“Make more of each moment” is an imperative with a gooey, sickeningly sweet casing.
It’s advice from Hallmark cards and TV specials in which, say, grandparents give homespun wisdom to people fighting with careers and busyness.
It doesn’t even sound grammatical. Make more? One might note a redundancy—shouldn’t making always produce more?
The uncomfortable truth, though, is that appreciating life does depend on learning. That if this isn’t accepted, one can’t grow. Without trying to learn, it becomes much harder to give to others or locate anything worthwhile. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” despite its harshness to those who don’t bother to think twice, is a more positive restatement of the idea.
A more complicated restatement, from Fanny Howe’s “Bewilderment:” “the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.” I want to comment on the part that hits hardest, “that it [life] isn’t.” Life is horrible for so many, an agony that will not be denied. It’s incredibly cruel, shortsighted, and irreligious to straightforwardly proclaim “life is worth living” to people who’ve had half their bodies burned off or are overwhelmed with guilt, regret, or panic. So it would seem appreciating life in any way depends on the willingness to bear witness to tragedy. This doesn’t make one a better person. Nor does this always make one knowledgable. It’s just necessary, and art loses any romantic gloss it might be given from this vantage.
There’s a terrible transformation at work here. I do have to try to make the most of each moment and learn more. And I have to be more sensitive to what others are going through, what pains are possible. But that last imperative radicalizes “making more of each moment” and “learning”—they’re not about homespun wisdom or making art anymore. They’re about something more fundamental that if we age a certain way, we may be lucky to encounter. But what a privilege to age at all.
With all this in mind, I want to talk about the gentle comedy of Białoszewski’s “A ballad of going down to the store.” When I think of ballads, I think of long stories celebrating the deeds of legendary figures, mourning their tragic loss. I don’t think, as Białoszewski does, of “stairs.” “First I went down to the store / by the stairs / ah, imagine only, / by the stairs.”
A ballad of going down to the store (from unz.org) Miron Białoszewski (tr. Czesław Miłosz) First I went down to the store by the stairs, ah, imagine only, by the stairs Then people known to people unknown passed me by and I passed them by. Regret That you did not see how people walk, regret!! I entered a complete store: lamps of glass were burning. I saw somebody — he sat down — and what I heard? what I heard? rustling of bags and human talk. And indeed, indeed, I returned.
These lines are felt by us in a specific way, as we know of those who struggle to breathe because of COVID-19. When my health was much worse years ago, I was genuinely grateful for short walks, decent coffee, even doing my taxes. Białoszewski mocks the stature of ballads—“ah, imagine only, / by the stairs”—but calls our attention to the minor miracle of having a store on the lower level of your building. I’ve always wanted to live in the city for just that, as opposed to driving 10 miles to Walmart to fight for parking.
How to reconcile a quiet gratefulness for everything with the fact that our lives could fall apart? Part of our own response is to take stock of small blessings when we’re threatened. We build a conception of happiness from tinier wants. But we can recognize this as a response more than a solution. I remember one of the first classes I taught. I wanted the students to write notes, so I bought everyone notebooks for a dollar each and gave out some pens. This was not a particularly rich class. Some of my students nearly cried. Claims of happiness and justice are different, to say the least.
Białoszewski’s comedy indulges mock rage at passing by “people unknown.” “Regret / That you did not see / how people walk, / regret!!” Where a story of a hero’s travels might involve actual motion—trying to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, or being swallowed whole by a whale—he gives us people-watching as he walks down a few floors. I spent today talking to quite a few people and still felt lonely. What’s mock rage in his poem seems an apt description of my situation. I’ll think too much about details from the time I had with someone I miss, and each of those details might as well be regret over not seeing how people walked. I’ll blame myself for being inattentive when I was happy.
To that end, “make more of each moment” can lead to unproductive rumination. It isn’t always involuntary. It’s possible to lose perspective by imposing a moral imperative upon one’s own perceptions. For practical purposes, it’s best not to think all the time about how life can fall apart in an instant.
His little ballad ends, I think, on a sweet note. “I entered a complete store: / lamps of glass were burning.” I’ve worked enough retail to know some people only go to the store to take out their anger on employees. But he sees the store as “complete,” with “lamps of glass… burning.” I can’t help but think of Yeats’ vision of Byzantium here, elaborate golden artifacts and lamps for the Emperor in the city of God. The fire that never ceases. That’s too much I’m playing with, of course. What’s more relevant is that there’s no “regret” or imagining the wonder of “stairs.” This is light, this is warmth, and finally, there are other people talking and moving, at once. “I saw somebody — he sat down — / and what I heard? what I heard? / rustling of bags and human talk.”
A lot of people keep the television on because they don’t want to feel alone. They need that noise, they need that sense of presence. I think something similar is happening here. He went to the store to see other people. And this inspired not just a “return,” but this poem. Now he wants to talk and makes the effort to do so. For those of us who’ve witnessed countless others in our lives worship the television, this is a remarkable shift.
Regarding the larger themes I’ve brought up: no, this doesn’t automatically justify any of the horror life offers. And as a small gesture toward making every moment count, it’s just that: small. It feels like something was learned, though, and maybe, for this moment, that’s good enough.