Rules of One’s Own

I keep a journal and highly recommend the practice. (See my post on journaling in old age.) But, if you ask me why I keep a journal I cannot give you as good an answer as Marion Milner supplied. Marion Milner had a very specific purpose in keeping a journal for seven years: to “find out what kind of experience made me [her] happy.” You see, Marion was becoming aware that her “life was not as I [she] would like it and it might be in my [her] power to make it different.” And her first step was attempting to note every day what kind of things made her happy. You see, like many of us, Marion could not easily articulate what made her happy and was therefore unable to securely answer questions about what her aims in life should be.

The book that Marion Milner (initially under the name of Joanna Field) eventually wrote about this project is entitled A Life of One’s Own. It is a book that I heartily recommend with one caveat – one must persevere through the first couple of chapters. But then… it is a delight. It is not a book that gives you any answers – it is, however, a book that might help you find your own answers. And do not look for this book to pop up on the bestseller list; it was written in 1934. You will probably not even find it in the library, but that does not matter – you will want to own it. Luckily, it is still in print.

Milner gets inspiration from Montaigne and Robinson Crusoe. Montaigne had tried a similar exercise, similarly looking for rules that applied to himself and not necessarily to all mankind. Defoe’s Crusoe lands on a deserted island and has to figure out how to live. And so do we all. The title presumably alludes to Woolf’s A Room of Her One’s Own, which was published just a few years before Milner wrote her book.

Milner finds some surprises. She is much taken with evidence that her happiness seems to not to depend so much on events as it does on the attitude with which she approaches things. She finds that “there were a multitude of ways of perceiving, ways that were controllable by what I can only describe as an internal gesture of the mind.” Internal gesture of the mind. One thinks of Montaigne’s comment that “what matters is not what we see but how we see it.” And Milner considers how to use this discovery; more important, she takes us along on her journey to implement this knowledge. And on the way, she gives us as good a manual on mindfulness (without exactly using the current trendy terminology) as I have read to date.

Of course, Milner soon realized that finding happiness involves exploring the roadblocks to happiness. Fear, she found, kept her running in circles. It was her “taskmaster from hell,” and she expends much effort trying to pinpoint what she is afraid of. Death, of course, but more:

Then I began to see it as a fear that my personal identity would be swallowed up and then, gradually, I began to feel that it was this fear which had made me purpose-driven. I felt I had been continually distracted with a life and death issue, I had the desire to always to be getting things done to prove to myself that I existed as a person at all. So it was only very rarely that I had felt safe enough to give up striving, particularly as the enemy was really within my own gates.

Montaigne – long before Churchill – said that his greatest fear was fear. Do you know what you are afraid of?

Your way may not be Marion Milner’s way; she does not expect it to be. But Milner – who later became a renowned psychoanalyst and a distinguished scholar – gives us some advice, a methodology, and great encouragement. When A Life of One’s Own was published, it was well received. Stephen Spender entitled his positive review “The Road to Happiness;” W.H. Auden said that it was “as exciting as a detective story.” And it is. Particularly if, like Jeannette Winterson, you feel that the question “How shall I live” is the most “fierce” and fundamental problem there is. Again, there are no generic answers. Thank goodness.

The story this week is “My Neighbor Opposite,” which portrays another way of realizing what our heart’s desire is. While Milner’s methodology is preferable, there are probably many paths.


Old age is not a topic that people are clamoring to talk about. Even old (or almost old) people. I know. For years, I was on the Board of the Summer Great Books Institute (highly recommended) which takes place at Colby College every summer, and for years I tried pushing a reading list (six works in six days on a common topic) about old age. No one was interested, even though the average age of our attendees was creeping well beyond sixty. The subject was thought to be too depressing. Too morbid. Finally, in 2013 my colleagues agreed to a week in the literature of aging just to shut me up. The list for that year included the following  works: Simone de Beauvoir’s Coming of Age (La Vieillesse) (discussed over two days), Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, Cather’s The Professor’s House, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

In the end it was a great week. People were far from uniform about their ways of thinking about aging. For example, there was the “Do no go gently” crowd and then there was the calm acceptance contingent; there was the “young as you feel” group and the ones who thought they felt far better old than they ever had young. And so on. The discussion was great. And – as in many Great Books discussions which adhere to the original guidelines – we were able to communicate on topics that are hard to approach when not triangulated around a text.

Later when asked by the college where I worked to put together a brief seminar for our elder program, I proposed short readings about… aging. The coordinator of the program didn’t think that people would be interested. They wanted to do something “fun.” Graphic novels about teenage angst perhaps? I stuck to my guns and had a lively session that was repeated several times with different groups of elders. A sample syllabus is here; it included shorter works about the old, by the old, and about aging. Poems are great for this kind of discussion and perhaps I will include a list of poems about aging in my next post.

For the past century or so, one of the most popular genres has been the “coming-of-age” novel – from Huckleberry Finn to Catcher in the Rye to Black Swan Green (boy versions). For girls, we had Jane Eyre, Little Women, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t know about you, but I read these books as a young person not just because I could identify with the protagonist, but because I was looking for a road map – a guide for the perplexed young woman, so to speak. Not that it kept me from making the same mistakes (and more), but I was headed to territory I wanted to understand. Isn’t the same true of old age?

We have long had the term Bildungsroman to denote a coming-of-age story. Interestingly, the German words translate as “education” (bildung) “novel” (roman). As I said, a road map, a positive experience. It wasn’t until 1992 that scholars coined the term Vollendungsroman to denote a work about the “winding down of life.” Vollendung means “completion” or “accomplishment.” It would seem that the old – unlike the young – aren’t getting an education; they are getting a certificate of completion. Ah, but at least the genre has a critical category, perhaps because it also has a potentially large market in aging baby boomers.

We talk to others about age, but often flippantly. “You’re only as old as you feel!” Well, yes, sometimes I feel young, but sometimes I feel ancient; I feel that death is leaving messages in my voice mail, sending me ominous texts, battering my bones and teeth. I want to read someone who has been through this, thought about it, imagined how it might be handled by someone. Then I read Gideon or Crossing to Safety or A Spool of Blue Thread or, of course, All Passion Spent.

Erik Erikson has been quoted as saying that “the task of the final stage of life is the psychic battle between integration and despair.” A recent article about novels on old age stated that “Watching authors fight the battle through the stories they write, only to emerge victorious on the other side, is one of the great gifts provided by late-life novels.” Somewhat true, but victorious is not the word I would use. The ending usually involves loss, decay, death and, hopefully, reconciliation and acceptance. Not victory.

We assume that coming-of-age novels have a happy ending, but they usually end on the plateau of young adulthood. Even with a wedding thrown in and the inference of a happy-ever-after, we know better. Marriages fall apart, careers implode, friends often disappear. And so it is with old age. Along with the wrinkles and the palsy, we need to accept the ending. For that reason, I am heartened to see that the Fall Great Books Institute which meets in the Poconos (also highly recommended) will talk about death this year. They are reading Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gogol’s Dead Souls, Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and some poetry selections, including Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”

You might have noticed that I often write about old age in my fiction. This week, I offer you my story, “A Perfect Ending.” Not that there is any such thing as a perfect ending. But we can be perfectly sure that there will be an ending.