What stinky shoes and drowning flies taught me about joy
If you’ve ever been on holiday, you’ll quickly realize that you aren’t the only one there. Wherever you go on this planet, loads of other travellers have already arrived. What better way to showcase to the world your adventure than with a selfie! The one where it looks like you are alone, or perhaps blissfully accompanied by your adoring lover, perfectly posed against the backdrop of a pristine lake, award winning architecture, or famous piece of art. People wait in line for this illusion, a fleeting moment where unbridled smiles reflecting infinite happiness are digitally memorialized. Forever. Remember how perfect our trip was?
Having watched this scene play out a thousand times (who am I kidding, participated in it hundreds), what has come to fascinate me most is not the shot itself, but what happens immediately before and after. Bickering couples pause their quarrel only to resume it seconds later. Insta-celebrities snarl at war-mongering mosquitos. Moms rub in another layer of SPF 50 on screaming children. It’s the before and after that really tells the story. But these moments are never captured. If they aren’t on film, did they ever exist? From my observations, I’ve learned something: I’m really not as happy as I like to be portrayed. And maybe neither are you. But no one wants any of us to know that.
On some level, I think we’re destined to suffer. Not in woe is me, the world is terrible kind of way. Nor in a redemptive way, either (unless you’re a Catholic mother). No, our proclivity for angst is existential. It just is. Plants need water. And life requires some suffering. I think the Buddha said that. Or maybe it was Miss Cleo the Fortune-teller from late night TV. I liken this unease to survivor’s guilt. The (somewhat) traumatic event that I survived (and am surviving) is life. And my guilt is that sometimes I don’t feel as joyful about this whole process as I think I should. Whatever that means.
If this guilt and angst were body parts, they would be bunions. Nothing too excruciating, but persistent enough to require a watchful management plan consisting of wide shoes, padding, and Extra Strength Tylenol. For me that look like mindfulness, gratitude, and living with purpose. When I’m particularly diligent, days can go by without my joyfulness meter dipping below whatever arbitrary level my psyche deems as ‘not joyful enough’. Below that and my survivor’s guilt kicks in, sending warning alerts and system fail messages which inevitably remedy themselves with navel gazing reflections like the one you’re reading.
Recently, I went on holiday to Spain, Malta and Sicily. Five weeks of doing nothing (I wasn’t the only one there but my pictures sure look like I am). While each of these countries are unique in their languages, foods, and customs, they all share in common one brilliant stroke of genius: afternoon siestas. That’s because in the summer here, it’s hot. Brutally hot. And the siesta is a marvellous, if not entirely necessary, invention. It’s nearly impossible to go outside during the afternoon. I couldn’t imagine working. By noon you’re so exhausted, not to mentioned soaked in sweat from the implacable sun, that the only way to survive roasting alive is frequent dips in the sea. Consider this: during its 151 year reign over the island, even the industrious British were unable to shake the Maltese of the notion of resting for prolong periods somewhere between the fuzzy hours of 1 and 6 (they did, however, succeed in convincing them that driving on the other side of the road was a reasonable proposition. Balderdash!). Siestas are that vital. And that resistant to the Crown.
I’ve become a bit of an expert in siestas over the past few weeks. Indeed, they have become a staple of my eventless days, which generally look like this:
9:30 — Wake up
10:30 — Breakfast
11:30 — Meander around whatever city I’m in
12:30 — First dip in the sea. Then a small siesta on the beach.
13:00 — Lunch
15:00 — Primary siesta
17:00 — Snack (almost always a Caprese salad)
18:30 — Second dip in the sea, followed by another lay down on the beach.
19:30 — Second siesta, also known as quiet hour.
21:00 — Dinner
00:00 — Bed
For the first two weeks of my trip — the time when I was travelling alone — this was a glorious agenda. And I marvelled in it.
Then Rich, my husband, arrived.
Maybe because he’s 6’4” and can see farther ahead than ordinary folk, or because he has watched every Marvel film a hundred times, developing his own spidey sense in the process, Rich has the uncanny ability to know what’s needed next. This has proven to be a powerful tool in managing group expectations and preventing dangerous situations from arising. This also means that Rich frequently knows what I need next, before I do. And most of the time he is right, an annoying fact that continues to surprise me even 6 years into marriage.
These rich tips genuinely come from place of kindness, but admittedly, are not always met with the same intention. Mostly because they involve strategies for how to best take care of me, something I remind Rich that I was perfectly capable of doing for the 32 years before I met him. He’s not so sure.
His advice usually centres on three themes: hydration, forgetfulness, and general health.
“When was the last time you drank some water?” he’ll ask.
“Do you have your wallet?” he’ll remind me.
“You sure you want to risk getting the runs by eating another gelato?” he’ll inquire (Duh. Of course I do.)
Where’s my Joie de Vivre?
I’m not sure if it was the prologued heat or the 20th caprese salad I’d ordered as an afternoon snack, but by week three the routine of daily siestas and sunbathing interspersed by Rich’s advice got the best of me. I was bored. Bored of the monotony. Bored of his instructions. But mostly bored of my self-indulgence. What had I become? A listless mass whose only function was to eat and sleep on a new rocky outcropping in the Mediterranean every day, only to be man-babied by my husband in between food and slumber? Now sooner had I thought this to myself did my survivor’s guilt kick in. What a bougie S.O.B. I am for not appreciating doing nothing for 5 weeks. Where’s my joie de vivre like the naked French couple feeding each other fruit on the beach blanket next to me? Try as I may, my joyfulness meter had crept into dangerous low levels.
This new onset of boredom and subsequent guilt for being bored happened to coincide with the arrival of Rich’s elementary school friend, Jenn, and her new boyfriend, Raja, who grew up in North London. Upon first meeting, Raja struck me as one of those people whose joyfulness meter runs full. A lot. “Isn’t that lovely!,” Raja would declare at the sight of every meal and swimming hole we’d encounter. And he would mean it. Rich, who shares Raja’s lighthearted spirit, quickly took to this expression. Though, in his put-on posh accent, the phrase never sounded quite as believable as Raja, never mind British.
Somewhere between Ragusa and Agrigento in Sicily, Rich booked the four of us an overnight stay at a local winery — the one on postcards that’s adorned by rolling hills and rowed vineyards, punctuated by long stone walls, rustic farm houses, and olive trees, all of it bathed in never ending late afternoon summer sun. It even had a lap pool, surrounded by perfectly manicured grass and magenta bougainvillaea trees. While the scenery here was different from what I’d grown accustomed to over the past few weeks, the routine would be the same. Oceans would be traded in for chlorinated water, but siestas and swims would continue as planned. Meanwhile, I would continue to grow tired of my indulgence. As we rounded the corner towards the pool, Raja chimed in on cue “Isn’t this lovely!”. It certainly was. But I was still stuck in a spiral of boredom and guilt.
No matter, what’s one more swim and plop?
Ants and Bees and Flies. Oh My!
As I approached the pool’s edge, I took off my shirt and slipped off my deck shoes, which had mysteriously developed a horrific odour over the past few days — a cross between rotten eggs and swamp foot, with a dash of vinegar. Rich had brought these shoes with him from Vancouver for me just a week earlier, so I was slightly bothered that they were already in such a state. I didn’t give it too much thought, though, and instead took interest in the cooling water.
My interest quickly shifted, however, when I noticed a drowning bee in the pool. I was quick to the rescue. Carefully scooping her out of the water, I watched intently as she meticulously used her tiny legs as make shift squeegees, sliding one up against the another, wringing out every last tiny water droplet from her battered body. One drenched wing that had been plastered against her body suddenly dried in the heat and started furiously flapping. Pop! The other one was now dry too. And in an instant, the bee buzzed away. “Have a fulfilling life!” I thought as a slight breeze swept her out of sight.
“What’s going on over there?” Rich inquired from the pool deck.
“I just helped a bee!” I said self satisfied, noticing that my joy meter had shifted upwards. I guess this isn’t all that surprising. For the first time in several weeks my attention had shifted away from my own mercurial pleasures to saving a creature’s life. And that always feels so much better.
I looked across the water and noticed that there was a lot of work to do. The pool, an oasis of reprise for humans, was a death sentence for insects. Everywhere I looked there were bees and ants and flies frantically swimming in circles. While I managed to save the bees and ants, a curious thing occurred when I attempted to do the same for the flies. Like the bees, the flies would carefully wring out their limbs while their wings dried in the summer sun. But unlike their distant cousins, the flies wouldn’t fly away. Instead, they would walk right back into the pool, as though they didn’t want my help, destined for tragedy ahead.
Even though I couldn’t see him, Rich looked over with curiosity. I could feel his stare on my back.
“These flies won’t let me help them!”, I said with exacerbation. “Don’t they know what’s good for them?”. He didn’t say a word.
After several more failed attempts at saving the flies from themselves, I retreated to the shade of a tree. I felt deflated. What saving the lives of bees and ants had added to my joyfulness meter, the obstinate flies had taken away.
Brushing it off, I turned my attention downwards and shouted at Rich from across the pool, “Any idea what’s going on with these stinking shoes?”
“You didn’t rinse your feet off with fresh water the other day at the beach. You just put your salty feet right in,” he stated matter of factly.
“And this makes them smell?” I asked dubiously.
“Yep,” he replied with a tone that implied this was common information.
“And you saw me put them on?” I asked.
“Yep,” he replied.
“And you didn’t say anything?”
“Nope. I knew better.”
“But if you knew they were going to stink, why didn’t you say anything?” I asked in disbelief.
He paused and took a breath.
“Because sometimes you’re like those flies in the pool.”
His words stung. Like a bee. And for the rest of the trip I vowed to take Rich’s counsel without fight or resistance. I know firsthand how much helping others can affect one’s joyfulness meter, if they’ll let you. Then, I went over to him and gave him a kiss. No selfie. Just a joyful moment. Before, during and after.