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Remember To Live – It’s All In The Details

I’m in a house in the country and the garden backs onto a farmer’s field. I’m looking out the back window. Early in the morning. Early enough that well-rested people are still in bed.

The sheep in the field are clean winter white but the grass is Springtime green, dewy due to the cold AM air. I like the dew, I like what it stands for – a fresh start every day, the quench of yesterday. And then it slips away as the day gets too afternoony to bear.

Sips of hot tea amplify the comfort of indoors because a ceramic mug can be relied on to radiate its contents outward, warmly neutralizing speed and chaos, the same way a scented candle does. I’m suspicious that nothing else seems to matter at the moment, suspicious that all is well. 

It’s easy to miss details like these through familiarity. Seeing something so often it becomes invisible, tasting something so often that it’s no comfort. Sheep are white and grass is green and tea is hot, what of it? We learn these facts as children, commit them to memory, and move on never to look at them inquisitively again. But the details are important, and they should remain important.

We wake in the morning, usually at the same time, check our phones, make our breakfast, shower. We feel motivated or lethargic or excited or angry or sad. However we feel going through our routine, the sheep stay white and the grass stays green. Winter says farewell to Springtime for another year every year. Tea needs to be drunk before it gets cold. Details blend into the everydayness of life and disappear.

The details are important because if we aren’t noticing them, then what are we doing? We’re forgetting to live. We’re saying that our lives don’t much matter. Where are you right now and what do you see around you? It’s your moment, it’s important and you’re living it. By noticing the details, by loving them, you’re saying yes to life, making it matter, accepting things as they are, embracing. You’re loving fate and all it has to offer, good and bad, that it won’t unduly disturb you either way.

It’s what writers feel when they record the atmosphere of a scene, when they draw from something they have experienced. They lived a moment and can relive it over and over again, even if it was nothing exciting. It didn’t pass them by.

Natalie Goldberg says it in her book, Writing Down the Bones: “We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”

You can write if you like, and I’d encourage you to do so, but you don’t have to be a writer to capture those details, the moments of your life. All you have to do is observe. What do you see and what will you remember later about what you saw? 

We miss so much because there is so much to be missed, but among the ocean of misses flowing past there are beautiful fish to appreciate. If not that, there are ugly ones. If not that, there’s water. It costs nothing to notice.

The collection of inanimate things in the room behind me are poised. The table and chairs wait for me to walk away from the window, eager to see what I do next. The lights and lamps are elevated enough to see the sheep and dewy grass too. They’ll only ever look, they can’t go outside and be close to it. They can’t be.

The sun is stretching and yawning, ready to announce the start of the day. The dull quiet makes it feel like anything is possible today, there are no obstacles.

The ancient Stoics talked of memento mori, remembering death so that you don’t waste the time you have in life. Another Latin phrase, memento vivere, remember to live, goes hand in hand with that. Remembering to live conjures first thoughts of bucket lists and exciting experiences, but it’s so much simpler. It’s making the details of the moments of your life matter, the thrilling ones and the mundane ones.

Because if your whole life, all of it, doesn’t matter then you’re accumulating a lot of wasted time. The moments you say no to add up. The sum total is regret. 

It’s not what you see a lot of online; it’s not hustle, it’s not profound determination to maximize productivity; it’s not grabbing life by the unmentionables or forcing you to take actions you don’t really want to because some “successful” person told you to. All that is mostly noise. As Tim Ferriss says, “50% of the Internet = people doing nothing saying “You’re not doing enough” to people actually doing something.” 

If you’re making all your moments important, noticing the details, you’re living. If you’re living, you’re actually doing something. A lot of the time you don’t need to be happy or sad, or driven or lazy, or impressive or not – it’s enough to just be.

That’s not as passive as it sounds – what you’re being is present in the moment, actively experiencing it.

Okay. You’re already late for work. For the third time this week. You’ve just been charged for another month of gym membership which you never use because you forgot to cancel the subscription, and you haven’t exercised in three weeks. There’s nothing but negativity on the news, it’s raining outside, your hair won’t sit the way you like it, and the sink is full of dirty dishes. You haven’t made plans for dinner tonight and the fridge is empty. You have a headache, you need to return ten missed calls, the dog hasn’t been walked, your house is a mess. You have to start eating healthy tomorrow and buy new clothes because people probably recognize that you haven’t done so in six months. 

I don’t have time for these cliches, this living for the moment, you might say; I’m always being told to stop and smell the roses and that the best things in life are free. In the middle of the chaos of the world, the happenings that will keep happening whether you tend to them or not, make one positive step. Say yes and accept, be alive and awake. Do it under different circumstances, during quiet and noise. Stretch yourself to become flexible. 

It doesn’t need to be scheduled. You don’t mark it in your calendar –

Thursday, 1PM – 1:15PM: Remember to live. 
(Notes: Stare ponderously out the window, record the color of the grass.)

No, it’s an ongoing process that you get better at over time. One that works better when you don’t put pressure on yourself to do it.  You do it deliberately, even forcibly, in the beginning and it soon becomes second nature. Then you realize you’re living every day – you’re noticing all the details that make your life a worthy experience. You’re taking in all the sensations freely available to you, and you’re noticing that there are a lot of those. 

Try it in a car, on a bus, while you exercise, alone on a walk, in conversation with a friend over coffee, on the toilet, in the doctor’s waiting room, getting jostled in a large crowd, stressed at work, about to fall asleep. Notice the detail and appreciate the rewarding simplicity of doing so. To paraphrase Natalie Goldberg again: make the ordinary come alive, awaken yourself to the specialness of simply being.

The practice eventually fosters compassion for our lives, all of it. An appreciation of the whatever surface is below our feet and whatever shelters our head. We can look at the small things, experience the difficult situations that we used to want to avoid and see their special detail, the grass and the tables and the RSVPs and the obligations as they are – simply what they are: not bad, just part of the life around us – and love this life because it’s ours and in the moment there is nothing better.

You see everything, become part of everything. You’ll have relationships with everything and will be doing what Marcus Aurelius reminded himself to do in his Meditations (6.38): “Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.”

You’ll ask yourself why you can’t do it and come up with every answer: 

  1. I’m too busy at work.
  2. I’m too busy at home.
  3. Because I’m an idiot.
  4. Because I’m not an idiot.
  5. A new season of my favorite TV show just premiered.
  6. I don’t know what to look for.
  7. I haven’t had any coffee today.
  8. Saturn isn’t in the right constellation for optimum visibility.

After you’ve answered your question, question your answers. You’ll realize they aren’t worth standing by. Despite those answers, you don’t stop inhaling and exhaling – and if you can do that then you can notice the details in your life.

Doing that, you’ll become satisfied with less and, as a result, wealthy. As Epictetus said: “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” Having fewer wants makes it easier to fulfill or even exceed them. You mightn’t be wealthy in anyone else’s eyes, and they may not understand the importance of your details and moments, but they aren’t living your life. You are. You get to decide what lifts you to fulfillment. The lower that threshold is, the better.

Not all your moments are serenity, nor should you strive for that. Life throws curveballs up sometimes. It eats something it shouldn’t have and it vomits. One minute you’re not covered in life vomit, the next you are. You have to deal with it. But even in that there’s something to embrace and say yes to – something bad has been brought to light, expelled. Once it’s dealt with, it’s gone. You said yes to that moment and dealt with it, it isn’t just time you want to expunge.

The more you say no, refusing to notice what’s going on around you, the more years you take off your life. Say yes and live every minute because the number of minutes you have are limited.

Soon the ceramic mug is empty and cold, the tea is gone. The sheep have gone off to be fed and taken some of the dew with them. I’m just looking at the grass now and that’s a bit boring. The moment has passed. I’m left with a mug to wash along with the accumulation of yesterday’s dirty dishes.

The plain task of washing and drying, washing and drying. Robotic boredom. But clean dishes are important. They anticipate new moments; a satisfying meal, cold water on a warm day, the next brew of tea. The next deposit of easily attainable wealth. I notice that this moment is important too and I embrace it. Yesterday’s mess has been wiped clean and today, with all its details, can begin.

Make this your way in the world for the rest of your life – remember to live.