I am in my writing room, procrastinating, having deserted my computer. It is three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon and I am supposed to be working on my new memoir. Then a thought occurs to me and I break away, freed from distraction.
What was I doing there, cozied up on the couch? Reading. Being Mortal: Medicine And What Matters In The End is my latest book. By Dr. Atul Gawande, it spent a year on the New York Times bestseller list, and is so exceptional that it cannot be put aside. It is making me think hard about how we handle aging and death in the U.S. today. He’s looking at a topic that I connect with, and connection is why we should read to begin with.
Why am I spending time with this work of straight non-fiction, when I generally read novels and memoirs (creative non-fiction) exclusively? The answer is as simple and compelling as Gawande’s work itself: Being Mortal is my book club selection for February; probably I am speeding through it because I am afraid of dying alone in the kind of preprogrammed assisted living facility so common today, one that will take away my autonomy to be “the author of my own life.” No pun intended.
Book clubs are a more palatable subject to examine in a newsletter than mortality: they provoke us to keep reading when all the rest of the population seems glued to their phone, or Facebook, Twitter and the now popular Instagram. I belong to two book clubs: one which I founded with my best friend in Annapolis, Lucy, and the other which is sponsored by The Women’s Giving Circle–a charitable foundation I joined when I moved to Maryland.
Last week, the club Lucy and I began a year ago went to Nashville. A group of eight, in November we had read Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. As Ms. Patchett lives in Nashville, as well as owning and running the independent bookstore Parnassus, which is a must-see attraction there, we thought it would be a fun city to explore. Maybe we would even get to meet her and have her sign our books. I wrote to her, one author to another, telling her of our journey to the south and our hope of making her acquaintance. Sadly enough, I got no response. Perhaps she was too busy; perhaps my email never reached her.
Nevertheless, we visited Parnassus anyway, as well as exploring the city from the base of our Airbnb: we toured an antebellum mansion; tramped around the Hermitage and its museum, both of which are on President Andrew Jackson’s amazing estate; ate some great Southern food; went to a country music concert, as well as lingering in the fascinating Country Music Hall of Fame. I’ve never been a country music fan myself, but I was convinced by our visit there to explore this kind of music in the future.
Despite our book club connection, I didn’t know the other women well, as Lucy was the one who extended most of the invitations to join. (I had only a few companions in Annapolis at that point.) Yet, despite my shyness, by the end of our three days together, we had nicknamed ourselves the Nashville 8, and I felt as if we were becoming friends.
Gawande’s book makes the point that as we age and see our horizons shorten, we begin to focus more on close friends–and family–rather than on making new ones. However, when I moved here I had to force myself to join with strangers simply because the majority of my family and all of my friends were far away, and I guess this makes me an exception to his otherwise astute observation. It’s been tough to reach out this way, but I’ve found it exceptionally rewarding to engage in new relationships at a time when I’ve had to leave others behind. It is possible to look outward from a new perspective as you become a senior and the aging process sets in. So, despite procrastination and the compelling Being Mortal, I must disagree, quite respectfully, with Dr. Gawande about this particular idea.
Returning to my original subject, however, there is one more point I must mention. My mother reassured me time and time again: “Linda, there will always be books.” She was right. You can carry one with you anywhere you go–which perhaps makes a book the best friend of all.