“Divergent problems, as it were, force us to strain ourselves to a level above ourselves.”
B. F. Schumacher
I know it is customary to let readers know something about the blogger – so here goes (with limitations. Facts: Female, MBA, doctorate in English literature, retired from career in the management side (mostly) of academia, Yankee transplanted to North Carolina for the weather and the hills. And aging. Old age has long been a concern of mine and entering it has only intensified things. I am aware that I was somewhat unconscious (sometimes downright comatose) during my earlier phases – youth, young adulthood, middle age – but I set out to have a more conscious old age.
The title of this blog takes its title from a list of resolutions that Jonathan Swift drew up when he was young so that he would not have the kind of old age that he was having to put up with by those around him. Mostly, Swift did not keep his resolutions. Mostly, no one does. But he at least thought about it. Incidently, I wrote my dissertation on the subject of the changes in attitudes toward aging in the Enlightenment period, and used the Struldbrugg episode (look it up!) in Gulliver’s Travels as a pivot from which to look at earlier and later portrayals of aging. I will eventually post the abstract of that lengthy document here, and perhaps even a link to the library where it resides in dusty obscurity. I did learn some interesting things, though, and will surely reference them in my musings here.
Clearly, despite a career in university finance and facility mangements, I am a creature of the word. For many years I have scribbled away – short stories, essays, novels – without the attempt or intent to publish. Some such creations have been read by my husband, fewer by friends, the most by various writing groups that I have belonged to intermittently. As I grow older – and, again, growing older will be a theme here – it has occurred to me that these texts could die with me. Not a disaster. But there is this: because I never worried about what was marketable or trendy or even culturally acceptable, I wrote about things that concerned me, obsessed me, puzzled me. I can’t say I wrote to find the answers, as most of the issues I addressed have no solutions. In the words of E. F. Schumacher, they were divergent rather than convergent problems. “Divergent problems, as it were, force us to strain ourselves to a level above ourselves.” There were no answers, but sometimes writing about them gave me a new perspective, sometimes it made me understand that I had not properly framed the issue. In any case, my writing addresses human issues and may, therefore, possibly be of interest to others. Or, in the words of Sartre, they may act – if only temporarily – as “guardrails against anguish,” if only in the demonstration (and isn’t this function of all literature?) that someone else has suffered through it. It is not necessarily your personal hell.
That sounds negative, however. Most of it is not hell and some of it is even hilarious. Old age can surely be both tragic and comic (sometimes simultaneously). For example, I was interested in what kind of world it would be if it were run by the very elderly, and subsequently concocted a thought experiment where – in a year of limited flu vaccine – a virulent flu wiped out everyone except the very elderly (who got the shot) and babies in their first few months (whose immune system protected them). The resulting novel (The Fourth Quartet) turned out to be both a dystopia and a utopia. A recent short story (“A Perfect Ending”) is a snapshot of the struggles between a mother with dementia and her daughter. I am the daughter, but by writing from the mother’s point of view I tried to better understand another divergent challenge. And laugh.
My goal is to blog at least once a week and I am a goal-oriented person. I will muse and post related stories, essays, pieces of novels. And I will try not to worry about whether anyone reads them. At least they are out of the bottom drawer and may benefit from being digitally aired out. In any case, it has forced me to look back over my work and, as you will find, such reflection and sorting out is the very heart of what we should do in old age. Saint Benedict in the prologue to his rule said that God “lengthened our days by way of a truce” so that we could reflect on and atone for our misdeeds. A truce. A break in the war against the world, against time, against the way things are. And so may it be.
Note: The quote above is from Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, but a more elucidating discusion of convergent/divergent problems is found in his Guide for the Perplexed.