Retirement

Retirement Brain: Things I Forget Intentionally and Unintentionally

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Driving to the beach the other morning, I heard about a not-new study that tested the brain function of people 14 years before retirement and then 14 years after. Deterioration occurs. Verbal memory was negatively impacted, which means people forgot words and verbal items (referring to analogies, antonyms, sentence completion, and reading comprehension). “Use it or lose it.” This made me think about some trade-offs that may occur upon retirement. My fear of forgetting where a comma goes and for whom the bell tolls contrasted with my fear of not spending time with the people who matter to me, of having my life overshadowed by concerns for my students (who have probably already forgotten me), and of not having the opportunity to figure out who I am without thinking about my career. The fear of staying in a job for fear of forgetting could result in not getting to experience post-work life.

This made me think of some of the things we need to remember over the course of our lives: people (faces, names, stories, birthdays); homes; schedules; career terminology; driving routes and walking paths; recipes; events; family histories; the books read; the movies, plays, and TV shows watched; and the places visited. Thinking back, or trying to, it’s hard to even realize how many things have been forgotten. But just because something isn’t recalled doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been absorbed somehow into our essence. The croissant of life (much nicer to think about than an onion’s layers).

What do we want from our memory? From our lives? We want them intact and for us to be in control of them. But how much of that is possible?

Even before I retired at the end of the 2019-20 school year when I was 60 and a few months (right at the age when I could start receiving my pension), I already felt myself needing more time to access words and to regain a train of thought. It’s so odd to experience those inside wrinkles, just as it is to feel the thinning hair and see the age spots. In class (here’s a partial excuse), it became apparent that I really needed to watch what I said because it could be recorded and twisted to be turned against me (by a parent whose darling was not getting the A they absolutely deserved), so I took my time composing my thoughts before speaking. (Self-censorship or wisdom?) Even so, I could feel my brain working instead of it just working. Kind of like watching my mother get up from a chair: at 88 it was a slow-motion process, not a simple act.

Of course, I don’t want to forget things, especially if it’s my fault. I play Wordle and Quordle daily, and read and write, but I talk a lot less than I used to. Oh my, the amount of talking that goes into teaching. But that’s now countered with the calm I feel (except when looking at the stock market and my life savings experiencing loss). The balance of words lost to calm maintained must surely count as a significant benefit.

I hadn’t realized how much thinking about work overtakes our thoughts for so much of our lives. From a young age we’re directed to think about what we want to be when we grow up, and then we study for that and work at it, and then realize that we were wrong, so we try to figure out what we really want to do, and then work to transition into that new field, and then there’s the money we need to make to support ourselves and our growing families, and self-satisfaction takes a backseat to money for our children so they can start the process themselves. It’s never-ending, until it does end—at the point when a new version of us can emerge.

I remember words and their meanings, but now I also think about finding my own meanings so that I want to hold on and not loosen my grasp of life.

Here I am. A person focusing on being a better me and figuring out what that entails. It’s not selfish to continue within this unfurling, to live fully within my allotted time and space. It is to live within my expectations, not society’s.


Back at School: Volunteering in an Elementary School

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I should have known that I would stop volunteering at the garden when I finally bought gardening gloves. For more than six months I worked bare-handed or wore gloves from a box of cast-offs in the garden’s potting shed. Then, I got my own gloves. I wore them once and now they’re on the floor behind the driver’s seat in my car. I’m trying to decide if I should put them in the trunk, hidden and unneeded, or keep them where they are, a reminder that just because the gloves fit doesn’t mean I have to wear them.

My Wednesday mornings in the garden’s nursery were wonderful. The other volunteers were, generally, the right amount of interesting and talkative to make the morning feel like an outing among friends and not hours repotting plants in the heat. But I began to feel more of an outsider as the other volunteers would talk about their evolving plans for their gardens (or “land” as one referred to her acre) and their familiarity with different plants, while I was only fostering a lone bromeliad on the lanai and uncovering no desire to immerse myself in botany books. I remained a plant lover on a “looks beautiful” basis, not a “Latin name and uses” basis. I also began to wonder if my volunteer hours would be better spent directly helping others, rather than puttering around the garden so it could raise funds through the sale of potted plants. It seems that for me the right volunteer activity needs to effectively blend dedication to cause with personal fulfillment. A true give and get.

So, fun in the garden is out. Tutoring in an elementary school is in.

My Tuesday mid-days are now spent with 1st and 2nd graders in a high poverty school, helping out their teachers and them. Two weeks down. I feel of use there applying some skills, some compassion for the students, some empathy for the teachers, and lots of love being part of the village raising our children. And they are our children, because this isn’t about yours or mine, but about making each child feel valued.

I’m there to help with reading and writing, one-on-one or walking around the room helping whoever needs it at the moment. It is surprising, in a good way, how quickly I feel that I’m part of the group. In the first week, one girl was dismissive, as she had a right to be; after all, who is this new person in our classroom and why do I have to interact with her? This week, when I was at the door ready to leave, she came up and gave me a hug. Momentary mission-accomplished.

Not being the teacher in the classroom responsible for lessons and assessments is freeing. It is a distilled version of teaching, which, distilled even further, is an adult helping a child. Within the two hours I was there, I tied shoelaces, commented on drawings, enthused over sentences, and gave pep-talks on reading, oh, and permission to go to the in-class bathroom. Time well-spent. Experiences like this show me that I made the right move when I became a teacher mid-career (abandoning high-tech marketing writing), because one way my soul expresses itself is by reflecting back to children what is within. It also shows that retirement is the time to fully live that expression—in between a late breakfast and a swim in the pool.

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Hot and Humid Thoughts on a Summer Day in Florida

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View from my a perfect picnic spot

The other day I wanted (more than usual) to disconnect from the cycle of my thoughts and connect with something that lets me step aside from the constant nag to acknowledge, analyze, and assess what’s outside and inside. To not read the newspaper, emails, tweets. To not think about my position and thoughts. To not think beyond the scope of who I am at this moment.

So, I drove to the ocean and sat for about an hour (until the free parking time was up) for a lunch and no-learn. I let myself sit. (I also let myself eat two burritos, which was one too many.)

Happily, I discovered a new beach in Palm Beach where there was ample parking and I could sit under a palm-frond-covered hut over a picnic table instead of on the burning sand with the scorching noonday sun pressing down on my head.

This being Florida and, apparently, land of the iguana, as I turned into one picnic area a huge brown and tan iguana with what looked like a mane of spikes, headed for the bushes when it heard me, but, thankfully, I saw it and I scurried away even faster. I had no desire to share the space with a resentful iguana.

The next picnic area seemed iguana-free, so I sat there. Every few minutes I banged on the picnic table with my palm or water bottle. I didn’t want to see any angry iguana relatives. While there, I was (mainly) at peace (at least as at peace as you can be when you fear lizards lurking nearby).

The waves rolled in and out like breath, enabling me to meditate without needing a mantra or to call myself back to breathe. I caught the waves. The intention that I set for myself was simply to be at peace. How sad that I must force myself to absorb and be part of a scene instead of always demanding that I find a meaning in the moment. (Ah, here I am, doing just that.) But how glorious, too, that my purpose can be to understand what motivates me—a person—when there are no external factors. Now, without a job that constantly overtakes my thoughts, I can be an existentialist, focusing on what I need to find purpose and be purpose.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a library and it’s pouring outside while the thunder rolls and rolls. Another aspect of a summer day in Florida. As much as I may think that one thing defines a place—a person—there are always more dimensions.

I am of myself and of the world. I need to balance between the demands that I put on myself to be myself (just look at my ever-growing pile of books to read, and restaurants to try), and my assertion that one’s purpose is to be of service to others using skills and guided by heart. I need to work on the feeling that time tending to me is not time away from, but time preparing for.


Marriage and Divorce Anniversary: Reflections on Being Alone

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Thirty-seven years ago this week, I got married. Fifteen years ago this week, my divorce was finalized. This week, I’m dogsitting, which means that I’m staying in someone else’s home taking care of their pet. (Coincidentally, the owner went to a wedding.) These three points in time could be the things that I tell someone I’ve just met to explain my life. I can’t decide, though, if this is cause for tears of sadness or joy, or just a bit of bitter self-reflection in which to stew.

It wasn’t easy to have moved on from a failed marriage and a nasty divorce; that took years. Time during which I savored my independence. Time when I also experienced being fully myself and the stillness that is me.

Does the demand that we live in the moment punish us, make us feel we are not doing life the right way, if we live a mainly sedentary, word-engrossed life?

Having moved the day I retired, from Northern Virginia to South Florida, meant that I was starting over, once again. There had been the move from New York to Israel, and then from Israel to Virginia. There had been the change from being single to married to divorced. There was the transition from being a parent with children at home to being a parent who occasionally sees her adult children after long plane trips.

It's good that I forget what I thought my life would be like and accept what it is, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t experience malaise and disappointment. My life is steeped in solitude and knowing that it could have been different, leads to both regret and relief. It also makes me determined to not let inertia win.

This last move seemed so easy: just get into my stuffed car and drive south on I95. But it not only took away the one home I created on my own, it changed relationships with good friends, and meant the loss of acquaintances whose good mornings and hellos were comforting acknowledgements. While I don’t regret the move, I can still experience it as a loss.

The pain of divorce is not just the resulting aloneness, but the feeling of failure at having picked the wrong person, at not being able to make it work, at wondering if I missed what my life should have been. After the divorce, I had two other failed relationships, which just adds to the burden that I carry that I will remain alone, when, sometimes, I wonder if I would be happier with a partner.

It's funny. For a long time, most of my friends were single. Now, mainly because of fallings-out, those women who had been my rocks and activity partners are no longer in my life. My married friends have proven their friendship and over the time that I have known them, I see the solidity and safety they have created with their spouses. Clearly, we are all different and we each have our own path to travel, however circuitous, but to not pause and wonder and feel the moment’s emotions seems that it would be a stop and not part of the journey into my future.

This is a day when I acknowledge that I have so much to be grateful for, but remorse has captured my heart. When I finish writing and posting this, I feel that tears will no longer be held back by the process of trying to understand. What is there to understand? I made choices and I am living with the result. All is well. Though I ache for change and I know, oh, yes, I definitely do, that it is up to me to do what I must to not face regret more than joy.


Dementia at the Doctor’s Office

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Wakodahatchee Wetlands

JOHN*. MOVE. NOW. NO. JOHN. JOHN. STOP. JOHN. STOP. NO. MOVE.

That was the background “conversation” at the doctor’s office the other day when I went for my annual. One old White woman in a wheelchair, a late middle-aged White man pushing her, and her young Black aide. I did a double-take at them when I heard the man say something to the receptionist about his wife because she looked much older than him, her husband, who I thought was her son, a very good son.

When I was brought back to an examining room, the nurse and I could still hear her shouting. I said something about how hard it is to hear the woman yelling at her husband so harshly. The nurse said that the woman hadn’t always been like that, that she had been a lovely person. Apparently, the anger is an expression of her dementia. It was upsetting to be witness to such an open display of what would normally be hidden in one’s home and to see what dementia can do to a person, that memory loss is also a loss of self.

Up until COVID put a stop to visits, I was a hospice volunteer for about a year. During, that time, I visited a few patients with dementia. Since some of them lived in a memory care unit in a senior living community, I saw other people with dementia when I visited them. In all that time, I hadn’t seen anyone so hostile, though there had been glimmers of insistence and impatience. Hearing her was scarier than when one woman called me “Mother.” If the harshness is not uncommon, then perhaps the angry patients there were in their rooms or medicated or taken care of differently.

Weekly for most of that year, I visited a man whose wife visited him daily. She used my weekly visits as a little break for herself—she would go an hour later to be with him. She was watchful over the aides and took care of him like a mother hen. The situation, his dementia and other health issues, took a heavy toll on her, even with the help he received. It was so hard to see that everything she did was from her love of him, while he was sunk into his own world. I couldn’t imagine how the husband in the doctor’s office was managing when it seemed that it was just him and one aide. Not just the work of taking care of her physically, but the drain on him to care for this woman who had taken over his wife. How does a person keep going, keep giving from love, when the spousal relationship no longer exists? Is the connection at the soul-level or the commitment and vows level, so that the nature of the relationship no longer matters?

One of the things that I learned that year of volunteering was how difficult it is for a spouse or child to care for a loved one who is sick, especially with dementia. It was relentless, harder than caring for an infant. There is no positive trajectory to expect or a break in demands when independence comes, and, perhaps, too, it is hard knowing that all the love and care you give will be unrequited. Not that we do things to be appreciated, but this is a truly selfless love, where your giving takes so much from you—even if you don’t think of it that way. There are so many things that can push a person into being fully committed to another to practically blanking of the self, even if it is temporary. Maybe my thoughts say more about my fears, than they do about this man and his patience.

Perhaps I’m focusing on this because it’s a fear that naturally comes when a parent is in their 80s. My mother’s memory and sense of self are firmly intact. Sure, she forgot what time her haircut was a few times, but I would forget that, too, if I didn’t put it into my calendar. Knowing that she took care of her mother and my father when they were sick at the end of their lives and that I said I would do the same for her scares me. Living with her, seeing this woman who would walk at a New York City pace now hesitant to walk from the living room to the kitchen concerns me, makes me anxious about the future. We each have tests, a lifetime of tests. Some we pass; some confuse us; some we learn from the hard way; and some we anticipate or fear, but hope that we won’t disappoint ourselves and those we love.

* Not his real name.  


Still Being Asked “What Do You Do?”

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The “What do you do?” questions have not stopped being asked. And I’ve decided that it’s a good thing.

Last week I went to an event to meet other Jewish women who are members or potential members of an organization that helps women and girls. It was a glad-I-went event, where I met interesting, enthusiastic women and I’m excited to see where this will lead, regarding the organization’s work and my involvement. Besides the regular committee work, I also volunteered to help with their communications, after meeting with the director who bemoaned the poor grammar skills of people applying for content writing jobs.

I’ve gotten used to mainly meeting retired people who ask, “Where are you from?” so that when I was asked repeatedly, “What do you do?” I realized that I need to come up with a better answer. Saying that “I’m a retired teacher,” was met with confusion. It’s not just that I retired relatively young, it’s that people assume that being retired means that I don’t do anything, except lunch with the ladies and maintain my health (which are not bad in the big scheme of things). It seems wrong to them that I have opted out. Assumptions about retirement, and what people should do, abound even here in Retirementland (southern Florida).

Beyond the retirement part, I also realize that I don’t want to identify myself as a teacher. I enjoyed being a teacher and, in many ways, it saved me when I was going through my divorce and needed a job. It enabled me to have purpose, as well as financial and job security. Moreover, I’m a better person after having taught because it forced me to become more outgoing, compassionate, and thoughtful. So, I’m definitely thankful to teaching.

Continuing on the idea developed in previous blog posts that what I do for a living doesn’t define me, I realize that I need to come up with a better answer. Teaching was my last job. It was never a life goal; it was unintentional and, thankfully, it worked out for me. Ultimately, it was a way to make a living. (Imagine if you didn’t need the money from your job. Would you still do it? I probably would have lasted a few years as a teacher, but not as long as I did.) But even if it had been my only career and I fully identified as a teacher, shouldn’t I imagine myself in another way—not job-as-identity—as I embark on this next phase(s?) of life? Isn’t that what retirement should mean?

Knock on wood, I live for another few decades, decades that would represent a significant portion of my life. They will probably be the most intentional years that I live. The major milestones are in my past: to go to college, to have a career, to get married, to buy a house, to raise wonderful children. Those accomplishments required that I focus outside of myself, while now I can focus on what I need, so that when I go to bed at night, I don’t berate myself for wasting another day. I’m hoping that my time going forward is a true expression of self. So far, besides when I’m wasting my time, I’ve been reading and writing, interacting with the people who are important to me, using my skills to help others, and learning new things (a lifelong learner, another definition of a teacher!). So, what does that make me? “I do what I need to do to feel good about myself by sharing my thoughts, and trying to make the world safer and more equitable.” Wordy. “I’m focused on self-expression and community betterment.” Pretentious. “I write and volunteer.” Devoid of meaning: what do those words mean in this context? Clearly, I’m still working on this, and that’s ok. I’m in no rush. Sometimes I really am using my time fully.


Retirement & Year One in Florida: Some Observations on Living in the Heat

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Sitting on the balcony on this light-clouds, gentle-breeze morning, looking out over the golf course, it should be relaxing, but it’s not. The throbbing sound of the riding lawn mower as it works its way around the palm trees, coming CLOSER and then receding, LOUDER then not-as-loud, LOUD not-as-loud, CUTS the image of pleasure to one of unpleasantness. This, I have decided, is an apt metaphor for retired life in Florida.

The weather is generally lovely, but there are hitches. It rains a lot, and it can come down so hard that you can barely see where you’re driving. Then it stops, or you reach the edge of that cloud, and it’s back to a sunny day. Unless, of course, you drive into the path of another rain cloud.

It was generally so hot or warm or comfortable this past year, that except for two weeks, I didn’t need to wear a sweater outside, though I certainly needed one in the over air-conditioned stores and restaurants. I have a long-sleeved shirt and a lightweight jacket in my car at all times. I know that this is not just a Florida problem, but the difference between the temperature inside and outside is so stark that it’s a jolt to the system and the cold feels so darn cold.

In the summer, in the height of heat and humidity season, the air presses down on you. It’s uncomfortable to be outside. You gasp for air as your pores respond by dripping with sweat the moment you step outside. It’s so hot here that I can’t remember the last time I saw someone wearing jeans. It’s just not done. And, in the summer it’s hard to sit outside to dine on a lovely home or restaurant patio, even with a fan going, because it can end with a headache and a big take-home box, because who can eat in the heat.

I’m still getting used to encountering lizards and iguanas of all kinds scurrying away as I walk anywhere (and looking out for alligators). No need to go to a nature preserve to see them. Curled tails and straight tails, bright green or more subtle shades, they all make me realize that I really do live in the tropics, even if the palm trees and heavy air didn’t, but they make it fun, in a kid-at-the-zoo kind of way. The occasional squirrel who moved down here seems so out-of-place. Which brings me to the snow birds, who surely are the smartest people around. Why stay here year-round if you can escape somewhere during this ridiculous heat, and escape the snow of that other place for the winter warmth down here.

Those of us who are here all year round, not only are we aware that the summer is hot, but it’s also hurricane season, so there’s an underlying tension or anticipation. The meteorologists seem to be giddy with potential, though I’m hoping that the only hurricanes I have to experience are ones that I already lived through in Virginia. There are hurricane shutters, but even on a regular windy day, it sounds like a wind tunnel in here. Today, there has been no hurricane talk. No, today there is talk about sand from Africa suppressing the rain. I guess there’s always something.

In the category of living in a 55+ community, there is the benefit of a mainly childfree pool, except when there are visiting relatives, which is generally during the holidays (and, unfortunately, yesterday). I can live with that. The no jumping, no splashing, no floating into swimmers, the no screaming Mommy Mommy Mommy Papa Papa Papa watch watch watch makes seeing the evolution of the body (both male and female) in all its 55+ stages a beautiful alternative.

Speaking of the bevy of bellied pool patrons, I would like to tell them that it is not a badge of honor to be in the pool at 3 in the afternoon when there’s nary a cloud in the sky, the sun a blazing ball, and the temperature at 91, but feels like 102 because of the 57% humidity. You have the entire day, so why would you torment your body at precisely the worst time? Can you not change your card game or golf game or coffee meeting or lunch date or dinner plans? I fear people schedule their days around mealtimes. I would like to tell them that mealtimes can be changed. Once you’re a teacher and you’re given a 10:30 lunch schedule, you realize that time is externally imposed and you should eat when you want to eat. Personally, if I have breakfast at 7, I see no reason why I can’t set my lunch flag down at 11 without feeling that I will be disdained for being on the early bird special. But the swimmers (no not swimmers, they are pool walkers or pool talkers), well, it seems that they figure if they made it this far in living they can forget about sunblock or worrying about what the sun will do to their already leathery skin and lightheaded heads, and just do what they feel like, consequences be darned.

Which brings me to the end of this first set of insights on living in Florida. Being new to a place is great because you see things with a different lens than someplace where you’ve been living for a while and become accustomed to. What kind of interesting things stand out to you about where you live?


Retirement Self-Exploration and Expression: Being Free from External Supervision and Validation

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Looking Up

I’ve been thinking again about my back-of-the-mind desire to have a small business and I’ve finally come to the realization that the business (selling something) itself isn’t the true desire. No, it’s about being recognized for my creativity. Afterall, I barely shop (except for the supermarket because I don’t know what I’ll want to eat in two days) and I’ve always found not spending money more important than having things (just ask my daughters how long it took to convince me to get a TV instead of using my laptop). It’s about being seen and acknowledged for who I am. Why, though, would someone who I don’t know paying for something that I created make me feel good about myself? What does external validation, or the lack of it, mean?

More than 20 years ago I created a card deck for self-discovery that I called “A Minute to Myself.” I didn’t end up selling many copies. The personality that could create an introspective game was the same personality that struggled to sell it. For years I’ve felt bad about that, but I shouldn’t. My pride in creating something should not be clouded by my lack of business acumen or a not aggressive-enough personality. Why should one ability be perceived as more important than another? That is another realization.

Now that I’m retired, I should be free from thinking of myself in terms of trade, in terms of an exchange. Sure, there’s still money to earn (because, well, the economy), but I need to finally separate myself from this thinking. There is me, and then there is the world around me and its hierarchies. As I am finally without a boss and a big boss telling me what to do and how to do it, I need to also expel that externally formed internal self-assessor from influencing my decisions. I need to free up my internal space so that I can think for myself, rather than stay/become entrenched. Why would I use this time and opportunity to be yet another producer of products that may be found on a table at a future yard sale.

No bosses to appease. No parents to please. No students to supervise. No controlling deadlines. No regulating alarms. Retirement should be self-directed. Why would I want to put myself back into being judged, especially when I know that judgments generally reflect those doing the judging and not those being judged? Why would I want to re-encase myself when I can finally act on these realizations—the realizations that show me that I am a better me when I skip the comparisons, and focus on living my life.

From “A Minute to Myself”: Self—Are you pleased with what you have become, with what you are doing with your life? Why? Why not?


No Home of My Own: And Not Regretting It, For Now

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Suspension Bridge over River

When I first got married, my future ex-husband and I bought a fourth-floor walk-up in Petach Tikva, a non-glamourous (then and now) city east of Tel Aviv. After that, we rented an apartment in Queens and then one in Tel Aviv. After three years of looking, we bought our dream home in Ra’anana, an upscale city northeast of Tel Aviv, but within a year we ended up moving to Northern Virginia, and renting a house in Great Falls, selling the dream house, then renting a townhouse in Reston, until we bought our next dream home in Great Falls. But the marriage failed and neither of us could afford to live in that house, so we sold it (after two agonizing years). and I rented an apartment in Oakton, until I bought a condo of my own in Alexandria. It’s that condo that I sold last year, right before my retirement. That’s 36 years of worrying about finding the right place, paying the rent or mortgage and all the other costs involved; for the last fifteen of those years, I was a single mother/woman. 

Now, for the first time since I went to college at 17, I live with my mother, in her one-bedroom condo in southern Florida. I’m living rent-free, sleeping on a couch, with most of my things in boxes in closets.

My retirement plan is to buy a home near younger daughter when she’s more settled in a few years. Since her sister also lives on the West Coast, this will be, thankfully, much closer to her as well. For the past year, I’ve been thinking about buying this next home, with the occasional foray into Zillow to imagine possibilities. It’s been a balance between looking with dismay at rising prices and, now, mortgage rates as well, and excitement at the prospect of living someplace completely new where I can create a life for myself.

But as I make plans as a mother, I also need to make them as a daughter. At this point, it seems that my mother will join me in this move. While she’s not exactly thrilled about moving from hot, sunny Florida to chilly, rainy Oregon, coming with me overrides staying alone. And me, after living with her for a year, I see that she’s not the get-up-and-go person she was just a few years ago.

In a conversation with younger daughter the other day, she expressed her concern that I’m still living with Grandma. This, probably, followed me complaining about not having enough privacy there. It could also be her concern for me and, perhaps, a weirdness at having her mother living with her grandmother, seeming to lose some of the independence she's always known me to treasure. But she had a point. For a year, I’ve been whining about missing having my own space. Then it occurred to me that in this past year I’ve been free from worrying about those monthly payments for the first time in my adult life.

Hours of my life have been spent watching house hunting programs: tiny homes, off-the-grid homes, van life, living abroad, living in the country, living in extravagant homes, living in big cities, living in small towns, even DYI homes. Hours of watching people swoon over kitchen islands and complain about bathrooms, and always demanding more space, more rooms, closer to the water or downtown or the mountains or a better view. I have envied so many people.

Now, I’ve taken a sudden break from that yearning and jealousy. I’ve decided to appreciate the good fortune that I have and not push against it. It’s a new experience to think about myself without immediately connecting to the place where I live. While the four walls and what we do with them and how we feel in them—and even the surrounding area—seem to define us to some degree, I want to free myself from equating space with presence, existence.  

When I visited friends in the DC area in April, I drove by my old condo and went to places that I used to enjoy walking around, as well as favorite dining spots. Temporarily, I inhabited my old life. There were no longings to return. And now, for three weeks I’ve been visiting my daughters, staying in their homes and in Airbnb’s. It’s wonderful to see them establishing themselves, setting up their lives and the places they will inhabit.

Over the years, I’ve connected to each new place and, to some degree, the people there. It was about being grounded in a particular space and creating a life there. But now, I’ll focus on my actions and interactions: to be within myself, the moment, and the people within that moment. I will find freedom in not being tied to one place. Perhaps I can do this since I have found comfort in different places. I have learned that it is not the particular place that gives meaning, but how I interact with the place and the people who live there. I am my home.


Moving to Florida: Not Just for the Sun

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There's the beach, and then there are the alligators. (Author's pic from a lovely stroll in the park)

The other day I met yet another person who had moved down to Florida to be near an older parent. I’m not sure how happy we are about it, but we’re doing it. Since I moved here a year ago, I haven’t met many people, but of those I’ve met, quite a big proportion have come to supervise the final years of one or both parent’s lives.

Back in Virginia, some retired people I know have done the opposite: they are stayers. They postponed their retirement dreams of endless travel in search of personal fulfillment because they didn’t want to abandon their parents who, somewhere along the way (generally after crossing the 90-year threshold), stopped recognizing them or became so annoying that only a child who feels a sense of responsibility toward those who helped them in their various crises would have the fortitude to keep finding caregivers for their cantankerous parents.

Some boomers (generally those whose parents are no longer in the here and now) have decided that rather than continuing to fill/hoard their house with precious mementos for their children to deal with when they’re in the minimalist great beyond, are moving to be closer to their children.

I certainly haven’t done a statistical survey, but these moves or lack thereof give pause for thought. It seems that amidst all the moves we made after we rushed off to college, abandoning hometowns and families, a deep desire or sense of responsibility is now thriving and driving us back to our core families. (This, of course, is contingent on that family having been supportive and kind, and worthy of one’s dedication.) Perhaps we (the big “we” where I generalize and the individual “we” that is me) are not as frayed and selfish as we feared we were. Perhaps after all the trailblazing to get out of the house and establish careers and independence, we are more similar to earlier generations than we thought. Perhaps we have always known the importance of family and giving, we just hadn’t realized it until we needed to direct it toward our parents, who had always seemed so formidable, enabling us to set out.

As we phase out of our careers and begin to identify ourselves in ways that don’t relate to a paycheck, we free ourselves to find meaning in things that we had perceived as old school and limiting. Now that our children are establishing themselves in their careers and having their own children, we can redirect our attention to our parents who may now need it. This truly gives a tangible feeling of what it means to give back. This is not a cause we are devoted to and feel good about donating to. These are our parents: they gave, we give. Even though I may rush out of my mother’s apartment to volunteer at the garden or close myself off for Zoom meetings, she knows that I’m there for her. And I know that insightful essays are not the only things that give meaning and enhance my sense of self. 


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.


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

Still Alone: Why Change?

Sailboat
Sailboat off Lake Worth Beach

Recently, I went on two dates with a very nice man who I refer to as the Jewish Doctor. Alas, there will be no third date with said gentleman despite his clear intelligence and interesting stories—two strong positives for me, as well as his sense of enthusiasm for the future. What made me decide against a continuation was my growing discomfort with spending time with someone who has a lot to say, but not a lot to ask. As in, he was very interested in talking about himself, but not so much in finding out about me. On date two, we walked around a park where he seemed to enjoy his talking and my head nodding. When I discerned his lack of curiosity in me and my past, I let myself simply respond to him, which is not where I want to be in a relationship. It is tiring and uninspiring to see that someone sees you merely as a backdrop to himself.

During dinner I learned about his family’s history and dynamics. I also learned more about his desire to sail around the world when he retires in a few years—and his expectations for the “anointed” woman who would join him on his sailing adventures. It was, as older daughter noted, a job interview. But I will not take the job, as tempting as it may seem (and it was tempting), because in all the hours we spent together, he did not seem to care about me except as how I could be of service to him.  

As a teacher and, honestly, as an adult, I have learned to ask questions. While I may also interrupt people (I blame teaching, as well as being a New Yorker and Israeli for that), but I am honestly curious about them. I want to know about their experiences and how they responded to them and what they mean to them. Seems like it should be basic: an interaction based on words that creates a new experience.

Towards the end of our dinner at a Greek restaurant, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I asked if he had any questions for me. He answered, “No.” Mind you, by this time in the approximately eight hours we had spent together he did not know where I went to college or what I had studied (we covered his academic career), that I had lived in Israel (we had covered where he had lived and some of his travels), why I became a teacher (yes, I knew why he became a doctor), or even what I write (I had said that I go to a certain coffee shop to write, but there was no follow up question, not a “What do you write?” or a “Have you been published?”). I was stunned by his bluntness—and disregard.

Perhaps he realized that it was not okay to so openly admit his lack of interest in my life, so he asked—a repeat of the question that I had just asked him—what I was looking for in a partner. So, the one question that he asked me was, in reality, about himself and not about me.

Since that date, I have continued swiping left and right on the dating app I have been using. But I am back to thinking that nothing will come of it and that it is probably for the best. I like being a single retired woman.

It’s funny that I should feel that I’m in control of my life now when I live with my mother, watching to see if she needs any help, and that I plan to move to be closer to my daughters, with my mother joining me when she’s ready. I know that I generally try to adjust myself to accommodate others, so perhaps being with a man again would be too much adjusting for me. I fear that I would lose too much of myself that I fought so hard to gain after my marriage and divorce, and two short-lived relationships. For years in my marriage, I would do what I thought was necessary to please my husband—to be a good wife. But I don’t want to go back to shape-shifting to fit someone else. Maybe being married was the anomaly in my life and being alone is the natural state.

Thinking back over the beginning of the pandemic when we were in lockdown, I can’t imagine how hard it would have been if I hadn’t been alone. And, even now, living with my mother, it’s a challenge for me to always be so visible. The constant drag of interacting, of not being able to retreat into myself, is hard. Sometimes I wonder why being in a couple up is the natural order of things. Then I remember that there has been joy with others, whereas alone I only reach contentment.

Perhaps I need to rethink relationship possibilities, where the expectations need to be transformed to fit my changed awareness. As I told the Jewish Doctor, I’m looking for someone with whom I can get out and do things, Over the years of being single, I have discovered that there just might be some things that are better done together. Sure, I have enjoyed wandering around cities and parks on my own, but staying within my thoughts and observations sometimes feels like I am living in a loop rather than being in a dynamic situation. Perhaps I need to maintain my home as my space (mentally and physical) and not even consider sharing it with someone. With this as my baseline decision, perhaps I can imagine a different future. Of course, it still won’t work with someone who sees me as a backdrop.  

It seems that I just talked myself into still swiping.


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.


Food Bank Wednesday

Shell
Beach walking find

A few mornings ago, I volunteered at Kind Kitchen, which is dedicated to providing homemade kosher meals to anyone who needs help. We were preparing for the big Thanksgiving and Chanukah delivery that will be made next week. (This year Chanukah starts on Sunday night.) There were about ten older women and one older man helping out and, since it was a school break, there were two mothers with their children who were doing some of their required service hours. Coerced volunteerism. It works for everyone.

For about 45 minutes, I ladled corn-muffin mixture from a big bucket into a few hundred muffin cups in industrial-kitchen-sized muffin tins. Between myself and the woman opposite me, we prepared more than 500 muffins. Another group ladled cranberry sauce into small plastic containers, another group put horseradish into very small containers, and one group put pumpkin cake batter that the women who work there made into cake tins. When we each finished our jobs, we went to another part of the synagogue to continue onto the next assignment.

Most of the women were putting together Chanukah gift bags with a note containing the holiday prayers, a menorah, and a box of Chanukah candles.

I ended up in the kids’ section with the two mothers and their children. We put together about 200 gift bags for children that included a note of well-wishing, a Thanksgiving napkin, two dreidels, and one bag of gelt (chocolate coins). We wondered about the napkin and what its purpose was. The mother at my table was sure the note and the napkin would be dropped and ignored in the rush to the chocolate and dreidels. I mused over the fact that the napkin had a cute image of a smiling turkey, but yet we go ahead and eat the turkey at the meal. Are all Thanksgiving holiday paper products like that? The mother excitedly told me about a holiday centerpiece she makes: another happy turkey, this time surrounded by fall leaves. It does not sit right with me this idea of eating the entertainment. (I’m glad to report that the table where I had my holiday meal did not have such an insensitive display.)

In the past, I’ve volunteered at the Palm Beach County Food Bank. There, I generally helped put together bags of food so school-aged children would have food for the weekend’s six meals and two snacks: two small milk cartons; two small containers of cereal; two or three cans of food such as tuna, chicken, rice and beans, beef stew, chicken soup; two bags of dried food such as pasta, noodles, beans; dried fruit; a snack bar; and a face mask. The items filled half a plastic grocery bag that we intently pressed out the air, so we could fit six bags into a box. It is sobering to see how little space that weekend supply of food takes, especially when I consider how my home always had a full refrigerator and pantry for my daughters, and there was often eating out as well.

After that morning’s volunteering, I drove 45 minutes to a beach I like. The drive was through the commercial streets of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach, and then the residential streets of Palm Beach with its palatial homes behind high hedge walls. What you can see when a driveway is visible are generally mansions of cream-colored stone and manicured grounds.

There is no fairness in who has and who doesn’t have, I thought as I drove my Corolla surrounded by Mercedes after Mercedes. Between the walls and hedges of the estates and the two-lane road were parked the gardeners’ and service workers’ trucks. The stark difference is obscene. I wonder what those workers think about the difference.

I had felt good about my morning until I saw those homes, which in most cases are merely vacation homes.

Now that it is the season in Florida (no more sweltering heat and thick humidity), the beach was more crowded than it’s been since I first arrived in June. I sat on a towel and ate the snack that I bought at a nearby grocery store. Then I took a walk along the water, glad that I had worn shorts because the splash of the waves was so refreshing. After my walk I sat again for a little while. It is not comfortable to be aware of being grateful, envious, and angry at the same time.

After leaving the beach, I walked across the road to the parking lot and used the beach shower to wash off the sand from my feet and ankles. Still not ready to leave, I sat on a nearby bench, continuing to dry off my by-now dry feet. A few minutes later another beach-leaver approached the shower, which had three shower heads and one foot faucet. She was dressed and, like me, just looking to clean off her feet. I stopped her from soaking herself and showed her where the foot faucet was. We laughed for a moment. Connected. I was ready then to get back into my car and continue my day.


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.