ld age is an interesting season. Having ‘been there, done that,’ I’m content to be living a pastoral, self-styled poetic life, alone but far from lonely. It’s as if I’ve returned to the metaphorical Garden of Eden or entered the Kingdom of Heaven by becoming a blessed child again.
I see myself these days as a Cynic, but not a spoilsport or peevish naysayer in the modern sense of the word. I’m a sunny Cynic, in tune with a minor school of Socratic philosophy made famous by Diogenes, that legendary dropout from Athenian society who practiced voluntary simplicity.
Diogenes was a curious old fellow. He scorned city life, aspiring to live more virtuously in harmony with Nature. We’re told that he threw a coarse cloak over his shoulders, carried a bag of necessities, and wandered around the countryside with staff and lantern, searching for an honest man.
Some say he lingered for awhile around Corinth and lived alfresco in a tub. He became so famous for his independent spirit and haughty humility that when Alexander the Great marched into Corinth, he insisted on meeting this Cynic. When he found the venerable philosopher sunning in his tub, Alexander asked what service he might render. Diogenes replied, “Stand from between me and the sun.”
“If I weren’t Alexander,” the great one laughed, “I would want to be Diogenes!”
Well now, I love my Carmel Valley sunshine, but I’m certainly no Diogenes. Fact is, I feel more kinship with Socrates who chided the Cynics: “Why so ostentatious? Through your rags I see your vanity.”
What I do admire about these Cynics, however, is their reverence for Nature and their belief that ethics is the only subject that really matters in philosophy. They weren’t stuffy scholars. They were quipsters, preferring satire and an occasional diatribe to formal philosophic dialogue. They taught by example, no matter how often they were mocked.
City folks jeered them for living like kynikos, a Greek word meaning dog. But the Cynics only smiled. What was intended as an insult they accepted as a compliment. The masses simply didn’t know about the revered white canine that symbolized their reconciliation with the forces of nature. It had always been the dog’s privilege, during sacrificial feasts, to carry off to the gods a portion of the meat.
I like these Cynics. I emulated them, in a way. I, too, dropped out of urban ant heaps and mainstream happenings to live more simply. It seems to me that anyone who aspires to grow old gracefully without acknowledging the native wisdom of the Cynics must be living with the three little monkeys.
My ‘sunny’ take on their philosophy means, among other things, that since moving to the country, I’ve preferred boots and blue jeans to dresses. I delight in simple pleasures like stretching in the morning sun or listening to afternoon winds blowing through the pines.
On summer nights, I scrunch down in feather pillows and smile while crickets sing outside my bedroom window. When rain comes, I hardly ever avert my face and run for cover, unless I’m wearing suede …
When I’m not glued to this computer, I like to observe the goings and comings of bugs and lizards and birds, just like a little kid. Sometimes I toot on a tin whistle or beat on the elk hide drum I bought from Indians at the Taos Pueblo.
On cold nights, I can wallow in books and music in front of a roaring fire. And when I write nowadays -- or teach -- I expound only on subjects that excite me. I’m deliciously free to care for myself, to jolt the mind of an occasional student, to drive my car on back roads instead of freeways, and to use credit card awards to fly to exotic landscapes still unsullied by human developers. I can pretty much do as I please now, despite increasing dangers along the narrowing road to Whatever.
It’s not that I’m without responsibilities. I have an active conscience directed by an intuitive voice I’m inclined to interpret as my ‘God spot.’ I answer to that inner monitor and dote on welcome duties such as maintaining the little redwood house I created from scratch on a genesta-dotted acre. I tidy it up joyfully.
‘Herself’ and ‘Capricorn’ the kid
I bring hay and water to a couple of mischievous goats who play with me and provide fertilizer for my gardens in exchange for grain and carrots. A puckish Sheltie looks to me for nurturing, and I look to him for true devotion and steadfast shepherding activities.
Plants rely on my attention. And I rely on them for sustenance and color. Grapevines and fruit trees look to me for pruning and thank me at harvest time. Family members -- and a few friends still interested enough to put up with me – occasionally seek me out for companionship.
Sometimes I’m not so ‘sunny.’ I get sad, even grumpy -- especially during periods of unrelenting rain. That’s when I tend to reflect on how inept we humans are with each other -- and how we are messing up our earth.
Still, in those dark periods when I abandon hope on stage, I find courage and compassion waiting in the wings. Then Zorba goads me to dance. Sisyphus prompts me to laugh. And I manage to assume an attitude of joyful resigned resistance to forces that would break my spirit.
The older I get the more Cynically playful I feel, given ‘what fools we mortals be.’ I have become more opinionated, more discerning, and, occasionally, downright misanthropic. But I’m more smilingly so.
I’m grateful too. I feel gratitude for kindred spirits and for the divine beauty of Nature, despite its ‘tooth and claw’ underpinnings.
Yes, it bothers me that everything must kill to live. I grow things in my garden for the sole purpose of eating them. Worse, I have to decide which baby carrots to abort so others can grow big for better eating. If I don’t do it, Nature will. The stronger carrots simply stunt the growth of the weak.
I don’t like that, but it’s Nature’s way. I may try to expiate my guilt by tossing the tiny carrots into a salad. It may sound silly, but I eat them with gratitude, inviting them to live on through me so they won’t have died in vain.
When I reflect on such things, I question the existence of any deity, worthy of worship, who, if personal and caring, would so arrange life that it would depend on the mutual killing and ingestion of various species. No ethical entity would set life up that way if it had the power to do otherwise.
The Biblical concept of original sin is hardly a satisfying explanation anymore. It seems to me that the humanized God of the Eden story, being omniscient, must have known that curious Mother Eve would bite the apple of awareness long before He told her not to. So where is the freedom? Where is the justice in punishment?
Truth may be less complicated.
Living here in my valley, it’s easy to feel that the creative, all-encompassing divinity of Nature is kinder to those who reconnect with the earth -- kinder to those who try to live more simply and creatively in the tension between life’s essential polarities. It’s just easier here to be a sunny Cynic.
… Elayne Wareing Fitzpatrick