It is a quirk of the calendar that autumn is a period of firsts in many respects. Traditionally, the season welcomes students to the first day of class, while for others it augers the beginning of a new job following the summer doldrums — or in one unique case, the passing of one’s royal mother.
But this isn’t about King Charles III or the end of the Elizabethan era. Rather, I want to give a bit of stoic encouragement to my gentle readers to seize each day as if it is the first (and only) day you’re given. As the ancient philosopher Epictetus wrote, “For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s life.” I love that he calls it the “art of living,” because how we build and prepare our day is eminently important to the beauty I hope that we can each create.
This notion of the first day is something that has been brought into stark resolution for me this past month. My husband and I live in Paris, and in an effort to inspire the world of possibilities into the next generation, we offer an all-expenses paid immersion into our daily life here in France to any of our nieces and nephews who enroll in college and succeed in their studies. To date, we’ve had four beneficiaries come and join us over the years, and this year another of our nieces arrived at the end of August to experience la vie en rose.
Having just graduated from fashion merchandising at a state college in Oregon, our niece had never been out of the United States and the idea of coming to the center of fashion and style was truly a dream come true for her. She has been documenting every moment of her visit, writing in her journal each evening all the “firsts” she’s had — whether trying escargot on her first day as we sat at one of our favorite Parisian cafes, or rabbit ragu at an Italian osteria in Milano during a quick long weekend visit via high-speed train (another first). During our conversations together as we wended our ways through the Palais Royal or the Luxembourg Gardens, I gently prodded her into pushing the boundaries of what is her comfort zone and to continue to try new things, listen to new music (she’s enjoying French rap), read about other subjects, and to consider how diverse stimuli can stir creativity and enrich our lives.
We’ve sat in the shade under carefully trimmed plane trees in view of Marie de Medici’s palace and people watched, savored a simple espresso in view of the magnificent Duomo, and had a thrill meandering through the Yves Saint Laurent museum. Of course, it is easy to opine about squeezing the beauty and vibrancy out of each day we’re given when living in a city like Paris, but she is starting to see how she is going to carry on when she returns to the United States in a few days. Now she is rethinking her assumptions about living out in the suburbs and wanting to try to find an apartment that is close to mass transit. While in the past she enjoyed taking strolls with her mom when she was home, now she understands that walking whenever possible is not only healthy but opens up the possibility of discovery and interaction that riding in a car can rarely provide.
The simple habits of life that can transform one’s perspective can be acquired at any age. She has commented on the significant difference in diet between America and France and is amazed that she can easily find healthy (and delicious) choices for a lunch and also reward herself with the occasional pastry delicacy. Changing the focus of the day to the art of living, instead of the American “work, eat, and sleep, repeat” model can be done in a myriad of tiny ways. It involves slowing down, putting away the iPhone for a bit, and enjoying moments of solitude even when amid a big city.
Today is a gift. It is all that we are assured of, and how we use it is up to us. Challenge yourself to break out of your routine and try something new. Maybe it is as mundane as driving a different route to the grocery store than you usually go or trying your hand at a new recipe. Be creative. It doesn’t have to be French snails.