Photo: Tressler.

The other day, I found myself in a characteristic mood: walking the streets, looking for lost philosophies. Scanning the morning skies for forgotten mantras, those cadences that once daily guided me. The surrounding skyscrapers, backlit by the rising sun, offered no hints. The other commuters, bustling by in their winter coats, though the air was mild, kept to themselves as usual.

What were these secret words that used to whisper to me? Fragrant, power sayings, the kind that get you out of bed and through the day, like marching orders of life. There were so many – I had a knack for calling upon them in times of need – and yet now they are gone, forgotten, stirring in me no more. Perhaps they have drifted along onto nearby rustling trees, falling to the next person in line, whose pursed lips are at this moment on the verge of uttering those very same old lines.

Rounding a corner of the Kuştepe neighborhood, where the university campus squats amid blocks of ramshackle buildings and tenement houses, I allow myself the solace that at least I am not without a mantra at present, or even a few of them. “Monday’s in the bag, take care of Tuesday,” always suffices in dealing with the deadness of routine. When navigating the classroom, at this tired point in the winter term I have that old tradelast, “Finals are on the way: it’s up to the students now, not you. Make them do the work!” And if all else fails, there’s always: “Hey, it’s just Prep. This term shall pass, as will the next one, the next one, and all the ones after. This too, shall pass.” Etc, etc.

I’ve been accused of having a busy mind – and a dramatic mind by others – and the above perhaps is sufficient proof. And it is true too that I often talk to myself (“thinking aloud,” is how I describe it), and so it is highly likely that passersby here in Istanbul look askance as they encounter this yabanci shuffling through the morning streets muttering to himself and peering at the skies anxiously.


The thing is, I have never had a guiding philosophy – a permanent, all-encompassing one. Sure, I’ve scanned the old-timers a bit. Emerson and Thoreau, with their rustic, rural admonishments about self-reliance and simplicity, had a sparseness that was for a time suitable to a young man living all on his own in Northern California in mid- to late-1990s.

It was comforting to apply Thoreau’s nature-oriented entreaties to the redwoods and isolated Pacific beaches. But as I did not wish to be a hermit in some shack outside Rio Dell, and longed to have a bit of female companionship, I soon wearied of these monastic theories of life. They seemed too pale, ascetic for my taste.

Later, Voltaire’s “Candide,” in which the meaning of life is described as “tending one’s garden,” had a faintly gleaming appeal. It suggested attractive rows of rosebushes and gently swaying orchids, that life could somehow ultimately be a pleasant affair if one only worked at it. So I spent my late twenties tending my garden, so to speak, which meant finally finishing university, getting a job as a reporter at a daily newspaper and even playing a bit of jazz trumpet on the side. That, I supposed, was my garden: writing and playing music.

That was until my thirties hit, and I had grown bored of this garden. I longed to travel. So I desperately latched onto, “You’ve spent a lot of time making good decisions, so you owe it to yourself to make a few bad ones,” a risky bit of mountebank wisdom that propelled me from America to Prague, and later, Istanbul. That fine mantra sat with me in some of Europe’s finest pubs and beer gardens, and some other less splendid places, like the long flat border between Turkey and Bulgaria, where I had to pay a fine for overstaying my visa and languish on a bus for hours and hours through endless bag and passport checks.

My forties raced by, a blur of marrying and settling down, of domesticity, and work. I had no need for philosophies – we had Netflix, and streaming. When in doubt, just find something to binge and forget about it all. Rewatch the third season of “Mad Men” and all is well. Then circumstances forced me into finding a proper teaching job at the university, then our son Leo came along, not to mention the revealing brushstroke of fifty, half a century old, and tasked with teaching students who were not even born when I started teaching, who cheekily presume that before the Internet people lived in caves, and not even Plato’s, which at least provided shadow binge-watching for existential amusement, but plain old caves. In this damp, poor light, one can find solace in the fact that they too will not always be young.


Fortunately, at age 50 I still write and play music, even with a wife and 3-year-old son, and a proper job as a university teacher. Something about the advent of middle age and fatherhood, and the responsibilities of teaching, produced in me a greater urgency, a more profound need, for these mantras, these little day-to-day philosophies, changes in outlook to negotiate the kaleidoscopic cityscape of the inner and outer souls, those within and without this great city. Not just the traffic and inflation, the commutes and crowds, but also the constant “change in the weather of the spirit,” as I think Baudelaire wrote. Istanbul is a wonderful city in many ways, but it is also a very demanding and tiring one, with some 15 million-plus souls all residing in this patchwork quilt of villages slapped atop a series of hills competing for the gaze of our fair mistress, the Bosphorus.

Lately, I’ve been nursing the tendrils of the spirit, casting about for these fine and forgotten philosophies, as I say. Thus, one could say that the duties of my present situation command me to reverse the order of that old Prague mantra: a few good decisions are in order.

Anyway, one reaches this point when everything forward seems to be an anticlimax, a simple repetition of days, months and years, when all things exciting and romantic have passed to the young, the encroaching feeling that one’s best days are behind them. Of course, there is our son, Leo, and we pray that his best days lie ahead as well, and that means that ours do as well. Maybe that’s something to work with, the idea that now is the time to focus on your child, the home and the teaching, the writing, even the music. To not fuss about the days gone by, or to worry how many are left. Maybe the thing to do is, in my case anyway, circle back to that philosophy of my youth, of Voltaire. The thing to do is to tend one’s garden. The difference this time being, to tend it well.


James Tressler is a former Lost Coast resident and journalist. He now lives and writes in Istanbul.