Life Lessons

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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