Friday, 20 May
Once on holiday, my friend Dana loaned me a book on Buddhism. I don’t remember the title or much about the finer points of the exposé, but as is often the case with me and books, I do remember one passage, read in a particular setting.
In this case, I was reading the book on a boat in the Caribbean with David, Dana and his husband Trevor, plus Helen, Trevor's sister and my oldest friend, and her husband Whit. Live for the moment, the passage said. All else—the past, the future—is an illusion, a distraction.
Being surrounded by blue sea and sky and people very dear to me illustrated the point, imprinted it on my mind with as much clarity as this photo of Helen and me taken during the same holiday.
The core concept is not uniquely Buddhist. The Roman poet Horace coined the term carpe diem in his Odes: "carpe diem quam minimum credula postero (pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one)." The Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress" is all about keeping ahead of Time's wingèd chariot and having sex now, right now ("The grave's a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace"). Robert Frost in his eponymous poem wrote of carpe diem as an "age-long theme."
Prone to dwelling on the past and fretting about the future, I am not naturally good at seizing the day. Lately I've found it even harder because the present - not to be confused with the moment - is besieging me. There is the relentless desecration in Ukraine and the repercussions beyond (billions going hungry, for example) that the world is just beginning to feel. There is the return to a pre-Covid frenzy, with apparently not a single lesson learned, despite all that talk about the calm of lockdown making us better people in a better world.
But what's oppressing me on an hourly basis, whether in Paris or the Perche, is the weather. The month of May in France is set to be 3°C hotter than average (whatever that means anymore). It's rained almost not at all since last year. The earth is cracked and dusty.
Somehow the spring has managed to be glorious, but the fact that it feels like July has subverted the joy of warm, sunny days. I look at the green and imagine it will soon be brittle brown, like two recent drought-stricken summers, where even the nettles couldn't take it.
During a morning walk with Tasha last week, the present ("too much for the senses,/ Too crowding, too confusing-/Too present to imagine," to quote Robert Frost again from "Carpe Diem") was weighing so heavily that, thrashing around in my brain for relief, I remembered the book on Buddhism...
...and forced my eyes away from the criss-crossed sky to the resplendent spring as it is today, not as I imagine it tomorrow if it doesn't rain.
Our pond, dead a year ago, now humming with life and frog song.
The delicate new linden leaves in the Tuileries.
The nascent poppy in our Perche garden.
I also stopped consulting the weather 10 times a day on my phone, kept focused on what was in front of my eyes, rather than what was brooding in my head, and it did help.
As if to reward my conscious efforts at seizing the day (my "mindfulness," as the book might have said), the heavens surprised us last Wednesday evening and dumped buckets of water on the earth. The downpour worked on me like a muscle relaxant. And as if to make doubly sure that I got the message, rainbows - the incarnation of salutary ephemera - appeared on the horizon.
Despite this near religious experience, no conversion to Buddhism is at hand. I will never be a candidate for reincarnation, and I believe too strongly in being attentive to the past and considerate of the future in order to live a less messy present.
But after another solid rain yesterday, the sunny moment this morning feels pretty good.