Isabel Allende: The Soul of a Woman

Beautiful, soulful, and powerful, Allende’s memoir takes on feminism, family, and falling in love in her 70s. Ms. is a fierce, funny and fearless writer. Her stories are memorable and mesmerizing. The book is 170 pages and no word is wasted. I appreciate her perspective on women rights and honesty in sharing her personal stories. I took quite a few notes from my reading (thanks to the Google Photos app) so I can refer back to them in the future.

On being a wife and mother, page 29:

Miguel and I had two children, Paula and Nicolás. I made a great effort to fulfill my role as a wife and mother. I didn’t want to admit that I was dying of boredom; my brain was turning into noodle soup. I imposed on myself a thousand tasks and I was running around like a poisoned mouse trying to avoid confronting my fate. I loved my husband and I remember the first years with my young kids as a very happy time, although inside I carried a burning restlessness.

On being a woman, page 33:

The poet and activist Sylvia Plath said that her greatest tragedy was to have been born a woman. In my case that has been a blessing. I had the chance to participate in the women’s revolution, which is changing civilization as it consolidates, albeit at a crab’s slow pace. The more I live, the happier I am with my gender, particularly because it enabled me to give birth to Paula and Nicolás. That transcendent experience, which men still can’t have, defined my existence. The most joyful moments of my life were holding my newborn babies to my breast. And the most painful moment was holding my dying daughter in my arms.

On the freedom of writing, page 67:

I was always disciplined in my work because I internalized my grandfather’s admonition that leisure time was dead time. I followed that rule for decades, but I have learned that leisure can be fertile soil where creativity grows. I am no longer tormented by an excess of discipline, as I was before. Now I write for the pleasure of telling a story word by word, step by step, enjoying the process without thinking of the result. I don’t tie myself to a chair eight or ten hours a day, writing with the concentration of a notary. I can relax because I have the rare privilege of having loyal readers and good publishers who don’t try to influence my work.

I write about what I care for, in my own rhythm. In those leisure hours that my grandfather considered wasted, the ghosts of imagination become well-defined characters. They are unique, they have their own voices, and they are willing to tell me their stories if I give them enough time. I feel them around me with such certitude that I wonder why nobody else perceives them.

The ability to overcome obsessive discipline didn’t happen in one day; it took me years. In therapy and in my minimal spiritual practice I learned to tell my superego to back off and leave me alone; I want to enjoy my freedom. Superego is not the same as consciousness; the former punishes us and the latter guides us. I stopped listening to the overseer inside me who demands compliance and performance with the voice of my grandfather. The race uphill is over; now I stroll calmly in the land of intuition, which has turned out to be the best environment for writing.

On living longer, page 86:

Now that we live longer, we have a couple of decades ahead of us to redefine our goals and find meaning in the years to come.Jampolsky recommends letting go of grievances and negativity. More energy is needed to sustain ill feelings than to forgive. The key to contentment is forgiveness of others and of ourselves. Our last years can be the best if we opt for love instead of fear, he says. Love doesn’t grow like a wild plant, it needs a lot of care.

On being compassionate, page 95:

While my body deteriorates, my soul rejuvenates. I suppose my defects and virtues are also more visible. I spend and waste too much and am more distracted than before, but I also have become less angry; my character has softened a little. My passion for the causes I have always embraced and for those few people I love has increased. I do not fear my vulnerability because I no longer confuse it with weakness. I can live with my arms, doors, and heart open. This is another good reason to celebrate my age and my gender: I don’t have to prove my masculinity, as Gloria Steinem said. That is, I don’t have to cultivate the image of fortitude instilled by my grandfather, which was very useful earlier in my life but not anymore; now I can ask for help and be sentimental.

On aging, page 166:

My old age is a precious gift. My brain still works. I like my brain. I feel lighter. I am free of self-doubt, irrational desires, useless complexes, and other deadly sins that are not worth the trouble. I am letting go… letting go. I should have started earlier.

People come and go, and even the closest members of the family eventually disperse. It’s useless to cling to anybody or anything because everything in the universe tends toward separation, chaos, and entropy, not cohesion. I have chosen a simpler life, with fewer material things and more leisure, fewer worries and more fun, fewer social commitments and more true friendship, less fuss and more silence.