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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?

The Consolations of Creativity

Yes, still mucking around with the felt shapes! I am playing with the heart shape, now. Kris rolls his eyes in disbelief… he’s never seen me work with hearts before; it’s not a typical motif for me, admittedly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. I’m actually just daunted by the symbol: it’s so old and so universal that pretty much anything you could think of doing with it has been done. Trying to find a way of making these felt hearts that doesn’t look like everyone else’s felt hearts can be challenging. I threw myself into the task today, cutting 100 heart shapes out of felt and playing with colour combinations (limited, because I have a very small felt stash of odd colours that I didn’t give much thought to when I bought them; my self-imposed rule is that I have to use old materials up, not buy more!) I braced myself with lashings of black coffee, and music from the 80s. It is such a joy to be able to spend the days this way: intense, busy, engaged, mindful…but doing what I love, and making things that I love.

I started reading Alain de Botton‘s The Consolations of Philosophy last night…no doubt the last book I’ll manage to squeeze in before the year ends…and it would have to be the most enjoyable book of the year, too, wouldn’t it? When you find yourself giggling over a book about the ideas of Socrates, Epicurus and Seneca, you know you’ve got a very special philosophy book in your hands, and have found a very special author. Alain de Botton’s humour is so gentle that it works on you slowly, and at first you don’t know whether he’s being funny, or you are. *pregnant pause* This is where I warn you that mine is a black and evil heart, and I have a taste for the funny that runs to morbid. There, a caveat.
The book’s six parts detail philosophy’s consolations for Unpopularity, for Not Having Enough Money, for Frustration, Inadequacy, a Broken Heart, and Difficulties. Part of what I thought was so funny was having to agree with the author (and his philosophers)that “Yes, we humans do make a big technicolor drama out of some ridiculous things, don’t we?” Fifteen pages into the book, I had a silly smile on my face…and by the time I had read halfway, I was laughing out loud. Kris kept looking up from his drawing to check that I was still reading the same book, he couldn’t believe that such a title was making me chuckle. The ideas, of course, are delightfully presented, too…applied to modern life, clearly outlined and presented in a levelheaded way, this is a good introduction to a handful of Western Civilization’s greatest thinkers.

Kris Larsen's With Mermaid Up A Moonberry TreeOther books I read in 2010 were: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and The Discomfort Zone and How To Be Alone; Edward de Bono‘s Six Thinking Hats; Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Everything is Illuminated; David Malouf‘s Ransom; John Banville‘s The Infinities; a whole bunch of books from The New Glucose Revolution series; Martin Versfeld’s The Philosopher’s Cookbook; DBC Pierre‘s Ludmilla’s Broken English; Plain Anne Ellis by Anne Ellis, and my partner, Kris’s, second book, With Mermaid up A Moonberry Tree (which made me cry buckets, but only because it was about the way Kris and I used to live)…and I can’t remember if I read anything else.

Sure doesn’t seem like much! I really hope I manage to do more reading next year…I had a reading list in 2009, but I don’t think any of the books I finally did read were on my list! I find that life very often leads me to, or presents me with, the books that I need to read…do you get that? When something you pick up and start reading speaks directly to who you are, where you are, at that moment? That wouldn’t happen if you were just going down a list and ticking them off as you went, would it? There are advantages to allowing serendipity to choose your books for you. I think I’d like to read more nonfiction next year, but no idea which ones. Mainly books about how to live well, that sort of thing. Like a more gentle, garden variety philosophy, for days when you have your period and can’t focus on Socrates.

What was your favourite read for 2010? Have you got a reading list for 2011, or do you just read whatever comes your way?