Scale back your long hopes
to a short period. While we
speak, time is envious and
is running away from us.
Seize the day, trusting
little in the future.
Horace, 65 BCE
My dad’s death in 2002 seemed to trigger a cascade of tragedies around me. By the time I hit my early 20s, I had attended something like half a dozen funerals for friends and family. (I used to keep an exact count going, but it started to feel like a morbid way to track my life experiences.)
Attending half a dozen funerals as a young adult seemed quite unusual, especially when compared to my peers’ experiences. After a while, I just got used to it. I had my go-to funeral garb at the ready. I learned that I’d rather attend a service than a wake. I also got to practice my funnygirl routine for all the kids forced to attend—but too young to fully understand—the event.
Attending funerals with such frequency gave me a sense of impermanence about my life and the lives of others. For years, relationships felt fleeting, and I counted on not being able to count on people to stick around (in any capacity). At one point in time, I felt so paralyzed by my fear of death that I convinced myself that everyone would eventually leave me. I convinced myself that I shouldn’t waste so much effort on the here and now when tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.
This soon shifted into an overwhelming pressure to seize the day—to make my moments count because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.
I was often reminded of Robin Williams’ poignant moment in Dead Poets’ Society, when he, playing English teacher, John Keating, tells his students…
We are food for worms, lads. Believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die.
He references Robert Herrick’s poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of time” that begins with:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
And he continues to promote this carpe diem mindset as the scene continues.
Now, I’m not here to give you a poetry lesson. If I tried, I’d have a hard time explaining well-known carpe diem poems without pointing out that many of them detail the fleeting nature of life in order to get into someone’s pants, like in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” And I’m certainly here to write about more than just having sex before it’s too late (even though Marvell makes some solid points about the subject—just saying).
What I’m trying to point out, however, is that this is where my intentional living mindset started. This feeling of impermanence as a young adult started an ongoing and ever-evolving trend of purpose, intention, and mindfulness.
I didn’t really become aware of my shift in mindset until I had a conversation with a college friend. The semester was ending, and I had just found out I was moving to Virginia. My friend and I were talking about the eventual ends in life. If friends are destined to lose touch through physical distance, shouldn’t they just cut ties prematurely, in anticipation? Moreover, if we know our eventual end, why waste time with the middle?
I told her that the middle is what this is all about. If you’re constantly looking too far ahead and only see what you may lose, you’ll never enjoy the time spent in the middle. You’ll miss out on so much that you’ll never be able to appreciate those middle moments that can make life worthwhile.
If I can get away with one more poetry reference, it has to be from “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz. In the poem, the speaker is struggling to continue on his path when faced with loss, but he says, “I turn… / with my will intact to go / wherever I need to go / and every stone on the road precious to me.” He reminds us to “live in the layers / not on the litter.”
Live in the layers, not on the litter.
Live in the middle, not in the end.
We’re made up of impermanent, raw, unfinished layers.
Moment to moment to moment.
Photograph © Primate Wrangler Some Rights Reserved