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These spiritual reflections of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) show a leader trying to make sense of himself and the universe, and cover diverse topics such as the question of virtue, human rationality and the nature of the gods. In developing his personal beliefs, Aurelius created one of the greatest works of philosophy: a series of wise and practical aphorisms that have been consulted by statesmen, thinkers and everyday philosophers for almost two thousand years.

The four months of ceiling and kitchen renovations are over, and I am back once again at my old day job as a kitchen hand and behind-the-counter sandwich and salad flunky. It’s not bad work, in and of itself: I would quite enjoy wielding my knife in a quiet corner of the kitchen, running on automatic to do this simple work, and using the time to think about books I’m reading, projects I’m planning, something I want to write.

Unfortunately, the fly in this Zen ointment is the boss, as she makes this sort of quiet, peaceful industriousness nearly impossible. She’s had this business for years and years, you’d think that by now she’d have acquired a more placid and practical attitude to the little hurdles and challenges that, naturally, pop up when your business is food-related and relies on daily deliveries of fruits and vegetables, on the cooking gas getting delivered, on backpackers who sometimes don’t turn up for work, and where time and freshness are of the essence. These are the sort of wobblies that any seasoned manager or business owner learns to take in his stride—because having a cussing fit, or bursting into tears, or taking your frustrations out on the staff, or storming around the kitchen like a whirlwind because you’re running behind (and then usually dropping something, which slows us down more, and makes matters worse) doesn’t improve anything, and stresses everyone else out.

After three years on and off at this job, I’ve managed to become desensitized to the high dramas that rock the foundations of this little empire of yogurt and chickpeas, in that I no longer take anything she says or does personally (because, well, to put it mildly, she’s a headless chicken—when a problem turns up, she cannot follow any sensible line of  reasoning, reacts with her emotions, and lashes out nastily because it’s all too much for her. And then she takes you out for coffee at the end of the day, having forgotten everything, and talks about jewelry as though you were just two gabbing girlfriends on a shopping spree) but I still have trouble conducting myself as though she didn’t exist (because I am not rude enough to wear ear plugs in her presence) and I still struggle to maintain a serene and impassive countenance under the barrage of sometimes stupefying things she can carry on about.

After Day One at the job this week, I wearily betook myself to a bookshop and, browsing the shelves for A Sign from God, came upon Marcus Aurelius.

“Men seek retreats for themselves—in the country, by the sea, in the hills—and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life. So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself. The doctrines you visit there should be few and fundamental, sufficient at one meeting to wash away all your pain and send you back free of resentment at what you must rejoin.”

—Marcus Aurelius, #3, Book 4 of Meditations

Meditations are a collection of passages that this much-loved Roman emperor wrote for himself...a diary, in other words, where he developed his personal philosophy and attempted to answer that eternal question, “How should one live?”

I have never read his writings before, though I’ve known about him for 14 years because Kris considers him a major influence in his own life. “One of my teachers,” is what Kris calls Marcus Aurelius. My little Popular Penguin edition of Meditations is like a deep-tissue massage for the soul. I carry it with me like a talisman these days…dipping into it during my 15 minute breaks, before heading back into Hell’s Kitchen. I can open the book almost anywhere, and find a passage that resonates with my own feelings, that whittles all the confusion of the world down to beautiful, simple ideas, and that nourishes my mind and spirit. There are really only half a dozen books (if that!) in my life that I feel this way about. Alain de Botton‘s The Consolations of Philosophy is one. Coleman Barks‘ translation of The Essential Rumi, and Kris Larsen’s Monsoon Dervish are others. In high school, Richard Bach’s Illusions was “one  of my teachers,” as were Herman Hesse’s Siddharta, Strunk and White‘s Elements of Style, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Kahlil Gibran‘s The Prophet. You know the sort of volumes I mean? Those slim, cheap paperback books that you often have more than one copy of (because every time you come upon a copy, like an old friend sitting forlorn on a shelf, you have to take it with you) Those dog-eared manifestos that you carry around in your backpack when you travel—and the extra weight be damned—or that you pack separately from the rest of your library when you move to another house or another country? Taken together, these works constitute my bible. They mold my thoughts and guide my actions, they teach me how to live, and prepare me to die.

It’s such a delicious feeling, knowing that life can be a gradual discovery of books written by teachers like these, and that the consolations of their wisdom are available to anyone that wants them. Like a gingerbread cottage, in a forest where the witch has gone to visit her sister.

What are some of the essential books in your life’s backpack?

12 thoughts on “Previous Post

  1. Just came across your blog and I am smitten after just this post 🙂 What a great list – especially the Essential Rumi. Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart is one that I go back to all the time. And so is One Hundred Years of Solitude.


  2. I often buy copies of Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and also The Story of B. If I see either in a used bookstore or garage sale I definitely buy it. I’ve had three of each on the bookshelf before. I give them away as gifts. I found them to be life changing.

    I also have a copy of The Prophet which you mentioned. It’s wonderful.

    I read that Drawingpins had The Elements of Style on her (?) shelf because of the book jacket. That is the reason I bought Moon Palace. The cover of the book is just beautiful. I did read it though. I inevitably judge a book by it’s cover and buy them often without reading them. Sometimes they are just art.


    1. Read Ishmael after you introduced it to me…fantastic! I think this will be my Christmas present to everyone I know this year. Looking for tory of B, now, too. Thanks so much for sharing these titles with me!


  3. My all time go to book is Always We Begin Again and no matter how many times I read it, I always get something out of it. I am going to check out those of your recommendations with which I am not familiar.


  4. I totally relate – I also work in a similar establishment and there are not one but three owners who often react like this! Not that it relates to that but I find Thich Nhat Hanh’s No Death, No Fear is something I come back to at times of need.


    1. She can be kind-hearted, she’s not a bitch, but she is so out of touch with her own mind…when a challenge arises, it rules her rather than the other way around. She falls to pieces. It exasperates me, but I feel sorry for her, too, y’know? She’s got insomnia, a million allergies, a thyroid problem, migraines, and went into hospital last year to have some cysts and things removed. I can’t help think her body is trying to tell her to relax, to slow down, to be more positive, but she clings to her ways even though she knows they’re killing her. Tragic, really.
      Thanks for the referral, it’s always great to be introduced to new writers! I will look up No Death, No Fear. *hugs*


  5. Perhaps society needs more people who are willing to Listen to the teachers and philosphers…and Then make up their own Mind….Most are like your boss running toward something , chasing their dreams…and mostly just being Rude……I have never read any of these books and I’m a little scared to think were that leaves me….I do like to listen to opinion and i’m trying not to be a hard a$$ed nutter like your boss….sometimes peoples conversations about sport , family and who is upsetting who can be draining… perhaps I need to investage these lists above…..find myself some peace…..


    1. Hi, Sharon, thanks for taking the time to join this small conversation! I wish she was chasing a dream, instead of just doing what she believes she has to do, simply because she feels stuck and can’t see a way out. She’s actually a kind woman, she just hasn’t learned to be the master of her own life. Not that I am completely in control of mine, either, but if I were as miserable as she is all the time, I would see it as a message to change something. And our attitudes are the easiest place to start making changes.
      You don’t have to read a book to know who you are and what you want, I didn’t mean to sound like I was classifying people by what they read or don’t read. I just needed something uplifting and opened a book in a shop, and found it speaking directly to me. I just wanted to celebrate that. I guess I should have been more specific…she doesn’t go off about sports or family, which would be quite normal…she has nervous breakdowns when the carrot delivery comes in and they are spotty, that’s how bad it is in our kitchen. And in that tiny, confined space, if she thinks she is a bit behind on getting the salads ready for opening time, she RUNS…usually straight into one of the terrified staff, or grazes a hip on a bench corner in her hurry. It’s…appalling!
      Hey, peace be with you, Sharon. All the best. 😀


  6. I was thrilled to see you had Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style on our list because sitting on my shelf above my computer, is the same book and the more I learn about you through your writing the more I am gob-smacked by the coincidental parallels being revealed. Beside The Elements of Style is a Roger’s Thesaurus, a Bloomsbury Grammar Guide, the second edition of St. Martin’s Press Handbook of Technical Writing, and a Dictionary. All of them are prudently displayed, covered in dust and shamefully ignored. The Elements of Style is most prominently displayed because I’m in love with the book jacket design ( but I have actually never read it. What a poser, I know. I’m going to now, because of you, thank you for the inadvertent nudge to do so.

    This list of books is not in the same sphere as your profoundly philosophical collection (I’ll have to save that list for another day for fear of my comment turning into a letter) but I mention them because they serve as a reminder for this rather embarrassed high school dropout to roll up her sleeves, dust off her book shelf and get back to working on her grossly anemic writing skills. Then maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll be able to write as well as you do.


    1. Ah, so you’re my Wonder Twin! Am I the one who takes the form of an ice-something-or-other? Or the one who turns into a wooly mammoth?

      I HAD to include Strunk and White, not because he fits in with the rest, but because he is among those books that I keep on my “active” bookshelf, and pack separately whenever I move (it goes in a box with my journals, tarot cards, love letters, so I guess it’s a serious relationship!). It’s actually entertaining reading (the second half, where White enumerates and explains 14 rules of good writing).

      Funny you should mention Roget’s Thesaurus…it was the goodbye present I gave to Kris after I’d spent a month with him, and didn’t think I’d ever see him again. How romantic…260,000 synonyms and antonyms. The English Lit geek’s version of a lock of hair. LMAO

      Honey, for every book there is a right time, you’re not a poser, it just hasn’t been time yet. I have heaps of books I bought for the covers, or because they were snootily high-brow, or because I thought I could tackle them, then found that I couldn’t. From Dorris Lessing I learned that you must never read a book because you feel that you “ought to”. Only read it because you want to. Crikey, stop that, I don’t write well, I hardly write at all…I keep an effing blog because I could never write a novel. LOL


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