The subtitle of Sharon Butala’s latest book This Strange Visible Air is: Essays on Aging and the Writing Life. Maybe it’s because I’m keenly aware that my forties are now in my sights, or maybe it’s because I recently discovered I may have trouble digesting gluten and the thought of a life stretched out before me without a donut leaves me depressed, but a book of essays about aging seemed like the perfect read for me at this moment. I’m an out and proud fan of Butala’s work, I reviewed one of her books for a magazine a few years ago, so I knew to expect a well-written and thoughtful collection.
There are 15 essays in total, most of them thoughts and musings on Butala’s life as an 80-year-old woman living in Calgary, widowed and divorced, but still actively writing. They aren’t in any particular order, other than the last essays which is a short observation of the pandemic as it unfolds, clearly written at the very beginning when vaccines were only a distant hope for the future. As the title of the book suggests, the dominate theme is aging, and this thread can be found in every single piece, sometimes overcrowding any other observations, or simply a background fact while other situations take precedence. She writes of her past lives, that of a rancher’s wife, and an aspiring novelist before she had her first book published. One story focuses on a relative of hers with a severe drug dependency, an addiction that led her to push all family members away, and Butala’s fear of accepting her into her life again. Many stories touch upon the practical, including the smell of gas in her apartment that she tried to ignore before finally accepting contractors into her home to fix the issue.
Many of the situations she describes I can easily imagine in my future, because based on statistics alone, I am likely to outlive my husband by a significant number of years. Butala’s writing and her community of fellow writers is what seems to keep her busy and connected with others – she frequently refers to book launches, events, and readings she’s attended here in the city, holding that flimsy cup of wine that seem to be a prerequisite for those types of things. Before the pandemic (and now a bit recently) I’ve also been at those events, in fact I’ve seen Butala at those events because we both live in Calgary, and she’s always surrounded by friends and fans, so she’s most definitely lifted up by our tight-knit writing community here.
Her thoughts are relatable for many other reasons, one of them being her reluctance to ‘bother’ other people when feeling lonely, sick, or in need of assistance – haven’t we all felt that way at one point or another, especially when living alone? Despite our age difference, I found much to understand and sympathize with in this collection.
Butala’s experience taking the LRT in Calgary for instance, was an interesting one to read about, as I used to take public transit on a daily basis until I became pregnant with my first child. Now that ridership has dropped in Calgary following the pandemic, there is a major problem of people doing drugs openly on the train because they have no where else to go, and they are assured a bystander will likely witness and request help should an overdose happen. As I read Butala’s own story of riding the train before the pandemic I wondered if she was still taking it now as many have deemed it too dangerous, but she comes across as the type of senior that doesn’t avoid things out of fear – she is much too practical for that.
She has a great sense of humour that shines through the page in “Lettuce or Things I Can’t Do Now That I’m Old”, but where she really excels in this collection is her descriptions of how friendship has shifted and changed throughout her life, with female friendships being her main source of connection:
“Now I need companionship, serious conversations about life, a willingness to talk about our own less-than-stellar futures, someone with whom to share interests such as literature and the other arts, and a strong sense of mutual empathy whether we talk about it or not. My friends and I struggle determinedly not only to keep ourselves occupied doing interesting and enjoyable things, but to help each other in this.-p. 78 of “A Life in Friends” from This Strange Visible Air by Sharon Butala
It may not a be a glamorous life, but it’s a life of comfort and companionship that one can look forward to nonetheless.
I loved this collection too. Her prose style is exacting and I admire the attention she pays to detail. The friendship observations really touched me, as they did you.
It gave me hope for my aging process actually haha
I bet I’d like this too. Like a glimpse of the future. My husband and I joke about the fact that I’ll likely outlive him too, what else can you do but joke right??
yes exactly – it’s a horrible thought, but we joke about it too b/c it’s sadly very likely…
What to do is divorce your husband when you’re fifty and marry a man twenty years your junior… 😉 Ageing is such a strange thing – it happens to us all, unless we’re unlucky, and yet we never quite seem prepared for it. I think the way our societies work make it harder – old people often end up quite solitary, especially if they don’t have children. Whereas in other societies families all live together with several generations in one household. Not sure which way is best, to be honest. I do hope you won’t have to forgo donuts! My brother is coeliac and there’s a lot more gluten-free cake available than there used to be!
Oh I like that plan FF – a younger husband! LOL
Yes I’ve got my fingers crossed I’m not allergic, just maybe slightly intolerant or something? I haven’t cut out gluten yet, hopefully I’ll never have to…
Speaking of lettuce being something this author can’t do anymore, how are things going with your stomach? I know you’ve said issues keep cropping up and that you visited a doctor, so I hope you’re figuring it out and feeling better.
Also, I Googled around this morning and found this! https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-dawn-dumont-walker-found-safe/
Yes I just posted an updated about Dawn – so happy to hear this, although I think she might be in jail still in the U.S.? It’s horrible, but at least she’s safe.
I should be getting lab results back this week to see if I’m actually celiac. I doubt I am, it probably just upsets my stomach a bit, but nothing too serious I hope…
This collection sounds great! There is so much patriarchal bullshit layered upon women aging. It creates a lot of fear about what could potentially be a very powerful time for us. I can only be this positive after listening to a great episode of Glennon Doyle’s podcast We Can Do Hard Things recently on aging.
I love listening to her! And Oprah’s Super Soul podcast. I don’t listen to podcasts often, but when I’m getting my eyelash extensions I do (which is every third week) LOL
What a pity this book is only available in Canada. It sounds fascinating.
Depending on where you live, I know Freehand Press will sometimes make the e-versions available elsewhere, but that may not be an option…
Thanks. I will try.
I’m feeling 40 looming too these days but I don’t know if I’m ready to read about aging yet!
I’m an 85 year old in a 37 year old body, I’ve always known it LOL
I loved these essays, too. You’ve reminded me that I haven’t written about them yet. I have to try to do it before they slip through the cracks!
The biggest thing I took from this book is the importance of staying connected with friends, because someday we might be alone. I don’t think I’ve ever lived alone in my whole 48 years, so I can’t even imagine it. But, I think it would be nicer to live with a friend or a sister, if possible. Maybe I should get on that before they’re all spoken for! Lol
Often my friends joke we are going to do “Golden Girls” together, b/c realistically, we will all likely outlive our male partners
Sounds like fun to me!