Not swimming with sharks

If summer were a meal, I ate the whole thing and feel satisfied. 

I wrote the above sentence last September and then said how crazy I felt anyway. I’ve had the phrase I ate the whole thing stuck in my head again lately. I’ve also felt the angst that comes with putting too much on my plate: the guilt and greed of wanting it all, the doubt that I’m worthy of any of it, and the disappointing reality that summertime isn’t one big lemonade commercial. Although yeah, it kind of is. 

I took an unplanned break from reading and writing blog posts and the act felt like drifting along a lazy river all day wearing only SPF 4. It felt easy and indulgent and reckless all at once. I didn’t drink or change my mind about drinking. Every purple-orange-pink sunset confirmed that life has richer hues without drinking, that none of this would even be possible if I were still stuck in that hell rut. 

We just got back from a final trip to the beach. I felt off my game in packing for it and forgot all sorts of things…phone charger, medicine, nectarines rotting sweetly in a basket at home. Most schools started back already, and any remaining tanned beachgoers had a dazed, tired look, like they missed the last ferry home and were sorting out what to do about it in no particular hurry. 

One night, we walked along the beach and saw a crowd forming. A fisherman had caught a five-foot shark and everyone stood around watching it thrash about while also looking dazed or possibly bored. The fisherman finally cut the line and another brave/stupid soul awkwardly cradled it back to the waves. As the shark’s fin disappeared under the water, my youngest asked “why didn’t anyone tell me those were in there?” 

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A couple of mornings later, I went for a much anticipated run 4 miles up the coastal highway to check out one of the old submarine watch towers that pepper the Delaware coast, relics leftover from WWII if you can even imagine.

 

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I’ve been riding past these towers for, oh, roughly the last 40 summers and never stopped to get a closer look. This year inspiration came and rewarded. 

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great graffiti

I ran 6.2 miles to mentally prepare for a 10K I signed up for this fall and walked the remaining distance along the shore with an endorphin high and jelly legs and true appreciation for those who run half marathons and longer. The wind whipped the ocean and sand around and ruled out any kind of beach day. The truth is I never got in the ocean at all this season to swim. I drove home yesterday feeling bent out of shape about it and not sure why it bothered me so much. 

I think I decided that not swimming this year made me feel suddenly old, like my best days are behind me. I wallowed in that feeling on the drive home and it receded some, so I think that was it.

Maybe it was a break, nothing more or less. Breaks can be good.

 

 

Lessons in mindfulness from an 87 year old

My grandmother tells me she wants me to read a letter from the electric company, so I follow her into the small room next to her bedroom. This room used to be my great-grandmother’s den many years ago and still has an old lamp of hers and paintings that once hung in her home on Birchwood Avenue.

Every available surface of the den has been taken over with neat stacks of rubberbanded letters and bills and photos my brother and I sent her over the years. There’s my old cat when he was in his prime. There’s my niece when she was in grade school. There three of us stand in our finest suits after my grandfather died.

The letter my grandmother shows me has love letter written on the envelope in her blocky, angular print. The letter has something to do with a penalty charge for refusing mandatory installation of some newfangled meter, and when I tell my grandmother she says “they already told me I don’t have to pay that” and rustles through other stacks and doesn’t find what she’s looking for but doesn’t seem worried.

We both shuffle back to the kitchen to sit at her table and eat cherries and look out onto her beautiful backyard through a big picture window. I can’t remember now if she had this window put in, but I think she did. It would have been the biggest change she’s made since moving from the city 25 years ago. The blood-red carpeting in the living room is still there. The ivory wallpaper with its gold accent still clings to the pillar near the door, and my youngest needs reminding not to pull at its curling edges.

It strikes me during this visit how deliberate and mindful my grandmother is. I used to struggle with even the definition of mindfulness in early sobriety, and here is a living, breathing example before me. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

My grandmother doesn’t do anything quickly or half-heartedly. In fact, in the past when I’ve told her we’re in a hurry – that we have to leave by a certain time and that time happens to have been 15 minutes ago – her entire demeanor changes. Her eyes take on a certain wild flightiness. Her shuffle becomes more pronounced but not faster. Her relaxed smile first straightens at the corners and then disappears. The first lesson in mindfulness that I learn from my grandmother is to ditch the schedule.

Early in our visit, she takes my daughters and I to the back bedroom, the one that I don’t like sleeping in because it feels haunted, even though I don’t believe in such things. We look at a very old picture of relatives hanging on the wall. This photograph and a pair of wooden Siamese cats used to hang in the hall in my great-grandmother’s house and they scared me. It was something about the eyes.

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L-R: great-great-great grandmother (name unknown); great-great grandfather, Antonas; great-great grandmother, Magdalena
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Siamese devils (names unknown)

I notice my own kids have quietly left the room. I get it, kids, but I am older and closer to these relics than I am to youth and need to hear what they have to say. My grandmother tells a story about her great grandmother in the old photograph. This is the second lesson in mindfulness: the key to the past lies in the quiet of the present.

My great-great-great grandmother used to visit the United States regularly. In those days you didn’t need a passport but simply money to travel and something my grandmother called a ship card. When my great-great-great grandmother returned to Lithuania, she brought enough candy for her nine grandchildren in a straw bag that she hung from the ceiling to make sure it lasted. The grandchildren sat below the straw bag transfixed like obedient dogs until it was empty, at which point she traveled into town with her straw bag and filled it with less exotic candies to restore order.

My grandmother tells me other very old stories and I make cryptic notes in my phone and think where did I put that small cassette recorder we had years ago and where does one buy cassette tapes now anyway. Unlike my kids, who begrudgingly pose for too-many pictures, my grandmother is a proud, patient model. I take a picture of her standing next to the photo of our very old relatives with haunting eyes and she lays two pair of tiny shoes she believes belonged to my now adult niece on the green shag carpet and asks me to take a picture. I do because I am the archivist and this is my job.

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Before we leave, I ask my grandmother to tell me her sauerkraut recipe. She is the only one who can make it and, believe me, the rest of my family gets a little panicky when Thanksgiving rolls around and she’s on the fence about coming. Her recipe involves bagged sauerkraut and chopped cabbage, a whole onion removed at the end, some shredded carrot for sweetness, cloves of allspice and some other ingredients I can’t remember but thankfully wrote down on yellow lined paper I brought home along with a container filled with sauerkraut she’d made a few days prior.

Here’s where I confess I left the sauerkraut overnight in the car and briefly considered serving it anyway but ultimately thought how tragic it would be to poison the family with grandmother’s beloved recipe. I dumped it in the trash and then removed the trash from the house because sauerkraut is potent stuff. I feel terrible about it, and I know I have a lot to learn about mindfulness and not getting so far into putting the kids and myself to bed that I forget to unload the car.

Here’s where I thank you, Dear Reader, for making the visit to my grandmother happen. When I wrote the last post about my grandmother, I had a flimsy excuse not to make the longish drive to see her. And whether or not you meant to change my mind, too many of you commented how you missed your own Dear Grandmothers and how lucky I was to still have mine. I can take a hint, though sometimes it takes a gentle knock upside the head. So I want to thank you for your comments and prompting. My grandmother thanks you too.

 

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