The food was pretty dreadful for a kid. My parents, transplants to California from the East Coast, had sophisticated palates. Then too seafood was cheap at the time and we were poor. So there were many evenings spent staring into bowls of tentacles and eyeballs and unidentifiable iridescent blobs. There was eel. There was squid. There were oysters. If you didn't eat it for dinner, you'd get it again for breakfast.
But it was the sheer sitting that was the most painful. The burn up and down my spine. The grind of my sitting bones against the oak chair. The scraping of my thighs against the rough edge of the table apron as I crossed and recrossed my legs. The bloat in my belly. The buzz of rebellion in my brain. Maybe I didn't get waterboarded in my chowder and maybe my shackles were invisible, but it was torture, and I felt rage and despair—and fear that I would go mad if I were not released.
After I graduated from high school and from the dinner table, the fetters fell away and I was free. For many, many reasons, adulthood seemed easier than childhood. I remember savoring the great delirious freedom when Other and I had a "naughty dinner"—gigantic cookies as an entree—as we walked from the bakery to our apartment near Golden Gate Park. What made the moment so good was as much the not-sitting-down as the not-eating-by-the-book.
But in my mid-50s I began feeling the strictures of captivity cutting in again, as I shouldered responsibility for my elderly parents, watching them both age, my father die, my mother linger in a kind of twilight. I want to love doing my duty, much as my parents must have wanted us to love sitting together over a meal, but I don't love it. It is painful to sit by bedsides—or at the dinner table again—for days at a time. Not just psychologically but physically.
Many people have recommended meditation to assuage the stress and sense of imprisonment. And I have tried it. But it doesn't help. In fact, the other day I realized it made me feel worse. And here's the reason: meditation is a whole lot like being trapped at the dinner table. Maybe the tentacles aren't there, but the confinement and discomfort and the neverendingness are the same. So I'm giving it up. But perhaps I will bring the techniques of meditation to the bedside vigil. Focus on the breath. Gently put aside thoughts of past and future. And most fundamentally, the suggestion of an old friend who’s a veteran preschool teacher: Take my shoes off.