A better book club for busy women

Sometime during the initial rush of cold this past winter, I decided to start reading again. Not the daily newspaper that I still have delivered to my front door or the New York Times that I read on my iPhone — or, God forbid, the social media platforms to which I nominally contribute and feel obligated to follow — but books.

I wanted, again, to read the way my mother taught me, to read the way my father modeled, to read the way I used to before kids and a career consumed two full decades of my waking hours.Book stack

That is why, last November, I began to sit with a book every day:

  • Under an afghan,
  • In my favorite chair,
  • With a dog beside me.

I converted the blank inside cover of my journal to a list of books and authors read. Soon a pattern emerged that has since become a goal. With rare exception — usually when I am overworked and crave escape — I am reading outside of my white, middle-class, feminist experience.

“Books were my pass to personal freedom,” Oprah Winfrey has said. My intentional selection of books has become my passport to places I otherwise might not go, a chance to see the world through the eyes and experiences of different ages, ethnicities and nationalities.

A club without commitments

Inspired and eager to talk about books again, I wondered: What are other women reading? That led me back to the Annual Book Club, an idea I had tried twice before, years ago. The idea is to get the benefits of a book club without the monthly commitment — and the stress, for busy women, of turning pleasure reading into a competition or have-to chore.

Here is how the Annual Book Club works:

  • My friend Sara and I each picked a friend to co-host with us.
  • The four co-hosts each chose an additional book-loving friend, forming a group of eight people that combined old friends with “friends not yet met.”
  • We asked each woman to compile a list of up to five books. Why did she choose them? How would she convince us to read them? What did these books mean to her?
  • Each of us brought eight hard copies of our lists, leaving us with a year’s worth of literature and literate non-fiction.

We met at my house on a sunny Saturday afternoon — an English professor, a retired librarian, three marketing writers, an art director and me, a former journalist who still loves to write — and for three hours shared stories about our reading habits, our lives and our learnings in late middle age.Book Club

Unlike the aging stars in Book Club, a film that is drawing only middling reviews, we did not drink wine, or talk about sex, or ruminate over our frustrations with men. This was our time, as readers, as working women who make time for books, and we took our assignments seriously.

Recommended reading

Below are some titles I may never have encountered, in the words of the wise women who recommended them:

Rise to Greatness, by David Von Drehle: This book covers 1862. Each chapter reviews one month of that year. The Civil War raged, the government fell apart and was broke, Europe wanted to cash in on the cotton trade, and the two political parties didn’t agree on anything. If you think today’s politics are negatively charged and the country divided, this book will show you that politics has been this way before.

The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad: This book is a look at Afghanistan during and after the Taliban came into power. It tells the story of a man who sells books for three decades in difficult circumstances. It covers some of the istory of the country as well as depicts the culture of Afghanistan and the plight of Afghan women. The author lived with an Afghan family for six weeks. She wrote the book in literary form, but it is based on real events or what was told her by people who took part in those events.

The King Must Die, by Mary Renault: Called “one of the truly fine historical novels of modern times” by the New York Times, this is the first book I’ve found that really humanizes Greek mythology. It turns the story of Theseus, who slays the Minotaur at Knossos, Crete, into a fascinating novel about ancient Greece. Told from Theseus’ point of view, the book makes him real. Every turn in the story is engrossing, and it brings the myth to life.

A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City, by Drew Philp: At age 23, Drew Philp, a skinny white kid and recent college graduate, bought a derelict house in a burned out, bulldozed area of Detroit and became an urban homesteader. He spent six years restoring an uninhabitable Queen Anne house in an area with, initially, no city services such as running water and electricity, rampant crime, racial tension and class warfare. He had no prior skills. This is a personal story of a young man’s quest to create meaning and forge community in a place most had given up on.

Present over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simple, More Soulful Way of Living, by Shauna Neiquist: This book was born out of a crisis in the author’s life. She was so busy being a successful Christian author and speaker that she was missing her own life. The way she was living didn’t mesh with the values she espoused — spending unhurried time with family and friends, making a home for her family, valuing people for who they are, not what they accomplish. So she made a change. She started saying no. And to her surprise, the world did not end.

Patchinko, by Min Jin Lee: In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant — and that her lover is married — she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

And, from me, a final observation: I have noticed since last winter that reading brings out my truest self, a quiet, disciplined person who naturally prefers heartfelt conversation to a party. At 60 — my children grown, my parents dead, my workaholic ambition laid to rest — I am making peace with who I really am. Reading books both serves and inspires that process.

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Cooking for funerals and other feminine arts

“You’re cooking a lot lately,” my husband said recently on one of the below-zero days that has defined our Minnesota winter. Actually, I have not been spending more time than usual in the kitchen. He is just reaping fewer of the rewards.

A plastic tub of banana muffins made with honey, oatmeal and mini-chocolate chips went to Mary, whose father died at 93. We delivered sweet potatoes with ginger and orange juice to Karen, after her third surgery for a detached retina appeared to be successful. (She had reminded me that “orange vegetables” are good for eyes.)Beef stew photo

Earlier we had brought her a calories-be-damned comfort meal of beef stew adapted from my mother’s ’60s-era recipe and soft spoonbread full of oil and cheese.

It is both a sign and a symptom of my sixty-something stage of life that homemade food is the essential gift to nourish friendship. Parents’ funerals have replaced weddings as the defining ritual of our age. Health has become less an assumption and a birthright than a blessing that can vanish in a flash.

My own mother died in September 2015. The spontaneous gifts of food from friends and colleagues meant so much that I noted them in my eulogy:

  • Rachel’s platters of fresh vegetables delivered the day she heard the news
  • Sarah’s homemade desserts for the funeral reception
  • Cathy’s fresh rolls and minestrone, still warm from her stove
  • Kate’s vegetable soup, which she urged me to freeze and then reheat on a day when we were overwhelmed with company.

When my father, a more conventional Christian, died last October, the women of the church served up a meal of tuna hot dish, fresh fruit and slabs of cake on paper plates. The United Methodist Men’s group that he attended for years was not in evidence.

Neither did any male friends bring gifts of food when my parents died. Cooking as a tasty and tangible sign of caring remains a feminine ritual among us aging feminists.

Kitchen confidential

I was a 34-year-old career woman who out-earned her husband and hadn’t yet decided whether to have a second child when Hillary Rodham Clinton made her infamous, on-camera remark about not having “stayed home to bake cookies and have teas.”

Clinton was an emerging hero to feminists of my age and ilk, middle-class white women whose mothers had forsaken any dream of paid careers to be homemakers and helpmates to their husbands. Today’s cultural commentators would call us “privileged,” and we were, but not for the reasons they might claim. We were the first generation of our race and class to have choices: about work, about reproduction, about marriage. About all of it.

Taken in that time, 1992, and in that context, Clinton’s “cookies” comment was more bold than condescending.Cookies

“Hillary was a revolutionary,” I told my younger son in 2016 when he caucused for Bernie Sanders. “You might not see it now, but for a woman then to be a lawyer and wear suits and keep her name and have only one child was remarkable.”

I am grateful, at 60, to recognize that “women’s rights” takes many forms and that feminism, at its core, means having the freedom and opportunity to be whomever you want to be. I practice some of the feminine domestic arts out of necessity. Preparing meals is cheaper and more healthful than eating out. Knitting is relaxing and can carry me through a multi-segment Ken Burns documentary. Cotton pants and blouses require ironing to look professional.

Cooking for others? That is a true gift of the heart and a legacy of yesteryear’s “church ladies” that I eagerly uphold. I keep the refrigerator and pantry stocked for my sons when they drop by. I relish cooking dinner during my brother’s annual Christmas visit. I am the first to volunteer to host potlucks for friends and neighbors.

“I’m just someone who likes cooking and for whom sharing food is a form of expression,” says no less an accomplished woman than Maya Angelou.

Who knew that the future of our democracy came down to baking cookies? Had Hillary recognized  the domestic arts as no threat to her independence, she may have softened her divisive qualities and sharp-edged reputation. We could have had a different president.

Chew on that.

Speak truth to power: Declare your age

I turned 60 on July 4th.

There, I said it. Can I still write a blog about middle age?

No less an august authority than The Economist recently illuminated my dilemma in an article that argued for a new “age category”: What do we call this vital period between midlife and old age? I feel less affinity with a retiree of 75 than I do with a 40-year-old just entering middle age. Yet I am past those years of raising children, long commutes, holding an all-consuming job that could support a family and wearing stress like a badge for my achievements.

I still work. I exercise daily. I am engaged in life. I have good friends. At 60, I am not young anymore, but I am not old yet, either. What do I call this stage of life? Am I a “tweener”?

“Branding an age category might sound like a frivolous exercise,” says The Economist article, published two days after I tumbled out of middle age. “But life stages are primarily social constructs, and history shows that their emergence can trigger deep changes in attitude.”60 is classic

That explains why I have decided to be open about my age, despite the risks to my employability. I want to debunk the idea that women lose value as we grow older, which is true only in a society that prizes us primarily for reproduction. In fact, we have more time and far more perspective once we have made it through the child-rearing years.

Gloria Steinem’s famous rejoinder to an intended compliment on her 40th birthday, “You don’t look 40,” seems apropos: “This is what 40 looks like.”

For me, this is how 60 looks and feels:

  • wrinkled skin;
  • more need for sleep;
  • a lean body that craves yoga but can no longer sustain a runner’s 9-minute mile;
  • a determination to volunteer because I have less time to change the world (but still enough ego to believe I can make a difference);
  • more patience and self-acceptance;
  • more gratitude and humility;
  • and, thank goodness, still much to learn.

A woman can find freedom when she refuses to lie about her age, when she finds the gumption to declare her truth and share her story.

Wisdom from Bruce Willis

“Most of us have an inner age,” wrote the late author and gay-rights activist Robert Levithan in his book The New 60 (2012).

When I was in my mid-40s, working at a publishing company in downtown Minneapolis, I posted a quote in my cubicle from a Vanity Fair profile of Bruce Willis: “I see the lines on my face, but I don’t feel the weight on my shoulders. In my heart, I’m still 27,” he said.

MotownI could say I still feel young, that I take pride in keeping fit. I preen a bit when friends tell me I don’t look 60 and feel relieved when some commentator declares 60 as the new 40. What is all that, however, but a denial of the inevitable and a denigration of the gifts that come with age?

Ricka Kohnstamm calls these the wisdom years. “Age is totally an asset,” says Kohnstamm, who will turn 61 in August. A former partner with her husband, Josh, in Kohnstamm Communications, she recently earned a master’s degree in integrative health and well-being coaching.

“I bring a whole different set of experiences,” explains Kohnstamm, who is about to launch her own business, ALIGN Whole Health Coaching. “Many of us at 60 have experienced a lot: disappointments, joys, dreams that may not happen, transitions, deaths and losses.”

Over coffee, I tell Kohnstamm that I did not expect to feel so much uncertainty at 60. Her laughter breaks my fearful, reflective mood. “I want uncertainty!” she declares. “We have to learn to ride that wave.”

The secret? Keep learning

Loss can teach us lessons. Here is what the loss of youth is teaching me.

Being 60 means becoming acutely aware of time — in work, in relationships, in how I spend my days. I no longer have time to waste, and I use it wisely.

Being 60 means becoming more deliberate. I love to work and expect to hold some sort of part-time job for decades, but I likely am entering the final stage of my career. That makes me more careful than I was in my 20s and 30s, when I changed jobs too quickly, loving the energy of the chase, always seeking the next challenge and the thrill of something new.

Being 60 means accepting other people’s choices even when I think they’re wrong (a sentence that my husband will love to read).

Being 60 means breaking free of the façade. I look at women wearing layers of makeup and hobbling around on high heels, and I want to ask why they invest in their own subjugation. I dress up when circumstances warrant and relish the attention it grants me, but I don’t fool myself into believing that those appreciative glances define my worth. “Elegance attracted me,” says the protagonist in Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time (2016). “I liked the way it hid pain.”

Being 60 means becoming willing to share that pain, to risk being real, and that requires the courageous work of being vulnerable. “The majority of people, if they’re awake, have pretty complicated lives,” says Kohnstamm. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to pretend we didn’t?”