Sunday, March 27, 2016

What are you drinking?

I remember once on rosh hashonah after services I went to my friend Gary's house.  His dad was there and wished me a happy new year.  Then he said to me, "Can I get you a drink?" He walked over to a small bar in the family room of the house--which looked exactly like my house as did fifty percent of the homes in the community.  "What's your drink, Zeke?" he asked.  I don't know what my drink was at the time or if I had a specific drink then, but I said something and he mixed it up for me. Then the three of us, Gary, his dad, and me, said, l'chaim--to life--and drank up wishing each other a happy new year.

That scene surfaced to my head as I was reading Somewhere Towards the End, a memoir by--at the time of the writing--an 89 year old woman named Diana Athill.  Interestingly (and encouragingly) I went to the library to get Somewhere Towards the End because I had read a review of a sequel that Diana Athill has just published written at age 98.  I guess Athill was not as close to the end as she thought she might be when she wrote the prior memoir.  The new book, Alive, Alive Oh! had a long list of people waiting for it at the library so I thought I'd read the first book since it was available.

I was intrigued by the review of the new book because in it, the critic commented on Athill's unconventional life and apparent attitudes.  She had never married but had often been the other woman in relationships with married men.  She, according to the reviewer, had no real pangs of guilt and no sense of loss because she led an unconventional and--from the perspective of many--societally unacceptable life.  I found this interesting particularly from someone of my parents' generation so I thought I'd read a book of hers.

My take-away, now having finished Somewhere Towards the End, is different from the critic's.  The memoir is comprised of a series of essays that relate to what it is like to be somewhere towards the end.  She writes about activity, care of seniors--both in terms of her care and her caring for others, childlessness, and religion. There are other musings.  It is a short book, about fifteen essays each about five pages or so.  While Athill can turn a phrase now and again I found the writing style to be not especially engaging. I had to read some sentences several times and often found myself reading paragraphs not recalling what had happened a half page before.

From the essays I don't see Athill as someone who has an aversion to traditional marriage.  Yes, she is someone who is not weighted down by convention, but not someone who truly had an aversion to traditional monogamy and family. Maybe in Alive, Alive Oh there is more evidence of such aversion, but not in the book I read.

In Somewhere Near the End there are a number of references to how her heart was broken as a young woman.  It seems that that heart break threw her off whatever path she might otherwise have taken.  Yes, she did have a number of affairs with married men, and does comment that she sees nothing wrong with such activity as long as the wife was in the dark. That does seem unconventional.  But the main man in her life--not the heart breaker, but a lover who was central to her adult life, was only nominally married to a woman from whom he was estranged.

The relationship Athill had with this man (Barry) was indeed very unconventional but not because it was extramarital or that it was primarily physical. It was unconventional because when the sex went out of the relationship, Barry remained as a lodger in the apartment they shared, met up with another (young) woman, who then came to live with Diana and Barry with Barry in the apartment. And then when that young woman met someone else and left Barry's bed, Barry and Diana embraced the new relationship, and became essentially grandparents to the new couple's children.  And, then, this new family became caretakers for Diana and Barry when they needed such care.  I don't know too many relationships like that.

Even given the peculiarity of the relationship with Barry, I am not convinced that Diana Athill is all that unconventional. There is one essay about not being a mother which I thought revealing.  To me it seems that when her heart was broken she left unnaturally her natural path.  In the metaphoric sense, like all of us, she started "drinking" to accept an existence without love.

I am not a conventional sort of fellow so I am not conjuring this up because I think anyone who is atypical is somehow self medicating her or himself to avoid reality.  But I did not buy the critic's suggestion that Athill's memoir reveals a life's course that was refreshingly atypical.   Somewhere Towards the End does not suggest that Athill is happy about all the choices she made.  She doesn't beat herself up and, to my way of thinking, has a healthy attitude about the ups and downs of her life, but--like all of us--did some (metaphoric) drinking that made the ride of life less bumpy.

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