About a hundred years ago my maternal grandmother traveled from Slovakia to Galveston, Texas all by herself on a steamboat. It must have taken incredible courage for her to leave everything and everyone that she had ever known to meet up with my grandfather who had taken the same journey a year earlier. In the beginning of her American adventure she held a number of jobs outside of her home, including one in which she worked behind a counter at a bakery. Before long she had so many children that she devoted all of her time exclusively to running the family household. Her life was demanding with one pregnancy after another, poverty and the deaths of two of her babies weighing heavily on her. At some point she had a breakdown and was committed to the state mental hospital. She was taken by force in front of her children who would never forget the horror of that moment. When she returned she was not the same, and she became a recluse, never again leaving her home save for a couple of medical emergencies that required hospitalization.
I met my grandmother long after the incident that so altered her life. She seemed happy enough to me, but even as a child I wondered how it was possible for her to be content with such a strange and limiting way of living. Her days were so routine. Her self imposed boundaries were so confining. She had the habit of repeating the same tasks day after day. Each morning she made coffee in a big enamel pot whose inside was stained a warm brown color from the countless iterations of the warm brew. Her rituals included sweeping and mopping the floors, a task that took little time because her house was so small. She worked in her garden, preferring to water her flowers by hand rather than with the hose that stood at the ready nearby.
Grandma often sat on her front porch surveying her domain and the world that kept changing around her. She was a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, and so her bare feet dangled from a chair like those of a tiny girl. Everything about her was childlike, her seeming contentment and lack of worry, her surrender to an uneventful lifestyle, the sweet smile that rarely left her face. She was at once both somewhat strange and quite wonderful to me. She appeared, at least on the surface, to have found a kind of nirvana that few of us ever achieve. I always wanted to know more about her. I desired to learn her thoughts and maybe even her secrets. She was so wonderfully simple and yet her long journey across an ocean told me that there was far more to her than I would ever know. Like my cousins I simply accepted her just as she was, a kind of saintly woman who had chosen to avoid the complexities that so often distract humans from what is most important in life. The essence of her existence was to love and be loved.
As strange as it may sound I thought of my grandmother recently when I was reading a magazine at my dentist’s office. I was anxious about my checkup on a number of levels. I have a phobia about dental work that was born when I first began seeing a pediatric dentist at the age of three. For whatever reason I am one of those unfortunates who has a tendency to get cavities, so at a young age I learned all about anesthetics and the drill. It was horrifying to me and I have never quite developed a more adult way of thinking about dental care. Thus I was attempting to distract my thoughts by reading about the strange case of Richard Simmons.
For those who may not be up to speed, Richard Simmons was a fitness guru who gained great popularity for his bubbly personality, frizzy hair and enthusiasm for a healthy lifestyle. He had his own televised exercise program and was a frequent guest on talk shows. He made a small fortune with fitness videos like Sweating With the Oldies. Up until 2014, he was still quite active, regularly holding exercise sessions at his gym and visiting with his countless friends. Then without warning he one day became a virtual recluse. Few of his former associates have even seen him for the last three years. The concern for his safety grew as this once gregarious man became a seeming prisoner in his own home, creating talk that something terrible must be happening to him.
A podcast detailing the strange disappearance of Richard Simmons became an instant hit as a former business partner took on the role of amateur sleuth in search of answers. Millions tuned in week after week to hear many strange theories being proposed. One fear was that Simmons was being held hostage by his longtime house keeper. Another idea was that he was transitioning into being a woman. It was unfathomable that such a vibrant individual might simply have decided to take a break from the madding crowd. The public concern for Mr. Simmons became so strong that the Los Angeles police eventually visited his home for a wellness check. They reported that they found a very healthy and happy Richard Simmons who spoke of enjoying his new quiet life.
It seems that Richard Simmons who is now sixty eight just decided that it was time to scale back the intensity of his existence. He no longer wanted to be that celebrity that we all know. He wasn’t mentally ill, but he was tired. He didn’t want to be a woman, but rather just to be himself, which included growing a beard and letting his hair go grey. He was not being held against his will, but had chosen to spend time in the serenity of his gardens. He now luxuriates in the quiet and simplicity of a life that he believes he has earned. He feeds the hummingbirds that skitter among his flowers and watches their antics for hours. He luxuriates in the peacefulness that he now feels each and every day.
We modern souls are constantly rushing. We fill our calendars with appointments and rise each morning certain that there will not be enough hours to accomplish all that we must do. We chide ourselves for sleeping too late or allowing ourselves to get off schedule. We are so busy exercising our bodies, counting our calories, building our resumes that we are often chronically exhausted. We race around and around and around like little gerbils on an infinite wheel. We look at someone like my grandmother or Richard Simmons and think that surely there must be something terribly wrong with them. After all, who would choose to stop the world and actually get off? And yet, somewhere in the back of our minds we envy their wisdom and their courage. We sense that they have found the ultimate secret to a life well lived.
Few of us have the capability of dropping out. We don’t enjoy the wealth that would provide us with surrogates to take care of our duties like Richard Simmons. We are not blessed with eight children who will provide us with all that we need like my aunts and uncles did for my grandmother. We have to buy our food and pay our bills and taxes. We must clean and repair our homes and care for our family and friends. We can’t simply hide ourselves away from the world, but we can learn how to give ourselves the gift of solitude now and again. We can plan our calendars in ways that allow us to relax and reflect. We don’t have to have an all or nothing way of dealing with our responsibilities, but we really should learn how to bring more balance into our days. We should find time for ourselves and never feel the need to explain those moments when we become temporary hermits escaping the hustle and bustle and finding peaceful solitude. It is our right to be good to ourselves.