Posts Tagged ‘carpe diem’

As long-time readers of my blog might recall, at the end of April every year I write about my mother as a way to remember the anniversary of her death.

I was kind of on the fence about writing about her this year. I didn’t really know what I wanted to say. It’s been a long time.

It’s interesting because after someone dies, it doesn’t mean your relationship with them comes to a full stop. You still carry on with it, only it exists in your own head instead of in the outside world, for the most part. Anyway, my relationship with my mom has been a bit turbulent this last year. I think that’s a good thing, but it does leave me feeling a bit more ambivalent than I might otherwise feel.

But then I got an email this afternoon announcing the sudden death of a colleague of mine. She was fine, in good health. I saw her two weeks ago. She was hit by a bike while taking a walk one morning early this week, and she received a head injury, and that was it. She never woke up.

I don’t want to offer you platitudes. I don’t want to offer myself those platitudes either.

Sudden death, or really any kind of death, makes you consider what is actually important.


Living every day as though it’s your last sounds great but is really bad advice. We can’t actually do that. If you think about an agrarian society, for example, if everyone lived as if today was the last day, no one would bother to work the fields. Why would they? And then everyone would starve to death unless they lived in the type of climate where you can gather enough on a day-to-day basis to survive.

In other words, living every day as if it’s the last limits focus too severely.

But you can think about what matters to you and try to spend at least some time and focus on that every day. Sometimes it might only be a little bit. Sometimes it might be more.

The trick is, we don’t want to subsume ourselves to the fear of loss. We don’t want to become the captive to the idea that there might not be a tomorrow, that today is everything, that failures can’t be followed by successes, that there will never be another chance, that if you don’t give everything today, you may lose what you care about tomorrow. The fear of death can keep you so tightly in a cage.

So where does that leave us?

I was talking to my friend on the phone today, and I asked him what I should write about for this blog post. He gamely came up with a bunch of ideas, all of which I rejected, and we went on to talk about other things. And of course, it’s one of those other things I would like to write about.

We were talking about Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar acceptance speech last year. I hadn’t seen it, but after hearing my friend talk about how it had been a little bit out there, I checked it out after I got off the phone. I don’t want to talk about the part of the speech that was out there, though. I want to talk about something he said before that part.

He said he wanted to thank his mother because she had taught him and his brothers to respect themselves. And he’s realized that respecting himself made it a lot easier to respect others.


So today that’s what I have for you. Love, yes, Connection, yes. But also one way to achieve those things in a healthy way: respect. Self respect first, and then from a true respect that lives deep within us will come respect for those around us. And with respect comes empathy and kindness and empowerment. That’s what I think is important.

I wish my mother had taught me that, the way Matthew McConaughey’s mother taught him. But she didn’t, and that’s okay. Luckily we can search for other teachers, and sometimes we can teach ourselves things instead. And here we are.

We can’t determine how long we get to live. And we can’t control how long the people around us get to live either. But for me, trying to cultivate inner respect is a way out of the trap that is fear, and then I can focus on how I really want to be living for the time I do have.

Happy April, Mom. Thanks for this time.

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“How do you build up confidence?” he asked.

I gave him some of my general advice, and then I had an inspiration. “Or, just pretend you’re a rock star because that will be way more fun.”

I love this thought experiment so much. It doesn’t really matter what form it takes. You can pretend you are a rock star, or a movie star, or a famous opera singer, or a Bohemian poet, or a tragic romantic figure, or that you’re leading a literary life (substitute that adjective as needed), or that you’re the type of person who is going to have ridiculous memoirs to write when you’re ninety years old. The point isn’t the exact shape the thought experiment takes, but rather, using your imagination to get out of your own head.

The trick is to get out of your normal mode of thinking. Instead of thinking, “What would I do in this situation?,” I think, “What would rock star Amy do?” And then I do the rock star way, pretending like it’s actually what I’d do and ignoring any resulting discomfort as much as possible.

So how I am leading my rock star life?

Well, because I’m a rock star, heads turn when I enter a room. I’m allowed to wear fabulous and eccentric clothes as much as I want. And I’m charming, and people generally enjoy meeting me and are interested in hearing what I have to say. And I can go and strike up conversations with random people without it being a big deal. Whatever, I’m a rock star.

Because I’m a rock star, I generally get to do what I want. I’m not afraid to ask or put myself on the line. And when something really sucks, I speak up or I move on. When someone isn’t treating me respectfully, I just walk away. Because I’m a rock star, so I don’t have time for that shit.

Sometimes I am also a super hero with a secret identity and everything.

Sometimes I am also a super hero, with a secret identity and everything.

Because I’m a rock star, I can try new things and be fearless. My self-esteem doesn’t ride on my success or failure. I feel good about myself, so it doesn’t matter if I’m bad at something when I start out, even when other people feel the need to vocally judge me. Instead I can enjoy the satisfaction of the challenge.

Because I’m a rock star, I can say absurd things in conversation and then stare the other person in the eye and dare them not to find it funny. And if they don’t find it funny, I laugh anyway.

Because I’m a rock star, I stay up late and I sleep in late and I don’t cook unless I feel like it. I can find instant oatmeal and peanut butter toast glamorous when in the right mood. I have dance parties in my kitchen, anthems that I talk about incessantly on Twitter, and I proudly make brownies from a mix because they’re damned good.

Because I’m a rock star, I never have to apologize for who I am. And I don’t care if you like me because hey, I am who I am. Instead I celebrate myself.

Because I’m a rock star, I can walk in a room where I know no one. I can stand in a crowd and not have to talk to someone every single second. I can afford to not hide behind my phone. I can smile a small, amused smile and watch the world turn until I choose to engage.

Because I’m a rock star, I get to go to live concerts and plays and museums and clubs and dances. I get to travel and see new places and learn new things. I get to write and dance and sing and spill out my heart and soul for you in characters on a computer screen, and I get to be nostalgic about ink.

Because I’m a rock star, I get to surround myself with other rock stars, people who have passion and dreams and ambition and gratitude. People who don’t ask me to shrink down a few sizes but who take up their own space just as I do. People who love and laugh and have accidental adventures on a Sunday afternoon. People who are both fascinating and fascinated and love to laugh. Imperfect people, yes, but imperfect people who don’t take their lives for granted.

Here’s my secret: I’m not really a rock star. But when I pretend to be a rock star, all the above things are true anyway. Because when you pretend something long enough, after a while it stops feeling pretend, and instead it simply feels like you.

So if you want to become more confident, give it a shot. Pretend to be a rock star, and see if you can find the freedom to be yourself.

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On Tuesday, Robert Jackson Bennett and I started following each other on Twitter, and we chatted a bit, the way two writers on Twitter are wont to do. He mentioned that he wanted to write a blog post about his anxieties about death at some point, and I encouraged him to do so in spite of his reluctance. In fact, I said if he wrote the post, I would write about it too.

I kind of didn’t think he would do it. But he wrote this beautiful post, which is very much worth your time.

So. Here we are. And I have to keep a promise to write about death.

I’ve been afraid of death since I was eleven years old. At that time, my mom was clinically depressed, and she was suicidal. Death, I understood, could come at any time, and it was very, very real. All of my questions about death, all of my uncertainties, came with the very high stakes of immediate relevancy.

I hear that teenagers have this period of time in their development when they think they’re invincible. I never had that. I knew I could die. I knew life was an appallingly fragile thing, and I knew tomorrow might devastate me, leaving a hollow scream where my heart had once been. I knew tomorrow might never come.

I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I tried anyway, of course. I watched for signs of imminent doom. I learned to read people. I was inconveniently present. I sang “Candle on the Water” over and over. I never let my mom leave the house or go to sleep without telling her I loved her. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough. But it was all I could do.

When you live like that for long enough, it changes you. By the time my mom died of cancer eight years later, I had formed an intimate relationship with death and uncertainty. And one way this anxiety about death manifests itself is in my relationship with time.

You see, I never feel like I have enough time. Surprisingly enough, this hasn’t resulted in me being a workaholic or dashing around an overscheduled life. What it does mean is that I’m very aware of the passing of time, and I care about doing what’s important to me right now, or as soon as possible to right now.

It also means I hate wasting time doing things I don’t think are important. I don’t like running errands. I am the worst carpool participant I know because I calculate exactly how much longer I’ll be driving instead of already being at an event or doing the next thing I want to do. I don’t like how long it takes to clean my house or brush my teeth or cook my food. I get very restless when I’m waiting. Meanwhile, I am perfectly happy spending hours talking to a friend or walking around with my dog or practicing singing or writing or teaching a student or sitting on a plane so I can see or experience something amazing. I am either approaching infinite levels of patience or else I’m struggling to find any patience at all.

Amy and Nala

I know in my gut there will never be enough time. I love the world so much, how could there be? I will never have enough time snuggling with Nala, and I will never have enough time to write all the books I want to write, and I will never have enough time to learn all the things I’d like to learn. I won’t have enough time to meet all the people I’d love to meet, and I won’t have enough time to see all the places I’d love to see.

And most painfully, I won’t have enough time with the people I love. They will all die too soon for me, no matter the circumstances. And I will die too soon to love them as much as I want to love them. And all of us will be wiped away, our lives and loves and stories forgotten.

What, then, is left? How do I deal with this anxiety around death?

I love with everything inside of myself, even if my heart breaks repeatedly. I notice what is precious to me, and I hold it close. I celebrate being alive right now, and I celebrate that you’re alive too. I grieve when you leave because I refuse to downplay your significance in my heart. I laugh and I play and I work and I do things that scare me. It all matters to me, and when it doesn’t matter to me, I ask myself what I need to change so my life will become more in line with what I care about.

Robert Jackson Bennett said: “Maybe this is what I think the human condition is: shrieking and raging at the universe to pay attention, begging it to understand that this matters, and hearing silence.”

I’ve been hearing that silence since I was eleven years old. Bad things happen, and they change how you see the world, and you know it’s happening and you don’t want it to happen and then it happens anyway. And you can never return to that place of innocence that you never appreciated until you lost it.

But we still have choices. We can choose to be ruled by our fears, or we can cultivate bravery. We can give up, or we can work for what we care about. We can be silent, or we can tell our stories. We can close down, or we can open up.

If the universe answers with silence, so be it. We don’t need the universe to tell us what matters. We already know.

Death is always there, lurking in its otherwise deserted corner. Every moment it stays there is a victory. Every achievement I make, every milestone I reach, every hug I give and every connection I strengthen. Every breath I draw, every story I tell, every place I visit, every song I sing, every day I make the smallest bit brighter for another person. Every time I look into your eyes and we have a moment of truly seeing the other person standing there. They are all victories, and they all matter.

I am afraid to die, but I am so lucky to have this chance to live.

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Gather ye rose-buds while ye may;
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.
~Robert Herrick

Regular readers of this blog know that I often espouse a carpe diem philosophy. I talk about seizing the day, doing what you want to do, following your dreams and sculpting them into reality. But how does time fit into the equation of this free spirit paradise?

I wish I believed that we could decide to follow our dreams today, and that tomorrow those dreams would be a reality. Or that we could decide to change ourselves today and be completely different people tomorrow. Or even that we could make absolute statements about what an hour of any given experience might be worth. But so often, that is not the way that the world works.

Let’s say I decide I want to be a fine pianist, maybe even an exceptional one. Whether or not we subscribe to the popular notion of 10,000 hours of practice to master a new skill, I don’t think any of us would argue that it would take time, energy, and commitment to learn to play the piano. First we have to learn the fundamentals: how to read music, how to feel and count rhythm, mastering new vocabulary, how to move our fingers on the keys, etc. Then we have to learn ever more complicated pieces, build up muscle memory and finger dexterity, and discover the difference between rote playing and artistic playing. It takes years to become a very fine pianist, and even more to become exceptional. So how do we reconcile these years of effort with seizing the day?

I think the answer is that we have to find pleasure in the daily tasks. While we might not enjoy drilling scales, we might find satisfaction in mastering them. And as a reward, we may allow ourselves to practice Schubert, whom we absolutely adore playing. The idea behind living life to its fullest is not that every day has to be a potpourri of incident and excitement (the people who want this are probably not going to be found practicing piano ten hours a day). It’s that you are spending at least a portion of every day on activities in which you are invested (you know, in between taking a shower and playing Angry Birds).

Time is not the absolute it sometimes appears to be, and some things cannot be rushed through. Forgiveness takes time. Building a relationship takes time. Figuring out what we want takes time. Getting to know ourselves takes time. Becoming skilled takes time. Making change takes time. Sometimes a long time. And we face judgment for not accomplishing these sorts of difficult tasks fast enough. But which is more valuable–doing something right or saving time? Saving time is not always the answer.

Since my mother died, I’ve had people tell me that they’re sure I’d give anything for even just another hour of her company. On the surface, this sounds like a no-brainer, especially since I was very close to my mom. But even this statement ends up being superficial. My mom spent her last week mostly unconscious and obviously in horrible pain and discomfort. Would I give anything for another hour in that week? No; in fact, I’d give a lot to avoid another hour in that week. It follows that the quality of the time is as important as the quantity. There are moments I had with my mom that I wouldn’t trade for days with her.

Our society tends to teach us to value more time, save time, and avoid wasting time. But sometimes less time is more. Some tasks cannot be rushed through. Sometimes seizing the day means slowing down and doing what is needed. Should we put off our dreams indefinitely? I don’t think so, but we also shouldn’t expect them to come true without investing time and effort into them.

In what dream are you putting your time?

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