these stories explain who she is and became. She writes that there’s nothing particularly special about brushes with death, but

If you are aware of these moments, they will alter you. You can try to forget them, to turn away from them, to shrug them off, buy they will have infiltrated you, whether you like it or not. They will take up residence inside you and become part of who you are, like a heart stent or a pin that holds together a broken bone.

Whereas some people might take one lesson from these near death experiences, O’Farrell seems to always come away appreciating being alive, but with no new sense of caution –

Instead of an intimation of mortality, what is solidifying, taking root inside me, is something else, a welding together of this place with the sensation of a near miss, an escape from something beyond my control. The feeling of having pulled my head, one more time from the noose becomes intermingled with, indivisible from, the mimosa trees, the goats, the wave that turned me over, the toasted-resin smell of cinnamon bark.

O’Farrell’s tells you what seems to me the most important story closer to the end of the book — as a child she had encephalitis, ended up in a wheelchair and for the rest of her life has some trouble with orienting herself and controlling her movement (i.e., she needs to be looking at the pen to pick it up, her brain doesn’t just map where things are well and she almost drowns … a lot… because she’s not really clear on up v. down once she’s under water). It seems to be this early near death experience that led to many of the others, because she didn’t get timid, instead,

Coming so close to death as a young child, only to resurface again into life, imbued in me for a long time a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk. … It was not so much that I didn’t value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine – perhaps to a fault – about death. … I viewed my continuing life as an extra, a bonus, a boon: I could do with it what I wanted.

O’Farrell spends a lot of time in this book almost dying, but like Le Guin, I feel like she really lives every day of her life (though… not sure she’s going to make it to 88 at her current rate…).

Currently reading: You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld, and got a bunch piled up after that. Starting to think seriously about vacation books. Summer reading suggestions???