A Good Life
Because of the recent upheaval in my own comfortable little world, I’ve been thinking a lot about the tantalizing theme of this issue of the Bellevue Literary Review: a good life. Poking around the leavings of my newly emptied nest, I have been both buoyed and mocked by the impish ghosts that still live here with me, inciting emotional havoc. I discover a scrap of poetry in the tumult of books and college dorm bedding, a kind of aside, suggesting something about sea changes and remnants of past lives: “and there was a new voice / which you slowly / recognized as your own, / that kept you company….” Please, Mary Oliver*, I only want my child keeping me company, her voice quickening the air, showing me through the shared minutiae of our days that my own life is settled and good.
Or good enough, like the Winnicott/Bettelheim notion of “good enough parenting,” perhaps. So I wonder, has my life been good? How can I tell? If goodness is associated less with pleasure than with service, will raising a kind, empathic child be enough of a contribution to the world? If my best self has been most active through mothering, what is left for me to do now? How can I know this seemingly new, solitary self without the daily mirroring of my child’s needs and eyes?
Protracted solitude and cliff-edge transitions force even more self-reflection than usual and I’m kind of tired of my own prissy reminders of Socrates’ famous assertion, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Sure. But maybe there’s a point at which Socratic quests for wisdom through self-questioning are over-indulgent and even decadent? Does self-consciousness preclude bliss? If happiness by way of understanding is, as Aristotle posits, the ultimate goal of a life, can this happiness be found somewhere in the golden mean between an excess of self-examination and a blinkered lack of inner vision? If this balance can be struck, can I claim I’ve found my existential sweet spot already from raising my child? And what have I learned through listing each day between trivial tasks and intense deliberate musings but what I already knew—that happiness is evanescent, that life is tough and beset with losses, that the old Zen koan is true of any struggle for meaning and selfhood: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” So I haul my metaphorical water and chop my moody wood, day in and day out, all while keenly and guiltily aware of having the luxury of time to meditate and moan, listen to other people’s stories, compare notes, and learn.
Reckoning with notions of the good life means the troubling arousal of “bad life” thoughts. I often defer to Ishmael’s insight when he was cozily nested on the ill-fated Pequod: “Truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself” (Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 11). So the fullest recognition of how good we have it at any point in our lives, may depend on a reversal of fortune, as with the preachy old adage, “you never miss the water till the well runs dry.”
Knowing ourselves through contrast can be crazily disconcerting in this promiscuously confessional, image-rife age. Glitzy pictures of mogul-like prosperity—or zen-like, mindful lifestyles— become beacons or cautionary tales, depending on the states of our egos and the conditions of our lives. Showcased on YouTube or Instagram are any number of off-the-grid families living in converted buses, parading free-range children reared on seasonal fruit, ancient grains, and—glossed up for the cameras—an absence of conflict. Hard truths about values and choices are reduced to simple fixes for combing the knots out of life: toss the clutter, compost, meditate, and, above all to somehow not “lay waste our powers” by “getting and spending” (see Wordsworth’s fervent plea in his early 19th century sonnet, “The World Is Too Much With Us”). And yet, we are relentlessly pressed to purchase, to glory in “getting and spending,” by the juggernaut of American Dream capitalism and good-life advertising, magnetic counterforces to versions of measured simplicity and equilibrium.
Then we have the data from the now 80-plus years-long Harvard Study of Adult Development, commonly called the “Harvard Happiness Study.” Robert J. Waldinger, the study’s long-time director, distills its findings in his 2015 TED Talk: “The good life is built with good relationships.” So much advice, so many competing demands, which is why we turn to literature, art, and those ancient philosophers to help us get a hold of ourselves. As Melville’s Ishmael makes plain, warmth is known by experiencing the cold. It isn’t surprising then that much of the richly nuanced work collected in this issue of the BLR complicates and problematizes notions of a complacent good life through stories of searching, struggle, suffering, squandered chances, and false, benighted steps. But threaded through all is a constant theme: relationships good and bad determine the levels of “goodness” in our lives, bearing witness to the findings of the Harvard study. Loss is love’s opposite. Anastasia Selby’s relationship to her limited, abusive mother in her essay “The Rader Institute”; Trish Travieso’s exploration of her response to her father’s coming out as a transgender woman in “The Father Shift”; Sunny Teich’s adventures in sisterhood and psychedelics in “Our Psychedelic Minibreak”; and Wendy Breuer’s seeing the reflection of one of her earliest patients in her father’s illness in “Unwrapping” all intimate how selfhood is formed and good lives are made, tested, won, or hazarded because of—sometimes despite—significant relationships.
As with the nonfiction, the fictional worlds presented here imagine relationships as distant or deficient as in Kristen Swan Morrison’s “Peer Review,” a first-person narrative of an unassertive “outlier” trying to find a place to fit in. Relationships can be triggers, burdens, or harrowingly destructive as in Jennifer Solheim’s “The Lie,” a wrenching, layered tale of adolescent longing, mix tapes, and rage, or Suzanne Dottino’s chilling “Angel of Mercy.”
The poets also offer perspectives on relationships to others, and most essentially, to the frail and time-bound self. These relationships are found and mourned, as in Diane LeBlanc’s imagistic “I Paint His Absence” or Deborah Golub’s “Before another CT Scan.” But of course there is promise, too, in the midst of the travail, as in Jayne Marek’s poetic marking of growth against the odds in “Set Out to Grow,” as well as in Frances Park’s story of a daughter’s gift to her lonely aging father in “The Emperor of Blue Stone.”
I pick my way toward promise, too, helped along by reading, memory, and trying to envision a purposeful, fulfilling next act. I’ve always been naturally inclined toward a contemplative life, my understanding tilted toward kairos (“quality” time; moments of deep awareness or opportunities for action) more than chronos (sequential time; duration).
I was unprepared for the strange unsettled stillness of being newly alone after my child left home. Even with long stretches of solitude and quiet pursuits, the daily tasks and emotional demands of mothering had utterly filled my days and satisfied my need for kairos. Acutely aware of the passing of time, I wonder if my moments of being—as Virginia Woolf called the almost mystical awareness of a deeper reality beneath the harried busyness of chronos—are enough to sustain me (see Woolf’s 1939 essay, “A Sketch of the Past”). I miss the commonplace little routines of my past days, but am working to create meaningful new ones.
I am replete with Greeks these days, mostly poorly understood and often contextualized only through swift Google searches and the muddied waters of my memory. My daughter is a Classics major so wondering through the Greeks again makes me feel closer to her. And ancient debates over what constitutes a wisely lived, fulfilling life give me needed time-tested perspective.
Aristotle’s ideas about eudaimonia—blessedness or flourishing—recognize that a good life is achieved through an “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue” (Nichomachean Ethics, 1098a13). Such an achievement requires constant adjustments and assessments, as well as intent, and time: “for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a18).
A century before, Herodotus described the meeting between the Athenian poet- statesman, Solon, with the Lydian king, Croesus. The fabulously wealthy Croesus, in a self-satisfied, kingly way, asked his well-travelled guest who he thought was the happiest man he had ever met, expecting, “why you, of course!” to be the accurate as well as diplomatic response. Solon, however, was not to be baited into superficial flattery. His choices were all dead men of valor and virtue, whose successes were compellingly bound up in family ties as well as noble actions, rather than in material wealth. “Thus, then,” said Solon, “the whole of man is but chance…. We must look to the conclusion of every matter, and see how it shall end, for there are many to whom heaven has given a vision of blessedness, and yet afterwards brought them to utter ruin” (The Histories, Book 1, chapter 32). A sweet life one day, affliction the next.
The authors in this issue of the BLR remind us that if figuring out who we are and where we belong is endlessly complicated, there is solace in our shared struggle, in our relationships to others through story. As I worry over the shifting relationship with my child, I am truly fortunate to still have recourse to my ninety-two-year-old mother’s self-reflective wisdom about her dealings with chronos and kairos, or more generally, time itself: “I’ve worked for eighty years, mostly for other people so I’m giving myself the gift of just being. I thank God every day for giving me these extra years—not everybody is so lucky. I remember Papa [her father] just sitting and looking up at the stars and that’s what I’m doing—watching everything—things I never had time to see. And believe it or not I’m learning something new every day because I have time to. I’m just taking up space but I’m loving every minute. Now if I just could get rid of the worries about my children. Oh well—can’t have everything.”
And that has to be good enough.
*from Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” in her 1986 collection, Dream Work.