Horace has a lot to answer for. Often regarded as the first autobiographer as well as a superb poet he also was either right hand man or court puppet, depending on your point of view, to Octavius during the transition from Republic of Rome to Roman Empire. He also coined two of the most misused words in poetry: carpe diem.
From the first book of Odes, the words carpe diem are frequently translated as “seize the day” and often quoted alongside six equally misused words: live each day as your last. I have recently had good cause to consider these six words.
My eldest daughter has been travelling in southern Mexico. She was travelling with a friend who returned at the end of last week, my daughter is due to fly back tonight. Like parents of most young travellers we watched her Facebook page and kept in touch with the occasional text. Then on Saturday morning I woke up to the news of the devastating earthquake in Mexico. It took me a good five minutes before I linked Mexico, earthquake and my daughter. And then I went into panic mode. It went a little like this.
- Main damage is in Chiapas and Oaxaca. Check where daughter was last seen. Chiapas.
- Check last message from travelling companion. Daughter due to leave Chiapas for Oaxaca.
- Contact travelling companion. Daughter said she was going to spend her last few days on the coast at Puerto Escondido. The coast, the nearest part of the country to the epicentre.
- I send emails, texts, messages to her. None are returned.
I tell myself she will be fine. Then I ask myself why should she be fine? Why should ours be the story with the happy ending. I watch the numbers of deaths rise alarmingly. I remember what I said when she left. It was something like “have a lovely holiday and take care” followed by a kiss and a hug.
I fire up all the networks I know and help and support comes pouring out of the woodwork. A friend of a friend is married to a Mexican military official who will check casualty lists. Old school friends offer somewhere for her to stay when (if?) she is found. People offer help with repatriation when (if?) she is found and she can’t get to her flight. Somebody knows a BBC journalist in Mexico and asks if I would like her to make contact. Anything, yes please. This was a little odd as I then found myself on the M74 heading up to Glasgow to drop another daughter at university and conducting a live radio interview at the same time (I wasn’t driving!)
I think back to the time she left and wonder if I should have said more, should I have lived that day as if it were her last? I am now in serious mother panic mode, but on the outside am all calm and positive. Only my feet are paddling furiously under the water and going nowhere.
We arrive in Glasgow, still no news. I have been welded to my phone all day. We go out for a meal and for the first time in my life I have my phone, screen up in front of me on the table. All those times I have sneered at people who can’t leave their phones for one second and I have become that person overnight.
Late that night standing in the co-op whilst the twins pick up some fruit and yoghurt one of them yelps “She is active on Facebook!” Frantic punching of keys and we phone her.
She is fine, she is safe and she is well. She had not been in Puerto Escondido, she had not been in Chiapas, nor Oaxaca city. She had been up in the mountains. They had felt the quake and it had been terrifying, but in the middle of nowhere, with no telephone or internet connection they had no idea of the devastation elsewhere. It was not until they got down to Oaxaca city that it dawned on them that they had had a very lucky escape.
I have no idea what the other people in the Co-op made of our happy little family squeaking and shrieking as we headed out onto Gordon Street, but who cared?
She isn’t home yet and today I am hoping to find out if she has made it to Mexico City where she can catch the first of her planes home. If not, well we’ll sort something out.
Going back to saying goodbye to her before she left. If we truly are to live each day as if it were our last then we would not really be living at all. We would be forever fearful of what tomorrow might bring, we could not seize this day because our minds would be forever concentrating on the next day.
Carpe diem is correctly translated as “pluck the day”, perhaps no better than “sieze the day” in its intention? However, as with all things context is vital.
Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero – sieze the present, trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may.
Now things start to make a little more sense. Perhaps it is wise not to trust tomorrow entirely, because the lack of flexibility that would ensue would make for a very fractured and disappointing life as things fail to go as expected. On the other hand, to have no trust in tomorrow is equally unhelpful.
So I have my own tenet. I won’t seize (or pluck) the day, nor will I live each day as if it were my (or even my daughter’s) last.
I will live contentedly. I will enjoy this moment and at the end of each day I ask myself if I had a good day. If I did I spend a moment or two reliving and enjoying it. If I didn’t, then I look at where I could have, if at all, improved upon it and then I let it go. It is been and gone and tomorrow is another day. To be trusted a little but not to be entirely depended on.
love Gillie x