Earlier this week, I had a recollection of this scene from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”. I love this movie for many reasons, but mostly for this scene, just near the end. Woody, as Isaac, brings up one of my favorite questions: What makes life worth living? Mostly, I love this question because it gives me a chance to be grateful for all the good things in my life. But sometimes I love this question because it gives me hope. It reminds me of discovery, the discovery of yet another thing that makes life worth living that you would have never thought about.
As Woody says, there are certain things that make life worthwhile. Were I to list my own, they would include Gershwin, one of the reasons I love the movie. Monet’s Water Lilies, Monty Python, a brand new journal. The smell of Jergens lotion and mandarin orange spice tea. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Emily Dickinson’s poems. Bruises. A really good meatball sub. Waking up early and sitting on the front porch. The promise of laughter. Birds chirping. Peanut m&ms. Christmas afternoon. All the glorious little things.
Lately, I’ve been having difficulties deciding whether or not I like the days I’m having. I think I like them. I think they’re good days. I know that I am happy in them. But really, if I think about it, are they good? And if they are, what makes them so?
All of this may come from the honest fact that I am always affected by the books I read. I’ve just finished The Hours by Michael Cunningham, about one day in the life of three women, including Virginia Woolf. It’s a beautiful book, one that I truly enjoyed. There is a great deal of loss in the book, and sadness, but also memories and love and happiness. I didn’t love all of it, but I liked most of it. The characters in the book have such a sense of melancholy about them that I feel as though I have projected some of that melancholy onto myself.
I know that I am happy. I am not so good an actress that someone would not have noticed my unhappiness by now. But still: what is a good day? Why do we say with a sigh of contentment, after we’ve had one, “Well. That was a good day.” There is something pure in a good day that gives us that kind of calm, restful feeling.
Annie Dillard said, “Spend the day. You can’t take it with you.” But how can I tell if I am in fact spending my days? I sleep, I wake up, I eat, I go to class, I talk with friends, I complain about the lack of vanilla pudding in the caf, I do my homework, I sleep again. But am I actually spending my day? Or I am just going through the motions?
How can one tell if one is actually living? There are the vital signs—breath, heartbeat, brain function. But what exactly constitutes a life well lived? People are always saying, “This is the good life”, or “he lived a good life.” But what, exactly, makes a good life? Surely he, or she, also ate and slept and breathed and complained and had joys and fears. But where does the good happen?
To answer this myself, the good happens between all this. The good is when there is finally vanilla pudding for dinner, or a small child takes your hand of their own free will. The good is the shivers when listening to a thunderstorm, and the giggles when you find your roommates on the floor of the bathroom, unable to get up and move on with those things that we’re told we’re supposed to do. The good happens unexpectedly, it sneaks up on you. One day, many times over, you realize that the life you are living is perfect. It is full. It is whole. It is everything you ever wanted it to be and more. And when you feel as though it falls a little short, you remember the good days that have come before, and you feel certain that good days will follow after. Somewhere, there is always sunshine. There is always laughter, there is always vanilla pudding. The memories of the days spent well carry you on the days that feel earned. Even when you can’t pinpoint an exact date of doing what you loved for a whole day, you remember the feeling of fullness. I remember going to sleep when I’m tired and satisfied, full of smiles, full of wonder. Those days are the days that make life worth living. Because those memories of those days make all the tomorrows all the more promising.
“Today is good. Today is fun. Tomorrow is another one.” –Dr. Seuss
Look to this day
for it is life
the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all
the realities and truths of existence
the joy of growth
the splendor of action
the glory of power.
For yesterday is but a memory
And tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived
makes every yesterday a memory
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day…–Sanskrit