When I was a young man in my 20s I was always on the go and could never sit still very long. I had big plans and lots of energy to accomplish them. I remember always feeling that there was so much to do and so little time to do it in. I think I spent about half of my time thinking about what I needed to do and most of the other half actually doing it.
I don’t think I spent more than 10 percent of my time actually being in the present moment. My thoughts were always drifting off into the past (“Why did this or that have to happen?” or “I wish I had done this or that differently”) or the future (“I think I’ll try this tomorrow” or “I better get ready for that next month”).
I got a lot accomplished, advanced in my education and career, and made some money, but never seemed to be very happy or aware of the present moment, content to just be myself. I was always in the process of becoming someone, never being myself.
At the time, my wife and I had a third-floor attic apartment that a paisano from my family was renting to us for a minimal amount. Frank and his wife Fanny were an old Italian couple from the same village in Italy as my father. Their grown children were married and had moved out and into houses of their own. Frank and Fanny were both well into their 80s at the time but had a vibrant quality that made them seem years younger. I think they enjoyed having Heidi and I on the third floor. It was like having their kids home.
Frank had an amazing capacity for just being in the present moment. Although his three-story apartment building was in a very developed urban area, he had this amazing garden that took up most of his 800-square-foot yard. In his garden he planted tomatoes, peaches, figs, and other fruits but his pride and joy were his grapes from which he made wine in his basement. On more than a couple of occasions I enjoyed the pleasure of a lunch comprised of Fanny’s homemade pasta with marinara sauce made from their tomatoes and Frank’s wine that seemed to have the maximum alcohol achievable under normal fermentation.
I used to watch Frank walk in his garden: back and forth, back and forth, hands clasped behind his back, half-lit stogie in his mouth, pacing the same twenty-five-foot horizontal east-to-west path, pausing only to change directions and pace north to south. I remember saying to myself, “What a crazy old dude, all he ever does is pace mindlessly back and forth through his garden.”
How silly I was. What I didn’t realize then was that Frank’s Pacing was anything but mindless. I remember now how he would stop and lean his head back, eyes closed, nostrils flared, Experiencing his garden through its aromas, moisture, and sounds. I recall how a thin smile would cross his face as he stopped to examine a grape, taste a fig, caress a tomato. His actions were hardly mindless.
What I now realize is that Frank epitomized Mindfulness. Everything he did was mindful. It would frustrate me to watch him pick a tomato. He would carefully examine each fruit before he picked it, choosing only the ripest for Fanny’s sauce. He would gently pluck the fruit from the vine, being oh so careful not to disturb the other pieces that were still ripening. Then he would hold the piece to the sunlight, wipe it off on his shirt, and examine it one last time before gently placing it in his basket. He would then move on to the next tomato, repeating the procedure. It could take him a good twenty minutes to pick the day’s tomatoes.
I would say to myself, “What a waste of time. I could have done that in five minutes.” I think Frank realized how I felt because he would give me a knowing look, as if to say, “Slow down, Rich, and enjoy the full experience of these wonderful tomatoes, a gift to us from nature.”
I miss those early Evenings spent with Frank in his garden. How I wish he and Fanny were still around, so I could tell them how much I can now appreciate their simple, honest lives, and the mindfulness they brought to each moment. How much I would now give for a Wordless walk in the garden with Frank, stopping now and then to smell the air, sift through the soil, and sit on the garden swing, merely being in the presence of such beauty. Frank truly knew what everyday mindfulness was all about.