...but there are, still, the roses

In early March 2001, when I was especially in need of some straightforward, soothing counsel, the Boy sent me a passage from The Golden Sayings of Epictetus. (Full disclosure: before I knew better, I expected Epictetus to be some semi-obscure technical journal; it is to the Boy's eternal credit that he didn't laugh--audibly, at least--when I told him this.)

The passage ends with this:

'But that any of these things are misfortunes to him, is an addition which every one makes of his own. But (you say) God is unjust in this.--Why? For having given thee endurance and greatness of soul? For having made such things to be no evils? For placing happiness within thy reach, even when enduring them? For opening unto thee a door, when things make not for thy good?--Depart, my friend, and find fault no more!'

For placing happiness within thy reach, even when enduring [misfortunes.] As inclined as I am right now to wrap myself in layers of sadness, and as willing as I may generally be to accord others space for their own sadnesses whenever and however they arise, I refuse, in my stubborn, headstrong way, to believe that happiness is ever either truly out of reach or not worth reaching for.

I can't (obviously) claim to know much about the Stoics, but if even they were willing to concede the existence and accessibility of happiness, what's to keep us from doing the same? This is not a cry for self-centeredness, not an argument for the disregard of others or a full abdication of whatever responsibilities we may have in life, surely not a claim that happiness being within reach means it's something to be effortlessly snatched out of thin air.

Rather, it's a manifestation of my fierce belief that for all of its complications and difficult steps and imperfect choices, the quest for happiness--or true contentment, at the very least--is crucial to life (a twist, perhaps, on Auden's 'We must love one another or die').

I have put forth William Carlos Williams' line before: 'You cannot live and keep free of briars.' But now, more than ever, I understand: it is true, it is true, it is true.

The Ivy Crown (1950)

The whole process is a lie,
crowned by excess,
it break forcefully,
one way or another,
from its confinement--
or find a deeper well.
Antony and Cleopatra
were right;
they have shown
the way. I love you
or I do not live
at all.

Daffodil time
is past. This is
summer, summer!
the heart says,
and not even the full of it.
No doubts
are permitted--
Though they will come
and may
before our time
overwhelm us.
We are only mortal
but being mortal
can defy our fate.
We may
by an outside chance
even win! We do not
look to see
jonquils and violets
come again
but there are,
the roses!

Romance has no part in it.
The business of love is
cruelty which
by our wills,
we transform
to live together.
It has its seasons,
for and against,
whatever the heart
fumbles in the dark
to assert
toward the end of May.
Just as the nature of briars
is to tear flesh,
I have proceeded
through them.
Keep the briars out,
they say.
You cannot live
and keep free of

Children pick flowers
Let them.
Though having them
in hand
they have no further use of them
but leave them crumpled
at the curb's edge.

At our age the imagination
across the sorry facts
lifts us
to make roses
stand before thorns.
love is cruel
and selfish
and totally obtuse--
At least, blinded by the light,
young love is.
But we are older,
I to love
and you to be loved,
we have,
no matter how,
by our wills survived
to keep
the jeweled prize
at our fingertips.
We will it so
and so it is
past all accident.

(William Carlos Williams)