The period between the Winter Solstice and New Year’s Eve is an appropriate time for taking measure of our lives. It is a very natural time to pause between the mad frenzy of the holidays and the beginning of a new year. The simple act of taking down the old calendar and putting up the new (or maybe nowadays there’s an ap for that!) is symbolic of the passage of a milestone in time.Milestones, like many things, were invented by the Romans. Appius Claudius Caecus built the first paved Roman highway, called the Appian Way, in 312 BCE. Soon thereafter milestones were installed to mark each 1000 human paces, or roughly 4841 feet (an American mile is 5280 feet). Some were large, elaborate structures listing the mileage, the reigning emperor or consuls, the officials who last maintained the road, and even the date of construction. In Rome itself there was a ”golden milestone” which marked what was considered to be the center of the empire. Out on the frontiers the milestones were usually much smaller and simpler, but they performed the same function as their larger exemplars. They always marked where you were and how far you were from someplace else.
Perhaps it is this dual function that has allowed the term “milestone” to be used in our lives as well as on our roads, both as a stationary position and as a point along a linear movement. We use the word milestone on anniversaries like birthdays to take satisfaction at reaching a certain age. We also use the term to mark each progressive step on the way toward a goal. At the end of December we use the term as we review the past year. Whether we experienced hardships or triumphs, we tend to look back upon them, perhaps with a smile or a sigh, and then put them behind us as we advance into the future. Rarely do we learn from them as evidenced by how quickly we abandon our new year’s resolutions.
But why wait until the end of December? We can review every day of our lives as a milestone. There is a joke among us seniors that every day is a new surprise – what body part is going to hurt today? Older seniors sometimes say just waking up is the surprise. All joking aside, do we really have to wait until we are seniors to understand this? Every day can be a new surprise, a new opportunity, another milestone. We do not have to do the same thing every day, the same way, or at least not see it in the same light. Even the repetitive routines of jobs, kids, and to do lists can become individual acts of
creativity if we make them so. Sometimes I think we seniors have an advantage in that we so often forget things that just finding our car keys becomes a creative act, and we are surprised when we find them.
One way to take advantage of our daily milestones is by journaling. Most writers journal as a professional habit. They do it continually to hone their craft and improve their powers of capturing observations. But anybody can do it. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t have to be in a pretty book nor have correct spelling or grammar. I do mine roughly once a week on the computer because for me it is faster and takes less manual effort than scribbling on paper. The important point is not the method or the medium. The important point is that it is done frequently and thoughtfully.
During the holidays it was my pleasure to meet many new people at parties and reconnect with others I had known from before. Our conversations often turned to reflecting on the immediate past and the desire to write it all down someday. Every one of them had stories to tell and they were more than happy to expound them to a listening ear. Yet when I asked them if they journaled, they often said no. They excused themselves because they said they could not find the words -in spite of the fact that for the last twenty minutes they had just dumped a flood of words on me. If they would just write the way they talk, they would surely find plenty of words. Hopefully they would find journaling to be fun as well, and it would serve as an invaluable resource when they do finally get around to writing that Great American Novel.
There are many more rewards to the regular practice of journaling than churning out fodder for our eventual literary masterpieces. Journaling gives us permission to pause, to think about where we are and what we’re doing. It provides an opportunity to place our activities into a context. It helps us elevate our daily lives from the mundane to the meaningful, from aimless routine to purposeful ritual. We can use it as a regular personal check-in from which we can make adjustments to our attitudes and maybe even to the direction of our lives. Like meditation, yoga, religion, and other methodologies, journaling can help us live our daily lives mindfully and intentionally. We can become generators of our own destinies instead of merely cogs in the machinery of time.
Besides, why shouldn’t we be like Appius Claudius Caecus? Why shouldn’t we pave our own highways and mark our own milestones?
Janice Van Cleve is a writer with many milestones. She trips over them sometimes but at least she knows where she put them. Copyright 2013.