Creative Non-Fiction: 'Carpe Diem, and Other Words I Used to Live By
Written by Lucy Holme
I was twenty-one when I got my first tattoo. It was a spur-of-the-moment, giddy decision, as I suspect most first tattoos are. The parlour in question was a small, glass-fronted studio on E. Sunrise boulevard, near the beach in Fort Lauderdale, nestled in an unremarkable strip mall, between a sushi diner and a liquor store. A block away stood the Gateway cinema, proud in neon, squat and retro, with the smell of butter popcorn wafting out onto the paved sidewalk.
I had been in Florida for only two weeks, having interviewed in France for a yacht crew position and flown out to America to embrace this new life – hanging out in quarterdeck bars with ice-cold buckets of Coronas, eating hot wings in red plastic baskets and oysters served with little packets of saltine crackers and tabasco. This was my first time playing killer pool and putting coins into jukeboxes which pumped out Blondie, The Eagles and Aerosmith. My first time feeling the heat emanating from the fenders of huge automatic trucks in the parking lots and the temporary next day paralysis after tequila-soaked nights on the beach. It was my MTV Spring break, my initiation into the world of Hooters, of gaudy, all-you-can-eat hotel brunch buffets, of luxury yachting and balmy seasonal living.
As I flicked through the dog-eared plastic sleeves of the black ring-binder, through sepia-toned illustrations of Lady Liberty crying a single tear or stern crimson and navy blue eagles, garish yellow talons spread wide, landing on a red-raw shoulder, I did not know what it was I wanted indelibly inked on my own body, only that it should express this newfound freedom.
I hoped for a statement that summed me up, but had no idea what or who that person was yet. Something Latin, maybe, or astrological (I believed myself to be a typical Piscean in so far as I liked the ocean and was a dreamer); literary, perhaps – pithy yet quietly intellectual. I wanted something which spoke of my autonomy having left university and less than a year later landed in this strange semi-tropical town, embarking on a fresh career about which I knew very little.
In the end, I chose ‘carpe diem’ written in a cursive black script over a bleeding orange sunset, accompanied by a cartoonish pink hibiscus flower and large garish palm frond. Not profound, definitely not artistic, but I loved it. I can’t think where it was I initially became aware of the phrase, but it was probably Dead Poets Society and Robin Williams’s jocular English professor John Keating urgently whispering to his class of privileged young men to ‘gather ye rose-buds while ye may’, reminding them that their forefathers were encouraging them from beyond the grave to take their shot.
‘Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it?.. Carpe…hear it?…Carpe, carpe diem, seize the days, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.’
At that stage, I had not been in a position to count the numerous sport-fishers of Florida and The Bahamas, Mangustas on the Riviera, and elegant wooden ketches dotted around the Mediterranean, sporting the same aphorism on their gleaming sterns. Soon I would realise how many people were professing intentions to seize the day and achieving it with differing levels of success. Carpe Diem is often misused as a justification for reckless behaviour and ignoring the future and I suppose back then, I was avoiding the conventional and delighted in my own temerity but its true meaning is simply an encouragement to live in the present as that is the only thing you have any control over. The decisions I could make without having to call my parents or ask anyone’s permission meant so much to me that I wanted to remind myself daily of how exhilarating it felt. I took so much joy from the ephemeral and didn’t find it at all ironic that I was going to celebrate my new found love of this transitory life with something as permanent as a tattoo.
The scratch of the needle on my skin that day didn’t hurt, and as he worked away with a steady hand, I drifted off, lulled by the metallic rasp and satisfying sting. I found afterwards that the adrenaline numbed the pain. Later that night, on Las Olas Boulevard, I wore a cropped top and denim skirt, proud that the gaudy illustration on my lower back could be made out by strangers through the obligatory aftercare cling-film and layers of gelatinous Aquaphor ointment.
I liked that in America, I could walk into a place with $100 in my pocket and pay for something for myself without having to consult anyone else. I tried to live by my newly inked mantra for a time, determined to seize it (whatever it was) and to grab hold of opportunity with both hands. I was determined to savour the impulse and take whatever choice was offered to me, then extricate myself when necessary. This would be something which became harder to execute with age and experience.
Over the years, the tattoo morphed, shrank and faded. The flower grew wild and frizzy, the green bled and the orange bloomed. One day, I remember thinking, I can always cover it with something else, even though I liked the immediacy of the expression and its ebullient command not to let the hours slip away without making a mark. Don’t fear the unknown, it screamed. Do not conform. Pluck the future, like a flower. And though I did eventually cover it I am not embarrassed that it spent so many years adorning my body. I take inspiration from that younger version of myself who somehow just got it, like the line from the Robert Herrick poem that Keating references, ‘this same flower that smiles today / tomorrow will be dying’ and I regret nothing.
About the Author
Lucy Holme is a poet, PhD candidate and mother who lives in Cork. Her work has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The London Magazine, Poetry Wales, Banshee and Southword amongst others, and is forthcoming in PN Review, The Waxed Lemon, The Pig's Back and more. Her debut chapbook, Temporary Stasis (Broken Sleep 2022) was shortlisted for The Patrick Kavanagh Award and a collection of essays is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books in Autumn 2024. She is the co-editor of Cork-based multidisciplinary journal The Four Faced Liar. She can be found on Twitter @lucy_holme, IG @lucyholme and @lucyrebeccaholme.bsky.social.