Carpe Diem (Or, Pursue an Idea When It Hits)

There is a scene, early in the 1989 drama Dead Poets Society, where the new English teacher at the Welton Academy prep school, John Keating, has one of his students read aloud from a 17th-century Robert Herrick poem.  The stanza reads:

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.

Keating and his class are standing in a hallway, beside the school’s trophy case.  Old team photographs of long-ago academy sports teams are hung inside the case, the students from a different time staring out at the onlookers, their expressions locked in place across the chasm of decades.

 

Keating asks his class what the verse means.  What was Herrick getting at?  “Carpe diem,” he tells them.  “Seize the day.”  But why?  Why “seize the day”?

“Because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating goes on.  “Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room, will, one day, stop breathing.  We’ll die.”

Here, Keating asks the students to step forward to look at the photographs of the old sports teams.

“They’re not that different from you, are they?” Keating says to his class.  “Same haircuts. . . . Invincible, just like you feel.  The world is their oyster.  They believe they are destined for great things, just like many of you do. . . . But you see . . . these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.”

 

Keating then has them lean in close, tells them to listen, listen to the voices, the murmurs of the ghosts before them.  Do they hear it?  Keating whispers in a voice meant to sound like the grave:  “Carpe . . . diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.”

This scene is memorable for many reasons, not the least of which is the remarkable performance of Robin Williams, who plays Keating.  But what of the message?  What of carpe diem?  Is it wise counsel?

As with anything, if misunderstood or taken to the extreme, it can harm more than help.  After all, I may want to “seize the day” by climbing Mount Everest, even though I have no training and no preparation.  Or I may want to drop everything and experience life to the full by walking across America, leaving all my responsibilities and cares behind me.  That might feel good in the moment, but doubtful it would lead anywhere beneficial.

 

What, then, is carpe diem, and how should we apply it?  How about with writing or creativity?  Is there a literary version of carpe diem?  And if so, what does it look like?

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to anything creative–a story idea, a scene from a novel, an inspiration–I cannot force things.  If I say, “I want to write a short story today,” but have no workable idea to write about, try as I may, I won’t produce anything of value.

On the other hand, my best ideas always come unasked for, unplanned.  I can be doing anything–mowing the lawn, taking a walk, lying in bed–and boom!  It hits.  Where does it come from?  We may never know.  But it comes.  And it comes in its time and its choosing.  What to do then?

 

Carpe diem, of course!  It’s not every day an inspired idea strikes.  Whether it’s a novel idea, a short story, a poem, a song . . . it doesn’t matter.  When that idea strikes, in the white-hot fire of the creative epiphany, that is the time to act.

 

If it’s a poem, write it.  Right then and there, if possible.  Same with a song.  If it’s a short story, maybe jot a few notes if you can’t write it immediately.  Capture the details lest you forget them, and then, at the first opportunity, write the story.  If it’s a novel, again, jot down plot points, character traits, perhaps even make an outline.  However you work, whatever preparations you need to do before undertaking a long-form creative endeavor . . . do what you must.  And then begin writing the actual novel as soon as you can.

Because . . . why wait?  Why wait and allow apathy or indifference to seep into the picture?  Carpe diem.  Seize the literary day!  Take advantage of that gift–that new idea–while it’s fresh and you are fired up.

Write.  Create.  Make your words sing.

And make your (literary) life extraordinary.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Eternal in the Transitory (Or, The Power of a Moment)

I am a dreamer.  I always have been.  There’s no other way to say it.

Indeed, there have been times in my life when I’ve been accused of being distant, with a faraway look in my eyes exploring the unseen and ephemeral worlds and galaxies that stretch beyond the purview of the here and now.  As someone once told me, “Even when you’re here, you’re not always here.”

 

From the time I could walk and talk, question and imagine, my mind has been prone to wander.  When I was a child, I’d visualize batting cleanup for the New York Mets, in the bottom of the ninth, the World Series on the line.  I’d create an entire scenario, announcing the action from a phantom broadcast booth, crafting a plot full of twists and intrigue, complete with regular-season backstory and statistical analysis.  Or I’d invent new games with my friends, the same friends who provided the inspiration for the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel.  The games could be anything, and played anywhere, from the dark corners of the basement to the dining room table to the neighborhood street out front.

 

More than anything, though, I’d think of stories.  I wrote my first story in the second grade, and once I started, I was hooked.  Through the years, I have written dozens upon dozens of short stories, a couple of novels, hundreds of blog posts, and pretty much whatever strikes my fancy at any moment.  Writing to me is akin to breathing.  I wouldn’t survive without it.

 

The thing is, when I dust off the cobwebs of my earliest stories (the ones I still have, anyway), there are paragraphs, scenes, large chunks of pages that I can’t even remember writing.  Reading through these works from yesteryear provides a primary-source window into my preteen or teenage self, a glimpse into what I was thinking and how I was interpreting the world.  The stories, penciled on paper that has yellowed and faded with the passage of time, preserve a part of me that, absent the written testimony, might have been irretrievably lost.

 

But then, life itself is like that, isn’t it?  We get up in the morning, still half-asleep, and, on auto control, we stagger through the routines that keep us going and prepare us for the day ahead.  Sure, at some point, we wake up and can function at a higher level.  But even then, how much of what we do is mechanical, prescribed, almost as if we were a software program patterned in a particular way to perform a certain and specific set of duties?

 

What did you have for breakfast on April 6, 2006?  What time did you go to bed on October 25, 2015?  Who did you meet, hang out with, talk to, on March 2, 1997?  Did you watch TV on August 7, 2017?  If so, what did you watch?  What did you do in school on November 10 during your junior year?  These questions, and countless more, are all but unanswerable, the contents lost amid the swirling miasma of our collective memories.  When you consider it, you begin to realize that, unless you are eidetic,  perhaps as much as 99 percent of our life is forgotten, stored away in a file, deep within the crevices and folds of our brain, accessible, perhaps, but only in our dreams or a state of subconsciousness that liberates us from the shackles of our peripatetic and ever-racing world.

 

Perhaps that is as it should be.  Though I have always wished for a way to press a mental button, as it were, and access any tidbit of information, no matter how trivial, from my past (because, yeah, now that we’re asking, what did I have for breakfast on April 6, 2006?!), I realize that having so many conscious memories floating around simultaneously would be akin to circuit overload.  We’d have so much data, so many moving images competing for supremacy, we’d feel as though we were in a perpetual wrestling match with individual and specific recollections from our past.  While not nearly as overwhelming as the predicament in which Monica Tisdale finds herself in The Singularity Wheel, where she has accessed her memories and experiences from a billion billion universes, the effect might nonetheless feel similar.

 

From chapter fifteen of The Singularity Wheel:

“She felt like crying again.  The memories he spoke of were stacked, multi-faceted.  She had shared these things with her dad in a limitless number of worlds.  They mixed together, like particles in a celestial blender.  In gaining access to everywhere, all of her, in all places, she had lost her essence.  While she could now sip from every cup throughout all creation, she could not drink deeply from any single one.  Everything was a fragment, a fleeting glimpse, here and gone in a moment.”

 

And so, as a mental safety valve, as a firewall against oversaturation, our brain grasps onto the meaningful things, the memories that matter, the events that shape us and form us and leave their mark, like a calligraphy of the soul.  Sometimes, these events are ordinary on the surface, just little things, a subtle gesture, a kind word, a remark from a teacher we never forget.  Moments.  Fleeting, but essential, so essential, in fact, that our mind, our heart, our core, recognizes them for what they are and sticks a flag in them, a reference point that can always be accessed down through the years.  “Remember this?” the flag will say.  “Remember how you felt when that happened?”

 

Not all the markers are positive, of course.  Sometimes, we wish we could forget, but we hold on.  But many of them are positive, and they beckon to us like stands of nourishment and refreshment scattered along the winding, broken, uneven road of life.  And while I will always find it frustrating that I forget so much, that so many moments are erased into the fog of oblivion, I have learned to appreciate the things I do remember.  Moments with my mother that will endure for the rest of my life, despite her passing this winter.  Moments with family and friends, childhood memories that persist, to this day as fresh and vibrant as when they occurred.

 

I’ve written about some of those memories in this blog.  I will write about others in future posts.  Still others have been “fictionalized” in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel.  I suppose I’ll keep writing about them for as long as I’m here.

Because any moment, no matter how brief or “small,” and no matter how long ago it may have happened, can be eternal.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Perception or Reality? (Or, “What’s That Behind Your Ear?”)

When I was growing up, in the now-vintage years of the 1980s, there was a family friend who stopped by from time to time.  His name was Bill.  And Bill was a lot of fun.

 

He’d hang out on the driveway and shoot baskets with me and my brothers, at the old hoop we used to have perched atop the garage.  He’d tell stories of his life in the military, the places he’d seen, the memories he’d accrued over the years.  He’d tell jokes, one after another, with a repertoire so vast he could have had a career as a stand-up comic.

 

But for me, back then, what I liked most about Bill was the magic.

“Pick a card, any card,” he’d say, and I would.  I’d fake taking one, then pluck out another, hoping to derail him.  I never did.  Bill was always letter perfect with his tricks.  And they weren’t limited to cards.

 

He would make items disappear, then reappear, cut things in half and then somehow present them, in the next moment, as whole.  And he’d invariably pull something out from behind my ear–usually a quarter or a silver dollar.  Sometimes, he’d even let me keep it.

 

“Your ear’s a real moneymaker,” he’d say.  Little did I know at the time, but Bill’s showmanship and style would, decades later, manifest themselves in The Singularity Wheel.  No doubt, his tricks and performances from my youth played a sizeable role in shaping Ryan Swinton‘s passion for legerdemain in the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.

 

Of course, I often asked Bill the secret behind the wonder, the key that would unlock the mysteries of his many and varied tricks.  But he never revealed a single one.

 

“A magician never shares how he does what he does,” he told me one rainy night in those long-ago days before Google and YouTube made discovery so much easier.  “If he did, he wouldn’t be a magician.”

 

But then he leaned in closer, and, in a soft, conspiratorial whisper, said, “I can tell you one thing, though.  Magic isn’t what it seems.”  I waited for him to continue.  With a performer’s appreciation for drama, he waited a beat.  Then he said, “It’s all about what I want you to see.”

I asked him what he meant.

 

“In a way, life and magic are one and the same,” he said.  “It’s not so much about what happens, or what you see.  It’s really about what you think happens and what you think you see.  That’s really what a magician specializes in.  Nothing more.”

He didn’t elaborate beyond that.  He wanted me to chew on his words, let them marinate and take root.  And they did.

 

*******************************************

“There is no truth.  There is only perception,” Flaubert said.  On a cloudy day, you may see only the gray and the gloom.  Someone else may perceive the blue beyond the gray, the sunshine that exists above the clouds, waiting to break through.  I may rail against the catalogue of snowstorms that have beleaguered Vermont this month, impatiently longing for the arrival of the ever-capricious and timid New England spring.  You may counter that the snow is beautiful, a natural wonder, and that I should enjoy it while it lasts before it yields to April’s warmth and sunshine.

 

Note, I am not talking about facts.  Facts are facts, or at least they should be.  That concept has been sorely tested since November 2016.  But a tenacious protection of inviolate laws of the universe must be preserved.  No.  This isn’t about facts.  It’s about the interpretation of those facts, the way we perceive and filter reality, the very world around us.  How we respond to love and life and loss.

 

Where some may perceive a setback, others may see an opportunity to learn and to grow.  Where, on the surface, there may be death, perhaps, more profoundly, there is renewal and deliverance.

 

Yeats wrote, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”  Indeed.  Is it possible that miracles abound, only we do not see them?  Do not notice them?  Do we think we’re free when we’re trapped, and trapped when we’re free?

 

In the final stanza of his poem “To Althea, From Prison,” 17th-century British poet Richard Lovelace expressed it this way:

“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free;
Angels alone, that sore above,
Enjoy such Liberty.”

I’m sure my old friend Bill would agree.

Thanks so much for reading!
–Mike

%d bloggers like this: