I’ve always associated the phrase “carpe diem” with the ability to do with my day whatever I want—to seize it, almost literally, and use it for the fulfillment of my own desires. To seize the day, to me, has meant to be in complete possession of my time—to have the ability to mold the day into my version of the perfect day. As a consequence of this definition of the phrase, things I don’t want to do—like go to work, clean the bathroom, grade research papers, do homework—hinder my ability to carpe diem most of the time, and consequently, keep my enthusiasm under lock and key—under siege.
However unfortunate and frustrating it is, much of my time isn’t actually mine. How can I carpe diem when, at the very least, eight hours of “my” day will actually be seized by obligations delegated by someone other than myself? How can I carpe diem when I want to spend the day hiking around the woods but my out-of-town friend would rather spend the day meandering around the mall? How can I seize the day when I planned to spend it reading at the river, only to wake up to rain? My definition of carpe diem, meant as an inspirational phrase, often leads to my wishing I were somewhere else, doing something else. It often leads to the day seizing me, instead of my seizing the day. But recently, my three-year-old niece got me thinking about this phrase in a new light.
One afternoon this spring, I watched her playing all alone in the surf along the shore’s edge, laughing and smiling all by herself. She looked like a nymph—a sweet sprite in the surf. She held her arms up high, fingers spread wide, kicking the sudsy surf gleefully. She ran in large, imperfect circles, her arms out to her sides, screaming and giggling. Sometimes she stopped, and stared out to sea almost thoughtfully, before resuming her ecstatic escapade along the edge of the continent, teetering between the Atlantic Ocean and the safe, sturdy sand. She had no inhibitions, no hindrances at all. She was the absolute embodiment of living in the moment, of seizing the day, of mindfulness, and of joy. I wished I could remember the last time I’d experienced such unrestrained happiness—happiness heedless of looming obligations, happiness heedless of its imminent end. She celebrated her present as if nothing tainted her love of that particular moment, of that particular place. No sense of dread for future obligations seemed to cloud her sense of the present sunshine. No desire to be anywhere else doing anything else cast a shadow over her engagement in the moment in which she lived—right now.
Eventually, we had to leave the beach—earlier than I, capable of devoting all my waking hours to the sand, the surf, and a good book, would have liked. When we got home, I found myself sitting in an air conditioned family room under a blanket, staring wistfully out a window at the sunshiny afternoon as it asked me why I was wasting the heat, the sun, the blue sky watching a movie on the couch. Why wasn’t I taking full advantage of the summer weather? Why wasn’t I seizing the day? As my niece snuggled down in the soft blanket on my lap, I found myself wishing we were still at the beach. But then her little-girl chuckle, her body shaking gently on my lap, shook me out of my regret, and I noticed the way she luxuriated in the softness of the fleece blanket, burying her face in its plush folds, smoothing it out with her little fingers. She had enjoyed her time at the beach, and now she was fully engaged in the enjoyment of her movie and blanket. She wasn’t looking back. She wasn’t looking forward. She was seizing the present moment. And so could I—if I could just stop wishing I were still doing something else, something that was already over, and focus on what I might be missing right now. How many moments had I missed, pining away for other places, other people, other activities? How many experiences had I let my inability to revel in the present, without worrying about the past or the future or what I’d rather be doing, steal from me?
It occurred to me then that my niece never seems to wish she were anywhere else doing anything else—she is always just savoring the moment, loving when and where she is. No matter what she’s doing. No matter where she is. No matter what the moment offers. If the moment gives her water and sun and sand, she seizes it, running up and down the beach. She doesn’t worry about when her day at the beach will end. If the moment gives her a movie and a soft blanket, she seizes it, cuddling and chuckling. She doesn’t ignore the movie, wishing she were still at the beach. If the moment gives her a long car ride home, she sings songs about the sites she sees out her window. She doesn’t waste the journey itching for its end.
It’s easy to feel like I’m seizing the day when the day brings beaches and sunshine and hiking and reading and any number of my other favorite activities. It’s a little more difficult when it brings meetings and traffic and back-to-back appointments. But because of my niece, I understand now that the phrase “carpe diem”—“seize the day”—isn’t really about making the day mine, turning it into my version of the perfect day; it’s about getting the most out of every moment the day offers, whatever that moment may be, and whatever that moment may offer. It’s about conquering the temptation to wish today were a totally different day, offering a totally different agenda. It’s about laying siege to my woe-is-me tendency when I see a difficult day crest the horizon, and forging ahead, ready to savor the challenge. We are offered a limited amount of moments, a limited amount of days, in this life. Why waste any of them wishing we were somewhere else, doing something else? Instead of letting the events of the day seize me, I will do my best to seize them. I will try to squeeze every possible ounce of lemonade out of what might otherwise seem like a lemon of a day, savoring the sweetness of every sip.
Amanda S. Creasey lives in Central Virginia with her husband and two dogs, two canine catalysts for ushering her love of animals to the forefront of her personality. She teaches high school English and works as a freelance writer on the side. Aside from writing, she loves the outdoors, and enjoys walking and hiking with her dogs, running, growing fruits and vegetables in her garden in the spring and summer, and tending to the plants in her greenhouse during the winter. She maintains Mind the Dog Writing Blog at amandasuecreasey.com.