Rampant with Memory

David Hume on birthdays


David Hume (1711-1776) mausoleum
David Hume (1711-1776)

Eighteenth century philosoper David Hume learned he was dying and so within an hour wrote an essay called “My Own Life.” It begins with comments on age and the elements.

“Last night I dreamed about mercury — huge, shining globules of quicksilver rising and falling. Mercury is element number 80, and my dream is a reminder that on Tuesday, I will be 80 myself.”

Elements and birthdays were intertwined for him since boyhood, when he learned about atomic numbers.

“At 11, I could say “I am sodium” (Element 11), and now at 79, I am gold.”

All this spins me off in a couple directions–first, into the countenance of age; the measurement of human life and lively celebrations of birth.

We are all moving into mercury and many of us have already arrived. Some finish before; some go no further. And it’s common, these day, to smash the barrier into a higher number.

David Hume mused on mortality and perhaps so should each of us.  Because musing stops us dead, so to speak, allowing us to take stock of our own lives in a human–and Humean–fashion.

[As well as being an element, Mercury was the Roman god who escorted people into the Underworld.]

It also moves me toward philosophy itself. I have lightly, only lightly, studied it and pleasantly tangled myself into the cobwebs both as an adolescent and adult: two shockingly different ages and approaches to the discipline.

I want more time, always, to savour what I find. Reading philosophy requires slowing down mighty slow, slow like walking on the beach to a roar of water, or meditating high upon a solid cushion.

The art in the thought that is philosophy arrives as a gift. Hume knew this and offered it to us a handful of years before the French Revolution, when Europe leaned forward more deliberately onto the world stage and into history.

Tomorrow I turn 57. My birthday is July 14th: Bastille Day. I have always loved being a revolutionary baby–willing myself to storm the great walls obscuring my life.

Tomorrow I attain Lanthanum on the periodic table. This element means: To Lie Hidden. And for me, reading philosophy means rising up and stepping out from the cloud of sleep.

Tomorrow will be time to read philosophy.


Baby’s breath

“This baby is still alive!” said the doctor. He was talking about me.

Since yesterday was my birthday, I figure I can prolong the self-indulgence for one more day and tell the story of my birth. Partly because it’s a good story having to do with life and death. And partly because I want to address, in every way possible, the amazing responses I had to my birthday.

“You are loved everyday everywhere,” wrote Heather in the card she handed me, along with the tiny perfect box of Lindt chocolates, before we had even climbed from bed. That was only the beginning of a day abundant in best wishes.

But, still, this baby was almost not born those 52 years ago.

My mother was raced along emerg on a gurney, met at the elevator up to surgery by my father who overheard the admitting doctor’s astonished words and learned that the umbilical cord was tightly wrapped around my neck.

My mother wasn’t due for another two months. I was expected to drop into her lap around the time her four other kids headed off to school or wherever they went, sometimes only to the backyard climber or up the street to a neighbour’s.

But one hot July afternoon, as she sat on the front steps drinking a glass of lemon-aid while her kids were inside being babysat by Yosemite Sam, she felt the umbilical cord begin to slither out between her legs.

She called my father who called an ambulance. Maybe then she gulped her drink; maybe she even changed her drink. In any event, an hour later at Creditview Hospital in Toronto, I took a breath.

Back to yesterday: I was the astonished one this time. To be loved, everyday, everywhere, by so many who wished me well in person, through Canada Post, on voicemail, in email, and on Facebook.

It was a George Bailly day and thank you to friends, and to family, and to the doctor who met my mother that afternoon, who reached in and loosened the cord.

I also thank my father for still loving to tell that story of the alive-baby who became me.

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