I picked this up at the library because the title sounded wise and the dog on the cover epitomized what I was expecting. How to Live would be the story about the collected wisdom of old people. In reading it, I would be fast-tracking my chance at wisdom too. I imagined sitting down to talk with my daughter in ten or twenty years and drawing on the gems of enlightenment from when I read this book as a young man. All I really learned though, was that I was wrong.
There are no secrets from old people. My hope for a nicely wrapped package topped with a bow was delivered like a cardboard box affixed with a piece of string tied in a harried and hurried manner. That's not to say this book isn't good.
There is no archetype of wisdom in this book but Alford does find a slew of characters that fill out what wisdom is. It's a bit like a basketball team, only instead of a great player like Lebron James, there's a bunch of decent players with their own unique skills. One of which is Alford's mother.
Somehow, during the writing of this book, his mother goes through a divorce and moves from the northeast to a retirement community in the Carolinas. Both of these things don't seem so much as things wise people do as much as what old people do. As I read about her experiences I hoped that she would share nuggets of wisdom about life since she's had so much time to find them. There were no nuggets of gold, but maybe a few flakes along the way. Alford's mother sits on the floor and that makes her seem young. For whatever reason I liked this. She's always moving in the story, physically and emotionally. I liked this too. Hers is the best story from the collection of interviews in the book.
There are other good stories too. Alford talks to "Granny D" who walked across the country to bring attention to campaign finance reform - when she was 88. He talks to Althea Washington, a relative nobody compared to the other interviewees, but the most humane interview of the book. Her discussion was filtered through what it was like to live day to day, moment to moment, through hurricane Katrina, the death of her husband, and her FEMA subsidized relocation to Texas.
For Alford, his best experience with elderly wisdom comes from talking with Ram Dass. Aside from the descriptions of Hawaii, this part contained little interest to me, but thrilled Alford and it was here I realized a central point of the book. There is no fixed wisdom about being old. There is no path that leads to a good life except the one you choose to be good. Alford found a connection with Dass and so the things he said were wise to him, less so for me.
Defining the recipe for wisdom is impossible, though through his travels Alford suggests some things. Engage with people you like, do something you enjoy, and take time to be with yourself. Being religious can be very helpful and being married takes a certain flexibility.
Not until I neared the end, did I finally realize that there would be no wisdom. It was like watching Inception and waiting for things to be explained clearly. Being wise is about taking your own journey and finding your own wisdom. Hopefully this book will be part of mine.