Life Lessons

A New Sense of Worth

Hobbies 1
Other people's hobby which I saw on a walk

The way I have settled into retirement— away from what had been my home for eight years, away from a job that I had for sixteen years, away from an area where I had lived longer than any other place, away from a set schedule and responsibilities, away from friends and most family—has unmoored me, cast me off—made me feel how solitary I am.

Having stepped off the work track means that the only expectations that I have to live up to are my own. It is as if I had been living in one world and, now, I’m in a different one. Or, perhaps, it is simply that I’ve moved into another phase of life: from childhood, to young adulthood, to devoted-to-others-and-accomplishments adulthood, and now to the phase whereby a mature adult transforms experiences into wisdom. It’s also as if the ground I stand upon has shifted and now, surprisingly, it’s more stable, because it’s more dependent on me.

Recently, I heard from one friend who is anxious that she’ll be fired from her job, another who is counting down to retirement and trying to figure out the best way to make it there mentally and physically intact, while another tries to configure the right balance where too much work and commitment aren’t always stressful, only sometimes. I also heard from another friend, who retired a year before me, who wants to schedule a zoom call to talk about the books that we’ve been reading and writing.

Amidst those conversations, I spoke with someone (who was talking to me as part of her job) who complimented me by saying I look too young to be retired, and then proceeded to express her disappointment that I’m not working. What would be the lure of working if it’s not financially necessary and not mentally positive? Why is having a “job-job” the sign of a productive person? Perhaps her concern is for my mental health now that I’m not employed. But not everyone’s identity is wrapped up in their job, or remains so.

The pandemic was hard on students, parents, and teachers, but I no longer felt that the balance of giving and receiving was healthy for me. As a teacher, I found that I was spending my time and mental health adhering to and concerned by rules and regulations, and being buffeted by the whims of students, parents, and administrators. And what if I took a job just to have a job? Would I be more valued if I was folding clothing in a store or serving coffee in a cafe? And what if I started tutoring students in writing (one of my favorite parts of being an English teacher)—would helping those who already have so many advantages (hence their ability to pay the hefty hourly payment that I do sometimes daydream about because, yes, it would be nice) make me a more valuable member of society—or more valuable to myself?

My reaction to her off-handed comment brought me back to a question that I do think about: What makes a life of worth?

I recently read The Story of Arthur Truluv, by Elizabeth Berg, in which Arthur says that his value as a retired person is in appreciating the work of others. I like that perspective, but I’m not at that stage, yet. My mother and her friends, who are in their late 70s and 80s and 90s, are in that stage. And they deserve to just enjoy the moment (even in the ever-present pain of not having their husbands with them)—the fruit of many years of work. But I’m only 61. (I removed the quotes from around only, since it does feel young down here in retirement-land. Being around much older people does have its advantages.)

My daughters are both embarking on new careers and jobs, and I am thrilled and excited for them. I’m also glad it’s not me. Whatever mistakes I made, I’m okay with them and their consequences. I don’t want the exhaustion, struggle, and confusion of a redo.

This after-work part of life is like being a child (with a hands-off parent) who says, “Be home by dinnertime,” and “I’ll drive you to whatever lessons you want.” It is circling back to engaging with the things I want to do without concern for a purpose. No recompense required and no need for it to lead to something that could lead to a good job. This is true purpose. This is my freedom.   

 


Uniquely Ordinary: Aren’t We All

Wakodahatchee Wetlands
Another hobby: Going on walks (Wakodahatchee Wetlands)

I can still remember when I thought that being unique was the most important quality a person could have. It could have been that I was protecting the introverted book worm that I was who didn’t fit in or have many friends. It also could have been the ego of a self-conscious, confidence-lacking young woman trying to figure out what it meant to be herself without succumbing to the temptation of putting herself down for somehow not being like everyone else. It wasn’t a choice to not fit in. Neither was it a joyful experience. At some point, though, I accepted the situation—dealt with it through a balance of superiority/inferiority complex—neither helpful, but, somehow, a protective mix.

When I went to college in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s, women were finally able to navigate their way out of the teacher/ secretary/ nurse silo into which we had been placed for too long. I put pressure on myself to have a groundbreaking career. It all seemed so possible. Alas, I didn’t have enough drive or hunger to commit to anything other than a vague notion of being a writer. I say vague because I wrote barely enough to even say that I wrote, but just enough to maintain the illusion. So, instead of committing to a career or giving up and slogging through years of being an assistant, wearing the de rigueur string ties and boxy jackets of the ‘80s, until I figured out what I wanted to be, I jumped ship and moved to Israel. Just being there enabled me to be unique. I didn’t need a career to define me, create me. Perhaps this was both my downfall (career-wise) and also what saved me as a person who never fully identified with her job.   

So now, in the first year of my retirement, approximately 40 years after graduating from college, I am confronted with reckoning time: What have I accomplished in my working life? I always did enough to be good, never enough to be great. I was committed, but never enough to be on a fast trajectory up the ladder. In the first part of my working life, I was a technical and marketing writer, and in the second I was a high school English teacher. I got a master’s degree in conflict studies in between that I never used directly, though it informed my understanding of people and the world. Along the way I wrote books and developed toys and games for children and adults. Briefly, I was the founder of two companies, but they floundered as I discovered that creativity is not enough for business success. But I have no regrets. Okay, a little, but I’m sure that I wouldn’t have been happy with the trade-offs that would have been required. Generally, I’m okay with how things played out, except, of course, in my marriage, but that is a different story of failure. I have been able to use and develop innate skills, and interact with people in ways that have helped them and made me a better person. No gloating, just acceptance. (Is that a runner-up or the surprise winner?)

The other day, I told a friend that I look forward to gardening when I have outside space again. It’s useful (yeah, fresh herbs and tomatoes from my own garden!) and it’s outside. Then, I thought about how much I look forward to cooking for others again. So ordinary, these things I like to do, I thought of/to myself, not unique.

The next day I read an obituary that said the deceased woman liked to garden, cook, and read. Just like me, I thought. I didn’t think about the smallness of her interests—she hadn’t sailed around the world rescuing sick seabirds—but just the honesty of what was important for her survival. Her interests may not have been flamboyant, but, I hope, they indicated that she accepted herself for who she was and that she hadn’t adjusted herself for others.

And I remember now that it is said that we are each born with our own unique soul. Thus, we each have our own, unique, life to live. Acknowledging this makes me realize that every moment of a life expresses its uniqueness and that it is imperative to live acknowledging that my essence is the foundation for all that I do or am, not the other way around.


The Yellow Box of ‘Your Turn to Talk’

Beach walk

There are people and articles out there stating how bad Zoom is for us, but I disagree. I have found that zooming is making me a better listener and, hence, conversationalist, especially when there are more than two people involved. Not only can only one person speak at a time, but you are immediately made aware of your attempt to overtalk or interrupt in a very visual way: your box becomes outlined in yellow. It is the new mark of shame. You can actually see that you “grabbed” the box—the microphone—from the person who was still talking. It is a bright lesson to shut up, pay attention, and wait your turn.

When we first started socializing via Zoom, I wanted to be heard. For a teacher to go from having classrooms full of students listening to me (surely some were listening) to having no audience was a hard transition. Besides, I thought, many of the people I was zooming with had a partner with whom they could chat at home, so I figured it was okay to hog the talk time. Then, one day when I exited a zoom meeting, I realized that I didn’t really know what was going on with my friends. I had squandered a rare opportunity to hear from them and get out of my ceaseless internal monologue. In another moment of clarity, it occurred to me that just because they have a partner, didn’t mean that they were having all the kinds of conversation that they needed to have. There’s a reason why there are book clubs and ladies meeting for lunch.

I was to learn another aspect of my listening lesson in my zoom conversations with my daughters. I really did want to hear from them and would constantly interrupt with more questions. But, between poor connections with younger daughter who lives in the middle of a forest, and my interruptions, I found that the two people I wanted to be in a zoom room with most were getting a bit annoyed at me. I needed to not interrupt and let the conversation flow.

Over the years, I became aware of how much I interrupted people with my, supposedly, more entertaining stories. I can blame growing up in NYC and living in Israel and even being me, but it was still a way of being that I knew was disrespectful and that I needed to change. It doesn’t matter whose stories are “better,” what matters is the conversation, the interchange, the listening, the being heard, the learning. It’s been a while that I’ve been working on shutting up and listening, but with the pandemic method of gathering in our online boxes, I have finally come face-to-face with the fact that I wasn’t as improved as I hoped I had become.

So, while I did finish a book and I did bake quite a few loaves of bread during the pandemic, I think this may be the most important lesson that I’ve learned. Now I need to see if anyone still wants to zoom with me.


Contemplating Volunteering

 

MLK Day 2022 Painting Front Door
Painting a front door on MLK Day 2022 (Photo: Jewish Federation of PBC)

 

Over the years, I’ve volunteered with different organizations, doing different things, for different reasons. I’ve filled bags with food, cleaned a beach, canvassed for politicians, sat with people in hospice, and translated Holocaust survivor testimonies. This week, I’ll start volunteering at a local public garden and continue helping to write fundraising materials for two organizations in Israel focused on coexistence. My retirement days are not just filled with reading and wandering.

You’ve likely heard the statement that the giver gets more than the receiver, but I will buck the trend and say that I don’t agree with it. It must be more of a balance. How can you say that my peace of mind for having done something good for two hours is the same as a parent receiving food for their hungry children, or a dying person having someone sit beside them for part of their endless day? If it were true, then I would need to feel guilty that part of the reason I do these acts is for me to meet people and be engaged. It’s not purely an altruistic move and I don’t want to feel bad about that.

My volunteering really started when I became an empty nester, since I had more time and less financial stress. It was a sign that I had transitioned from survival mode to fulfillment mode. It occurs to me now, though, that just when I no longer needed to focus on someone else, I chose to continue focusing on others, which, I also realize, is my way of taking care of what I need, both morally (Jewishly) and psychologically. It seems to be impossible for me to be in this world and not try to be a part of it, to help improve it, to ameliorate its pains in the ways that I am able, even while trying to make friends.

During my on-boarding interview at the garden, the interviewer asked me if I had volunteered anywhere else. I quickly mentioned a few places, but later in the interview and the day, I remembered other places. All of them had been for causes that are meaningful to me. But at most of the places, for various reasons, I hadn’t become engaged with the activity or the people with whom I worked. It seems that finding a good volunteer fit is like finding the right job or partner.

At an organization that helps abused women where I volunteered a few years ago, the woman who ran the volunteer training program had started out as a volunteer and was so dedicated that she ended up as a full-time employee. For me, it wasn’t the right fit and I only volunteered there the minimum required following the (excellent) training. At other places, I could just sign up for a few hours. In many places, there was either too little engagement or too many people coming in groups that resulted in my feeling left out. This shouldn’t be a concern and maybe it sounds selfish, and maybe it is, but I don’t want to feel bad about myself or uncomfortable when I’m trying to be of service to others. I have also realized that I would prefer to use my skills, which utilize my very being, then simply do a task. I haven’t ruled those out, but they would be more occasional than ongoing.

While some of these volunteer adventures have been frustrating, I have remained persistent, knowing that I need them and knowing that when it is the right fit, I have felt whole—as a part of what is. As I sit here pushing this thought, wondering why this has been so important to me, Hillel’s statement of ancient wisdom comes to me:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

And me as a human being—not the women who needs to understand everything—knows that the answer is simply that this is the way for me to be in the world, to share in the world. It is to know something intrinsically. It is to be.


Wandering as My State of Being

Lake Worth Pink House
Lake Worth, Pink House

As I sit here in a local coffee shop, staring into space and at the people sitting at their tables and walking by, I realize that wandering, mentally and physically, is my natural state of being. Of course, that is a paradox, for how can I be unfocused and have an insight at the same time? Which is, I also realize, the normal state of my mind: to be aimless and purposeful, to be suspended within myself and part of the external environment.

Growing up, I lived about a mile from Little Neck Bay in Queens. As soon as I was old enough to physically wander off on my own, I would walk through my neighborhood of six-story red brick apartment buildings and two-story garden apartments to the bay, then walk along it focused on the water, the cattails growing tall, the birds seeking sustenance, and other people walking, skating, or biking on the paved path, while trying to ignore the busy highway on the other side, pretending that the rushing sounds of the cars were waves coming in and going out rhythmically.

When I could drive, sometimes I went to Jones Beach where I would walk along the wide sandy beach, the wind and the waves my walking partners. The hour drive was prologue and epilogue to the walk, cocooning me within the car. Other times, I would go in the opposite direction: into Manhattan. There, I would walk for miles, often on Fifth Avenue along Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then in the museum through gallery after gallery of people and beauty and other people’s insights. Sometimes I would walk up Madison Avenue, walking by shops that I would never enter, and down the streets between looking at the brownstones where people lived in luxury that I could only daydream about. Then, to Third Avenue where there was more vibrancy, less preciousness, more of a sense of belonging, and back to the subway on sturdy Lexington Avenue.

Over the years, wherever I lived I had “my walks” where I would wander and wonder. In Israel, it was in Tel Aviv along the gentle Mediterranean Sea as well as Europeanesque Rothschild Boulevard, with its greenway, a whole world in the middle of the street, and the area’s low white buildings evocative of hope and purpose, where I always felt like a tourist and a resident. In Virginia, it was along the Potomac River in River Bend Park with Maryland right across the way, making water, for the first time, feel limited, or in Old Town Alexandria where the river was backdrop to centuries-old brick and wooden homes that forced me to think back in history. Now, here, in Florida, I walk along the Atlantic Ocean easily walking for miles in the space where water and sand meet, sometimes soaking ankles, calves, rolled-up-pants, from the occasional big wave, or in local parks watching wading birds and the too prevalent invasive iguanas. The quaint cottages in Lake Worth’s historic districts give me the created environment I need to be a counterpoint to the natural one, answering different needs of my wandering mind.  

The walking—thinking, moving, observing—being active and passive simultaneously—has been a key experience for me. Since I am alone on these walks, untethered to conversation and someone else’s impressions, I remain separate, as an artist re/creating a scene. Fundamentally, I realize, this is not “what I do,” rather “who I am.” My state of equilibrium. These walks enable the being, the writing.

For a while I listened to music and podcasts when I walked. I don’t anymore. Concern for ruining my hearing is one reason, but also those other voices in my head infringed upon my own voice from stirring around the random and developing thoughts. These walks have been an opportunity to lead within my own mind, to not be led or directed. My safe space out in the world.

Lake Worth Hiding House
Lake Worth, Hiding House

Being Adventurous

Breakfast view
Breakfast View
I’m still troubled by something that younger daughter said to me a few years ago. She told me that I wasn’t adventurous. Mind you, she said this on our trip to New York City where she expected me to decide on all activities and dining establishments, even though I haven’t lived there since 1995, when I was pregnant with her, worked full-time, and was the mother of a preschooler. Still, it has stuck with me in a way that someone else’s truth infringes upon one’s own imaginings.

My immediate reaction was to remind her that I had moved from New York to Israel on my own when I was 21. This, surely, rated as adventurous, I said. She practically yawned when she replied how long ago that was. I could have added that we had moved from Israel to Virginia for my high-tech job, that I went to graduate school in my 40s, changed careers, and divorced her father with a tenacity that surely rated as a different kind of daring, but all she saw was that I was a teacher who taught the same thing year after year. Since then, I think about her blunt assessment when I consider if I am hesitant to do something new because I honestly don’t want to do it, or if the hesitation is in actually doing something new.

Mind you (and I should have thought of this when she made her pronouncement), the degree to which I have been adventurous should be compared to the degree to which I was exposed to that quality in my childhood—of which there was practically none. My parents lived in the apartment they moved to when my mother was pregnant with me until she moved to Florida a few years after my father passed away, which means that she lived there for over 50 years. And even the apartment where I live with her now was a bequest from her aunt. Clearly, I see moving as an indicator of adventure or change.

Since I graduated from college 40 years ago, I’ve had a number of jobs and two careers; I lived in three states, two countries and quite a few homes; and I even got citizenship for another country (Israel). But what she focused on was that I had stayed for a long time in one school and position—and it would have been the same classroom if we hadn’t undergone a renovation. For me, I didn’t see that as being stuck, probably because I never imagined that I would be a teacher, so the career itself—even my daily entry into my classroom—was always a bit of an adventure.

Nevertheless, it’s unsettling to think that I am perceived as lacking in a certain oomph, because that’s not how I perceive myself. It has become important to me, especially since retiring (and I would say that retiring at 60 requires a bit of jumping into the unknown) that I act on my perception of myself as dynamic, and not just think that I am.

Which brings me to dog-watching and dog-sitting, which I did recently. It was completely new for me, entailing trying a new job, entering the gig economy, meeting new people and becoming comfortable in their homes, and testing my identity as a dog person. It also meant that I pushed myself past the parameters of my day that I had quickly gotten used to.

After two jobs in two weeks, I realized that I liked the dog-sitting, which was ostensibly a sleepover with the dogs in their home, but not the dog-walking, where I had to go over to the dog’s house three times a day to walk him and take care of him and his cat sibling. What I didn’t like about that was that I lost my sense of freedom. I had become tied to the clock and an external schedule, making it feel like an imposition—like a job. I quickly changed my profile on the dog-walking app to only show that I dog-sit. The immediate lesson here was that it’s good to try new things, but not to commit to them just because they’re new.

As I sit here writing, I’m watching a woman attempt to hit a golf ball. (The apartment is on a golf course, so during the day I watch golfers swing, golf carts roam, and hear the whack of club on ball.) She is terrible. I will be generous and assume that she’s trying a new sport. Her way of being adventurous, perhaps, as I was in trying pickleball.

I wonder, as I watch the steady stream of golfers on this beautiful winter day, about trying new things. What does it mean to be adventurous to me now? Does it have to be big things, like a new job or home or international travel? Can it be in little things, like new local beaches and restaurants and even recipes. What makes me feel that I’m pushing myself? As a single woman, sometimes just stepping out of the house feels like embarking on a grand adventure, since there’s no one to rely on or with whom to share the experience.

It finally occurs to me that what matters is that I am comfortable with myself, that I believe in myself as an entire world. I don’t need to get lost in a foreign city or figure out new colleagues and neighbors to feel alive. Just because I’m still doesn’t mean that I need to overturn things to know that I’m not settling into dullness. I see now, for who I am now, that to be with wonder and anticipation, to know that each moment is never the same, is to be adventurous.

Lunch View
Lunch View

Pickleball Anyone?

Pickleball
My new pickleball paddle and ball

When I was about 14, I flew on a plane for the first time with a cousin to visit our grandparents in Miami Beach. This was so long ago that if you said “Miami Beach” at that time people knew you were going to the land of shuffle board, shuffled walking, and blue hair, which then meant dyed gray hair not peacock blue as an expression of your personality. There was a lot about that trip that still stands out to me, notably that you can get a sun burn behind your knees making it very painful to sit for hours in a plane, but what one of the elderly twin brothers I met told me still resonates.

“I always thought that when I retire, I would have time to read the books I never had time to read when I was working.” Ten years into his retirement and he still hadn’t made a dent in his reading list. Turns out that if you’re an active, busy person when you’re working, you’ll still be an active, busy person when you retire. Instead of working for the paycheck, he was doing a lot of volunteering.

Which brings me to a recent pickleball game. I got an introduction to the sport when I visited my younger daughter, who plays the game with her boyfriend whenever they can. She even got an athletic (dare I call it tennis?) skirt as a sign of her dedication. I had a free introductory lesson on the roof of a hotel in Las Vegas with my older daughter who told me after the lesson that she doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination for ball sports—who knew? I think she just doesn’t like group sports because when we were at the golf range the ‘expert’ next to us was giving her pointers and encouragement. It could also have been the fact that she was 26 at the time, but still.

I liked the idea that the serve is underhanded because the overhand serve in tennis was always my downfall. Also, the last time I played tennis was almost ten years ago and I hurt my shoulder in yet another attempt to successfully serve the gosh darn ball.

So, I took a class for intermediate beginners the other day. There were four women in the class, the one male instructor, and, for some reason, another older man hanging around. Maybe he is a pickleball pro or instructor in the making? Anyway, once again I found serving a challenge, but one that with practice I am sure I will succeed at. Unlike in tennis when you get two chances to serve, in pickleball it’s one and done and on to the next person, so there’s still serve-pressure.

The lesson went well, I felt that it could be a good sport to add to my retired repertoire because, while my daily swim is great, I’m not meeting people that way, especially if I purposely time my swim for when the pool is empty.

After the class I exchanged numbers with two of the women: one could play during the day and the other after work. The day-player said that she had reserved a court for the next day and that if she finds a fourth player, we could have a game. I should have been wary when she said “game,” as opposed to practice or casual interaction on the court.

The pickleball court was reserved for 90 minutes. It turned out that the day we were to play was the hottest day in a long time and we started at noon. Not an excuse, just a setting of the scene and my mental state as the game progressed.

When the other women each talked about how much tennis they used to play, I got even more anxious. Then, two of the women talked about wanting to practice and improve, so that they could compete. What have I gotten myself into? I thought. During our play, there were intense, as in it really matters, discussions of the rules, of which there seem to be many in pickleball, but, I assume, that is true for many sports, though I never really cared about them because aren’t we here to have fun and who cares if we win or lose the point? I can get competitive, but I don’t like it. Maybe I fear failing, so I give in without pushing myself. And maybe I don’t like comparing myself to others, which seems to be at the heart of competition. Sure, you’re competing against yourself, but that is just part of what playing a game entails.

I’ll admit that we played three games (a game is 11 points in pickleball) and the team I was on lost all three games thanks in large part to my failed serves and no one caring that we’re new at this and let her try again. These women might have said that they wanted the practice, but they also wanted to get back into the spirit of winning.

A problem with pickleball, as I see it, is that you’re supposed to come to the net and play the game there, focusing on your dinking, which is dropping the ball over the net in the kitchen (no volley) area. (Yes, the terminology does indicate a lightness to the game that belies the seriousness with which it is played.) This means that the ball will often be aimed right at you. It seems a particularly aggressive game for one named for a fermented vegetable.

The next day, I had lunch with my mother and some of her friends for our new, monthly lunch. One woman, whose husband recently retired, said that she looked for a card game for him. She said that she thought she found a group for him until the person she spoke to mentioned that the kitty would get up to $50. She realized that it wasn’t for her husband, who was used to playing for pennies. When she said that, I realized that I don’t need to give up on playing this new-for-me game, but that I need to find the right people with whom to play.

I already committed to playing with those women next week. They said that it went well among us, but I think they’ll only say that as long as they still consider themselves at the warming up stage. I’ll try to keep an open mind and focus on improving my game, and see how it goes. Hopefully, the instructor will get back to me to tell me that he has a spot in a lesson before then.


An Errant Poppy Seed

Bagel

I love everything bagels. If there isn’t an everything bagel in the house, I will often sprinkle everything bagel spice mix onto a slice of buttered toast. Two key components of the spice mix are the stealth seeds, like beige sesame, and the brazen seeds, like pop-of-color poppy. If you’ve eaten an everything bagel, then you—or the person you’re talking to—have probably found a poppy seed lurking between your teeth. (A silver lining of the pandemic mask-wearing is that you can go a day with poppy seeds ensconced between your teeth and no one would even know.) So, it seems likely, doesn’t it, that a seed or two would fall, missing mouth, hand, plate, napkin—all the things that are designed to catch seeds—and drop onto clothing, chair, floor.

It is not the end of the world.

But it is if you are one of those people who notice these things, who care about them, who wonder what people would say about you if they were to come to your house and scrutinize your floor. And if you look quickly, those seeds might look like bugs. Yes, this is the end of the world.

I, though, am amongst the don’t notice/don’t care people. This could be because I generally don’t wear my glasses in the house and so I don’t even notice that I have caused seeds to drop, leaving a clear sign that “Laura has eaten here.” But probably it is because I am not rankled if something is out of place (which means not precisely placed where previously positioned).

What to do when these two types live together? The answer may be that the living arrangements won’t last long. An alternative might include compromise: there would be a slight looking away by one coupled with a more intense concern about droppage from the other.

The way it is working out in my living arrangement (where I currently live with my mother as my first-stop in my retirement journey) is that the other day a dustbuster was casually brandished by my mother after I finished my breakfast bagel. Someone mentioned the phrase “passive aggressive” recently. I thought that it suited, but I also thought that we cannot be defeated by an errant poppy seed.

I don’t know what she was thinking about as she vacuumed up seeds from her new beige floor and the chairs on which I have sat at breakfast time.

I do know what I was thinking: it was anger that she was picking up after me, that she couldn’t speak to me. It is frustrating living with someone with whom I can’t really speak.

After my outburst, where I expressed my frustration and feelings in not the most elegant manner possible, and after my swim, and after she returned from her three-hour supermarket shopping trip, I tried to engage her in an “I” conversation. I told her how I feel. I thought it might clear the air now and into the future. She told me “You are wrong. You are not thinking right.”

I hadn’t realized until that moment that to have a successful “I conversation,” the other person needs to understand that we are stepping back from accusations.

At that moment, I realized she is right. I am expecting her to be someone who she is not and, perhaps, I expected her to change. I am wrong. She does not need to change; she will not change. I need to adjust, aware that this is temporary and that she is getting close to 90.

I am reminded of a friend who lives with her mother-in-law, in addition to her husband, thankfully. The first piece of advice she gave me when I moved in with my mother was to be patient. Patience, I have learned, is like an everything bagel. It is not just one thing. It is how you react to each situation. It is how you don’t react in others. It is how you act toward the other. It is how you reason with yourself. It is how you enjoy the experience as a whole. It is a lot harder than I thought.  

 


Retirement Insights from a Picnic

Lake Worth Beach
Lake Worth Beach

The other night, the 55+ community where I live with my mother (I will not get used to saying that) held its first neighborhood picnic since before the pandemic began. The timing coincides with the trickling arrival of the snowbirds. Those retreating from Canada, Europe, and South America are taking longer to make it than those stuck traveling south on I95. It seems that the social scene is heating up as the temperature here plummets to 76.

Once we determined that there was something strange about the sauerkraut (turns out that celery seed was accidentally dumped in and it was cooked with pork, which completely cancelled out the bragging about how considerate the organizers were having bought Hebrew National hotdogs because they were kosher), that we liked the hotdogs (I had asked about a vegan option when I first found out about the picnic, but had gotten a look of incomprehension, so I compromised my diet to be a community member and get my mother to attend), and that the potato salad had all the right ingredients (again, not vegan—besides non-vegan mayo, I would like to know: Why are hard-boiled eggs in potato salad?). We also found the cake slices were really hunks that were far too big to even make a dent in them with a delicate nibble, but the brownies were tasty and in small bite-sized portions.  

Food talk aside, there were some insights given by the two still-married women at our table of five women. We were to learn why their husbands did not accompany them to the grand event. Now, I will add a huge caveat here that, surprisingly, about half of the fifty or so people who attended were men, and that one, of course, was manning (word choice, indeed) the grill. So, these insights are limited to these two women, their men, and the understanding nods from the three women at the table. I, of course, did open up this little can of insights by asking why their husbands weren’t in attendance. As a friend told me recently, be a big mouth and engage with people. It is her fault that I asked personal questions, but it did lead us to talking about more than the food.

One woman (both she and her husband still work in physical jobs) explained that after a hard day at work, her husband lives the stereotype: drinking beer and sitting on the balcony. He does break with tradition by making his dinner before going to bed. She is one of those life-of-the-party type people, who even livens up the pool when she goes after work. She has learned that just because he has gotten dull and disappointing, she does not have to keep him company in his disengagement. Learning that not everything needs to be done together is surely a sign of a mature marriage, and probably at least one too-often frustrated partner.

The other woman got philosophical and cast her insights wide to include older retired men in general, not just her hubby. She noted that men need their group to stay social—and when they don’t have it, they fall into depression. They can be active and engage with the world, but only when the guys they’ve been playing ball and cards and hanging out with for years are around. Once they disperse to different retirement communities, or move to be near their children, or move because of health issues, or even bid the long adieu, they lose their way and sink into their recliners. They’re unable to be on their own, unable to find new best buds, not wanting to interact, becoming solitary men sinking into depression. Their wives, then, need to leave them behind for excursions out so that they, too, don’t get weighed down by loss and change.

Perhaps those insights apply to us all, at all stages of life: independence, even within a relationship, is strength; it is not a threat or a weakening. The people in our lives are supplementary, they should be enhancers. We, each of us, is the main act and we need to proceed through life with that understanding. Otherwise, we may be missing out on good food, seeing the night sky with planets clearly illuminated, and hearing people say how great it was to see you.


In the Pool and in the Coffee Shop

Ocean sky (2)

I went back to my usual coffee shop a few days ago because I planned to walk on the beach after my writing session and it’s on the way. I also wanted to see if the changes I saw last time were permanent. Happily, they were not.

Vegan choices were back and there were fall options; I got a slice of pumpkin, cranberry, and walnut bread.

The two guys who usually sit outside weren’t there when I first arrived. But they came a little bit later. They had a meeting inside with two women before they went outside to their usual table. The man who I will talk to will tell me that they run a foundation that feeds the local homeless. It’s nice to see that people sometimes confirm and exceed your assumptions about them: they seem like nice guys who have lived through tough times.

Four police officers were there when I first came in, but soon afterwards they all left, probably on a call. Later, another police officer will come in and he will confirm that assumption, saying that things were not as quiet as usual this morning.

When I got my order and arranged my laptop, I saw that an older man was sitting at the table opposite mine and instead of facing the window, as I was doing, he faced inside. Which means that when I looked up, I looked right at him. It was hard to keep my head down and ignore him. He was friendly and said good morning to me, then we started talking. It was so strange to have my solitude interrupted.  

Which is what happened to me in the pool the day before. I went earlier than I’ve been going lately, so that I would be at home with my mother when a repairman arrived. Over time, I’ve learned the hours when the pool is generally empty and I can swim uninterrupted by pool walkers and floaters for an hour of solitude. But since I have that perfect time, I don’t mind if sometimes I go when other people are there. Exercising in the pool or sunning on the deck on a weekday morning is a lovely thing. It’s more relaxed in that utilitarian pool than a pool at a five-star resort since we aren’t forcing ourselves to relax in a vacation-window, but are settled into the calm that comes without work concerns. That is not to say that we don’t have concerns (and some people do work in this 55+ community, though they usually come later), but everything seems easier without a boss to worry about.

When I’m swimming, if someone else is there I may have a brief conversation, but I’m generally focused on my strokes and thoughts. But the other day I heard a man saying something about Medicare to the other people in the pool. I’m still too young for it, but I wanted to know what he was saying. So, rather than keep my silence, I asked him. This led to a long, rambling monologue. I regretted breaking my usual quiet because I swam less than usual, but I didn’t really regret it since I’m learning that sometimes it’s okay to drop my solitude when I’m in public spaces and merge with others.  

Which is why I talked to the man in the coffee shop. Once I clarified that the “we” he referred to was his wife, I felt more comfortable talking to him. It’s interesting how I become a little bit on edge when a man talks to me—a woman’s natural, protective stance. He ended up joining me at me at my table and we had a nice conversation. Since I’ve been in Florida, I’ve barely had conversations with people other than my mother and a few of her friends. With COVID restricting our social activities and not knowing people here, talking to him made me realize that I miss meeting people and having casual, exploratory conversations. I thought I was happy without them.

Without a workplace, I don’t have a built-in group of friends and acquaintances. Living in a new place, I don’t have friends to get together with. Though I live with my mother, there’s just so much we do together. It’s on me now—now that I realize I don’t want this degree of solitude.

I just remembered that when I first moved down here, I signed up as a volunteer at the local food bank. I’m now signed up to help out on Wednesday afternoon. Seems like a good start.


Back to My Coffee Shop

Lake Worth beach
Back to the beach too

I haven’t been to “my” coffee shop for more than a month. I was looking forward to being back here, doing some writing, observing the other customers, and having a cup of coffee and a vegan baked good. (I have been mainly vegan since the beginning of the pandemic.) Since I started coming here in June, there were the same four vegan choices, and since I don’t do chocolate chips for breakfast, there were three: lemon poppyseed muffins, cinnamon rolls, and banana nut bread. All fine, though I preferred the banana nut bread by far. I knew that this was a bonanza, but I figured that it was their thing to have vegan choices, which was definitely a draw. Why not wish for a fall change even if I haven’t felt the arrival of fall here in Florida? It was to be, but not in a good way.

The four guys who always sat at one of the tables outside weren’t there. I came later than usual (I slept until 8), but they had seemed to always be outside. They were a part of this place and my experience of it. They were a greeting committee—and I appreciated that. I missed not seeing them.

Inside, the two baristas were new and neither was wearing a mask. The selection of baked goods had changed, but not for the better. The only vegan option is now banana bread muffin—with chocolate chips. No thanks. So, I jumped the vegan ship and tried the blueberry thyme scone. Why is thyme in a scone? Let’s just say that I’m not a fan and the changes have not been an improvement.

At my mother’s apartment, the changes that she made while I was gone were to reassert her design sensibility. Any traces of my things that I had put out, she returned to my little corner. I get it. When I was in my daughters’ homes, I didn’t think of making any changes or adjustments. I settled in to how they had organized their spaces. It seems that I had overstepped my guest status here. And that’s okay. It seems that I am now at the next step of downsizing: recognizing that the space I take up can be narrowed down to the space that my physical self stands within: I don’t need to see myself reflected on the walls and furniture and knickknacks around me.

This coffee shop has lost its luster for me. But perhaps here, too, the problem is not with the place, but that I had thought of it as mine to some degree, when I am just a guest.

On my trip I did a lot of dog walking. First, the walks were lakeside and forested in Central Oregon. Then, they were around a small park in Las Vegas, with a view of the mountains in the distance. The time outside was mentally expansive and soothing, even with handling poop bags for two dogs at a time. Perhaps I have adjusted to finding my comfort, my space, outside. Perhaps I don’t need an inside space to reflect me, needing, instead, paths to traverse and vistas to breathe in.

I had jokingly thought that when it is time to settle down and buy a home, I should buy land and put a tiny house on it. I’m beginning to think that perhaps it was more of an insight than a joke.  


Around the Bonfire with Work Campers

Rainy morning
Rainy morning

For the past few nights, I sat around the bonfire (the Forest Service has permitted them again in this area after two days of soaking rain) with some of my daughter’s colleagues and, now that they’re back, YEAH, my daughter and her boyfriend. Some of her colleagues live in their RVs, while those who will winter here have moved from their RVs into employee cabins, like the one I’m in now. This is a completely different world from what I’m used to with neighborhoods of apartment buildings, townhouses, and private homes. I like the difference: seeing that differences exist, that possibilities expand with and beyond those differences.

I don’t envision myself living in an RV in the future, but I do like the idea of not always being tied to a specific place. Without realizing it, though, I’ve done the first step in that direction, with no longer having my own home and living with my mother, and now travelling to visit my daughters. In one place I have my own bedroom and in the other two I have a couch in the living room. At first it was uncomfortable, disorienting, not having an entire home to myself, but I realize now that I’m getting used to a whittled down space of my own. What I need to figure out is what I need from my own space. Though, I think the issue is less about the amount of space than the quality: a space where I can be completely alone.

But back to the RVers and their need of space. Some of their RVs are huge and some are relatively small. It seems that the decision of RV size is both monetary and personal; they are each figuring out how much space they need to feel comfortable, for living and hauling, to feel that it is home. From what they have said, it seems that each time they switch to a different RV, they are getting closer to realizing how much space and stuff, they need. There seems to be the continual search for their Goldilocks-sized RV.

Getting the right size does seem to be a preoccupation until reaching the correct balance in RV size and vehicle hauling strength. People in RVs are not indifferent to having a home, they may be more involved with it than people in permanent homes.

The people who work here are called work campers (or workampers) and they range in age and experience, where one woman is 21 and in a silent, observational stage of life, and another is in her 80s and talks about her adventures growing up in the rural Northwest. They spend a season (summer or winter) or more at one site (usually some sort of lodging or camping site) and then move on to another site. The work is generally in housekeeping, maintenance, and/or at an on-site store or restaurant. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, the jobs are gendered with the women in housekeeping and the men in maintenance.

As the retired people among the group explained to me, work campers used to be all retired people, but now there are people of all ages and family situations doing it, which is making it harder to get jobs. Some of the retired people I spoke to here are doing it for the adventure, while others are doing it for the adventure and to make a living.

Being a teacher, routine had been such a big part of life. You have your set schedule of classes, group of students, calendar of days on and off, classroom (of course, there was that one year of teaching from home…), group of colleagues. Within each day there was certainly variety, but it was within generally set variables, and most of us even taught the same things year after year. So, it’s fascinating for me to see lives being lived outside of a box.

The jobs themselves are all similar from one site to another (they are not the draw), but what does vary are the people you work with, and, the key, the change of place, the often dramatic change of scenery. It makes me wonder what impact change of place can make on a person. For my entire 16-year teaching career (not counting after-school Hebrew classes before that), I taught at the same school. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t played safe and tried teaching at another school or even schools? One reason that I stayed there is that I didn’t trust myself and my skills as a teacher to go to a different school. Among the advantages of staying at the same school meant that I developed strong friendships with some colleagues, but maybe I would have made more friends by not being in just one school. And I might have realized that I’m a better teacher than I thought, or I would have pushed myself to improve.

The work itself had been the focus for my entire career, from when I was a technical writer to when I was a creative writing teacher. I wonder if I can do the switch, as the workampers have done, and focus on what I want to get out of life for myself and not just what I can give and produce. Can I value myself as a person enough to stop assessing my worth? Can I put myself in different situations to see who I am as a person, to grow into other aspects of self? How does space protect me and how much does it prevent me from finding out?

For information on work camping, the Cook Works site is a good place to start since it gives lots of information about jobs across the country.


Isolation Is Not So Alone

Dusk
Dusk

 

It is now Tuesday morning. Since last Wednesday afternoon, I have been living in a cabin in a rustic lake-side resort in a national forest in Oregon. This is where younger daughter and her boyfriend live and work. I’m here dog sitting while they’re on a two-week vacation in Hawaii with his parents. There are guests and other employees around, but I’m not here to engage, I’m here to completely disengage. I now see the impossibility of that.

Since I retired in June, I have been living with my mother in her one-bedroom apartment in Florida. That was quite the change after having been an empty nester for eight years in my own two-bedroom apartment in Northern Virginia after younger daughter went off to college and, like her older sister, only came back for the occasional visit. The transition seemed easy for my mother; after all, I did go to help her out and make her feel less alone after having been a widow for over ten years. I have found it challenging. I haven’t lived with a parent since I was 17—I’ve been the parent for 30 years!—so being watched over by my 87-year-old mother was jarring. Living with anyone after being alone for so long was going to be difficult for me; I didn’t think that I would ever live with anyone again. Which means that I really did look forward to this retreat in the woods.

A mental and physical retreat. A writer’s retreat.

I was going to focus on learning to be okay with myself as a retired person, not feeling that I should be filling my time with activities and interactions, and some kind of work. I was going to settle into my own rhythm, with four daily dog walks mixed in. Walks in a forest and along a lake surely fit into any type of retreat. What’s more, I had decided that I would use this time to see if I was a writer, where the only way to pass the test would be to work on a book and, in my brazenly optimistic moments, write a draft!

I did start the book. And start. And start. And start. Never pleased with the previous day’s direction, each morning I would start again.

Then Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came, and with them the time to think. My religious practice is certainly not strict, but for a while now I haven’t worked on Shabbat (Saturday) and important holidays. The day of rest: a day when I don’t write or work. I also try not to shop, wanting to have a day when I am satisfied with myself and the current contents of my life. A day when I don’t critique myself and, when I was teaching, I didn’t critique my students either by grading their papers. It is a day when I don’t write, which inherently involves criticism. A day when I don’t think about the productive thing I should be doing. This has helped me perceive myself as a person, not just as a producer of something of “value” outside of myself. There is value sitting in the moment, as I have learned, not just on Shabbat.

My retreat was supposed to be a time to see how stripped down I could get into myself. No people around to interact with and no distractions. Just get my essential story inked on the page.

But this cabin is not minimalistic and, it seems, neither am I. There are meals to think about and being almost an hour to the nearest supermarket makes that a more thoughtful task than usual. There are my mother’s constant update emails and calls (even if the connection is so bad that we only hear half of what the other person says). There are emails and calls from friends and my daughters that mark my days—and are the only things on my calendar. These have made me realize that I am not a person who fully lives within herself—needs to retreat in, as I thought I did. Rather, this retreat has made me realize that solitude is a chapter, not an entire book. My life is enriched with connections, they don’t detract from contemplation-time. After each conversation or email, I realized that there were more things to think about. These are added dimensions—the interweaving of lives through shared stories, perceptions, concerns—not detractors.

I had the entire pandemic to realize this, but it has really come home here in the woods where the solitude that I thought I craved in its totality is neither what I need or want.

If I value others for their presence, their essence, then I, too, am valued for those same aspects of self. I don’t have to produce something to be valued as a person—to value myself as a person. But these friends do have expectations of me, born of my own expressions over time and their perceptions. They expect me to fulfill my desires for myself, even if those desires change. They will not let me cede my passions and skills.

Perhaps they are helping me see that I flourish in the space between expecting too much from myself and not enough. That to flourish means that I need not be alone and solitary, isolated. That to flourish means that I know that there are people who believe in me, as a person and a creator.

And now it is time for walk two of the day. The dogs are restless, as am I. It is time to get back to the freshness of mountain air and to moving my body that is tired from sitting on this wooden bench facing my laptop. It is time to move and observe, alone. An aspect of my day, myself, my needs. An aspect that I can share later, in some way.

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