Every month I try to attend a book group, run by my local chapter of the Women’s Institute. I love this group, the women and the books warm my heart and soul.
Last month the book we discussed was The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old. This was not a book I initially enjoyed, but one that took me on what turned out to be a heart warming journey.
Henrik Groen lives in an old age home in Amsterdam. As the story suggests, it is a year in the life of this elderly gentleman. He decides that he wants to make some changes to his life, and keeping a diary is the first. The second: he concludes there has to be more to the life he is currently living and with the help of some mates forms the Old-But-Not Dead Club.
Together these elderly crusaders, set about changing their lives.
Initially confronted with my own mortality, and perhaps more pressingly that of my (actually quite young) parents, I found this a difficult book to keep going with. I guess when I picked it up, I didn’t really expect to be subtly confronted, I expected to be entertained. But I warmed to Groen and his outlook on life, and as I was confronted with my own mortality I started to think about the kind of elderly woman I would like to be.
Attitude is everything
I, like Groen became irritated by the grumpy old men, and whiny old women that he was living with. I struggled with the small mindedness and the school yard mind games that seemed to have followed him into old age. Surely that stuff must come to an end sometime?
I don’t want to end up whiny and grumpy. I find people like that soul draining and life can be hard enough as it is, without that sucking the life from me as well. Nor do I want to be that kind of person to others.
I suspect if that habit is going to follow me into old age, that I better start getting better at it now.
Groen seemed to have struck a good balance between being real about his struggles and not becoming bogged down by them. Never did he gloss over the hard things that life threw at him, the loss of a child, a wife with mental illness, the sickness, disintegration and death that comes with old age (or any age for that matter). He approached them in dignified, thoughtful ways, always questioning his own mortality. He was real about his hardships, yet did not dwell upon them very long. He did not allow those daily events to taint his future. Rather, he channelled them into his desire to get more from his own life and to make the best of what he had now. He decided to enjoy those around him whose company he found pleasurable, and to find ways to enrich his and the lives of others in-spite of any hardship.
What you might call a stellar day for our home yesterday; one stroke, one broken hip nd one near-asphyxiation on a bitter biscuit. The ambulance came and went three times in a single afternoon. This gave rise to so much fodder for conversation over tea and coffee that it was hard to keep up with it all. Even though I wasn’t closely acquainted with the victims, it does once again make one brutally aware of the facts; it doesn’t require a storm to fell and old tree. A puff of wind in the guise of a butter biscuit for example, could be fatal. We all ought to live as it every days our last, but no, we’d rather waste our precious final hours on empty stuff and nonsense.
He allowed himself the grace to have down days, and the courage to pick himself up and start all over again when he could. I hope that I am like that too, both now and in my later years.
Never give up dreaming
A lovely part of his journey was that he identified that having nothing to live for, made living more about existing, and if all you were doing was existing, was that really enough? He decided it was not, so set about changing his life. At 83 1/4 years old, he took control of his own destiny, and with the help of some like-minded buddies, set about reinventing their lives. They started to do new things, have adventures, find ways to be more independent, laugh at themselves, not allow the institution (or society) to dictate how they should live, but rather discover what brought them joy and set about doing it. He even turned whistle-blower want to be, and discovered a new zest for advocacy.
He set himself new challenges, learned new skills, and deepened the relationships around him. I like the sound of that.
Don’t loose your twinkle
There are several times in the book, where I could visualise the twinkle in the eyes of Groen and his cheeky cronies. They became mischievous and were not adverse to taking themselves lightly.
I don’t ever want to lose my twinkle.
On a happier note: I’m about to go and have a cup of tea with my friend Eefje and I’m going to invite her for dinner with me tonight. I’ve reserved a table at a fairly posh restaurant.
Live as if today’s your last day.
By the end of this book, I felt as I lay it down, I was saying goodbye to a lovely friend, who loved me by telling me some hard truths in a graceful manner. Aging is real, death is real, and our mortality is real.
But so is today. And how we spend that makes all the difference. We are never too old or too young to change how that happens.
What books have you read that have inspired you lately? I would love to hear what you are reading.