When a news alert box popped onto my computer screen that Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing had died at her home in London on Sunday, I stopped what I was doing and thought about how I have reached the age when icons of my youth – particularly the literary ones (or perhaps I just notice them more than others) - are dropping off at an increasing pace.
Lessing was a prolific writer – novels, short stories, poems, plays, biographies and more.
The names of her works you would most readily recognize are probably The Golden Notebook, The Summer Before Dark, The Fifth Child, Martha Quest and possibly the other four in her autobiographical Children of Violence series.
She wrote some terrific cat books too.
I've been reading Lessing, or trying to, since high school in the 1950s. I say “trying” because she can be an exasperating writer, dense and even impenetrable at times. There are a number of half-read Lessing books on my shelves.
Nevertheless, I have always kept a file of Doris Lessing quotations – some from her books (including those I didn't finish), others from interviews I ran across. What I didn't do, particularly in the early years, it cite the sources. Sorry.
Memory is, of course, untrustworthy but it could be that it was Lessing who helped me shed any remaining sense of inferiority I had about not having attended college:
"I didn't go to school much, so I taught myself what I knew from reading.”
"Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so.”
“I am sure everyone has had the experience of reading a book and finding it vibrating with aliveness, with colour and immediacy. And then, perhaps some weeks later, reading it again and finding it flat and empty. Well, the book hasn't changed: you have.”
"That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way.”
On Growing Old:
"All one's life as a young woman one is on show, a focus of attention, people notice you. You set yourself up to be noticed and admired.
"And then, not expecting it, you become middle-aged and anonymous. No one notices you. You achieve a wonderful freedom. It's a positive thing. You can move about unnoticed and invisible.”
"For the last third of life there remains only work. It alone is always stimulating, rejuvenating, exciting and satisfying.” (I read somewhere that this is misattributed to Lessing but I like it anyway)
We should not ignore her most well-known take on old age. Although it is well-stated, I happen not to agree:
"The great secret that all old people share is that you really haven't changed in seventy or eighty years. Your body changes, but you don't change at all. And that, of course, causes great confusion.”
And there must be one cat quotation. This one is a beauty:
“What a luxury a cat is, the moments of shocking and startling pleasure in a day, the feel of the beast, the soft sleekness under your palm, the warmth when you wake on a cold night, the grace and charm even in a quite ordinary workaday puss.
“Cat walks across your room, and in that lonely stalk you see leopard or even panther, or it turns its head to acknowledge you and the yellow blaze of those eyes tells you what an exotic visitor you have here, in this household friend, the cat who purrs as you stroke, or rub his chin, or scratch his head.”
It was nice, writing this post, to pretend that another touchstone from my life is still with us.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Thomas Moore: To Mother