Previous Post

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?