Octo Observations: Swimming in the Deep End

As little children, when our parents took us to a swimming pool, we were told in no uncertain terms to stay in the shallow end. No jumping off the diving board!  A sturdy rope stretched across the width of pool marked the deep end. Staying safe, being able to touch bottom, those were essential rules for youngsters barely able to dog paddle. Gradually, as our skills increased and we learned to swim, we were allowed to venture past the rope, into deeper water.

To have access to a swimming pool during summer heat is nirvana for all ages. I would be fibbing if I said I did not miss our former home’s backyard pool. Those days are wonderful memories. Now we find respite in our airconditioned sunrooms or in taking cool showers. Life has its chapters, and like it or not, we must move forward with as much optimism as possible.

At my stage of life, partly inspired by Covid-19 captivity,  I have become more introspective. I am profoundly aware that each day is a gift. Just this week, we learned that a dear friend in Ohio died after a long illness, and our next-door neighbor has terminal bladder cancer. Wow…and to think I have been complaining about the heat plus virus inconveniences. Shame on you, Joy.

So many people live with challenges that cannot be changed. They do all in their power to defeat the demons. They must examine priorities as they face losses of those they love, or activities they can no longer enjoy. And, because of the pandemic, satisfying hugs with loved ones are forbidden. So many solitary hours for so many folks, yet a chance to ponder deeper thought and embrace new revelations.  More emphasis on what really matters to each of us, with ample time to read good books.

As an interesting aside,  a WSJ article sent by my sister reveals that Icelanders are inveterate readers. “We all know that for generations, austere Iceland has had a surprising history of weathering calamity through books….(the country) has a legacy not of Viking swagger but of literacy. We cannot fully know how Iceland will fare during the current crisis, although its civil sensibility…alert to data and determined to look after everyone….has left the country, six months into the global pandemic, monitoring just 12 cases.” Being 50 percent Icelandic, this gives me goosebumps, and reminds me why love of reading has always been in my DNA! 

Perchance a lesson for us Americans is to waste less time attacking each other on social media, obsessing about events over which we have no control, watching contentious TV and becoming agitated about riots and protesting which hopefully will dissipate with the summer heat. Instead, let’s try to sit back and inhale quality books. Read and learn from history.

The more we read the more we absorb the experiences and thoughts of others. Whether they be fictional or non-fictional  characters, they leave an indelible impression. Currently I am knee deep in a true story about a heroic female American spy named Virginia Hall, an incredible executive who talked her way into the famed British Special Operatives. The book is called A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell. Virginia’s courage equaled her insatiable commitment to her development of the French Resistance. Sabotaging Nazi activity wherever possible, she also recruited and trained innumerable men and women to join the cause. 

The more I read the more mesmerized I am by this woman’s inner strength and integrity. No personal risk was too great. No feat was too hard,  even enduring occasional excruciating physical pain due to her prosthetic leg. Her own safety was insignificant. The epitomy of dedication and determination. Was she typical of  “The Greatest Generation” of heroes and heroines of World War II? I believe she was. And as I view our world today, I yearn to learn more about people like Virginia. I yearn for their strength and ability to cope with a fearful and often tenuous future. I admire her ability to judge character, too.

Lately I struggle with shallowness. Are we too self-absorbed? Are we too worried about what others may think of us to improve ourselves? Are we not striving to be our best selves? Are we too caught up in being politically correct to tell the whole truth? Or are we falling prey to the pervasive negativity that seems to cast a dark cloud over our lives. 

There is an old saying, “It is always darkest before the dawn,” and I hope and pray we are there now. We all need optimism and hope. We all need to decide what we can do to make it happen. And the older we grow, the more we have to “concentrate on the donut not the hole,” as my sister often says. She is so right.

As I have written previously, my husband and I live in a wonderful long-term care retirement facility…in a charming cottage. My goal is to keep us independent and self-sufficient as long as possible; certainly until there is an effective Covid-19 vaccine. My husband has medical challenges. And my raison d’etre is keeping him as whole and happy as possible. His well-being, his needs plus our maintaining positive attitudes, propels me out of bed in the morning.  A redundant rejoinder: count your blessings each day. 

Consider the above a prelude to the final portion of this story. Since March when Covid-19 immersed us all into virtual isolation and quarantine, many of us have considered our mortality plus our priorities. Spending time with those in our lives who truly matter makes each day worthwhile. And even when we cannot see those whom we love most dearly, we can reach out and communicate. 

This past Sunday’s Parade Magazine told a story of “The Art of Survival,” a riveting account of how medical issues may “knock you down, but here is how to get back up.” The author, Sheryl Kraft, is both a cancer and Covid-19 survivor. “I survived—and came away with a deep understanding of the precious and precarious nature of life. Since then, I have tried to be fully present and grateful for each day. “  In the remainder of the article, she shares true experiences of a 62 year old stroke victim, a 46 year-old Covid-19 survivor and a 63 year old cancer survivor.  Obviously, each one is grateful for every good day. 

Sheryl’s stories echo my thoughts. She reflects why at my age and in my shoes I no longer waste time on senseless pursuits or people whose values I cannot share. Many years ago when we lived in Connecticut, I worked part time at a gift shop. I will never forget trying to please an arrogant customer, when my older, wiser friend Sally, now diseased, said to me, “Oh Joy, don’t waste your personality on people like her!” Advice that now makes infinite more sense to me.

Do you ever look at the Caller ID on your phone to decide if you will answer the call? These days when an unfamiliar number pops up, we cannot be sure it is a valid call from a friend or perhaps a solicitor or even a bogus scam caller. And there are way too many that beleaguer older people….be careful not to fall for any trap, either via phone, email or text messages. Don’t take any chances!

Admittedly, I screen calls because my days are so full of caretaking. That may sound inordinately selfish, but it is only self-preservation. Often times I cannot get to the phone, and if no one leaves a message, then I am fairly sure it is from someone we don’t know.  As my husband tells me, “if someone really wants to talk to us, we will get a message….or the person will call back.” Right on, John!

Taking it a step further, now that I am definitely “swimming in the deep end,” I find that free time is so limited that it must be spent with those whose lives I can enrich or visa versa. There is no time to waste on trivial, narrow relationships. If that sounds ugly, it is not meant to be….it is simply a result of circumstances.

This afternoon while my husband was napping, my first-born granddaughter, age 26, an interior designer working from home, called for an hour long FaceTime catch up. We covered the waterfront, so to speak…..I am still singing! How happy I am that she is on her way to becoming a significant adult. And as she says, “I am working hard to figure things out, Grammy.”

Just this week, the phone rang one morning, and  seeing the caller ID, I recognized the name….it was a dear Mobile, Alabama friend from the 1970ties. What a boost! As a 92 year-old widower, Frank sleuthed until he learned our phone number from a mutual friend in Maine. For 25 minutes, both John and I had a marvelous chat with this dear man, whose wife was one of my most favorite friends when we lived in Mobile. She died several years ago, but Frank has not forgotten John or me. His sense of humor is still as keen as ever, and we loved every second…such a blessing…Truly, that conversation gave our entire day special meaning and delight.

Then later on that same day, a sweet email came from my college roommate,  a widow, who wrote a wonderful message. I was so delighted that I grabbed the phone and called her. Kay and I agreed that distance or not, our friendship was still as vibrant as ever….and our life experiences have only solidified that relationship. She was as happy I called her as I was to receive her email. We promised to stay in closer touch. Even if life interferes,  we know the bond is there.

So, as I tread water in the deep end these scorching summer days and thank God that I can still paddle, I share a few thoughts with each of you who are perhaps at a different phase of your lives. 

First, nurture special long-term relationships of depth.

Second, don’t waste time on shallow people whose lives revolve around themselves. They have their own agendas, and if you can fill their needs, they want to be part of your life…but if not, they may disappear or offer sentiments that don’t hold an ounce of water.

Third, if differences in politics and basic values interfere,  ignore. Don’t engage in useless exchanges. Understand every person’s right to believe as they do…..lucky us to live in America. I pray for a return to conscientious civil discourse.

Fourth, don’t waste  time on trivialities…yes, it is fun to giggle and share a joke, as each one of us needs to laugh. But if we find we are at loggerheads with someone whose rigidity is immutable, then wish them well, and let go.

Fifth, superficiality in any form gets old as we grow older. “Actions speak louder than words.” My mother’s mantra.

And lastly, practice understanding and empathy. The Road to Forgiveness runs two ways. It can only be achieved if we are able to wave merrily at each other as we head our different directions.

With heartfelt hugs I wish you greater introspection as you swim your own laps…from the shallow end to the deep end. Perhaps someday, as an octogenarian, you, too, will tread water in the deep end, knowing that you are afloat, you will not fear whatever lies ahead. 

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Aristotle

Top photo: Bigstock

Joy Nevin is the author of Joy of Retirement – Live, Love, and Learn. Click to buy on Amazon.