What great fools we are! 'He has spent his life in idleness,' we say. 'I haven't done a thing today.' - What! Have you not lived? That is not only the most basic of your employments, it is the most glorious. - 'I would have shown them what I can do, if they had set me to manage some great affair.' - If you have been able to examine and manage your own life you have achieved the greatest task of all. Nature, to display and show her powers, needs no great destiny: she reveals herself equally at any level of life, both behind curtains or without them. Our duty is to bring order to our morals not to the materials of a book: not to win provinces in battle but order and tranquility for the conduct of our life. Our most great glorious achievement is to live our life fittingly. Everything else—reigning, building, laying up treasure—are at most tiny props and small accessories.
I passed a monumental milestone in my life this past Tuesday. On that day I was exactly the age my mother was when she died.
As far as milestones go, it was almost certainly the most significant of my existence. There really isn't anything, as far as I can tell, that compares, or that will compare. If I become a bazillion-selling author, it still will not compare. If I live to 110, it still will not compare. This was the Everest of milestones. There are none higher.
Standing over her grave just after her funeral, I promised her that if I got the opportunity to outlive her--if I got to live beyond her age when she died--that I hoped I would be by that point still worthy to be called her son.
Well, I passed that point this last Tuesday. Am I still worthy to be called her son?
I'm not a rich man; in fact, I am utterly penniless. But she wouldn't have cared about that.
I'm not a man of status or power. That wouldn't have mattered to her either.
With a few glitches, I still have my health. That would have mattered to her.
With a few glitches, I have held to what she taught me, and what the example of her own life taught me. That would have mattered a great deal to her.
In 1998 I decided to change my name to Shawn Michel de Montaigne. I did it because my family, the Helberts, disowned me in 1990. I gave them two more chances to get things right, one in 1995, the last in 1998. Two more chances out of tens of thousands that they had prior to 1990, and which they absolutely did not deserve.
I didn't go through all the legal channels to have my name "officially" changed. I didn't feel the need. What a piece of paper may or may not say has no bearing in comparison to what I feel in my heart. Besides, changing your name, if you are a man, is very difficult to do in this country (America). Difficult--and expensive. And that's assuming the name-change is approved by the court. Oftentimes, it isn't. And you're still out of all that cash.
I was disowned in 1990 because I demanded the family Christmas party I was expected to attend be free of alcohol. My siblings and my father and his new wife were (and are still) alcoholics.
It was no contest. Alcohol wins every time.
It was no contest. Alcohol wins every time.
Mom had died six years earlier. My siblings used to smoke pot around her--even though doing so would make her very sick. They stole from her to support their habits. They puked in the halls and bathrooms and would not clean it up. And when she protested, they'd berate and abuse her, often to the point that she'd need hospitalization afterward.
I resisted changing my name not because of them, but because of her. I struggled enormously with what she would think of me if I did such a thing. She was buried, after all, with her married name--Kathleen C. Helbert. But in every relevant sense she was no Helbert, who rank, even to this day, as the nastiest people I have ever known--and that includes the extended monsters--the cousins and uncles and aunts and stepmothers and whatnot.
I don't think of myself as a Helbert, and haven't for almost twenty years. I think of myself as a Montaigne. If I am forced to use my legal name, say, at a health clinic or dealing with the government, I use Helbert, but it feels foreign to me, and when it rolls off my tongue, I feel sullied. I'm not a Helbert. I stopped being one October 25, 1984--the day Mom died. It took fourteen more years for me to have the courage to see that, and what that implied, and call myself Montaigne, and move on.
I chose Montaigne because Michel Eyquem de Montaigne I consider my spiritual father. I have read his Essays numerous times, cover to cover, and have been transcribing them now for almost eighteen years. He was a profoundly moral and decent man, a great and original thinker who has influenced millions, and whose quote above I consider the cornerstone quote of my life. He wrote it while dying of "the stone," which were kidney stones, and which didn't have a treatment back in the sixteenth century.
His words have been a far greater influence on me than the hateful, drunken bully and lout that was my adopted father; and as for my birth father, he doesn't even know I exist. I was the result of a one-night stand.
(He may not even be alive anymore. I don't know; and I don't care to know.)
My birth mother would have made a perfect Helbert, if you're wondering. I met her in 1991. She's cruel, willfully ignorant, manipulative, a slave to her passions and the worst of culture, a moronic and self-absorbed fundamentalist, a shrew, a nag, and a hag.
And those are her good qualities.
As I said, a perfect Helbert.
Mom, despite her flaws, the worst of which was a continuing, blind, blanket denial of the rottenness of four of her five children and her ex-husband, was no Helbert. She was too much of a rebel. For that my siblings and her ex-husband called her "crazy."
I'm certain that's how they view me today.
I'm good with that.
The starlight is now older to me than it was for her. I've seen more of it. The days are without signposts. The highway ended Tuesday. The way ahead is wild and uncharted.
Wisdom doesn't necessarily come with age. I know this because I've seen far too many examples of total foolishness from too many people my age and older, many of whom hold themselves up as very wise. They aren't.
No, wisdom comes from soulfulness--from the uncompromising courage it takes to become, more and more, who you were meant to be on this Earth. And the truth is, few people bother. I've been around long enough to know that for a fact.
Montaigne's cornerstone quote is my reminder to always seek that soulfulness, to bring order to my morals and tranquility in the conduct of my life. It isn't nearly as easy or as common as it sounds. Please believe me on this one point if you believe me at all anywhere else in this essay. In this day and age especially, the trite, the shallow, the moronic, the selfish, and the rotten hold almost absolute power in almost every aspect and avenue of our common lives. Montaigne, I am certain, did not write that passage with any notion that it would someday become revolutionary, either on a personal or a societal scale. But it has.
I am a Montaigne. And this is my revolution.
Dad would be proud of me.
Dad would be proud of me.
I know Mom would.