A Review of
The Wonder Years: 40 Women Over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty, and Strength
Leslie Leyland Fields, editor
Reviewed by Cynthia Beach
Voices of friends, I thought, as I read essay after essay in The Wonder Years on topics as diverse as horses to letting go, body image to domestic violence. And those doing the speaking are some of my favorite friends, too: Lauren Winner, Elisabeth Elliot, Brené Brown, Ann Voskamp, Madeleine L’Engle. These names are among the thirty-five other “over 40” women writers who contributed essays to the latest anthology from the deep-thinking author Leslie Leyland Fields.
Many essays were fresh and thought-provoking like Michelle Van Loon’s “The Gift of Regret,” whose metaphor of regret as a boulder was memorable. She realized at a fast-food restaurant one day that her regret, like a big boulder, couldn’t be reburied or ignored any longer. Her next words haunt me: “My ugly cry in the restaurant was both a plea for a do-over in life and the dawning of my realization that there is no such thing.”
She offers a helpful schema from organizational consultant William Bridges that frames our transition from first to second half of life. We must first let go of parts of a prior identity, move through a discombobulating middle to an “essential realignment.”
Van Loon ends with a powerful warning, a notion quoted from Frankenstein, about how regret tempts us to cannibalize our own hearts. That, I thought, was worth pondering.
A vastly different essay, “The Whole New World of Horses” by Heather MacLaren Johnson, returned me to my grand passion, horses, and let me live vicariously through the healing journey with horses that takes MacLaren Johnson’s family from the city to the country and into the horse arena, reminding me of the dynamic nature of life.
Win Couchman’s “The Grace to be Diminished” offered a prayer for aging, here paraphrased: Please give me the needed grace to allow myself to change my habits and ways according to my increasingly weakened abilities.
I admired this counselor’s wisdom and her message that counters the oft heard, “Fight till you die!” She introduced me to another way of receiving inevitable limits—through humility and through prayer. For example, after decades of sitting in the church balcony, a beloved spot and habit surrounded by long-time friends, she assessed her fragility and began sitting elsewhere.
Which demonstrates an inner nobility, I thought—a respect-worthy dealing in reality.
Journalist Patricia Raybon’s essay, “Answer the Phone,” glows with the goodness of work—don’t retire. Don’t step out of the game, she says. Stay engaged. “I never wrestled much over stages and ages of life,” Raybon writes. “That’s because I’ve always worked. And work is curious and holy no matter our age or season, or calling or color.”
Her words lifted me like her fresh take on Moses’ encounter with the burning bush: “…God looks at Moses and says the kindest words this sojourner has probably ever heard. Take off your sandals. Meaning what? Stop wasting time on Jethro’s sheep. Stop dragging your dusty flip-flops on unholy ground….Get to real work. That’s when you can change everything.”
She extols the “wonder of work” and lists elderly Bible characters like Elizabeth to challenge notions of the right to retire. Her conclusion invites us to keep at it: “Answer the phone. Then say yes. To leaning. To learning. To loving.”
A call to thoughtful scrutiny or discernment comes in K. Martha Levitt’s “Building a Stone Wall.” She carefully deconstructs the foolish formula that if I do everything right, God will keep me safe and happy. Her mid-life divorce crushed her and compounded her heartache over entering empty nest.
“I expected the rewards of my labor.”
That single sentence stood for me like a lighthouse illuminating jagged shore. I, too, expect and want my childish understanding of how God works despite my grief-burned husband’s warning, “Life doesn’t work.”
This book with its wide collection of topics would serve a mature Christian women’s group well. Recently Leyland Fields has offered a study guide to support discussions and groups.
I realized that I don’t often read Christian living books, and worried that I might encounter Church Lady. The Wonder Years’ editor Leslie Leyland Fields is no church lady; anyone who loves Ezekiel—or can switch gas tanks in a skiff while in the whale-hiding currents of the Uyak Bay—can’t be.
A few essays, though, seemed to present life traumas that zipped up very easily. Perhaps blame falls on the essay structure itself. Something needs to be learned at the end or resolved. I felt vaguely troubled over one essayist’s story where on a plane after an unexpected firing, she solves her employment problem and evokes the verse, “God promises to give us the desires of our heart when we delight ourselves in him,” which made me feel a little itchy. Really? Just like that?
But the book does offer important counterbalances. Take Joni Eareckson Tada who daily faces such terrible back pain that her office has a bed. That is a grim and important reminder. Sometimes we suffer—for years.
Leslie Leyland Fields is a vital member in the thoughtful Christian writing community. Her many books range from the memoir Surviving the Island of Grace to the more instructional Forgiving our Fathers and Mothers and Crossing the Waters, winner of the Christianity Today’s 2017 Book Award for Christian Living. She also was a founding faculty member of Seattle Pacific U’s MFA.
During salmon season, Leyland Fields summers on Harvester Island near Kodiak, as beautiful an Alaskan island as you’ll see, and hosts the Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop.
Cynthia Beach is a long-time writing professor at Cornerstone University, whose contributions appear in Hope in the Mourning Bible(Zondervan) and The Horse of My Heart(Revell). She co-founded the two-day Breathe Christian Writers Conference. Currently, she’s marketing her novel, The Seduction of Pastor Goodman and indie publishing Creative Juices: The Practical-Quirky Guide to Narrative Craft.