Reviewed by Kathy L. Brown
Gentle ruminations on aging with joy and authenticity—My Days with Emma will inspire and guide the reader’s own journey through the final stages of life.
My Days with Emma combines elements of philosophy, psychology, and spirituality into an elevated self-help book.
It digs deep into the existential questions posed by aging and end of life. Author Paul Dunion, a psychotherapist and consultant, set out to better understand the challenges of aging, both for his own benefit and to care for his clients. The book’s framing device is a series of meetings between the narrator and an older, wiser mentor, “Emma.”
In each chapter Emma introduces the narrator to a challenging topic, which they discuss. For example, movement into elderhood can be thought of as an initiation, and their first session analyzes that concept. Another chapter is called “Befriending the Here and Now.” As Emma explains at the narrator’s first session, “Most of us believe that we are the ones doing the living. Well, the news is that life is mostly living us. Life has challenged you, called to you, shaped you, stimulated you, puzzled you, hurt you, thrilled you, and provoked you. All the while, you have convinced yourself of being the one living life.”
For each topic the narrator shares memories, thoughts, or feelings evoked by the session’s subject. Often the narrator poses a series of self-analysis questions, helpful to the reader considering what the material means to them. Many chapters close with a poem/blessing, distilling the core conclusions into a concise expression.
For example, from “A Blessing for a Crisis of Meaning”—”Be mindful of who you are in the here and now. /You may be in a story of washing the dishes, /talking to a friend, organizing your closet, or taking a walk, /These are all simple stories to be in and are quite honorable.”
My Days with Emma is a book to ponder, slowly. It inspires the reader to find their own answers to the fundamental questions therein: to process their pasts, and to move forward into fulfilling elderhood. The book rightly cautions readers to seek “in real life” help for this journey, either from a trusted friend or mental/spiritual health professional.
The book takes a cerebral approach to the heart work needed for “soulful eldering.” Some brief, personal examples are shared. The language is that of highly educated people and tends to utilize the special nomenclature of spiritual/philosophical writing. The book’s reference list makes an excellent further readings resource.
Interestingly, the narrator, his older client (used as an example), and even Emma, the mentor, are all professional people still activity engaged in their careers. They’ve experienced changes and losses—the narrator has a troublesome chronic condition impacting his life—but much change and loss are still ahead. The practical problems of old age in modern society—poor health, lack of material resources, isolation, and erosion of civil rights are not the subject of this book. Yet it would be appropriate to consider the challenges of graceful aging for elders who are in a struggle to survive.
Readers interested in embracing a soulful approach to aging will be drawn to this book. Fans of thoughtful, intelligent spiritual readings, such as that of Thomas Moore, Henri Nouwen, and Matthew Fox will find much to ponder in the pages of My Days with Emma.
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