Go on – take at your Pinterest board, at the magnets on your fridge, at the coffee mugs replicating like rabbits in your cupboard: I reckon there is at least one version of Carpe Diem in the lot. Scattered about in forms tangible and virtual are quotes admonishing you to live life to fullest, every day, for you never know when it may be your last. Me? I’ve got Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever ~ Mahatma Gandhi tacked to a bulletin board; scribbled on the inside cover of my writing practice notebook is Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life ~ Seneca.
But sometimes, no – most of the time – that’s just more ambition than I’m capable of sustaining. In my mind, I’m the high achiever who plans to climb Kilimanjaro and pursue an MFA and march on Washington in favor of stricter gun access laws. But in practice, I’m made of simpler stuff. The thought of living at full throttle wears me out. It makes me a little sad. Maybe I will die tomorrow, but today the laundry needs folding, the car insurance is due, I’m fretting about work, my weight, my 401k. Does a life more ordinary mean a life less lived?
And hey, didn’t Nero force Seneca to commit suicide? Maybe our favorite Roman Stoic jumped the shark with his pithy advice.
There are times – usually accompanied by a quiet peace or a ripple of endorphins – that my quotidian experience achieves a Technicolor apex. These are not epic events, but simple episodes when I focus my awareness within the moment at hand. It is wrapping a cane around a fruiting wire in a Waipara Valley vineyard with the sun warming my scalp and the Southern Alps throwing shadows across the afternoon; it is mile four of a long run, when my legs finally discover their rhythm; it is the sizzle in the pan and the swirl of aromas as minced onions and butter meet as I create art for the belly and the soul; it is conversing in French without searching for the correct verb tense; it is losing myself in laughter with a friend; it is that wrung out and hung out feeling after a good day of writing, knowing that I moved aside and allowed the characters find their way.
Nothing monumental, just a sense of doing and being as I’m meant to at that moment.
I also know when I’m at far remove from these interludes, when I’m removed from myself. My friend Will, lighting yet another of those cigarettes that eventually killed him, would drawl in his South Carolina-thick French, “Julie, j’ai le cafard. J’ai le blues.” He would confess his melancholy when work was getting him down. I knew he dreamed of opening an antiques store on the Maryland coast; he lived long enough to realize that dream. Not as long as he should have, but he had his moment.
My blues – that cafard, that cockroach of ennui – come when I spend my time and energy on things which are necessary but not fulfilling. Or on things which are unnecessary, but pleasantly distracting. In both instances, I turn away from that which makes me feel challenged and complete, either because I must – the car insurance has to be paid, yes, it does – or because I am too afraid or too lazy to leave behind the easy affirmation and pursue a lonelier path.
But I can’t Carpe Diem every single bloody day, can I?
No, but I can beat back the encroaching cafard which refuses to die. I can start every single day on the page.
I’ve struggled with the words these past weeks. I’ve resisted, procrastinated, meandered, despaired, dilly-dallied, denied, tarried, equivocated, prevaricated. I’ve been very busy doing everything but what I most want to. I’m not sure entirely why this is – it’s not writer’s block, unless one counts blocking one’s own way with dilatory tactics and self-doubt. However I knocked myself so far out of my groove, I’m working, slowly, to knock myself back in.
I hit a manuscript milestone a couple of weeks ago: 50, 000 words. That felt like something. I’m now filling in scenes that were half-starts, completing characters’ stories; I’m even thinking, 50,000 words in, that an outline might come in handy. I realized at 50k that my rough draft goal of 78,000 words was too modest, so I upped it. Perhaps I can put off that outline for another 10k or so.
I’m further along than I thought I would be at this point. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m losing ground, that I keep waiting for life to be just a bit more conducive to my creativity before committing wholly to my story again. I know the answer to that. I know my story is just waiting for me to return.
Here’s a William Saroyan favorite to end with a little platitudinal dissonance:
“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
Most days, I think the best I can do is try to be alive, with a smidgen extra: to laugh and to move, to listen and to look outside of myself. And to write.