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“Carpe diem” does not, as generations of students have guessed, mean “fish of the day.” But that doesn’t mean that the idea behind “carpe diem” — which is “seize the day” — shouldn’t be on our menu.

Gina Barreca mug

Gina Barreca

The whole phrase from Horace, who wrote it around 8 B.C., is worth knowing: “Seize the day, relying as little as possible to the future.” Live now, Horace tells us, because tomorrow is promised to no one.

My uncle asked me a question when I was about 6, whispering in my ear as if telling me a dirty joke: “What’s the most important date on the calendar you can’t celebrate?” I had no idea what he meant, but, as an optimistic child, I hoped it might involve gifts or cakes.

“It’s the date you’ll die,” he laughed, looking right into my face. “You don’t know it but you’ll pass though that day every year.”

I remember going to church on Ash Wednesday when I started taking classes in religious instruction to prepare me to receive my First Communion as a Roman Catholic. Dipping his fingers into a pot of ashes, the old parish priest — deft as a chalk artist — made crosses on the foreheads of believers while muttering, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Because of the insider information I already had via my uncle, I wasn’t as awed by the prospect of my own upcoming end times as my more innocent peers. I wouldn’t have known how to say it, spell it or explain it exactly, but I was covered with memento mori the way some kids were covered with freckles.

Spiritual pride and vanity had not yet been defined to us as sinful, but my smug and fussy sense of self-satisfaction would absolutely have made me one of the devil’s party without knowing it.

So even as a kid, an awareness of my own mortality was already one of my signature personality traits — like curly hair, a sense of humor and a truly terrible singing voice. How has that shaped my life? For one thing, it made me exactly like everybody else in my family. We weren’t exactly a lighthearted bunch. My parents were obsessed by mortality. My father’s favorite line was “Don’t buy any green bananas.” My mother would tell me to “make hay while the sun shines.”

They came by their fatalistic perspectives legitimately.

My father, who was a waist-gunner in a World War II B-24, learned that you never knew who wouldn’t come back at the end of a mission. My mother’s family had experienced more than their share of early and tragic losses. My parents passed along to my brother and me what they knew about life, which is that you need to grab what you can and run away with it.

The result was that we all did everything fast: We ate fast, we spoke fast, we worked fast, we read fast and I believe we all slept fast.

We didn’t drive or live in the fast lane, because you can’t do either of those on one paycheck from a failing family business in a used 1968 Buick Skylark.

But we somehow collectively heard the sound of time passing, and we were aware of what I would learn in college was the noise of “time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” as poet Andrew Marvell would put it.

Another result of my premature introduction to the concept of my own expiration date was to teach me the useful lesson that time is not a commodity you can “find.” “I’ll read it/paint it/write it/visit it when I find the time”? Might as well give it up now, doll.

Time, like money, is something you have to make. You have to carve it out from the portion you’ve been given. Time is scarce, irreplaceable and non-transferable. You don’t want to spend all your energy worrying about whether you will enjoy yourself.

You want to be so fully immersed in joyful, replete and curious hours that eventually, without your even realizing it, time will tap you on the shoulder, hand you a hat and remind you that the party’s over.

That’s when you’ll realize: “Ah, it’s today? I didn’t know it was today.” And you’ll put down all your calendars.

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Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.

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