One long-missing piece has reappeared, and fallen into place: the great books piece. I let myself be pulled away from reading the classics, while I wandered among Buddhist texts and dabbled in radical hermeneutics. But I'm back, and I suspect I'm back to stay. Reading great books has been, along with Buddhism, what has led me towards sanity and happiness. I thought of putting "great books" in scare quotes, but I decided not to. Great is as good a descriptor as any. There are books that I can return to, over and over, that meet me each time with something new and unexpected. Most of them are considered classics, by somebody or other. The label of classic amplifies the power of the book, of course: I attend more carefully because it's a classic, and I harvest more from it because I'm attending carefully. But that's a minor effect. Mainly, the classics are just far, far better books. End of story. I'm not interested in arguing the point: someone can argue that Middleton (for example) is just as good a playwright as Shakespeare, and produce endless perfectly respectable arguments to that effect: but it's not so, and you and I both know it.
So I am back to a program of reading. In the last couple weeks it's been The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, Macbeth, and Cervantes' Novelas Ejemplares. I read where the reading seems rich, and leave off when I like (I won't take either the Nights or the Novelas at a single gulp: I'm no longer interested in mortifying my readerly flesh.) So -- that's good. And that's a piece of the "what do I do with my life now?" question answered.
Another piece of that question has been answered, or at least reframed. I have become very interested, after the experience of this last vacation, in the idea of living within my temporal means -- to be clearer, in how the way I live now is, in various not-terribly-obvious ways, putting my future in hock. Every deferred decision, every object without a defined place in the household, every ambition in suspended animation, is a borrowing against my future resources. Sometime I will have to deal with X, and when I get time free I find -- as during this vacation -- that's it's not free at all: it's already allocated. If I go on this way I will never have a vacation. And I need a vacation.
A third piece. Alain de Botton, though sometimes silly and exasperating, is right about this: that to keep what's important before us we need rituals, daily, weekly, and seasonal rituals. If we are not part of a community that provides those, then we need to invent them. I need daily aspiration prayers, weekly observances, and seasonal holidays to mark the important things. Men require more often to be reminded than informed, said Montaigne.
It becomes clearer and clearer that I must curtail my consumption of social media, or maybe cut it off altogether. Its effect on me is obvious, and bad. It is more or less the opposite of ritual: it predictably inspires me to fear, and to focus on things I have no effect on.
Women, don't cower in the house.
Come with us. You've just seen death
and devastating calamity, but
you've seen nothing that is not Zeus.
My courage returned to me today. I don't know why. After writing the above I spent a week in a quietly panicked state, unable to settle to anything, frightened by everything from going to the grocery store to the prospect of learning to use Skype: and now, suddenly, the sky clears, and the stars come out. I remembered Yeats:
The good are always the merry
Save by an evil chance;
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance.
It doesn't do to spend too long away from my touchstone writers.
And, as I said, I think I must make a calendar, of hammered gold and gold enameling. Make my own weeks and months and seasons, my own feast days and sacrifices. March is a good month to begin. It has always been my month of beginnings. The end of March, with Venus setting soon after the sun: it is the time of fire.