Monday, May 9, 2011
For those of us living in 21st century developed countries, the aphorism carpe diem resonates with all the echoes of more uncertain times and places. Affluence and technology buy us insulation from the ravages of the unpredictable. War. Famine. Disease. Tyranny. We enjoy advantages on a scale unimaginable to most of the people who have ever lived.
Yet our margin of grace remains fragile. Death awaits us all. Chaos and unlooked for change are ever with us. Loss, real and imagined, defines so much of what we want and what we do. Thus do we take heart in the charge of those two Latin words: Carpe Diem. Seize the day.
Pluck the finest bits, as the other Pens so articulately wrote last week. Wear your best perfume just because you love it. Spin orange merino/silk yarn and kiss your wife. Rent a villa in Italy for your 50th birthday. Greet with joy the husband and children you never expected. Spellcheck your tattoos.
It can be a challenge not to use an ethos of carpe diem to justify anything we want to do, especially things that are self-indulgent, unwise, or which carry potentially sobering consequences. We all do this. I surely do. Rather than enumerating that tedious (and lengthy) list, I want to share some thoughts about a dear friend and family member who died Friday, a woman whose spirit captures some of the ways in which I would most like to seize the rest of my days.
I don’t know all the details of Betty Carlson’s life, and what I once knew I’ve likely forgotten in the thirty years since I first met her. Betty was 61 years old then and had lived three times as long as I had and packed quite a lot of day seizing into those years. She was a writer, a woman of faith, and a gentle soul possessed of deep feeling and insight. She didn’t needed to show off how smart she was or how witty she could be, though she was both wickedly observant and quietly funny. She and my husband’s beloved Aunt Jane, a great Godsend to us, with whom Betty lived for a long time – again, I don’t know how long, but at least forty years – are among the most gracious, generous people I’ve ever met.
I met Betty when I went to study at L’Abri Fellowship in Huémoz, Switzerland in 1981 where she and Jane worked. I met my husband there, and more wonderful people than I can count. I was particularly impressed with Betty. She was a working writer.
(Here's a detail from one of Betty's drawings. That's her in the lounge chair with a glass of lemonade while Jane gardens.)
I knew I wanted to write, so I watched her and talked to her when I could. I read her books, which charmed me completely. She was encouraging, steadfast, and immensely kind. She spoke softly and smiled often. She traveled, studied constantly, and lived a simple (though far from small) life in a tiny village in glorious mountains. She met new people with an open mind and heart. She wrote diligently. When it wasn’t always easy, she didn’t stop.
I could see myself being a writer the way Betty was a writer. She gave me images of a writing life that countered the storied excesses, instability and despair of so many famous writers. I didn’t want to be like Sylvia Plath or Hunter S. Thompson. Betty opened possibilities to me, ways to be a writer that would allow me to cherrypick the worthy aspects of carpe diem and not begrudge the ripe fruit left beyond my reach for those with longer arms or wings. It remains a rich and treasured gift, just one of many given throughout Betty’s long and loving life.