Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old Time is still a-flying
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying
Robert Herrick’s first stanza of “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” forever immortalized by literature collections and the fictional John Keating, played by Robin Williams, the hero of 1989’s Dead Poet Society,” is generally interpreted as a man trying to convince a woman to sleep with him, insisting that she should get all the enjoyment out of her good looks and youthful body before she ages, becomes undesirable, withers away, and dies. John Keating, however, found a more universal message for the poem—carpe diem. Seize the day. “We are food for worms, lads,” Keating professes, and because of that, he advises his students to make their lives extraordinary. We are all granted a specific amount of time, and some of us get more than others, but no one lives forever. John Keating and Robert Herrick share that undeniable truth as a reminder to their audiences that they “make much” with the time they’re given. The lesson is no less important in Herrick’s 1600s or Keating’s 1950s or in my 2010s.
Dead Poet’s Society changed my life. I heard John Keating’s message loud and clear. Seize the day. Listen to your heart. Live your life with passion. Be extraordinary.
Shortly after discovering that masterpiece, I was introduced to another one. The summer before my senior year of high school, I attended a theatre camp, where one of my peers had me listen to a song from the musical Rent, and I heard John Keating’s words again, only this time in Jonathan Larson’s voice, a perspective more in line with my aspirations. Mark, Roger, Maureen—these were all people who “got it,” who lived authentically through their art no matter what stood in their way. And their friends, living with—living with—living with—not dying from disease knew how to live the credo “no day but today.”
The problem with being introduced to this idea as an adolescent, though, is that it’s a confusing concept to grasp, a concept that perhaps an adolescent isn’t capable of grasping in its entirety. Even Mark and Roger didn’t have it totally figured out. As a kid, I listened more to Mimi’s anthem to “Go OOOOOUT Tonight” than I did to Keating’s “Make your life extraordinary.” Heck, even Keating’s students didn’t get it at first. They equated “sucking the marrow out of life” to be pulling pranks on the headmaster, sneaking out to kiss girls, and defying your parents to join a play. Carpe diem to teenagers means doing what feels good in the moment.
And that’s exactly the message I took away. If I wanted to blow off homework and go hang with my friends—carpe diem! If I wanted to pass up a salad and eat ice cream for dinner—carpe diem! If I wanted to sit on the couch and watch tv all day—carpe diem! Whatever I felt like doing, I would do. Because when there’s no day but today, what does it really matter how you spend it? Might as well be happy, even if happiness only lasts for a moment.
It’s over a decade later, and I’m older and wiser and three weeks fresh from a cancer diagnosis. It may sound odd, but in eight years of marriage, I haven’t had a reason to drive to the other side of the state where my family lives by myself. My husband has always come with me. But now it was my brother’s birthday, and after just having a brush with my mortality and feeling rather compelled to spend time with my family, I decided to leave my husband at home with our bad-traveler daughter and hit the highway all alone.
It’s a two-hour trip, and one I used to make at least twice a month when I was in college. I’d pass the time by belting out soundtracks to all my favorite musicals—Aida, Ragtime, Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, and yes, Rent. Now on my own for the first time in a decade, I search for the Rent soundtrack on Spotify and hit “play.” I hear the opening tuning chords, and my memory flashes back in an instant. I have not heard the words in ten years, but I still know every one.
As I sing along, the message feels different. “No day but today” no longer means “do what feels good right now.” There’s a good chance that interpretation is what caused my sickness in the first place—being lethargic, procrastinating, not practicing healthy habits. Angel, Roger, Collins, Mimi all have HIV; they know they’re living on borrowed time. So yeah, they do what feels good in the moment—they sleep with each other and party and protest and all that. But they also understand what it is that makes life worth living—love, love for each other, for their city, for every day they get to live again. In other words, I feel like they’re grateful, or if they’re not, they figure out how to be by the end of the play (I’m looking at you, Roger).
And I think that’s what changed in me this last month. I’m more grateful--grateful I get to live another day with my wonderful family in my wonderful city on this (mostly) wonderful planet. And being grateful helps me seize the day a little better, helps motivate me to make what’s left of my life, however long that may be, a little more extraordinary.