It happened the way it often does, in my case: I was driving somewhere with my radio tuned to CBC and I caught a portion of Shelagh Roger’s The Next Chapter, and within seconds, I was smiling, then laughing and utterly charmed by the man being interviewed. Shelagh was so relaxed that you could tell there was real mutual admiration between them. She had a case of the giggles. Their banter was effortless.
Her guest was Ian Brown, and he was there to discuss his most recent book: Sixty, a diary of my sixty-first year, published in 2015, which began as a Facebook post on the morning of his sixtieth birthday and grew into a thoughtful, often laugh-out-loud funny, honest, witty, literary, kind, warm, disarming and unpretentious exploration of aging and, hopefully, of growing old.
I’m not getting any younger, so I was easily drawn to the book and its subject. And I suppose Brown wasn’t aiming for twenty- something readers when he took the plunge and started writing. But the truth is, Sixty deserves to find a wide and appreciative readership (proof of this is that one of my sons caught the interview that day as well, and was also delighted and eager to find out more about the author and the book—he mentioned it to me first, in fact!)
I have to admit that I was really curious to read a male take on aging. After all, women’s biology is such that we can’t ignore those giant signposts along our way—mostly tied to childbearing and other hormonal highs and lows. And because there are days when I wonder if it will soon be against the law for women to grow old and still appear in public.
But now that I’ve finished the book, I realize that it would be a mistake to extrapolate on the basis of any one factor. I don’t agree with everything Brown writes, of course, but I’m not sure which of our differences are a result of our gender, our life experiences, our values or our fears.
Whatever the explanation, it takes a gifted writer to take on a pretty heavy subject and make it so wonderfully engaging and insightful. And full of humour. Always.
The pace of Sixty is intriguing. My reading experience felt like walking on a beach: sometimes you’re just skirting the water, and you’re able to proceed as quickly as you like; at other times, you venture deeper in, and movement becomes more difficult as the sand supporting you gives way. Progress is slower. And yet, it’s always the same beach, and similar sand.
Sixty felt like that, and I think this would please Ian Brown, because some of the most serene moments described in the book occur when he is near the ocean.
This year-long stroll we take at his side spirals over recurring themes. There is his relationship with his beloved father, who died at the age of 99 and struck me as a wonderful model for growing older. It’s a quiet, diffident and tender relationship.
There is travel and friendship, which go hand in hand in Brown’s life, that impress by their scope and from which he derives much joy and pleasure. I suspect that they support him in important ways.
Then come his constant money worries (well, friends and travel probably aggravate those, but they are also the connective tissue of a joyful life). Goodbye «Freedom 55».
There is also his pretty discouraging documentation of the physical/medical process of aging, and his growing hypochondria, though his only officially diagnosed health issues are plantar fasciitis, the threat of glaucoma and deafness (he simply wears hearing aids, but lives in a constant state of apprehension).
All of these enter into what Brown himself referred to with Shelagh Rogers as the «actuarial analysis of everything» that he began conducting when he turned sixty and which, in essence, involves recalculating the value of the elements of his life in the face of the implacable fact that our time always runs out.
This is done against the backdrop of loss, of course. Because aging gracefully—or just plain growing old—is about adapting to and accommodating incremental losses.
Besides the physical indignity of aging—which he brings to life so poignantly in his accounting of his father’s last years—it’s memory and solitude that preoccupy him most of all.
In his interview with Shelagh Rogers, Brown speaks of the problematic workings of memory in old age as one of the reasons for writing the diary of his 61st year. Because details are the glue of episodic memory, and because we lose the ability to store these as we grow older, we must pay attention to the things that actually grab us in our lives. Writing the diary provided a means to do this.
It reminded me of a quote I posted on my Facebook page just yesterday! (January 2nd) which, as a result of thinking about this book, has acquired a deeper meaning for me:
Vita vigilia est.
«To be alive is to be watchful.»
Pliny the Elder.
I can certainly relate to the great blurring of details that Brown describes so precisely (ha!) and with such good humor, but see fewer parallels with my own life in other respects.
For instance, the focus of Sixty is really very bi-generational: there are the Boomers (like the author and his wife, his siblings, friends and most of his colleagues) and there are Millenials (those born between 1980 and 2000), which happens to be the generation of the author’s daughter.
As a teacher and grand-maman (!), my life isn’t as age-segregated, and I’m very grateful for that. I think it alters my perception of aging.
And because I came to teaching and to writing in the middle part of my life, my days are still filled with a sense of newness and genuine excitement about what the future might hold. I still feel like a work in progress.
On The Last Chapter, Brown mentions the riskiness of writing a diary, including the possibility of being too revealing and the dangers of self-description. «Terrifying» was an adjective he used.
I think he walked this tightrope with real skill and success. There are areas that are visited on tiptoes—like his life with his wife Johanna— and there are also no-enter zones. These include the life of his son Walker, about whom he has written a book. The other is his relationship with his mother, which the reader senses is an area of private pain with deep roots.
And then there’s solitude.
Brown refers to aging as «a gradual thinning of the crowd»—which has been described to me before by older family members and which must certainly have cast a pall over of the last decade of his father’s life—and his most profound musings touch on the attraction and repulsion of solitude. He becomes especially lyrical toward the end of his diary, and its last pages are very moving:
«We all live inside our secret fears. I cannot help but notice that every time I pretend mine don’t exist, I deny someone else’s as well. […] Because this is what I long to be, as I head into the late innings: less hidden, less afraid, more naked, less ashamed. I want to wear my fragility on my body—not just the so-called need, but my intentions, and my doubts about my intentions, and my doubts about the doubts, and the laughable wobbliness of my progress in all things. I want to be human and complex more than I want to be right and clear—because if I can be those things, others can be those things too. We can be those things together, which strikes me as an intelligent formation in which to approach the unknown, towards the end of the road […].»
While I resist ageism in its many forms, and feel kinship with humans of all ages, I also think that life experience—and the passage of time and inevitable aging that are its corollary—is the source of our most valuable and essential learning. Fortunately, each of us has unique and valuable lessons to share.
Do pick up this book. It’s a wonderful way to use some of the time that remains.