25 Jun 2012
James Joyce (above, with Nora Barnacle on the day of their wedding) once remarked that the government should pay him to live, just because he knew how to do it well, or something to that effect. It’s a diverting suggestion. Few people seem to have mastered, or attempted to master, the art of living, so I have more than a grain of sympathy for the kind of overblown statement that is attributed to Joyce.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to offer suggestions as to how one might live well; in the best of cases, one can seem like a benevolent dictator making subjective decrees. At worst, one seems like a tyrant telling people what to do without concern for individual proclivities. (From whence, I think, Karl Lagerfeld’s notion of “good taste” being so very bourgeois: It’s so very stultifying to have someone tell you that you must have TWO antique Foo Dogs on your mantle, don’t you think?)
But many, from Marcus Aurelius to Lucia van der Post have managed to navigate these potentially unfriendly waters with great success. Aurelius’ ruminations rise to philosophy. For some of our more contemporary thinkers (and livers) of the good life, scribblings are filed under “lifestyle,” with all the frivolousness that the word implies.
Lucia VDP is often referred to as a “style arbiter.” Yet, she herself views her work as a field guide to “living well.” In her words,
Of all the things I’ve learned, it is that grace and generosity of spirit are essential ingredients to the well-lived life. They add a certain elegance to the most mundane encounter, let alone to life’s more major dramas. I don’t mean elegance of the merely superficial kind —though that, too, is not without its charms. I mean the sort of elegance that, if we looked into it, we would discover is rooted in some kind of moral code.
I’ve learned that small things can make a lot of difference. Having family and friends we love and care about is all that most of us need to wake up with a smile. If we can then add some graceful flourishes to that sound foundation — if we can look good, feel well, enjoy our leisure, create a home that’s filled with peace and some well-chosen decorative touches, good food that doesn’t break one’s back to serve, flowers, books, and wine — we’re almost there.
Though LVDP may not say it, the flourishes with which she is so concerned express the moral code of the “essential ingredients.” Living well — knowing how to spend your time, which food will sustain your family’s body and soul, which traditions are worth embracing, how to determine if something is well-made and therefore worth your money (not just sheets, but these sheets), pursuing skills like gardening or painting — is something that makes us feel good, but also, by dint of this definition, makes our communities stronger, too. It’s a refinement of living. It’s the definition of true luxury. And you don’t need oodles of cash (even if it is coming from the government) to live it.