There is, in each of us, a longing for life lived on simpler, more innocent terms. Aware that our day-to-day lives contain far too much stress and not nearly enough satisfaction, we imagine a time in the future (retirement, perhaps?) when things will slow down and joy will well up and we will live happily ever after. At the same time, twisting to escape the present, we conjure a past that was somehow much nicer than now.
This past summer brought an uncommonly large number of visitors to our homestead, and with them came hours of talk. Much of the talk was about days gone by, especially about the growing-up years, and specifically about summer. There were, we all agreed, a handful of summer obligations that none of us escaped. At the top of the list was chores. Various families had various ways of getting things done, but precious few kids dodged the bullet of doing chores.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all." These often-quoted lines from Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass" came to me the other day while marveling at a wedge of geese cleaving their way through a cloudless sky.
Every now and then my mind refastens on one of my first literary heroes, and I spend some time marveling at all that he accomplished. His name was Nikos Kazantzakis (pronounced NEE-kos Kah-zant-ZAH-kees), best known in this country as the author of "Zorba the Greek" (the film version of which, starring Anthony Quinn, has become a classic) and "The Last Temptation of Christ" (made into a controversial movie in 1988 by Martin Scorsese). Kazantzakis was a man of great passion and energy, devoted to finding truth.
"The question of whether animals are sentient beings used to be a matter of debate. The cause of this debate may seem dubious to you if you've ever gotten to know an animal. Just about everyone I know who has ever had a pet or raised a farm animal knows darn well that animals have feelings and consciousness. They demonstrate those feelings in countless observable ways." So begins a recent article in "Mother Earth Living" by editor Jessica Kellner, who goes on to point out that the question of animal consciousness is no longer the subject of serious scientific debate.
Many years ago, when I was fresh out of school and panting after wisdom, I asked my grandfather to tell me what 90 years of living had taught him. "Not much," he said, and laughed. "No, really. Give me something to chew on. There must be something." "Well," he said, looking up at the ceiling, "I guess I could say I've learned that things rarely turn out as well as one hopes or as badly as one fears. I guess I could say that." At the time, of course, his words made little impact. But as the years rolled by, I began to understand the wisdom they contained, especially regarding fears.
This week my wife and I will celebrate our 50th anniversary. Like many friends of similar age, we plan no lavish festivities. Dinner with the family, and maybe a glass or two of champagne. We've arrived at a stage in life where just waking up each day seems celebration enough (though come to think of it, we went to a wedding a month ago and talked and laughed and sipped and danced so vigorously we could barely walk the next morning). When it comes to weddings, opinion as to what makes sense varies widely.
Of all the capabilities we humans enjoy, there is none so important as our ability to dream. I speak not of "dream" in the sense of what happens while sleeping, but rather "dream" as a vision of what could be. Schooled as we may be by the infamous hard knocks of life, there is nevertheless not a single reality more potent and life-enhancing than the power of one's dreams. As young folks we dream of many things. The little child may dream of being gifted with superhuman powers.
Every so often the Fates conspire to bring us poor mortals a treat. Ours came in the form of a tattered paperback, discovered by my wife in the bookstore at our local library. Unlike most books, which cunningly meter out smidgens of information in a carefully calculated sequence, this one spills the beans right on the front cover. There, under the words "The No S Diet," the contents are spelled out as as follows: "No Snacks. No Sweets. No Seconds. Except on days that start with S." How much simpler can you get?
Some weeks ago my wife and I, together with another couple, paid a visit to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. Established in the 1890s, Biltmore was the brainchild of George Washington Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the wealthiest industrialist of his time. George, by nature quiet and intellectual, evinced no interest in the family businesses and left the running of them to others.