Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005
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*****Once Upon a Midlife

Classic Stories and Mythic Tales to Illuminate the Middle Years

by Allan B. Chinen, M.D.

Reviewed October 31, 2005.
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam Books, New York, 1992.  238 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005 (#1, Miscellaneous Nonfiction)

A huge thank you to Jeanne McDowell for loaning this book to me.  She knew that I love fairy tales, and having recently (well, a little over a year ago) turned 40, I’m in the process of transitioning into a new phase of life.

In this book, Allan Chinen looks at fairy tales that don’t deal with a young hero performing great deeds or a young maiden searching for love.  They don’t deal with an elder at the end of his life.  Instead, these tales—chosen from cultures and times all over human history—talk about men and women in the middle of their lives, established, with children, and often holding down jobs.

He tells us sixteen tales (with many others summarized as illustrations) and talks about how they illuminate the middle passage.  This process is beautiful and illuminating.  Because it deals in symbols, you can take from it exactly what you need at this time.

In his Foreword, Roger Gould says, “The midlife period is too important and too personal to be described solely by academics who must subscribe to the rigors of methodology.  It is also too textured to be swept into large containers by those theorists looking for a principle or two to explain it all, as if coming to grips with mortality or emancipation from gender roles can subsume all that has been described.”

“The gift of this book is to help us see and feel the essential phenomena of midlife.  The book is filled with research descriptions, professional case histories, and quotes from scholars in the field that tie contemporary time to timeless formations of other cultures coming through the tales.  The person tying it all together is himself in the midst of mid-life evolution, working with patients in the room and in these other worlds.  Patients and characters in the middle tales are blended into a mythic reality that has a peculiar substantiality.

“This kind of approach, without a specific, overly determined context, is the ideal vehicle for revealing the slippery, but solidly anchored phenomena of midlife, which are inner happenings, subtle shifts, awakenings, graspings of truths.  Midlife is about being in touch with a self that always was there, except it was disguised, split, and disavowed.  This book allows the reader to see these phenomena without being confused by American cultural norms, or prescriptions of behavior implicit in age normalizing.  There is nothing in this book that one midlife spouse can throw at another, saying, ‘See, this is what you should be doing.’

“Yet there is something to learn for everyone.  For there truly is wisdom buried in these simple middle tales from around the world.”

I agree with him.  I found these tales to be illuminating and wise.  Perhaps it’s the difference between someone telling me what to expect in midlife and someone showing me.  As Allan Chinen says, “The reason for the ageless appeal of fairy tales can be summed up in an old Hasidic proverb:  give people a fact or an idea and you enlighten their minds; tell them a story and you touch their souls.”

He uses the “middle tales” to show many themes of midlife, like facing reality, suffering reversals, thinking about death, and women coming to grips with their masculine side and men coming to grips with their feminine side.  He tells us that the ultimate message of the middle tales is:  “In the midst of the reversals and confusion that plague the middle years, insight, renewal, and healing await.”

He says, “These tales will speak in different ways to each individual.  Like a good oracle, middle tales adapt themselves to each reader or listener, and point out the issues that he or she avoids.  If the issues differ, the end is similar.  Middle tales inspire change.  They provoke what they preach.  Their message is their process.”

I like the way he finishes the introduction:  “Middle tales brought magic back into my own life, and the reason is not hard to guess, nor do I think my situation is unusual.  Fairy tales awaken the inner child in us all, and that child is sorely needed in the middle years, when men and women are weighed down with responsibilities and endless chores.  This is the promise of the stories.  To every man or woman, pausing perplexed in the middle of life, magic and wisdom await in unexpected places.”

One of those places is this book.

Reviews of other books by Allan B. Chinen:
Waking the World
In the Ever After

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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