I am currently reading a novel called Sophie's World, which was recommended to by Carla, a student who has just finished her first year of the same Ph.D. program I will begin in September. She said that the novel was a good overall introduction to the history of philosophy; a topic about which I know little, but must take as a required course on in my first year of the program.
I have about 200 pages left and my head is spinning with all the ideas and philosophies presented in the book. Many pages ago, I came across two phrases which have stuck in my head: carpe diem and memento mori. I used to use carpe diem a lot in my speech and writing, vehemently believing that we had to seize the day, living each moment as if it were our last.
But it was only recently that I learned memento mori, or "remember that we must die". It seemed strange somehow, that I had learned one phrase and not the other, since they seem to go hand in hand.
It is fair to say that I am not particularly afraid of death, having had a couple of brushes with it myself and once, staring it in the face at the very moment it gently took the life of someone I loved and cherished with all my heart (and still do, but of course, in a different way now).
The other night, as I had my nose in Sophie’s World, the phone rang. It was Roberto, whom I met in my dancing days in the late 1990s. Roberto is my Buddhist-barrista-dancing friend. My nickname for him is “Babe” and it is our custom to greet one another with a huge smile accompanied by, “Hey, Babe!” and a hug that often lasts a minute or more, and very often, an impulsive kiss or two on the cheek.
I don’t do that with everyone, but somehow with Babe, our form of greeting just evolved and now it feels strange to greet one another in any other way. He inspires a kind of exuberance for life and for living that seems to bring me out of my sometimes reserved Anglo-saxon shell.
This has startled people I've been with on occasion, who don't know Roberto. I'll be walking along the street with someone, we'll turn a corner and there will be Babe, walking towards me. Huge smiles cross our faces, and the customary greeting follows. But with his long grey beard, hair in a low pony tail, wearing a checkered shirt, and worn out old jeans and vest, he could easily be mistaken for a homeless person. So people who don't know him are often startled that this strange-looking man and I wrap our arms around one antoher in an exuberant hug whenever we meet.
Similarly, our farewells evolved into a customary, “Love ya, Babe!” And we knew what we meant… not a romantic kind of love, but a human-to-human kind of love; the kind we should all have – and show – for our fellow humans, but usually don’t. It is our custom to remind each other that we appreciate one another as human beings each time we part ways.
Babe is hard to get hold of, not having e-mail and not believing in cell phones. I had called him in late July at the home he shares with his beautiful partner, Sharon, to wish him a Happy Birthday. He’s a quintessential Leo and in general, I quite like people of that sign. Sharon, one of Calgary's most high-powered business women, and a "millionare-ess", as Babe calls her, is equally delightful and extraordinarily sure of herself. She’d have to be to be with a man like Roberto, who openly shows sincere affection for most people he knows, be they man, woman or child. They're definitely an "odd couple", but it's worked for them for 15 years, so all the power to them.
Of course, on the night of his birthday, he wasn’t home. I left a message, knowing that he was out “celebrating”. But it’s not unusual for Babe to celebrate. He celebrates every day he’s alive, in one way or another, whether it’s in a pub with friends, on the dance floor, over one of his own delightful cappuccinos or just walking alone along one of Calgary’s streets or river pathways, enjoying the sights and smells of everything around him.
He is the kind of man who, when he speaks to you he doesn’t look you in the eye. He looks deep into your soul and speaks to that part of you that is the most unique, the most vulnerable, the most human and spiritual at the same time. Then suddenly he’ll laugh from his belly and the spell is broken… until the next moment.
The other night, Babe returned my call. I never worry about when of if he will call. When the time is right, he just seems to appear out of nowhere, usually when I least expect it.
During the call, Babe said he thought we should all start dancing again. We had our little group of dancers, you know, “the gang”. We went out dancing seven nights a week and we seized every moment of every day.
But I haven’t been out dancing in ages now, and neither has most of “the gang”. Most of us have “moved on” in life, which meant, moving away from the dance floor to pursue other interests. It was high time, Babe said, to re-invent “the troupe”, have some fun and celebrate.
Sounded like a good idea to me. I realized that I hadn’t taken time lately to celebrate much, instead being slightly more bogged down than usual by things on my “to do” list, worried about whether or not I will possibly survive the program of studies I will enter in the fall, how I will make ends meet, and any number of other things that in essence, are pointless to worry about.
Talking to Babe reminded me of the two phrases that I read in Sophie’s World: carpe diem and memento mori.
The main character in Sophie’s World has a self-appointed philosophy teacher who teaches her about a different great thinker in each chapter. Roberto was my self-appointed philosophy teacher when we were dancing and I realized the other night on the phone that I miss our talks about philosophy, which would often occur over coffee or one of his organic lunches. He’s a real world dude who’s got it together in the spiritual and philosophical sense.
Babe doesn’t own a car and doesn’t want to. He walks most places and truly takes time to enjoy the smells, sights and feelings of each step of his walk. He “walks with his pain” in a very Buddhist way. He is acutely aware of his body, the world around him, the fact that he is alive and the fact that he will die.
I believe that it was no accident that he was one of the people there to guide me and support me when my mother died, often starting our conversations after her death with, “Well, are you walking with your pain yet, or is it still a burden?”
I would mumble something about trying to walk with it, but not doing a very good job of it. He would smile, put a coffee down in front of me and say, “You gotta learn to walk with it. Not just walk with it -- dance with it! Live it! Embrace it!”
And seeing me lower my eyes and peer into the frothy mug in front of me, he’d say, “Oh come here a minute and embrace ME!” And we’d have a hug and suddenly I would get the feeling that one day maybe I could learn what it meant to “walk with my pain” as Buddhists do… as Roberto does.
I realized after our phone conversation the other night that somewhere along the way, I had learned to walk with that particular pain, and in doing so, the pain itself had almost disappeared.
Perhaps Babe is right and it is time to dance again… to celebrate… carpe diem and memento mori. Perhaps Sophie's world and mine aren't all that different. We could all do with some self-appointed teachers who know what this philosophy stuff is all about and are willing to teach it to others... one step at a time.
Happy 60th, Babe. Love ya.