Sunday, September 20, 2009

Worm Food

At the risk of being accused of turning this blog into a giant travel log, today I'd like to write about another favorite yearly trip that Alan and I love to take. Every July for the past ten years or so, we point the car south and drive until the road meets the ocean, in Key West. We love to go in July because this is when the town hosts their annual Hemingway Days, in honor of their famous one-time resident, Ernest Hemingway. It's AWESOME!!

The highlight of the festival takes place at Papa Hemingway's favorite drinking establishment, Sloppy Joe's Tavern. This is where they hold the extremely popular Hemingway look-a-like contest. Believe me when I tell you these men are SERIOUS about this competition! Picture a bunch of burley men with grey hair and beard, dressed head to toe in safari-wear. The contest lasts several days and includes a key-lime pie eating contest, talent show, and the "running with the bulls" race (the latter is performed using shopping carts dressed to resemble the livestock of Pamplona. It's a MUST see!!).

We love Key West and the flavor of that eclectic city. One year we decided to really explore the history of the place and took several tours of the old homes there. Key West boasts a rich history, particularly during the nineteenth century. This was an era when shipwrecks occurred daily on the island's off-shore reef. It was a time of pirates and yellow fever, slave ships and Indian wars. There are many huge mansions there built solely from the spoils of treasure found off of those wrecked ships.

There's a fantastic old cemetery there where you can wander amongst the crypts of the town's most famous citizens. The engraving on some of the headstones gives you an idea of the true character of Key West and it's inhabitants: "I Told You I Was Sick," "Devoted Fan of Julio Inglesias," "Good Citizen for 65 of his 108 Years," and "At Least I Know Where He's Sleeping Tonight."

That same year we decided to take a boat ride on the Yankee Freedom to the Dry Tortugas National Park, located seventy miles west of Key West. Here you can find Fort Jefferson, one of the largest coastal forts ever built. It became a prison during the civil war, and even housed the famous inmate Dr. Samuel Mudd. He's the doctor that was charged with conspiracy for treating the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln. It was a fascinating, beautiful trip, but one that soon became extraordinary when we boarded the boat to return back to the Keys.

Apparently, some Cuban refugees, trying to make their way on a make-shift raft to Miami, had drifted west and landed on the shores of the Dry Tortugas. Our country has a "dry foot" law regarding Cuba, in that if a refugee makes it to land, they are allowed to stay (after being processed by our government). Since transportation to and from the Tortugas is limited, they announced to us passengers that park officials would be escorting the Cubans back to the Processing Center on Key West by way of our boat. I'll tell you this, it was hard not to stare at the faces of those tired, relieved men. I thought hard about the intensity of the journey they had just endured.

But our surreal trip was not over. About a half an hour into our boat ride back, the captain again made an announcement. He said we'd notice that the boat was going to slow to a stop for a moment while they paused and performed a brief, two-minute ceremony off the back of the ship. I tore myself away from the exhausted refugees to see what was going on. Apparently, the parents of a long-time Key West fisherman were onboard. Their son had recently lost his battle with cancer, and they had with them an urn that contained his ashes, along with the gold medallion he always wore. The father held in his hand a paper with the exact latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates of where his son requested his ashes to be scattered.

The boat stopped and a crew member helped the elderly couple onto a small platform nearest the water. They both bowed their heads, then cast the contents of the urn out onto the crystal clear, windex-blue water. The last thing they tossed overboard was that gold medallion. As they both turned back, tears streaming down their faces, I struggled for something to say. There was nothing. So as the woman passed, I grabbed her arm, looked her in the eye, and gave her hand a squeeze. She patted my hand and said, "I'm just glad it's finally over." Indeed.

I returned from that trip to Key West with a different attitude. I kept
thinking about how brief the time is that we get on this earth. Seriously, how long before they're giving museum tours of OUR homes, saying, "Here's the kitchen where they typically prepared the family meals. Notice the archaic microwave oven and twenty-first century juicer."

I love the movie Dead Poet's Society, the movie in which Robin Williams portrays John Keating, the eccentric prep-school professor who challenges his young male students to live life to the fullest. My favorite scene is at the very beginning, where he takes his class out to the school hallway where a row of trophy cases stand. In them are old photos of students from many years before. Mr Keating tells the boys to lean in and get a good look at them. "Peruse the faces from the past," he says. He points out that the boys in those photos are just like they are now, "Same haircuts...full of hormones...invincible...eyes full of hope." But the only difference, he tells them, is that all the boys featured in those photos are now "fertilizing daffodils." They are all dead, and someday everyone standing there in that hallway would be joining them. "We are food for worms, lads." With that in mind, he asks his class to lean in and listen to what those boys want them to know. "If you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you...'Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your life extraordinary.'"

My Dad's sisters kid him that he still has the money he received for his First Communion stashed away in a drawer somewhere. He is ridiculously reluctant to spend his hard earned money. My mother suggested recently they spend some of their vast savings and take a cruise. My seventy-five year old father refused, citing that they needed to save that money FOR THEIR OLD AGE!

I know times are hard out there, and I'm certainly not suggesting we all blow our savings and rush off to invest in an Alpaca farm somewhere (unless that's what you really, really want to do!). But since that trip I've decided to focus more intently on making minutes count. Before they sprinkle my ashes or create my hilarious tombstone (I'm still working on my inscription!), I want to make sure I've left no stone unturned. I can assure you, those five Cubans on a makeshift raft decided they'd had enough of living under a cruel dictatorship and did something about it. Talk about seizing the day...

I'd like to think that starting this blog was a version of applying this practice. I was terrified to do it. When I initially created the blog, I didn't provide a space for comments, I was convinced I was making a large fool of myself. Now I love the feeling of accomplishment it brings me. I'm so grateful for the way old friends whom I haven't seen in decades have rushed to offer encouragement and support for this endeavor. Seize the Day. I love how the interpretation isn't "Gently grasp the edges of the day and give it a little tug." No! Seize it! Grab it like a shoplifter at Best Buy and RUN!!

Need some encouragement? See if this helps, it did for me: My sister Jennifer is a West Point graduate and veteran of the first Gulf War. After marrying and giving birth to two children, she gave the army a few more good years, then retired and decided to move on to something else. With her huge brain and immense toughness, we thought for sure her new career would involve politics or something high-pressured. She wanted to teach. She ignored her critics, went back to school to get her masters degree and teaching certificate, and is now a very happy, awesome teacher of the 3rd and 4th grade at an elementary school in Washington. She says she truly loves her job and the young minds she gets to mold every day (although the kids are growing a little weary of "dropping and giving her twenty" when they provide low test scores!).

My sister Kathy, an expert quilter, attended a class at a national quilt show. When she realized she knew more about the subject than her teacher that day, she approached the woman at the end of the class and asked her about her job and how she obtained it. Kathy now travels the country representing Pfaff sewing machines, teaching classes at quilt shows. Her expertise and knowledge are in huge demand. Lastly, there's my mom, Sandy Donnelly, who successfully convinced her tight-wad of a husband that if they didn't start spending their savings, they'd soon die and the money would all just go to their children. They left for their Alaskan cruise a few short months later.

The worms await us, dear friends. I challenge you to make this brief journey worthwhile. Do the thing that you fear the most. Book the trip you've been meaning to take. And while you're making travel arrangements, may I suggest the sunny, eclectic island of Key West? You won't regret it!

Thanks for reading!!


Unknown said...

Wow! What a post. Well done. And thanks for saying that I am in "huge demand." That's quite a stretch but it was a nice thing to say. :) Love what you write Joan. Hope you keep these posts coming.

Anonymous said...

Right on, Sister. It's a cryin' shame more folks don't take a serious and close look at the (real) big D -- Death. And I mean their own. I can't think of anything more motivating than facing the fact that you sooner or later you're not going to have the opportunity to do whatever it is you've been waiting to do anymore. Worse, you won't have the opportunity to be whoever you've been waiting to be, either.

Carpe Diem, Sweet Joan!

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