HAIL to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert—
That from heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
To a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley
There was a time not so long ago when my first proclamation in the morning was an unrepeatable philippic. Now it is a song of praise, a matutinal refrain of fathomless fulfillment, a sometimes startled bewilderment at the wonder of it all. Where once I frequently resented having to begin yet another day, to set in motion the heavy wheels of commerce, to don the chains of labour, to reinstate the rigour of obligation, to iron out the wrinkles of my being to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”, I now positively vault from the untroubled lair, primed for another crack at jubilation! An undeniable ingredient of this preferable disposition springs from retirement (which I had always perceived and frankly dismissed as a mere marketing ploy to get me to invest my money as though my salvation lay in perpetual employment and through it existential authenticity). But retirement cannot be the complete answer. There are by contrast people who sadly spend their retirement cultivating progressive alcoholism; others descend into financial ruin; others become a yawning bore – and I’ll thank you not to agree with me too eagerly on that last point!
I hesitate to dilate upon my comparative bliss because of course it sounds so horribly self-congratulatory. My interior view of this desirable panorama is however anything but smug; viz., I see it like any other advantage in life which I have lapped up at one time or another, a combination of circumstance and luck, neither of which is guaranteed to last (and which most likely will not) and for none of which I can claim any particular merit. I’m living what is for the nonce a dreamlike state, a seemingly perpetual euphoria, serendipity and calm. I will steer clear of any attempt to describe the root of my gladness as that will in fact prove to be completely self-absorbed and possibly misdirected. But I will say that in general terms the headspring is a moderate blend of the familiar hallmarks of well-being: health, wealth and happiness. The particulars of these unimaginative generalizations are in this instance really nothing fantastic: bicycling, a comfortable apartment, nourishing food, a stimulating personal relationship and creative outlets. Oh, and a new car. Well, I mean, let’s be honest here!
An analysis of personal buoyancy inevitably slides into profound philosophic investigation. We do after all prefer to dub rapture as more than base materialism. While I acknowledge that is certainly true – at least if one were to hold up to the disinfecting sunlight the lives of certain celebrities – I am nonetheless reminded of the phlegmatic but sage advice of a friend of mine that “You don’t want to grow old without money!” The highfalutin jargon of youthful philosophy dissolves incrementally with old age. I cushion the edgeless character of such jarring logic by noting that my own predicament in life is sufficiently commonplace to survive both clinical discredit and the Revolution, a balance of reasonableness and excess. Often I amuse myself to speculate what without which I could not survive. I could for example succumb to the most modest accommodation – goodness knows I did it in law school (“Domus Legis” on Seymour Street, a place my mother unhesitatingly censured as a “Rat Hole”). As for food I have survived on vegetables alone – a habit I usefully adopted to lose about 50 pounds and to jive with my pathetically low salary as an articled law clerk (about $4,000 annually). If the day comes that I shall no longer be capable of driving a car there are always bicycles and tricycles (particularly the ones with the smart-looking basket in front, for shopping). And as long as I have an iota of intelligence and and a particle of creative resource I can divert myself by writing tiresome chronicles and playing Schmaltz on the electronic keyboard. The stuff required to complete one’s household furnishings are all obtainable at a fraction of their retail cost at second-hand stores or charitable posts. One can for example amass an impressive collection of solid sterling silver flatware and fine crystal stemware from antique stores by buying random single pieces which go for a song and which when laid at table on white linen can be utterly astounding and thoroughly engaging. Plus I long ago learned to satisfy my proprietorial instincts with less than more. Multiplicity only confuses the landscape. Or perhaps economy is my excuse for a lack of loftier goals, no matter. Grandeur certainly doesn’t appeal to me, of that I am certain! This arrogant flippancy nicely disposes of the yearning for yachts and large estates. Besides the device of vicarious pleasure is so vastly more convenient and far less costly – assuming one can bear the deprivation of the spotlight! Leave the glory of ownership to those who are willing to pay the price!
There will of course be those who spurn my professed ability to synthesize and adapt to changing circumstances. But considering I have ever done so I am not in the least deterred. Indeed it is one of my strengths that I have always been able to put the best polish on whatever condition I find myself. I have never been a drudge to the artistry of others to improve my lot. This translates into the philosophic adage that “Life is what you make it” perhaps too strong a pill for some to digest but one upon which I insist as a point of honour. I will certainly not allow myself to be beholden to anyone or any situation for the direction or yield of my being. Life’s story in neither imaginary nor written in stone and it offends my singularity of purpose to think I haven’t the skill of the lowly oyster to modify almost any irritation.
Lest I lack any credibility whatever, permit me by way of balance to assemble a collection of some of the more disappointing features of my life. This will hopefully off-set my previous headiness and ground what may seem to be a drug induced state of mind. I won’t lapse into autobiographical regurgitation – not because it is beneath me to do so but because the lives of most of us are nothing more than a stockpile of generic composites and therefore both uncomfortably familiar and equally dreary. Nor will I pretend that my life has ever been one of exaggerated despair or disadvantage. Those infrequent – and sadly very real – aberrations will always trump the average. In that vein allow me to say that – “like most people” – I suffered my share of primary school bullies; I temporarily derailed myself by misspent dalliance; I endured my portion of self-inflicted harm; I encountered adjustment to what I conceived to be the expected conditions of society; and I didn’t prove to be a brilliant success. I wouldn’t change or swap a moment of it even if I could. That’s my story and I’m sticking by it!
At times like this – as I wallow in unrepentant gratification – I wonder whether I haven’t any ambition. Have I become complacent? Is it illustrative of my decline that I no longer push myself? This more relaxed condition is a vernacular to which I now feel entitled, I believe I have earned it whether by dint of accomplishment or mere survival. I am further convinced that its absorption is mandatory or I risk missing the chance.
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.