Two summers ago, my high school friends and I hit the road through New Hampshire, climbing a mountain, going to a theme park, ghost hunting, and staying in sketchy hotels and campsites in the White Mountains.
The state motto for New Hampshire is “Live free or die,” taken from a toast Revolutionary War hero John Stark wrote for the 1809 anniversary to the Battle of Bennington. Poor health prevented his attendance to the anniversary, but his words penned and mailed have endured:
Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.
I saw the words on the roads in front of us, emblazoned on license plates and signs, and they’ve stuck, always on the hazy edge of consciousness. Live free or die. They’ve become my own motto.
I leave this year laden with memories. Despite difficulties, it’s been the best one of my life so far, because it’s the first year when I’ve felt fully alive.
Last year around this time, I stayed with a friend, watching cheesy horror movies, playing Apples to Apples, and seeing the ball drop. I made three goals: live without anti-depressants, write more, and blog.
All three succeeded.
I finally overcame anti-depressants in May, when I started growing a beard for each day I didn’t take them. Exercise, diet, meditation, supplements, and other lifestyle changes proved to be enough for me. I needed the medication to “unstick” but still, I felt it limiting my life as time went on. It limited my freedom, so I made the change.
That break, I started this blog on Jan. 2 with my first post: Backyard Philosophy. I immediately took to writing, working on a novel, short stories, memoir pieces, essays, and, of course this blog.
As the year wore on, more experiences gathered.
Mid January, I visited a Zen monastery to reflect on the past year. There, I found a new peace, forming enough of a foundation to finally begin my convalescence from depression. I wrote a bit more about that here, via a book review. After my stay, I told my mom “this was my true new year.”
As winter began its thaw, I found a new group of friends, rebuilt a creative writing club that had fallen apart, and strengthened the school philosophy club. One night, one of my friends stayed over in my room on campus. We watched a Japanese movie based on a Murakami novel and went for a walk beside the river.
It was a cold night, with dustings of snow on the ground and the dry grass stiffened by midnight frost. Above, in a clear sky, the stars glowed and trembled, like spilt nuggets of silver. The ridged spine of distant hills receded into the white and black, and a crescent moon rippled in the river.
It proved a moment of deep healing that I still hold.
Come summer, I started canoeing, loving how the land rolled by like a panorama and the sky held me in a pool of light hat beamed from the water around me. I then went to Egypt to teach English, where I “found my voice” amid the pulse of desert sands and its people. Then New York City, where I stayed with my brother. The city swamped me: art museums, clubs, bars, movies, bookstores, parks. I moved to the violent rhythms of an active life, as I tried to burn off my jet lag.
Back at school, I moved in with three other friends, applied to graduate schools, completed my thesis, acted in a play, completed 21 credits, worked in a soup kitchen, tutored ten students, entered essay contests, started my Honors’ Project, and had some great experiences.
Still, throughout those active times, I always made sure to take time to reflect and rest. The active moments were powerful, but so were the long hours I took wandering the woods and going into town to eat at a café and read, people watching through the glass. I turned off my cellphone and let the road take me.
“Build your cities on the slope of Vesuvius!” said Nietzsche, telling us to live dangerously. From context, it sounds absurd and foolhardy, just as New Hampshire’s motto sounds a bit extreme for the everyday American.
Both run contrary to our culture, as they stress us to live with a fullness and vigor that we normally take for excess, the ol’ “play hard, work hard” mentality. Instead, I hear such words to live with what nourishes us and do so with a conscious awareness of our life and freedom.
As Mark Twain said, “Most men die at 27, we just bury them at 72.” Often, our lives become reduced on many levels as we age. Pain is difficult to bear, or our various tasks–like work, chores, and paying bills–sap our vigor. We prefer stagnant certitudes over new experiences.
Even the adage, “Work heard play hard,” rests on a shallow surface. We may work and play “hard,” but how deep is our experience of either? At work are we merely earning earnings or truly earning a living? And at play, are we merely running from the weight of the work?
Thus, this past year becomes an important lesson for me about how to live the approaching year: live free or die. This May, I graduate. I look to it with trepidation and excitement. The rest of my life unfolds from that.
If I may borrow Nietzsche’s own words for the New Year:
Today everybody permits himself the expression of his wish and his dearest thought; hence I, too, shall say what it is that I wish from myself today, and what was the first thought to run across my heart this year – what thought shall be for me the reason, warranty, and sweetness of my life henceforth. I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth!