Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill is a collection of essays and memories written and published by the author/retired editor in her 90s.
If you haven’t read anything by Athill, I highly recommend you do so. She’s a distinct personality and that comes through in her writing, which, I know it’s cliche to say, is both poignant and humorous and most of the time humorously poignant.
Each chapter covers a specific memory or topic. Or memories as the vehicle for addressing big topics that include but are not limited to Athill’s miscarriage, aging, her childhood in Norfolk, fashion, WWII, colonialism in the Caribbean, her various love affairs, and her preference for being the “other woman.”
She writes it all in matter-of-fact prose with acknowledgement of her own “prosaic” tendencies. And yet, she does cover beauty, writing a passage on “looking” that, I’ll admit, gave me permission to enjoy a pastime I couldn’t have put a name to, which is looking, observing, really seeing something that interests you.
“Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. And giving me this book, of memories, thoughts and reflections, which does – roughly – add up to being a report on what living for ninety-seven years has taught one rather lucky old woman.”
Personally, I think of wandering the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where I went for the first time last summer. I was in a state of bliss, content to stand in front of the Sargent portraits til my eyeballs fell out. Now I know that looking is a thing, I’m going to spend more time doing it.
I also found out that I am not alone in how I have grown to perceive poetry and its place in my reading life over time.
“However, when someone asks me for my favourite poem and I answer Lear’s ‘ The Owl and the Pussy Cat ’, I am not being facetious. I really do prefer poems which tell a story to those that plumb the depths of experience, and those that depend largely on associations hooked up into a poet’s mind by words and images are lost to me. I read to see something, not to decipher codes.”
This was so validating for me. I got the impression that living life in your 90s is very freeing in the sense that you don’t worry about what people think of you (which Athill confirms for herself in the last chapter of the book). Wouldn’t it be great if I could give myself permission to live like that now?