Let’s put it simply: I’m still young. I have no concept of what it means to age. I do know, though, that it can’t be that bad if more and more positive reports keep popping up on the bestseller list. A few months back, I talked about Jane Fonda’s take on the aging process and her enthusiastic recommendation for exercise and healthy living. In Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Anna Quindlen makes similar suggestions but also goes deeper into the psyche of someone reflecting on a life well lived. And really, who wouldn’t want to read something with a title that mentions cake?
What I found useful about Quindlen’s memoir is that she portions it out to different, approachable sections. She goes from quipping about all the objects we accumulate throughout our lives in the chapter, “Stuff,” and seamlessly transitions into our most important relationships in “Next to Kin.” Some chapters, such as “Generations” and “Expectations” sound straightforward enough only to delve into ideas you’d never expect (pun slightly intended). One of my favorite quotes from “Stuff” would have to be “I prefer not to dwell on the purses and the white T-shirts. You know, fashion magazines say you can never have too many white T-shirts. Yes, you can” (7). Somehow that line takes a lot of pressure off.
“She pokes fun at some of the dated sayings and gives them new twists of her own.”
Without a doubt, her sense of humor makes for a good read. “This is now,” she says, “I have glasses. Many pairs of glasses. I have so many because they are somehow never where I am. The red ones, the tortoiseshell ones. I wander the house and find three pairs in my purse, although not the purse I am currently using. ‘Here they are,’ I am always saying” (91). She pokes fun at some of the dated sayings and gives them new twists of her own. “Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said that it was important to do something every day that scared you,” she says, “and it’s a pretty good piece of advice. But it’s more challenging when you’re older because you’re afraid of fewer things, certainly fewer of those small everyday things that I think Eleanor meant” (88).
Quindlen’s lighthearted awareness allows for breathing room with a sobering topic like mortality. That doesn’t stop her, however, from pursuing the truly difficult questions about life and death. “When we talk about aging,” she writes, “we talk about flagging libido, increasing infirmities, being passed over at work, being bored at home. But the elephant in the room is mortality. It’s death, but no one likes to speak his name, as though to acknowledge is to conjure, and to conjure is to invite him into the house” (162).
“Quindlen’s lighthearted awareness allows for breathing room with a sobering topic like mortality.”
She confronts the one thing seemingly no one wants to admit as they reach seniority: we are afraid of dying. As simple of an idea as that may come across, it’s also surprising how infrequently most people want to talk about it. She takes this unacknowledged, universal fear and turns it into something positive, saying, “The simple exigencies and experiences of life should teach us what life is all about. To not get the message without a cancer diagnosis, a hand tremor, a pain in the left side of the chest, is just foolishness” (167). In that sense, the existence of death isn’t so much about finality as it is about living.
“To not get the message without a cancer diagnosis, a hand tremor, a pain in the left side of the chest, is just foolishness.”
In her memoir, Quindlen challenges us to take a nuanced perspective on aging and mortality. I may not be old (whatever that word means) and I may be naïve about practically everything, but this book suggests it doesn’t require experience or wisdom to recognize the privilege it is to be living this life, experiencing this moment.
- I want to be like Anna Quindlen (lauriesnowturner.com)
- Anna Quindlen wouldn’t trade life at 59 to be 25 again (ctv.ca)