Thursday, April 09, 2020

Nonfiction Review: Women Rowing North

One of the many library books I have stacked here at home, awaiting the re-opening of libraries, is Women Rowing North: Navigating Life's Currents and Flourishing as We Age by Mary Pipher. This was my neighborhood book group's pick for March 31, though of course, we had to postpone our meeting (which was also a nice dinner out to celebrate our 175th book!). I waffled a bit about whether or not to finish the book right away, when I realized we wouldn't be able to discuss it now, because I was in the mood for some nice fictional escape, but I ended up enjoying this interesting and thoughtful book about women aging.

The author writes about her own experiences, as well as those of a diverse range of other older women, using the metaphor of rowing north for aging. She's divided the book into four parts: Challenges of the Journey, covering cultural, physical, and developmental challenges of aging; Travel Skills, with advice for living a happy and fulfilling life; The People on the Boat, with a focus on relationships; and The Northern Lights, about some of the joys of aging. Within each section, she includes multiple chapters covering specific topics, and each chapter shares stories from many different women's lives, most of whom she returns to again and again throughout the book. She also weaves her own experiences throughout the book. Some of the topics she tackles include loneliness and isolation, caregiving, changes in our bodies, creating community, learning to be grateful, grief, and much more. Her writing is engaging and insightful, as in this excerpt from the first chapter:
"Those who do not suffer become insufferable. Our depth comes from experiencing a wide range of emotions, including profound tragedy, and our strength comes from that which could destroy us. As we grow from heartbreak, we increase our pain tolerance. As my friend Nora put it, "Leona's death prepared me for my son's burn accident, and that prepared me for this terrible moment when my sister is dying. I know how hard life can be, so I enjoy every good day."

Without suffering, too much is taken for granted. With a transcendent response to suffering, nothing is too small to appreciate. We can enjoy every fresh apricot, blazing October day, and visit with a friend. We can be awake and whole.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. None of us manages a transcendent response with everything. This book is not promoting perfection, but rather engagement in a process that will make us happier."

I have to admit, I didn't have a great attitude about this book when I started reading it! While my book group chose it by vote, it was not the book that I voted for, and as I said, with the news getting more grim each day, I was more in the mood for fiction. Then, as I began reading it, I realized that it was actually quite similar to and covered many of the same topics as my own book that was just published, Finding a New Normal: Living Your Best Life with Chronic Illness; just substitute aging for chronic illness! But, this beautifully written and lovingly researched book won me over. I ended up tabbing dozens of pages throughout the book with quotes that I want to write in my Quote Journal, so it must have had some interesting things to say! I also very much enjoyed the stories of the women that Pipher shares throughout, providing a broad range of views and experiences. Because of becoming chronically ill at age 37, I have dealt with many typical "aging challenges" at a young age (and probably, as she says in that passage above, learned and grew from those experiences), but there was still a lot here to engage, entertain, and edify me.

251 pages, Bloomsbury Publishing

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  1. I think enough isn't written about aging women that is positive and honest. I am older than most of my friends and I am trying to bring up issues that no one else does.

    1. I agree - I think this book is meant to fill that gap.