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The Measure of My Days, by Florida Scott-Maxwell.

January 13, 2016

The Measure of My Days, by Florida Scott-Maxwell.  New York: Knopf, 1968

5 Stars—FAVORITE

A moving journal of a woman in her eighties pondering the inner and outer worlds she inhabits.

Florida Scott-Maxwell was born in 1888 in America, but moved to Scotland, her husband’s home, in her twenties when she married. While her children were young, she wrote in a variety of genres including suffrage statements and plays. Then she worked as a Jungian analyst for 25 years.  Her memoir is less an account of the events of her life than a meditation on the changes she has observed personally as she ages and as the attitudes of her society shifted. In her eighties, her arthritis interfered with her artistic projects. Even worse, she became too tired to enjoy conservation, which for her was “near the top of human pleasures.” Reading remained an enjoyment: “reading books long forgotten, with only the enlargement they once brought remembered.” She began to keep a notebook, writing down the questions which troubled her and then trying to answer them. While not a substitute for what she had lost, journaling “eased [her] crabbed heart.” The Measure of My Days is drawn from that notebook.

Although Scott-Maxwell believed that age leaves us “at variance with the times,” she remained eager to understand the world around her. In her notebook, she probed difficult, abstract issues, yet she wrote with simplicity and grace. Her book is full of questions we still need to consider seriously. The answers she suggests have merit, but she saw them as tentative. In her eyes we have broken down our old value structure without creating new ones. She veers from pessimism about our future to guarded optimism, leaving us as readers free to make our own decisions. Fifty years after her writing, her questions still seem necessary and relevant, perhaps because our societies have not found or created adequate answers to the issues she raises.

Writing in the turbulent 1960s, the culture Scott-Maxwell observed was changing dramatically. She welcomed the increasing tolerance and acceptance of what once was defined as evil, but saw people confused without the old certainties. Rather than assuming that evil could simply be erased, she advocated understanding it and integrating it into our thinking:

That evil is the inevitable half of good is may be the unacceptable truth that we are all taking in, and it could be the forerunner of a new balance.

For example, in her view, “Equality is necessary, yet it doesn’t destroy the need for inequality. Inequality entails resentment, envy, galling realization,” but we need people to admire and to trust. Worrying about the future she claimed:

Perhaps the forms of life that are passing should be mourned, and this may be the right role of age. . . I mourn that life is so incomprehensible, and for this confused age.

Having worked in the suffrage movement in her youth, Scott-Maxwell was concerned about gender. She felt herself to have been “lamed” by assumptions of women’s inferiority. For her, the problem was based in “Men’s glorification of female images like the Virgin Mary, but disparaging and dismissive of real women.” She asks “what relation can ordinary women have to this divine figure?” She gives her analysis of women’s problems:

It may be the contrast between the ideal and the real that makes so many women hate being women. The selfless, tireless one, the rich giver and the meek receiver, with life-giving milk from the breast, costing her nothing, is too, too much. Looked at in the grey light of daily living, the concept is the demand of the ravening child, and we cannot respond to such a claim in man or child.

We do not often live with the superior side of man—that is generally expressed in his work—but more habitually with his weak, tired, shallow side. . . It often seems to us our role and fate to deal with his inferiority and to hide it from him.

The only way she saw to resolve the problem was for both women and men to work together to correct such views.

At the heart of Scott-Maxwell’s journal is one of the most honest accounts aging that I have read. Her book is not depressing because she also carefully describes the benefits of aging and how she has managed to deal with its problems. Her book begins with an acknowledgment that aging is no one process:

We who are old know that age is more than a disability. It is an intense and varied experience, almost beyond our capacity at times, but something to be carried high.

She realizes that numerous problems exist for the elderly who are:

Stretched too far… Little things have become big; nothing in us works well, our bodies have become unreliable. We have to make an effort to do the simplest things.”

Age forces us to deal with idleness, emptiness, not being needed, not able to do, helplessness just ahead perhaps.

This love and pain and energy are so strong while I am so weak, what do I do with them?

Like many of us Scott-Maxwell feared that death “will not come soon enough,” and that she will lose her independence. Yet she is not ready to die. “I do not know what I believe about death; if it exists then I burn with interest, if not—I am tired.”

As we age, however, we can learn to cope.  Scott-Maxwell liked “the comfortable amount of things about which we no longer need to bother.” We can put down our striving and accept that “There is nothing to do but wait, and listen to the emptiness which is often gentle.”

So one has ample time to face everything one has had, been, done; gather them all in: the things that came from the outside and those from the inside. We have time at last to make them truly ours.

The critical task of age is balance, a virtual tightrope of balance, keeping just well enough, just brave enough, just gay and interested and starkly honest enough to remain a sentient human being.

She calmed herself by doing small housekeeping tasks:

Order, cleanliness, seamlessness make a structure that is half support and half ritual, and if does not create, it maintains decency. I make my possessions appear at their best as they are my only companions.

Ultimately, however peace is possible.

Further on, go further on, one finds that one has arrived at a larger place still, a place of release. There one says ‘Age can seem a debacle, a rout of all one needs most, but that is not the whole truth. What of the part of us, the nameless boundless part who experiences the rout, the witness who saw so much go, who remains undaunted and knows with clear conviction that there is more to us than age?. . . If we have suffered defeat we are somewhere, somehow beyond the battle.”

A long life makes me feel nearer to truth, yet it won’t go into words, so how can I convey it? .. . If at the end of your life you only have yourself, it is much. Look and you will find.

Scott-Maxwell comes closer than most to putting her inexpressible experience into words. I enthusiastically recommend The Measure of My Days to all those who are ready to accept that we are all aging.

Thanks to my friend who loaned me this fine book.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 13, 2016 4:40 pm

    Again, it sounds like one to put on the list to read. However, I sit at my computer surrounded by papers that MUST be dealt with. I find myself exhausted from managing to return two boxes to Amazon (print labels, tape, take to Heritage for pick-up). I lack time to ponder what it means to be 84! Pat

  2. Shoshana Cooper permalink
    January 22, 2016 6:42 pm

    i love this review. i am touched by her sharing. thank you Marilyn…shoshana

    • January 27, 2016 4:48 pm

      Thanks for stopping by. I was touched as well.

      You chose a good time to be in Hawaii. We’ve been having snow and single digit temperatures. No major problems, but we do have winter here.
      Marilyn

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