The Beauty of Aging

Doris Lessing Dies at Age 94

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.

The AP obituary is good. And you might find Doris Lessing's 1988 interview in the Paris Review worth your time.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Thomas Moore: To Mother


Doris Lessing's death has prompted a lot of thinking for me, all focused around the fact that she abandoned her two young children early on. Apparently, she freely admitted she left them because she didn't want that kind of restriction on her life.

I concluded long ago that it is pointless to try to demand perfection from people you admire from afar, people like great leaders or great talents; just admire the outstanding traits you love and write off the rest. However, I admit I hold especially heavy contempt for women who do not do their duty to their children.

At the same time, I truly believe it is this very characteristic--women's natural inclination to subordinate their own needs in order to nurture and protect their children--that is the primary cause of women's second class status in the world. Doris Lessing walked away from that, and lived the life she wanted.

What happened to her two children, both below the age of three and left with their father because, as she said : "There is no boredom like that of an intelligent woman who spends all day with a very small child."? If she believed that when she had the first child, why have the second ? She herself had no qualms : "While it was a terrible thing to do, it was the right thing to do." As if that explained and excused everything.

I really didn't know Lessing that well but reading John Cooper and Candace's comments about her abandoning her children for intellectual freedom makes me wonder if she is any less of a mother than those matronly wealthy women who hire nannies to raise their children while the proceed to live their lives of luxury, never really getting to know their children. I would have to say Lessing's reasons were more virtuous than the so-called women of culture.

Doris Lessing's writing was like a mentor for me. If you can't understand why she left her children, then you simply don't understand what she was talking about, who she was, or who most of her fans were/are. Regardless, Lessing has always been my favorite woman writer and I owe her much.
Did you read "If Only the Old Could"? I was just thinking about this profound and sad story about an aging woman who could no longer care for herself and had no one to turn to for help. Or, Martha Quest?
So many great special life saving books from one exceptional person!

What a wonderful body of work she's left behind. Her Martha Quest series were a lifesaver to me in the 70s. I read the Golden Notebook every few years and each time I find something fresh: I take that as an indication of my own growing and learning.

And, Larry, do agree+++

Not being a literary savant, and doubting that I had heard of Ms Lessing before BBC's announcement, last night, I nevertheless feel great compassion for a woman of that generation who did not wish to be tied down by children. There was no Pill for her generation. Living totally without sex with a male was the only means of reliably preventing pregnancy.

I applaud the bravery of her actions - that she declined to become any more a second-class citizen that her femaleness, itself, accorded her.

My damaged brain couldn't take in her denseness, so I missed her wonderful words.

The Diary of a Good Neighbour was my favorite of her bools.

When Doris Lessing was 87 years of age I heard her speak at the Hay Book Festival ( Wales) and afterwards in the Q &A session one young woman asked her if she had thought of retiring.

Like a flash she replied:" Why should I?"
She went on to write another novel.

She does seem to have been a very complex person. I have to admit I had difficulty reading the few things of hers that I did, and eventually gave away all my books by her, but still appreciated her inquisitive and creative mind. I also like her response to being awarded the Nobel Prize: "I can't say I'm overwhelmed with surprise . . . I'm 88 years old and they can't give the Nobel to someone who's dead, so I think they were probably thinking they'd probably better give it to me now before I've popped off."

Since she left them with their father, I hardly think of that as 'abandonment'. If she remained in touch with them and helped support them, it's little different than the circumstance of any children of divorce.

Her biography (Google Doris Lessing), indicates she raised a son, and apparently remained on good terms with the children of her first marriage.

Now I have to go read her!

When I saw her name in the NYT obit column I knew her name was familiar, but couldn't place her. Then I read your column and it came back. I confess that I did not read many of her novels and I don't remember the ones I read. I guess that must indicate that she was not a favorite author of mine.

As a girl who loved to play with dolls and adored my babies I can't relate to someone who could abandon her own flesh and blood. Whether she wanted the children or not or whether she got pregnant by accident is irrelevant to me. Once she gave birth an obligation came with it. I see it as a selfish act to walk away from her children and put her needs first. Many women have written best selling novels while raising children; one job is not exclusive of the other.

It can be argued that her self centered ambition would have made her a terrible mother and she could have recognized that, making her act one of sacrifice. Her motivation may exonerate her, but her words do not indicate that was the case.

Not familar with this writer
like the quotes on aging
and will share
with my children
and on my journal.
I am always learning from you...

Now I have someone new to check out....no longer read I listen to books on tape - and love it - makes me feel that Mommy is reading to me. Just finished Ivy Chron. Thank you Ronni for all your enlightenment.

I had trouble making it through many of Doris Lessing's writings. Even so, it's nice to know that I'm not alone, even among TGB's readers, who appear to be a pretty literate group. However, I can relate to the loss of yet another of the icons of our youth. It does seem like they are dropping by the wayside at a faster rate than a few years ago--which is probably true.

As far as Ms. Lessing's leaving her young children, she was probably one of more than a few women of that era who should have remained child free. I was fortunate enough to recognize BEFORE I had kids that I wasn't "Mom" material. I also had the good fortune to be one of the first young women in my area to get a prescription for The Pill! The dosage was frighteningly high by today's standards, but it did the job. I won't judge Ms. Lessing because I never had to make the choices she did.

I do feel sorry when we lose exceptional people who have contributed to the world more than they received from it, and I dislike the modern tendency of equating the writer with his/her personal story. Doris Lessing was, and always will be, a striking figure on my horizon.
And another exceptional person we just lost was William Weaver, a superb translator and writer.

I admire Doris Lessing greatly; her influence on my life as a whole was/is unmeasurable. I, contrary to her, chose staying with my children and she always made me question the wisdom of such a choice. I don't exactly regret it, but I would do it otherwise if given a second chance. Human beings are too unpredictable for that kind of sacrifice.

I've only read excerpts shared by others, and didn't know that Ms.Lessing was a runaway Mom...

Thanks for posting this about her, so that I can delve into her body of work, and feel less alienated in my old age.

If you study literature, you will find there are people who argue that the work and the life the author should be considered completely separately. To me that takes all the fun out and is impossible to do anyway. The more I know about the author, the more enriched I am by the experience of reading their work. It is sad in a way, but her death will actually bring a lot more people to her work and that is ultimately a good thing.

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