In The Doing of the Thing

The Latin phrase Carpe Diem, made famous in modern days by the American movie Dead Poet’s Society, was coined by the poet Horace. Most accurately translated as “Pluck the day,” after the movie it was printed on tee shirts, caps, and mugs. “Pluck” proved too much for American sensibilities and the phrase was translated as “Seize the day.”  Given a coffee mug with that inscription by the head of school where I then worked,  I understood the phrase, but in a certain way. Seizing the day meant that I, then in my mid-40’s, was in charge. Anything that was accomplished in my realm of the school was directly related to either my ideas or actions or both. It was up to me, and I lived several years following that belief in my personal and professional  life.

Thinking of the two interpretations of Horace’s phrase, I recall the saying attributed to  Mark Twain, that the difference between the right word and almost the right word, is the difference between lightening and the lightening bug. Pluck and seize when viewed as verbs are much alike, but one meant to control; the other meant to wait.

One of my mother’s favorite “chores” was to sweep the front porch, steps, and sidewalk of her mill house. She did not rush to arrive to this or hurry to finish. She would sweep an area of the wooden porch, stop, and look around her front yard, sweep some more and adjust the chairs and plants. Satisfied with the porch’s condition, she moved on to the three concrete steps and stepping down carefully, she cleaned each below her as she went. Pausing at the juncture of the steps and sidewalk, she would survey the goings-on of Juniper Street and then begin sweeping the private sidewalk that led to public one. Arriving there, she turned, chatted with any neighbor near or a passer-by, then carrying her broom like a proud knight carrying his sword, she went back inside her house to finish any cleaning left undone. My mother, a girl of the South Carolina Sandhills, grew up in a time when front yards of sand were swept to make a clean place to entertain company under a large shade tree. Sometimes, as Maggie did in Alice Walker’s fine short story, Everyday Use, people would make a design using the loose sand on the edge of the cleared area. Thus, a “living room” space was created for the company. While there was no sand on my mother’s sidewalk, steps, or porch, her daily sweeping of it made certain that no visitor would trip on a acorn or small limb, and its cleanliness invited folks to come on in.

Today we have leaf blowers, those noisy machines that will clean the area that took my mother thirty minutes or so to sweep in just a few minutes. Time saved, and all that dirt blown away into the yard or gutter. Time saved to be used inside cleaning or to be used on another household chore. Time saved is money saved. If my mother had had a leaf blower to use out front, she would have been more efficient and more productive. If my mother had had a leaf blower, she would have been “seizing the day” by taking control and producing more. But more what?

Yet, even had my mother been given a leaf blower, one she could have used, I know that she would have just left it gathering dust in her garage. She, like so many of her era, was not interested in just being more productive or efficient or cost effective. She swept her front porch, steps, and sidewalk with her straw broom because she enjoyed the doing of the thing. She enjoyed observing the activity on her street and its people. She enjoyed the result of her labor.

My mother understood that some moments are like waiting for fruit to ripen and if plucked too early in a desire for false mastery the fruit will be bitter. Just as an entire fruit bearing bush or tree does not produce all of its crop at one time, the ripe moments of every day arrive separately, and my mother understood that she should not pluck an entire day, trying to bend it to her will, but she could pluck a moment. One of her such moments was her sweeping, which she enjoyed, but she then continued on, like Haldane (Buzz) Holmstrom who soloed down the Green and Colorado Rivers and through the Grand Canyon in his home-made boat; he, too, came to understand that by getting all tangled up in a burning desire to control, the important will be missed. On November 21,1937, he wrote in his river journal: “… The Bad Rapid/Lava Cliff/ that I had been looking;/nearly a thousand miles./ I thought/once past there/my reward will begin/but now/everything ahead/seems kind of empty/and I find I have already had my reward/ in the doing of the thing….” A service station attendant from Coquille, Oregon Holmstrom discovered a lesson of living while paddling through the Grand Canyon; and like him my mother, in her sweeping, demonstrated that the joys and rewards of life are often “in the doing of the thing.”

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