Taking Ten Breaths at Smith Mountain Lake

There is a wonderful little book by Glen Schneider called Ten Breaths to Happiness: touching life in its fullness. The basic message is that we miss the really great things in our lives because we do not really notice and savor them. The “ten breath“ practice is take ten full slow breaths when you experience something wonderful so that you let the moment sink into your full awareness.

Yesterday was full of ten breath moments for me. In the afternoon I went out to the Smith Mountain Lake. Liz and I are negotiating to buy an efficiency apartment at Mariner’s Landing as a getaway. Given that we both are less interested in long trips, this seems ideal. With its five hundred miles of shoreline, Smith Mountain Lake is a scenic wonder. On days other than prime summer season weekends, the lake has relatively few boats on it and very enjoyable.

I have always loved the water. My brother, Dick, and I learned to swim early on. We water skied when we were in our early teems just the two of us, on the Long Island Sound. Not only have I have I never had a fear of the water but I have felt more graceful and at ease while swimming than navigating on land, particularly in my early self-conscious years. Some of my best days at high school were spent on the Stuyvesant Varsity Swim Team.

I was introduced to the lake by my mentor and father figure, the late Bristow Hardin, Jr. the founding Executive Director of Total Action Against Poverty, now Total Action for Progress. Bristow was an avid sailor. His 26th foot

Columbia sailboat was his pride and joy. Nothing pleased him more than engaging in impromptu sailing races with friend and colleague, John Sabean. Of course, Bristow, as usual. rewrote the rules of the race as it went along. From the top of his mast, Bristow flew a pennant of a black ball. This was in recognition of the Virginia Inland Sailing Association’s refusal to grant him membership because of the color of his sailing companions. Bristow and his colleague, Wilma Warren, would buy a lake cabin for their families where Bristow in grand style would entertain friends and visitors on most any weekend.

My first experience of actually sailing a boat took place on a small pond in Maine. In the mid-1960s I attended a month long community simulation at Bethel Maine, the training site for National Training Laboratories. It was an interracial group of more than a hundred with participants from across North America and Central America. The room and board was pricy. I decide to forgo those costs and buy a second hand sail canoe, tent, camping equipment and rented a site at a nearby national park on the shore of this pond for $7 for the month! There, in between scheduled sessions, I learned the fundamentals of turning into the wind, a controlled jibe, and tacking. It also provided a wonderful reprieve from many contentious moments of high racial conflict during the day.

In 1975 my good friend and later wife, Lin Atkin, and I bought a 25 foot Catalina Sailboat, We named the boat, “No Problem,” The inspiration came from a memorable trip to Jamaica where whenever we asked for help from islanders, the response was…you guessed it. “No problem, Mon!” Today the boat still flies the black and green Jamaican flag on Smith Mountain Lake.

My trip to the lake yesterday filled me again with the natural wonders of the lake, its blue green waters, the mountain setting, clear skies with white cumulus clouds, a light wind wafting through the trees, stirring the boats in their slips and clanging the halyards against the masts, a warm sun on my skin in late of day. It brought back so many wonderful memories. The sparkle of the sun off the waves like a field of diamonds. The nights moored out in one of the many coves, swimming in near 80 degree summer waters. Cooking steaks on a gas grill that attached to the railing. Sailing in 25 mile winds, with the railing in the water. July 4th weekend celebrations out on the water with close to a hundred boats while fireworks exploded over head. One July 4th weekend moored just outside of the beach at Smith Mountain State Park listening to a special program of music by a fifty member choir. Watching a Monarch butterfly land on the lip of my cup of hot chocolate laced with rum one early morning. The butterfly became so intoxicated he could not fly off. I watched for a half an hour until he recovered and resumed his journey with wonderful butterfly memories. The time we were heading into the marina and were hit with hail and the high winds of a thunderstorm. After getting the sails down we headed in toward one of the docks still under high winds at full speed. With the help of two men who caught the boat and held it tight, a perfect but treacherous landing.

Long before I started meditating I experienced the wonder of fully living in the present on the sailboat, especially when sailing alone. There is an incredible sense of being in touch with all of nature, the wind, the water, the sky, the mountains in the background. There is nothing quite like it. In fact, boating under the power of a combustion engine trying to get somewhere on time or faster than someone else seems like a transgression.

For most of our time together, “No Problem,” has been moored at Lake Haven Marina, the “working man’s marina,” No code on dress or limit on beer consumption. The hub of the marina is King’s Irish Pub, which is unapologetically both Irish and Democratic, in its ethnic and political persuasion. Memorabilia of Ireland is interspersed with pictures of FDR, Truman, JFK and Bobby Kennedy. The food is filling and affordable. The choice of beverage on tap expansive. Live music is played on the weekends often so late that if you are sleeping aboard, it is better to go out a ways and drop anchor.

The owner of Lake Haven Marina is Larry King and until her passing a few years ago, Gloria King. Gloria is deeply missed. She was a remarkable presence who knew everyone’s name and for years had a full menu of German dishes exquisitely prepared. Members of the King family, especially Frank, Josie and her husband, Steve, have operated the marina since I can remember,

Larry was the Manager of Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania when it blew. Although he continually warned upper management of the safety violations before the meltdown, the blame was laid at his feet. He was fired. He later worked for the Atomic Energy Commission through an appointment arranged by the environmentalist Senator Morris Udall.

There contrary to the desire of many of the higher level political appointments who had come from the private sector nuclear industry, he vigorously wrote up every plant violations. After many years of being forced to travel greater distances to far away plants and other forms of harassment, Larry was terminated. He challenged the firing, earned a law degree, filed suit and eventually won a settlement. Larry and Gloria had purchased Lake Haven while he worked at Three Mile Island as an investment and getaway. After the accident it became their home.

Before leaving I dropped in on the pub, talked to Josie, and ordered a local dark ale and a wonderful dish of stick-to-the-bones cottage pie. Looking around the interior which had changed little in all these years, I remembered our special friendship with George and Nancy Hollub. George came to America, an escapee of the Hungarian communist regime during the revolution in the 1950s. He earned a degree in chemistry and developed a business selling insurance products to companies. He could apply mahogany veneer to a cabin, sew his own sails, rebuild a diesel engine, and was an expert sailor. His motto was,”If someone else can build it, I can probably build it and most certainly repair it.” He and Nancy became very dear friends.

To be with them on the water or on land was a joy, full of laughter and good will. Years later, from time to time I would call their house on my way back through Greensboro and check in on them. On my last call a year or more ago, Nancy told me that George had just died of lung cancer. It was a sad moment thinking of this vibrant jovial talented man no longer alive.

As I sat there at the Pub in that wonderful place of grand memories, special friendships, adventures, slowly savoring both food, drink and the special ambiance of the place, I took ten slow breaths honoring it all, every bit of it!

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