Marcus Aurelius is in my thoughts tonight as I write this meditation. Recently I had my first visit to the barbers since the long lockdown ended. When the barber had finished my haircut and beard trim, I checked my face in the reflection in the large mirror in front of me. It looked a little like Marcus himself. Reflected in the mirror, I seemed to look more like him than in my photo at the top of this blog.
At last, after nearly sixty meditations, it is time to explain the origin of that blog photo. I am going to come clean. The photo was not taken in the ruins of Rome, but in front of a black scenery flat in my Drama studio. I wasn’t wearing a Roman toga either but a white sheet draped over my shoulders to look like one. The inspiration for the pose was partly statues of Marcus himself, which I had seen on visits to Rome, but more specifically a bust of the emperor Hadrian, Marcus’ great-uncle. Several years earlier, I had been to an exhibition at the British Museum about Hadrian and brought home a postcard of a striking black and white photo of the marble profile of the emperor. The postcard gave me the inspiration for the image for my blog and it gave my photographer an idea of the image I wanted.
Our image of Marcus is somewhat idealised, coming from statues which were meant to flatter the Emperor. However, statues or busts of emperors were more realistic by his reign (161-180 CE) than those of the earliest Caesars. In all of the statues or busts I have seen of Marcus, his hair and beard are not as close cut as mine are. Recently a statue of him has been discovered in Ryedale in North Yorkshire. It looks quite primitive compared with the elegant ones I have seen in Rome and was probably carved by Roman settlers. However the beard and hair are unmistakable and there is writing underneath confirming that it is Marcus and not Hadrian, though it could be him as he ordered the building of the famous Wall that bears his name to mark the perimeter of the Roman province of Britannia. The Wall is situated further North from Ryedale,
I find it interesting that the lives of Marcus and myself are once again in some small way connected. I was born officially in North Yorkshire before the area where I was brought up became Teesside and then Cleveland. And now a statue of Marcus has been unearthed in North Yorkshire. He never visited there of course but he did stay in Pannonia, which is now Hungary, on his military campaigns. I have also spent time in Hungary leading my school Drama tours and I mentioned in a previous blog that coins bearing his image have been found in the Buda Hills on the outskirts of Budapest. I did not know any of this before launching this blog in Autumn 2018, with his Meditations as my inspiration. So the connections are quite uncanny. I would love to play him in a play or a movie. For the moment, however, I’ll settle for this blog. I definitely need to re-read him – another one for my retirement bucket list!
Perhaps when I was looking at my reflection in the barber’s chair the other day, I was idealising myself. Or was I seeing just a glimmer of Marcus in myself? I hope there is at least a glimmer of him in these meditations.
We sometimes have an image of ourselves in our mind’s eye, don’t we? Hopefully it is a positive rather than a negative one. This self-image can change depending upon the circumstances we find ourselves in. It will never be the whole truth about ourselves, but hopefully not completely false either. Moreover, to believe in a false image of oneself and try to live up to it could spell disaster, or would at least be a huge ego trip. I am sure we could name quite a few celebrities who have fallen into that trap (not least the last incumbent of the White House). We need our friends and family to shatter that false image, not bolster it. I have had those moments once or twice in my life and fortunately for me, close friends have coaxed me back to reality.
I have also had my delusions of grandeur when preparing productions. It is important to have expansive ideas when directing a play and some kind of creative vision for the production. These have usually come to me away from school (at home or on my travels or even sitting in a theatre). But the reality of being back in the drama studio, my classroom, would soon make me pare down some of my ideas to fit my young and inexperienced cast (and the small budget!). I remember a colleague, who had trained as an actress, once told me she was amazed at the number of productions we managed to stage over the academic year: usually three as well as re-staging of two on the Hungary Drama tour, the practical exams (which involved staging scenes) and the House Drama competition. She said that the department was like the National Theatre, staging one show after another. It was a great compliment. I must confess that there were a few moments when I thought I was running a mini-National Theatre and forgot about the rest of the school!
I have the impression that Marcus was above self image. In his ‘Meditations’ he describes himself as ‘a male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler.’ He does not mention his official title of Emperor. His ‘Meditations’ were no ego-trip, in fact the title of the first printed edition (in 1559) was ‘To Himself’. From his ‘Meditations’ we can see that he is looking at himself to see his faults and failings in an attempt to rectify them; and to reflect upon and use his experience of life to primarily teach himself. But of course, he is also teaching others who read his book, although whether he intended others to read his Meditations is unclear.
Marcus was very much aware of his friends and family (alive and dead) as is evident from the very first chapter, his first meditation if you like. There he gives a list of the family members, friends and tutors whom he admires and he also lists what he has learnt from them and would like to emulate in his own life: ‘From my grandfather, Verus, decency and a mild temper’ for example. I mentioned this in one of my own earliest meditations.
In that early blog I recalled that I was once in Paris (heaven knows when that will happen again) and having a miserable day, exploring the city or rather, my mid-life crisis at that time. I found myself in Montmartre and wandered into the medieval church of St Pierre de Montmartre. It is the oldest church in Montmartre and has been restored. Its ancient walls have been cleaned up so they are a pristine grey. I remember sitting in a quiet side chapel. At one end was a beautiful stained glass window of a modern abstract design. It stood out because it seemed incongruous in its medieval, Gothic setting. The window was a blaze of different colours as the sun shone through. Gazing at the window, I was reminded of my family and friends, each one a pane of glass, a different colour and shape, individual, yet somehow linked to me, just as each pane of glass is
essential to the overall design of the window. It was a great comfort to me then and as I recall it, it is now.
I could only appreciate the overall design of the window in its intricacy and vibrant colours because I was sitting at a distance from it, of course. A stained glass window is never seen at its best close-up. To some extent we have all been sitting at a distance from friends and loved ones because of the restrictions of the last year. At times we may have felt that physical distance acutely. It may have been palpable or, in our darkest thoughts, almost insurmountable. I am reminded of the old adage: absence makes the heart grow fonder. It is the physical distance of absence that helps us to appreciate others more and to realise how much they mean to us and how much we miss them. There have been occasions in this last year when I have been able to experience the ‘stained glass window’ effect in my moments of loneliness. Perhaps after a phone call or zoom or even just a text I have been able to see the other person as a bright colourful pane within the design of my own window. And there have been rare moments when I have seen in my mind’s eye the whole window itself in its intricate design and varied hues and have once again appreciated how essential my friends are in my life, different as they are.
I hope that you have experienced the ‘stained glass window’ effect too, in the last months, and, like me, will remember it, and carry it with you as we hopefully move on from lockdown.
Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!
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