The prognosis was grim. I remember the precise moment when the truth of what was earlier known rudely pushed itself unto me. I was being dropped off at the hospital (a new tumour), irritability turned antagonistic as I fought to rejoin that blissful world of denial. Later tears met with accusations. Who greets tears with such animosity? Who harbours such disdain for “parading grief”? Strange how triggers work. That day we had our own grievances to address, and these shipwrecked any chance for ontic embrace. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Anguish, loss, death, comes to us all (the penultimate banality), but my grief is my own, viscerally experienced as if unique to me, resentful of dense propriety that arrogantly calls me to compose myself! But those moments, subtle as they were at the time, are like memories in a time capsule that ornately embellish the creative process of meaning-construct. For it is after all as I artfully engage life that the constituents of meaning find voice. Trepidation meets and enamours ruinous tranquility through life’s turnings.
Today Olymbia passed away. Three years into her grade 4 Glioblastoma brain cancer (GBM), outliving her prognosis by 2 years. It was Christmas 2014 when I noticed (we all did) Olymbia had changed – she seemed off, not herself. All of us gathered – a party of 40 – at Ket’s home in celebratory mode, Greek-style! Marc reconstructed the bird with his usual artistry. We girls busied ourselves with cooking, and serving, with chiding laughter accompanying us as we moved through the rooms. A row of generations set the table, finding Olymbia at the further end, tucked away in a corner, quiet. Quiet!? Well that was just not Olymbia! She was always centre-stage, dishing out orders, making sure that we girls, especially us, were on top of things! But not today, not ever again.
My hair follicles knew best of my mother’s discontent. Hair tightly pulled back into a ponytail bore the markings of slightly slanting eyes. A stop on the way to school at Olymbia’s – we all walked to school together – and that menacing ponytail was to become a swinging bush hanging long across my back. Thankful was I! It remained our secret, never shared with my mother. And as secrets do, endorsed a loving connection. Our families were one family. Our moms best friends, us kids roughly the same age, grew up as cousins, siblings really. Olymbia was the driving force behind this great, expansive family. She welcomed everyone, even if she did not always appear welcoming! 🙂 She was a mother to me.
Not versed in Stoic literature, Seneca, Rufus, Epictetus were no strangers to her. “Κόρη, that’s it”. Her meaning, however elliptical, is not far off from the words of Seneca: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.” I can also hear these words echoing in my ear as she’d have occasion to frequent them: “᾽Αντε να γαμ… ο μαλάκας απο δω χάμω!” There’s something about the flamboyant Greek manner prone to such phraseologies that turn profanity endearing. In essence her meaning is reflected in Epictetus’ words repeatedly endorsed throughout the ages: “Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.” And later in life, she’d realized, especially after becoming ill, what she perceived to be the narrowness of her youthful endeavours. I think this is nicely expressed by Rufus: “wealth is able to buy the pleasures of eating, drinking and other sensual pursuits – yet can never afford a cheerful spirit or freedom from sorrow.” She seemed eager that I see the foulness of such ways, that I’d invest in what truly matters: family. And so it is left to us, all the kids (Pits, Ket, Andro, Nico, me, Marc, Blaine, Meagan, Kristina, Nick, Mitchell, Mason, Thomas, Kalianna, Anthony, Kris and Kim)) no matter the distance that separates us, to keep the candle burning that shall always unite us as one family.
In our month together we’d sometimes burn the night oil. She’d become reflective, mellow, and her thoughts turned to her children. Of Andro, since I can remember remained constant was her wish that he find a “good woman” to care for him…like a Greek woman knows to! 😉 “Ketty…that one…she’s the sensitive one.” But she also endearingly spoke of her as “a little chatter-box” (πολυλογού), a quality that our lovely Kristina has inherited…perhaps upgraded! 😉 “Liza…well she is like me…if we don’t fight one day I think she doesn’t me love me.” She hardly spoke of her grandkids beyond the usual logistics. But what was there to say that her eyes did not. She adored those kids: they were her life! As the weekend rolled round she worried that my partner would feel neglected (Greek women are not to neglect their men! 😉 ) Άντε κόρη, που είναι ο καλαμαράς, ο μαλάκας; Πήγαινε τώρα να του φτιάξεις κανένα φαΐ! And we’d laugh, and laugh! But that’s how she was: caring, and brutally honest, but darkness would turn light, for sentimentalities were not to have the last say. Did I mention Marc and Blaine!? She’d say: “Those girls don’t deserve such men!” And again, we’d laugh and laugh. But she meant it too. Her son-in-laws were the absolute best men. But as I’m sure they’d agree, that’s a gesture of reciprocity that began with her. My bro! Well she had much to say about him too. “Kαλό παιδί ο Νίκος μας!” She wanted confirmation that he was loved and appreciated!
She is one of those people that affected many lives. So many people will have to seriously adjust to her passing. Resilient that woman was! But Stoic-like she appreciated and loved life, but was adamant not to bend to the tragedies that life had in store for her…though…she did suffer….as anyone who wants to live and has so much to lιve for does.
She would want us to be strong and live by example. For as Margaret Atwood said: “In the end, we’ll all become stories.”
I love you, Olymbia mou! Καλή αντάμωση!
My boy with the golden heart! The one constant throughout these 18 years has been your incredible good nature. And though Kant might not value utmost one naturally inclined to goodness, I suspect he’d never met the likes of you to be confounded daily by the mysterious beauty of such a disposition. I continue to be amazed by your unflinching sense of justice and good will. Through the years the stark divide separating right from wrong has given way to the more grey, but never overwhelmed or overturned, for you all remains as delightfully colourful. I admire and envy this in you, Thoma mou! May all your days find your disposition unchecked.
A wonderful young man of intelligence, strength, and yes, all the markings of a spirited 18-year old seeking adventure, checking your limits (and sometimes ours!!! 😉 ), still looking, searching for that which will stir you into an awakening of sorts. For though more adept to this world than our Kalianna and myself, you too are as viscerally and intellectually intense; the banal, the everyday, the plain and regular, will not suffice. You shall settle not for the ordinary. Don’t! Don’t settle my son! You deserve the extraordinary.
December 18th, 1999 you were born and changed my life forever! From This Moment became our song. Happy birthday Thoma mou! (κσσμμ) Και στα 150!
From this moment, as long as I live
I will love you, I promise you this
There is nothing, I wouldn’t give
From this moment on
Here’s Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life. “Life is something more than an idle dream”, said he. “Be a hero in the strife,” had my thoughts linger to Heraclitus. But also to Joseph Campbell: “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!—
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,—act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Stumbling in, he falls unconscious. All around there’s scrambling commotion. Foot steps rushing urgently, scattered whispers enjoining like a choir of nymphs, the hissing lodging a hole through my ear. Strokes of regret enamour hope and the foot steps become more decisive and directed. The drawer opens, and a syringe is drawn from deep inside. Breathing resumes. From further afar I see his chest expand and deflate. The stench of relief is palpable.
We’re all breathing now.
There’s no talk of the events that transpired as the house slowly comes back to life. The household routine is resurrected. Each to their quarters and little lives. Everything is as it was. I begin to wonder if it happened at all. After all this couldn’t be happening, not to us. We did everything right.
I decided to rename my blog Philosophical Confessions in light of new formalized sensibilities informed by both experience and my philosophical propensities. My original motivation for this blog has not changed.
It is still:
Home to philosophical reflections on life issues. These will vary from philosophically dense scholarly-type papers, to quibbles, annotations, critiques, self-help guides, and problematics. It was the university, first as a student and later as a Professor of Philosophy, that was once home to my philosophical engagement with life issues. Initially this was an ideal forum for an interactive, passionate exchange of commonly entrenched concerns but as education came to suffer the ills of institutionalization more and more, and standardized policies replaced the creative, and biophilous dialectical flux that characterized the inter and intra-human exchange amongst practitioners of philosophy, this became an ever alienating experience. Yet the yearning for meaningful reflection has not waned and the practical application dating back to the Greeks has finally found new footing in Philosophical Counselling. Putting philosophy back on the streets and employing philosophical methods as a form of counselling constitute the two-tier structure of this blog. Negotiating the “truth” in all facets of life and living will be the driving force that both defines the parameters and implications of all philosophical reflections.
I am now enriched from years of ‘agitation’ that has both deepened and contoured my philosophical preoccupations. Not unlike Socrates, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Simone de Beauvoir and even might I daringly add, Veronica Franco (16th-century Venetian courtesan and poet), seeking the truth, the mainstay of all philosophical ventures, is sought not somewhere aloof, rigidly outside, beyond, over-and-against, or cast off from its visceral incarnation. For it is in how one lives one’s life that the truth is revealed. Writing brings truth to bear in a social domain which often goes amiss, creating havoc wherever misunderstanding perturbs interpretation. Confessionals add context; they are personalized moments in which the truth is disclosed or dislodged from the abundance that purveys life. Not then to be read like a map plotting life denotatively, but more like music rich in notational instructions which only properly comes to life when played …symphonically. I like to think of these confessionals as a symphony of sorts – however badly written, for I am no musician.
I have made no secret of how motherhood has given valour to those hegemonic values which with mutant offspring have shaped my orientation in life. No relationship has impressed such a keen sense of responsibility within that ever-so fragile context of love. I probably started out as a Kantian of sorts, and with dips and pulls into the aretic tradition, have made my way to a more existential-type predilection. Perhaps not unlike most mothers overburdened by a hyperbolic acceptance of psycho-sensitive paradigms, I was initially confounded by the depths and intense love I felt for my first born (and then as if anew, for my second born, Kalianna) which only made the sense of awe and wonder regarding my role as his mother all the more daunting! I could do irreparable damage despite the best intentions! OMG!!!! Breast-feeding? Yes!!! 10 points for doing that for 9 months! Sleeping through the night!?No number of hail Marys can compensate for the number of times exhausted and desperate Thomas would be welcomed to sleep in cozy comfort with mommy! Talking, engaging, reading to him/with him? Too much and he’ll never learn to be alone! Too little and stifle any chance for cultivating a love of learning! Crap! How much is too much? Did I spend too much time with my kids? My (ex) husband certainly thought I did! (he’s an ex after all!!! 😉 Actually, in truth he’s a wonderful father to those two!) He’d call my children “τα αυτοκολλητάκια μου” (loosely translates: my little stickers) to suggest how clingy he thought our relationship to be! Friends? School? Shy was he! So much strategizing to cultivate social skills, and self-confidence! And yet he never seemed to lack in self-esteem, but as teachers would say of him from as early as preschool, “Thomas is ultra-sensitive to his surroundings!” It wasn’t that he was hyper-sensitive, but very viscerally in tune with his surroundings, especially other people. Who knows, maybe this is what so early on in his development can explain his remarkable sense of justice and fair-play. His concern for the underdog, and the unfair, discriminatory treatment of others did not go unnoticed. Thomas has always been described as “a good kid”. For me, he was “the boy with a golden heart”. But what were we to say to him when the world, life experiences, didn’t quite match up with his moral ideals? Shrug our shoulders and say: “Suck it up kid, this is the real world!” or “The good guys finish last!” or “Be your own person and you shall shine!” or “Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing; you just be a good kid!” As he matured and these quandaries grew in complexity, life experiences seemed to take over and he became less and less inclined to discuss things as we’d been accustom to. Indeed, only Twitter seemed to match his intolerance of a word count exceeding 140 characters! OMG! We’ve failed him! But despite, or maybe in spite, of this and so much more, Thomas now 18 (well almost), is still in so many ways that shy, hyper-sensitive, caring, good and (from what we are told by professionals) exceptionally intelligent little boy! But he’s not just that either! His shyness, initially addressed as an “issue”, made him aware of the conditions of the human psyche that has in so many ways been the benchpress for some hard-won battles for the socially awkward and marginalized. Did sleeping in my bed, apparently that HUGE, unspeakable, no, no, warp his development? Did he become dependent? A mommy’s boy? Lacking in confidence? Nope! Actually, his versatility and strength has never ceased to amaze me! No, I mean it! Amazed me! Just when I thought he’d crumbled, he always seemed to become a little bit stronger, and little more confident. Indeed, Thomas is especially socially adept, and eager to get out there a claim a place in this world, and he doesn’t seem to want or enjoy it when it is too easily won! My existential entrapping? Perhaps?
So what of all of this, Pirocacos? The Landmark: Thomas got into university! This seems somehow a rite of passage. In an obvious way, it is his! The accomplishment speaks to a course of maturity where the last year demanded the cultivation of temperance, fortitude, and agility, and all in submission to or for a future quite uncertain, and one which he only vaguely even desired! This landmark, however, is my own! A time of reckoning symbolically tied up in his. It’s not so much that my work is done! Motherhood is for a life-time, and it is so in a way that no other relationship is. I think the words of Kahlil Gibran speak more loudly to me now than ever:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
(The Prophet, Children)
Such is to learn to love without expectation and without possession. For though parental narcissism seems to play a pivotal role in those first moments where we look to recognize ourselves in his teeny smile, demeanour, and idiosyncrasies that make him a little more my own, a little more endearing, a little more loved, it is unreconcilable with unconditional love and acceptance. For it is in learning to admire Thomas for the manner in which he uniquely delved into the awkward moments of life, frustrated efforts, and various crises of character and trauma sometimes caused by me, that I have ever so slowly (ya, I ain’t that smart! Meh…) learned to love authentically. It means to love with risk, risk of loss: for indeed our children must take some giant steps that may leave them existentially adrift from us. It means loving when he, in stark defiance, really is his own person, bearing no markings that speak of home. It means hoping that he look beyond you, for a sense of grounding, and meaningful fulfillment. It means to love from a distance when he no longer needs you.
So my friend and I took to talking philosophy, as we regularly do, till the wee hours of the morning. Last night we were especially transfixed on Stoicism, and dare I say, meditation, which is right up his alley since this is what he does for a living. Knowing my rather contoured figure which has made allies with existential thought, he’s offered patient counsel that I might benefit from inserting meditative practices into my daily routine. Of course, Stoicism is no stranger to what I take to be the basic meditative tenet – a process of defragmentation where the toils, distractions, inhibitions, fetishisms, and labours of everyday life recede to the oblivion and a deep state of peace is gathered (I’ll admit to being infected by a Parmenidean view of this which is referred to as incubation, a common practice amongst the Phoceans). And just as we begin our assent ( 😉 ) into the much contested debate over ataraxia, his voice is interrupted by the sound of incoming mail. A disquieting email left me quite ill-at heart and my friend expressly annoyed! Timely you say!? HA! So did we!!! “Breathe Elly,” he told me, and I watched as he took slow, deliberate breaths. My heart rate slowed, the irritability past, and pangs of despair levelled off. “Okay so this is meditation!!!”, he announced gleefully. “You did it!” And just like that trance over! The implicit cognitive dissonance pervading his thought was unsettling and I took to addressing the problem (well it was a problem to me, damn it!!! Screw composure and quietude, my mind is overturning, and rightly so! 🙂 )
See though I have a great deal of respect for ancient Greek thought, and a special appreciation for all aretic works, I don’t agree with the underlying metaphysics of Stoicism. Now some might say that that really doesn’t matter. That indeed the allure of Stoicism is its implicit cosmopolitanism. So whether you take a more religious or secular stance on the rational order of the universe and our unique and natural propensity for rational thought, it’s of no consequent. But you do still have to endorse the premise that the world – Nature – is made up a network of causal relations which is why they can argue that the good life is a life that is lived in agreement with nature, itself uncovered via rational deliberation. There is quite a bit of wiggle room to interpret the precise meaning of nature but there is no question that the world is understood to be a rational order and that we can live a eudaimonic life when we appeal to “how things are” “objectively” (though not absolute in reasoned assessment). Now this may be hard for some of you to understand – you may not relate – but the good life for the Stoic is understood in terms of ataraxia or the absence of pretty much anything that unhinges you, and I am all for what unhinges me!
sequel shall follow tomorrow…I promise!
Take away from an old time client about life & love. So much talk about learning to accept what you cannot change; or to live according to the rational laws of the universe; or still to design a life of quietude – seek not then anything that may potentially cause ataraxia. However one wishes to construct the backdrop to these narratives, the point that persists is that things, circumstance, people are all incidentals. That ultimately it is a matter for the mind to fashion a life of happiness, and so nothing falls apart unless the seams of mental perception are to give way. So we go to the narrative, spilt hairs over the conscripted concepts, renegotiate these so as to realign, and restructure the manner in which the factical sometimes sneaks in to disrupt and destroy one’s peace of mind.
Though there is great favour to be found with such strategies, my client, despite his longing to free himself from the anguish of love lost, felt slighted, perturbed; robbed, I think was the term he used. I think he felt gypped, emotionally, existentially, I mean. He spoke to me of poetry, of song, of art and asked me where the haunting, annihilating, consuming yearning for life had gone? And it came to me that meraki, a Greek word, meaning “to do something with soul, creativity or love”, speaks to his orientation in life. (FYI I have employed this term in numerous blog posts) I don’t know that the existential undertow (in my mind) can easily rehabilitate one to mental stability, but I do know that something gets lost in translation when everything is thought to neatly, cooly, with composure and calm, fit and make sense. Perhaps my client wasn’t looking to move on, but only to love heartily in absentia. And no, maybe it doesn’t make sense, but then what heroic gestures calling from oceanic depths of spirit ever really do? So onwards and upwards my dear “friend”. Eunoia: a beautiful way of thinking.