For 17 years, I spent most of my waking hours in school, doodling. I learned the types of clouds, what happens to a banana when you put it in liquid nitrogen. But there were never any classes on how to live. What do we need to be happy? How can we make love last? Why should we keep washing the dishes when we're all going to die someday?

In the absence of formal instruction, I became a self-help geek. My teenage raids on my mother's book closet taught me about erroneous zones and bad things that happened to good people and how Helen Gurley Brown was Having It All, which had me eagerly awaiting the prurient thrills of adulthood. (Still waiting.) After college I entered a diaphanous phase of Jungian archetypes; I greeted the millennium with Buddhist titles about the essentialness of emptiness—each one beautifully executed and unsatisfying, like trendy foam food.

As I hurtled into my 40s, I knew I was lucky—I had a good husband, friends, interesting work—but I worried that I didn't deserve it all, or that I was messing it up, or that everything would be taken away. I'd been an outwardly cheerful kid who was desperate to keep everyone happy and lay awake wondering, What if the world ends? Now I was an outwardly cheerful adult who did the same. I had the rest of my life to figure things out, but the rest of my life didn't seem like a long time anymore. Some things were changing rapidly (the topography of my skin, the resilience of my knees), and some things wouldn't be changing at all (I'd always be a sensitive tub of goo, and I'd never be a mother—my choice, but so final). I still hadn't grown up, and yet I was growing old.

It felt obscene to gnaw on my fears and regrets, because I was loved. How could I feel adrift in a universe where I had an embarrassment of riches? I had my husband, who held me when I was angry or sick, or both. When I wept about the future—mine or our swiftly tilting planet's—he'd say things that took my ungrateful breath away, like "But you'll always have me." The trouble with being 44 years old was that I knew I might not.

No one can think about this crap all the time and still live in the world, so I got therapy and figured I'd just grimace and bear it. But then I found out that there really is a School of Life.

Headquartered in a London storefront, the school offers courses on the essential human conundrums, such as How to Relate to Your Family, How to Choose a Partner, or How to Make Your Mind Up. Founder Alain de Botton, writer of such cheekily pop-philosophical books as How Proust Can Change Your Life, wanted to create a place where ordinary people could illuminate their ordinary problems with insights gathered from literature or philosophy—Tolstoy on family happiness, Thoreau on solitude. "It's tragic that everyone thinks they have to work everything out for themselves, because they don't," says de Botton. "No more than we have to work out physics by ourselves."

I've always loved a story about a hidden world that lurks behind some ordinary door, like Narnia. The School of Life seemed magical that way, tucked across the street from a place that sold Union Jack umbrellas (a number of which I bought and then forgot in pubs all over central London). Above the dark blue door, stenciled yellow letters promised GOOD IDEAS FOR EVERYDAY LIFE.

Inside, the requisite bookstore was airy and light, customers murmuring in English and Japanese, someone gently placing the lid on a china teapot. It was the way I wanted things to be in my head. I promptly bought a Utopian Candle inspired by Thoreau's Walden Pond, with a top note of wild berries, and a Psychoanalytic Pencil Set, each one engraved with a psychological term (e.g., "defence mechanism"). It was boutique self-help, and I was grooving on it.

I couldn't pass up How to Develop Emotional Health, 141 pages long and Pop Art pink, with one upturned curve on the cover—look again and you realize it's a smile. This is the school's brand of wink-wink, nudge-nudge message: We know that you know it's ridiculous to think a book that's half an inch thick could tell you everything about How to Develop Emotional Health. But we know you wish it could. We wish it could, too. The absurdity of it all! Together, we'll figure out what we can.

Even the teachers embodied this roll-up-your-sleeves whimsy: Cathy, who said her creative muse had the fearlessness of Vivienne Westwood and the patience of Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid; John-Paul, who spent a year making his own clothes and wrote a book about it called Sew Your Own. As for the attendees, they ran the gamut: tattooed creative types, young mothers, 30-ish guys in football jerseys, pillowy older ladies who I hoped would call me "ducky."

At the beginning of each class, we were asked to write a newspaper headline about why we were there. In How to Balance Work with Life, our example was PRESSURIZED MANAGER DESPERATE FOR DATING TIME! I put pen to paper—and stopped. How could I know myself so little when I thought about me constantly? Had I been thinking, or was it just ruminating, the thing a cow does when she chews her regurgitated feelings—I mean, food?

I had a secret shame. In all those self-help books I read, I never did the exercises. They would just slow me down, and I needed to move on to the next book because my self needed a lot of help. When John-Paul asked us to write about how we hid our work identities at home and our home identities at work, I felt a squirming eighth-grade restlessness and mentally willed him not to call on me. This is the downside of being in school: Someone in charge forces you to hunker down. He reminded us that we had to make a conscious effort to find time for the things that mattered. And then he called on me. "What could you lose in order to gain?" he asked. I said, "Watch less TV?"

In college I had a sadistic English professor who had been forced to postpone her own education because she'd been busy having five children, as she frequently and bitterly reminded us. We were children ourselves who had the luxury of learning all day, and by God, we would not squander it on her watch. She ran that class as if we were on Parris Island, making us drop and give her 20 stanzas: "SIR, YES SIR! DYLAN THOMAS, FERN HILL, SIR!" We hated her.

But years later, I still remember Fern Hill, those last lines: Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea. Dr. Sarge gave me discipline then, and sustenance forever. I had required so much of the self-help books I'd read, but I had required nothing of myself.


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