Purification on the High Seas; Discovering the Power of Focus from a Whale Watch Gone Bad

I’ve never been much of a meditator. Thoughts flash too fast and furious on a wide range of equally irrelevant subjects. My nails are worn to nubs from picking and biting. But, at age 51, I’ve finally experienced the power and beauty of lack of thought.

Just as I’ve always admired the yoga practitioner and serial meditator, I’ve fantasized about the peace that lies in the calm of the open sea. With dreams of spouting whales and jumping dolphins, I shepherd our family of four to our first whale watch.

What I thought I’d see.

Twenty minutes after ‘take off’ and I’m bent over a silver toilet in what must be the cleanest ship’s bathroom ever. If any of the marine biology students guiding our vessel ever decide to start a cleaning service, I’m in.

Provided just enough room to wedge my doubled-over self between the outer rim of the toilet bowl and door, I brace myself for the impending swells and gastrointestinal upset against my own personal lifesaver – the sink. I’m over-the-moon grateful for its lack of errant, stranger hair and rock-solid sturdiness when all around me bobs and weaves. I feel a connection far beyond what’s normal for porcelain.

The phrase “getting your sea legs” comes to mind and provides some relief. I repeat it over and over. Its future tense implies that use of my legs is just a matter of time. It gives me hope that I will leave this room walking upright and not carried out on a stretcher.

Not me.

When my husband knocks on the door, I can barely speak, but I need to know I’m the only sick one. Knowing that, I’m free to focus on the sweat that pours from me like a water tap at full blast and expelling anything remaining in my belly. Despite the microwaved White Castle burgers my sons ate as we left the dock, I’m the only one taking up permanent residence in a bathroom. Judging from the fortunate lack of sandaled feet visible on the other side of the door, I may be all alone in my love of the sink and scorn for the sea.

Given the knowledge that I’m blissfully alone, I’m free to focus on my current state and all it entails. With everything inside coming out and the ability to stand seeming increasingly like a pipe dream, it’s impossible to think of anything other than where I am at this very second. My mind is a slave to my body.

The churning sea.

After an hour and a half in my own personal purification chamber and missing every whale and dolphin sighting blared with joyful exuberance from the ship’s PA, I stand with my legs of clay, hugging the sides of the ship in search of the first familiar face. I still can’t force words from my mouth, but I fall on the ship’s stern next to my ten year old son, who looks like he’s seen a ghost. Oh wait, it’s me.

I manspead my legs like a frat boy on the subway. No guilt or worry about social propriety. It feels freeing and glorious.

My husband rubs my back. With each movement, the soaked t-shirt and jogging bra move as one, the straps getting caught up with the shirt and vice versa. But with zero thoughts clunking around my brain aside from surviving this journey, I can fully appreciate the affection. Despite lingering flop sweat and Pippi Longstocking on acid hair, I’m being caressed. To me, that’s the best of what meditation brings someone – clearing away the debris to see what’s been there all along.

While my ‘meditative’ experience is not something I’m eager to repeat, it showed me with complete certainty that sometimes you have to throw it all up to see what you have.

A photo by Jeremy Bishop. unsplash.com/photos/omDNGQ8E9rg

Carmina, Seth and Connections Untended

I went to my summer orientation at Ithaca College in 1983 mainly concerned with the paltry, much-ballyhooed 1:3 guy/girl ratio.  That fear quickly gave way to elation when I saw Seth – a tanned fellow frosh with a shy, crooked smile and black Specials t-shirt sitting on a dorm room desk during our ‘grain alcohol in trash can’ mixer.

I stood motionless at the doorway, unable to lift my arm to accept my first grain punch in a red plastic cup offered by my orientation roommate whose name and face I no longer remember. Seth’s smile and dancing brown eyes told me all I needed to know – he would be my salvation from four years of girl-only company.  I saw us strolling hand in hand through the quad, laughing casually, gazing deep into each other’s dark, brown eyes, then shyly at the ground. Others would long for our connection.

Seth one week after we met
Seth one week after we met

My visions of a Seth-filled future were quickly dashed when into the room flew a storm of a girl with black curly hair and a slightly hunched over, Groucho Mark walk. She strode toward Seth and hopped up next to him, their bare thighs touching. She talked loudly but closely in his ear. She announced, “No one here knows good music,” marched over to the boom box, increased the volume, and unleashed Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” upon the roomful of would-be freshmen. She was from Long Island. She knew good music.

Hatred seethed from every pore, as I remained rooted in the doorway.

I need not have seethed. That fall, arriving early to my first Tuesday night “Introduction to Cinema” class, with the large lecture hall nearly empty, it was easy to spot Seth sitting near the back row of seats, his leg bobbing rapidly up and down. Instinctively, I knew I had to act. I’d watched my junior high through high school crush date the entire cheerleading squad, remaining mute in his presence for fear speaking would reveal my inner weirdness. History would not repeat. I sat next to him and attempted my best small talk. Our mutual awkwardness bonded us immediately. He lived in Ithaca, had a pet Tarantula, and loved horror movies.  I told him about my summer lifeguarding, cleaning bathrooms with buckets of a chemical wash that looked like dirty Listerine, and picking up lipstick-stained cigarette butts. 3:1 ratio be damned. I’d scored my first-ever boyfriend on the second day of college.

We were a serious couple for a year and a half – akin to briefly married during the pre-AIDS college years.  He was the first person I ever cared about more than myself. This I discovered through the 1984 movie “Starman” was the definition of love.  I lost my virginity to Seth on the twin bed in my dorm room after a Friday night date of Mexican food and The Big Chill.

Midway through freshman year, at Thursday’s dime beer night, I met Anna Green, a tall blonde woman who seemed to do everything at ten times the speed of normal people. Within ten minutes of meeting Anna in the narrow corridor of a bar where the bathroom door never quite latched and the floor was perpetually coated with a layer of Pabst, I laughed harder than I’d ever remembered. Her deep, booming voice resonated over the heads of our fellow drunken 18 year olds and pounding music. “Make like a Honda. Follow the leader,” she beckoned. Anna deftly led me through the sweaty bodies pressed together at the bar to where the beer soaked ground parted, and there stood….the curly haired disco girl from Long Island.

“This is my best friend, Carmina.”  Still stinging from memories of Orientation ’83, I mumbled a lame hi in Carmina’s direction. She met me with a slightly confused smile.

Anna Carmina and me
Anna Carmina and me

The three of us were connected from that ‘dimies’ on. As young friends do, we raucously rolled through life, my initial judgments vanishing. We were roommates until the singularly most depressing day we’d ever known – college graduation in June of 1987.

From the time she broke free of her mother’s womb, beating the other triplets, Carmina was the one to do things first. The first roommate to cook a steak for her date, which also marked the first time our apartment’s broiler saw any action. Flames flickering in the oven, Carmina laughed, rushing her towel-covered hand into that bottom broiler pan, rescuing the blackened meat.  She was the first to try a dance I knew on the slippery, diamond-lighted floor of the North Forty disco;  the first (and only) to try the sardines in tomato sauce my dad packed in his slightly eclectic care packages; and the first to speak a foreign language during our travels abroad. The first to get us kicked off a London bus for talking back to the conductor who, thinking we were entitled young friends of Ronald Reagan, asked to see our American Express cards.

In Paris, Carmina, our London semester roommate Michelle, and I neglected to notice the tunnel walkway beneath the Arc de Triomphe. We thought the only way to cross was directly through the traffic circle of careening 1960’s cars whose drivers would surely love to impale three, lost American girls. Carmina grabbed Michelle’s hand and navigated them safely through the swarm of cars. I can still hear the honking.

This woman I’d envisioned as symbolizing everything I’d hate about college made it one of the most joyful times in my life. Carmina died from cancer on May 27th at the age of 48. We hadn’t spoken in over a decade aside from a quick chat on Facebook years ago. She said she’d had breast cancer.  She was upbeat. I assumed cancer had nothing on Carmina.

After seeing a Facebook photo of Carmina and her best friend Patty last month, I realized something was wrong. The comments below the picture read “BFF’s before there were BFF’s” and “Very significant photo.” I sent questions to her FB friends. The funeral was the next morning.

Attending her funeral was the best friend thing I’d done for her in over 10 years. Driving there, the tears raged.  Gone was my chance to sit in her kitchen, laugh about our college exploits, and listen as she filled me in on her life and struggles with breast cancer.

After Carmina’s funeral, my thoughts turned to Seth who was diagnosed with MS several years after graduation. I Googled his name.  Seth died this past March, just two months before Carmina. A high school friend wrote on the funeral home guest book that Seth always championed the underdog, fearless of the repercussions. I’d often thought he was too good for this world. He cared too much, loved too deeply.

When I think back to the mid 80’s, Carmina and Seth loom larger than life. I imagine them sitting together again where I first saw them, laughing, enjoying each other’s strength, high spirits, and kindness. I know they’re the friends we all wish we could be.

Will the pain I felt driving down Route 80 toward Scranton late last month break me out of my bubble of insularity? I so wish I could say a resounding yes.  Truthfully, I still barely answer my home phone. My hope is that I honor them a bit more each day by being what they were blessed with – Carmina’s ability to make anyone feel like her best friend and Seth’s limitless love and sensitivity.  My heart aches for their presence, but I’m sure glad they got to teach me while they were around.