It’s a part of our conversation. We wear it on our T-shirts and sing about it.
It’s the motto on Cookie Hagan’s bumper, too: carpe diem. It’s an admonition
to “Do it now,” “Don’t let this opportunity get away.” The old Romans
said, “carpe diem” -- “seize the day.” I did that in 1968.
Christian College -- now Columbia College -- invited its long-term faculty
members to propose ways they might profit by a semester of rest and renewal --
with pay. Sabbatical leave is a sort of reward and a chance to self-educate
for a time. My proposal was accepted for the second semester of 1968.
How did I seize this opportunity? I continued my study of the history of ways
caring people have tried to revive asphyxiation victims, with special interest
in preventing death from drowning. With clay, I began a series of figurines
that could be used in teaching lifesaving and first aid. Also, our son, Walt,
and I made an educational home movie of an imaginary drowning in which the
victim was revived by mouth-to-mouth breathing.
A second effort was to study what children do spontaneously, without
leadership, equipment, rules, boundary lines, and whistle-blowing officials.
It’s the kind of thing Columbia kids do on football day: on cardboard box
sleds, they go down the steep grassy slope at the southwest end of the
In this search, I “seized the opportunity” to travel. Alone on my Peugeot
PX-10, I made stops at Honolulu, Pago Pago on American Samoa, Auckland and
Christchurch, New Zealand and Sydney, Australia. What a great way to rest. One
dark night while cycling the coast road from the Samoan airport to Pago Pago I
said to myself, “You’ll never be afraid of anything if you’re not afraid
right now.” And, though apprehensive at one point, I was not truly afraid.
Traveling alone for the first time, I discovered that carpe diem means seize
this day -- you’ll never get to know these people if you don’t do it now.
Between Honolulu and the Fuji Islands, my seatmate from South Carolina and I
discovered a common interest: traveling by bicycle. “If I’d only known you
before, I’d have brought my bicycle, and we could have made this trip
together,” she said.
In Hawaii, my hotel room was equipped for six people. In Pago Pago, my
luxurious accommodation was 15 long steps from the water’s edge, and that
space was inhabited by the biggest bullfrogs I’d ever seen in my life. The
night view of lights on the ocean waves is etched in my memory forever.
New Zealand youth hostelers took me with them to Mount Cook for Queen’s
Birthday holiday; one young woman from that group came to our Boone County
farm to visit us, years later.
The waitresses in the downtown Sydney, Australia, hotel seated all of the lone
travelers at one big table, introduced us to each other and entered into our
conversations when it was appropriate. An elderly British woman expressed
carpe diem this way: “With a companion, you stay together, eat together and
choose activities together. You don’t have the opportunity for conversation
with as many new people you meet.”
I was 54 years old and she was almost 80. “I go and come as I please. There’s
no waiting for companions who sleep late or lose their luggage, and I meet
more interesting people,” she said. Of course, traveling by bicycle gives me
a great opportunity to meet new people.
A third activity for my semester of rest and renewal was to study spontaneous
recreation of children. In Pago Pago, I cycled to an elementary school before
recess time. When the bell rang, a few hundred children burst from the
building and raced through the sand toward the water. They formed into bunches
and some began building things with their sticks, playing a sort of jackstraws
Others raced or made sand sculptures or buried their feet and legs in sand.
They played tag games, drew giant pictures with their sticks on the smooth
wet-beach easel or sent stick-boats out to sea. Some stretched out in the sun,
just enjoying talking with each other. It was spontaneous, creative, skilled
recreation at its best.
There were no leaders, teachers, coaches, referees. There were no fences,
goals, shin guards; no marked off play areas, no uniforms with numbers. Also
there were no injuries or fights.
When the bell rang, they poured back into the school building as fast as they
Those Samoan children seized their opportunity for rest and renewal and made
the most of it.
That’s what I did, too.
Sue Gerard is a Columbia artist, writer and grandmother.
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