Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book Notes: The Dark Night of The Shed by Nick Page

One of the few perks that come my way as a blogger, and writer, is the steady stream of offers of review copies of books for which publishers are keen to garner publicity. The vast majority of such offers I ignore, there simply isn't the time to sit and read everything. In fact, as I have got older I have read less, but far more selectively than I did when I was young and lived under the customary illusion that my allotted time was inexhaustible, and could be frittered away on unremarkable books. There are, after all, more than enough books worthy of filling my remaining years, even if I were to be given an unusually large quota. Such thoughts occupied me as I (grumpily) surveyed the publishers e-mails recently. Then I spotted this, "The Dark Night of The Shed:  Men, The Midlife Crisis, Spirituality & Sheds" by Nick Page. Reading the small-print, I discovered that this was in fact a book about grumpy middle-aged men, written by a grumpy middle-aged man, for grumpy middle-aged men. Friends have told me that I have been a grumpy old man since I was about twenty - it's just that my body has finally caught up with my personality (my detractors have been less kind). So perhaps this was just the book for me. I had come across the author, Nick Page before. I reviewed one of his books on this blog many moons ago - and even had a brief, but hilarious, e-mail correspondance with him, in connection with a job I did in the early 2000's. So, thinking this might be timeworthy, I accepted the copy.

One of my neighbours has recently built an absolute palace of a shed. When I asked him why, he said, "Middle aged men, either buy a motorbike, have an affair, or build a shed; and the other two looked dangerous." Nick Page confesses, not so much to having a classic midlife crisis, but to having something of a middle-aged glitch, a wobble, a temporary derailing and re-assesment of himself and his life. This disturbing life re-orientation, which entices so many of us to take up extreme sports, make sudden chaotic harmful decisions, or diminish us into unrelenting grumpyness, drove Page (like my neighbour) towards a shed. It was in his shed, as he built it, developed it, and then inhabited it; that this volume was forged - and a poignant little book it is too.

The first thing is that Nick Page writes with warmth, wit, and great insight. Several times in the course of reading "The Dark Night of The Shed", I thought, "yes - that's me!" The foibles of being forty-something are first and foremost quite amusing when given the observational comedy treatment. Perhaps if such material was presented by a precocious twenty-something I would have become quite apoplectic with grumpyness, but given that Page is a year or two ahead of me; I can laugh along; and we can all be self-deprecating together. While some cultures greatly esteem age, and approaching middle-age is celebrated as a grauduation to a superior caste; Western-culture is youth-centric and nothing but increasing irrelevance seems to beckon us. Men in their mid-forties routinely score the lowest on happiness indicators, and alarmingly highly in diagnoses of depression and experience of suicidal thoughts. Page is disarmingly honest about what it feels like to hit this age and stage; and experience everything from career stagnation, to the sudden absence of dependent children. Clearly the experience of a mid-life redefinition is widespread. For some it is a full-blown crisis, while for others merely a murmur. Likewise the reaction to these feelings range from shed-building to  disastrous attempts to recapture lost-youth. Nevertheless, Page has done us all a great service by honestly facing up to, and giving voice to the experience. For many readers, simply redifining their experiences as normal and just like everyone else, will be worthwhile.

Ultimately, Page discovered, at his writing desk, in his shed-of-middle-age, that this debilitating, shocking, and disorientating phase of life can be navigated successfully, (even in Western culture, and with or without a shed) and even used for good. Drawing on sources as diverse as Percy the Park Keeper, Carl Jung, Moomins, The Old Testament story of Jacob, the experiences of countless friends called 'Steve', the life of Jesus, and the Orthodox Liturgy; Page ends up not merely coping with; but embracing the challenges of the years. In doing so, he even shed something of his grumpy demeanour, so perhaps there is hope for us all!

In one particularly entertaining section, Page writes about the death of the 'gods' of youth, which young men serve. These include Dosh (the god of wealth), Exhaustus (god of work), Kudos (god of status), Rumpo (god of sex), and Lycra himself  (the god of youth). His point is that we are socialised into giving such things the functional status of 'gods'; but as we feel the first signs of the ageing process these gods which have taken our time/energy and service and to whom we have looked for meaning/status/pleasure/security, suddenly appear to have feet of clay. Worshipping the wrong gods, must be replaced with worship of the right God; and it is in a deep-rooted rediscovery of Christian spirituality that Nick Page found a route through the tumult. Like the biblical character Jacob (a fraudster and rougue, who was brought low and wrestled with God), Page found that the place of re-orientation was in the conscious shedding of the 'idols' of youth, and wrestling with God. Where better for him to wrestle, than in his shed, his man-cave, which eventually turned into his prayer-chapel? Honesty and courage are the two characteristics which Page finds are the essentials for an authentic wrestling which goes deep enough to do the required work.

Emerging with less of the machismo and pretention of the young man who entered the experience, Page seems to come back from his 'dark night of the shed' with a renewed sense that a life spent serving others in the imitation of Jesus is a full and complete life; undiminsished by ever-slowing running or cycling speeds, and despite being overtaken by children in activities that he taught them to do! His conclusions, about humility, Christ-centeredness, the spiritual disciplines and some pithy wisdom about the importance of embracing creativity, and de-culttering, are delivered with a thoughtfulness which avoids dumbing such thoughts down into nauseating self-help cliches.

I was surprised not to see Tim Keller in the list of references at the end of the book as on the material related to The Prodigal God, and on the Counterfeit Gods, it read extremely closesly to Keller's two books of those names! Both of these would make excellent follow-up reading to this book, and helpful additions to his suggested additional resources.

Finally, Page calls men to a middle-age which is characterised by a joy which comes from a deeply-rooted spiritual life.
So why are we so grumpy? Many middle aged men are clinically grumpy. We can't help it. It's an instinctive knee-jerk grumpiness. It starts because we don't like change, or we don't feel valued, or we don't feel involved, or we're just annoyed at the sheer, banal stupidity of modern life, but before we know it, grumpiness and cynicism seem to be our default setting. It doesn't have to be that way. Grumpiness is a choice. And Jesus calls us to joy. I know, I know. Nothing is more irritating than being told to 'cheer up.' Like those posters that tell you to 'Think Positive'. You just want to take a flamethrower to them. But I want to let you know an important fact: it's true........... It takes some time though to change the muscle-memory of our own negativity. And we have to want to do it. Because we can get addicted to grumpiness. We get a kind of thrill about it, It makes us think that we know best, that we're not going to get taken in, unlike those silly, hopelessly optimistic idiots. Well, we're called to follow Jesus. To be like him. And whatever else he was, he was not an old grumpy-pants who thought that everything was better in the olden days.
With my predilictions so exposed and excuses rather elegantly dissected, it is perhaps time to get on with something positive....

The Dark Night of The Shed, is a short book, a straightforward read; but a profound one nevertheless in which serious themes are unusually helpfully explored, with wisdom, whimsy and a good dose of disarming humour. If you are planning your mid-life crisis anytime soon, the pages of The Dark Night of The Shed, might be an ideal place to start.


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