Each thing that starts must have an end

Each thing that starts must have an end; for every wax there is a wend that once begun, moves to its finish. Every birth has “bury” in it.

My earliest memory is of walking down the street beside my mother, who is pushing my brother in a stroller. It is a shady oak-lined street, which puts the place probably on Oakdale Boulevard in Pleasant Ridge, Michigan, and the time somewhere between 1966 and 1968. A pleasant memory, but not particularly instructive. We lived in a house on Oakdale for a few years before moving to a much larger house on Ridge Road. There are pictures of activities in the back yard at Oakdale, but not any real memory of those events. My first actual memories of things happening, and things being done, are at and around Ridge Road. Bicycling, tennis, basketball, sandboxes, pole climbing attempts, the huge Dutch Elm tree (and talk about Dutch Elm disease) in the lot corner, surrounded by jack-in-the-pulpits and other shade plants. The swimming pool (and swimming lessons) across the street. The Detroit Zoo (and the revolutionary train that ran through the park), and Theodore Roosevelt Elementary just a few blocks down the road – in opposite directions.

Some Stoic philosophers imagined life as an endless cycle, to be infinitely lived over and over again. In contrast to the Eastern idea of reincarnation, where each successive life leads up or down the ladder of enlightened beings or states based on your conduct in the present, this Stoic idea suggests that we live the same life, exactly the same, over and over again. This of course is a pleasant thought if you believe your life a good one – and less pleasant should you believe otherwise. It also magnifies the importance of every single moment, act, and thought – because you will be repeating it, ad infinitum or ad nauseum, in exactly the same way each time through. There are no little things. Like minor cosmetic errors in a computer program, they don’t have much impact individually. But when considered a thousand, ten thousand, or a million-fold, their sheer volume causes as much risk as a single high severity show stopper application flaw. Each decision, each considered idea that leads to action, gains a certain gravitas that it lacks if considered in the context of a single life. Another Stoic idea is to imagine yourself at the edge of death and consider at that moment, as you prepare to expire, whether your life has been well lived. If yes, you can depart, like Montaigne interprets Seneca, as a satisfied dinner guest leaving well-fed and happy. If no, then the loss of your life is of little consequence anyway, as you obviously had no idea what to do with it. A useful exercise, of course, before your actual moment of death so you have time to remedy your failings and get on with the business of living well.

In these two Stoic scenarios, memory serves a completely different purpose. In the first, where everything is to be lived over and over again, memory seems much less important. After all, you’re going to be living the exact same life over and over again, right or wrong, left or right, up or down. In the true spirit of alma fati, what will be, will be, and remembering one’s mistakes or victories doesn’t really matter all that much, because changing one for the other isn’t any option. In the second scenario, the ability to remember one’s failings and strengths in detail is much more important. After all, if you’re going to correct a wrongness, or reinforce a rightness, in order to continue, or return to, living in plumb with the universe, it seems essential that you recognize and understand a thing for what it is, in its infinite complexity.

I suspect that the reality is somewhere in between. All cultures, at some point or another in their attempt to achieve “enlightenment” or at least to alleviate the boredom and monotony of suffering and pain, suggest that the answer lies in simply paying attention. Call it mindfulness, devotion, atonement (at-one-ment), attention (at-tension), or any other cultural buzzword of the moment; it all boils down to being aware of what is actually happening versus what seems to be happening. Of course, that eliminates the idea of writing one’s memoirs altogether, because it requires absolutely living in this moment, and not wasting the time of a single second imagining actual or perceived past events. How all this reflection leads to enlightenment at all is of course subject to debate. Aleister Crowley quipped that if you loved life, you would not waste a single moment of time, that being the only actual measure of life we had. He however spent a great deal of time pondering signs and portents of the past, and scribbling endless polemics that it would seem could not have done anything but consumed vast quantities of his time – and ultimately, if you can stand to follow along throughout his writings, taught him little or nothing about actually living in any kind of balance or harmony with the world around him.

I like believing that my own life has been a tight rope act of sorts, and while my physical balance is horrendous – due I think to numerous inner ear infections growing up – that my mental or spiritual balance has over the course of my life greatly improved. Believing it and making it so, of course, are different things. The accumulated evidence, at least as I recall it, points to a much less glorious conclusion.

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