Retirement

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.


Retirement Morning

Air plant
Air plant

These are observations and thoughts from two weekday mornings this week at a chain coffee shop.

It gets busier the longer that I’m here. Today, I got here at around 7:30 and it is almost 9:30. I will leave soon. I’m getting tired of sitting, of thinking, of being around people. The smell of bacon is also becoming overwhelming.

The other day an older couple sat by the window. His back was to me, but I watched her carefully spread jam on her bagel while she talked to an employee. I missed the question, but it must have been something like, “How are you today?” since I heard her respond, “The same as always, here for breakfast.” Then the staff member continued talking and the woman continued jam spreading, barely nodding in response. Maybe she’s tired of this daily conversation. But isn’t the point of coming here to have a conversation with someone other than her husband—or to have a conversation, since I haven’t seen her and her husband interact. Or maybe it’s the employee’s chance to have a conversation beyond order-taking.

Unsurprisingly, the couple is back today. They are sitting in a booth that is too far from me to observe them. He is wearing an orange shirt and shorts. I am pleased with his fashion choice; perhaps he is not as lost as he seemed the other day.  

Last week my mother and I had lunch two days in a row in a restaurant in this same shopping center. On our second day, we saw a few people who had been there the previous day. One pair, an elderly woman, still dyeing her hair red, and her caregiver, sat opposite me, so I could see how bored they both seemed. They were there to get out, for a break in the monotony of the days. It was part of their routine. I wonder what boredom and routine do to a person.

One of the women in our group the second day we ate there said that she had also been there the previous day, and that she goes there frequently and has for a long time. She didn’t sound bored with being there so much, even though she said that she only switches between two different orders each time she eats there. She was enthusiastic when she greeted our waitress, joking about seeing her so soon. I guess boredom is the problem, not routine. 

In South Florida, there are a lot of retirees, but there are also lots of people living their lives, at all stages. Earlier this morning there were five middle-aged men having some kind of gathering. They ending their conversation with bowed heads, so maybe it was a weekly or daily prayer or bible group. Over the years in coffee shops, I have noted morning prayer groups, always men, never women. I could go into a discussion about women needing to do things at home, but I’m just going to acknowledge their gathering, thinking that their time together helps them and their relationships back at home.

There is a group of four women and a toddler sitting around the big table in the middle of the space. Their attention goes from the child back to their conversation. A white-haired woman sitting nearby with her husband waves to the child and plays peekaboo with him as the women talk. After a little while, she gets up and speaks to someone in a booth. Perhaps they are also regulars, people connecting for a moment. If I keep coming here (and the other coffee shop), I can be a regular, knowingly nodding to others, being a part of a community. Such a thin bond, but maybe it will lead to conversations. I haven’t made any friends down here, yet.

It is a weekday morning and I am only now realizing that it is relatively quiet and calm: there are no school-age children here. When I was flying to see my daughters recently, I noticed this as I sat waiting for a flight to be called and then as I took my seat, thrilled by the realization and its impact on the flight. The atmosphere is so different when there aren’t young children around; children and parents and their anxiety hovering over us all. It is nice to be able to fly and be out and about when children are in school. Such a thing for a former teacher to say.   

At a table near mine an older man and a couple around my age are reconnecting. The older man said that he was recently hospitalized. The other man said that he recently retired. Quite the update. When the older man asked his friend what he’s doing now that he’s retired, he quickly responded, “golfing.” He then said that yesterday he went on a ten-mile bike ride. His wife commented that he had to lay down for hours after that. Was that a dig or was she acknowledging that he’s committed to staying healthy? I’m going to think that she was being supportive because no one wants to start retirement being mocked by the person you’re going to spend most of your time with.

The men talked about how a group they used to belong to has fallen apart. I wonder if it was a bible study group. Suddenly, as they talked about how busy and built up the area has been getting, the recently retired man said and repeated a few times, “Socialism at its best.” Seems more like capitalism to me, but he can have his opinion. It seemed that this was his way to begin expressing his thoughts on the state of the nation: his discontent with the current administration and his admiration for the previous guy. He and his wife segued into the ridiculousness of vaccine mandates. Their friend didn’t respond. Maybe statements like these led to their group disintegrating. Their points made, they returned to talking about their plans for the day and then they left.

With them gone, I can hear that the women behind me are talking about testing scores and the education classes they’re taking. Something I don’t want to think about, so I tune them out.  

It seems more upbeat here today, a Wednesday, than Monday when I was here last.

Now, I see another group of four sitting together, behind where the reconnected group had been. They seem to be a family; similar faces and gestures. They are enjoying their breakfast together.

Groups of people speaking in English and Spanish. I can just imagine how the couple that just left feels about that. How hard it must be to always be upset. Wouldn’t acceptance be easier than the “it’s all bulls---t” they said about the hordes of immigrants invading the country?

Now that the group with the toddler left, the couple I noticed today and last time, quickly sat at the big table in the middle with three other people. Perhaps I was wrong about her. Perhaps she only wants to talk to the people she wants to, when she wants to. Perhaps, too, my assumptions and conjectures say more about me than the people I observe.

Woman sitting alone at a booth focusing on her laptop. She’s drinking from a mug brought from home. Maybe she likes to make herself comfortable wherever she goes. Maybe she doesn’t like the feel of a paper cup or how wasteful it is. Maybe she doesn’t like drinking from a metal travel mug, but doesn’t want to be wasteful. She’s been here a while. I bet she hasn’t been distracted, googling jobs, and restaurants, and library hours, and reading emails.  


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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Back to Blogging: Writing, Thinking, Sharing

Forest walk
Forest walk

When I started this blog in 2008, I had just finished going through a contentious divorce from a verbally and emotionally abusive man, but I was still living with him—and the abuse—in the same house with our two daughters. (Note the date and the correlation to the tanked economy and real estate market—it would take another year to sell the house and finally feel divorced.) I can remember writing posts as he was banging on the door of the guest bedroom, yelling at me, my daughters angry at me for not quieting him. It was scary and intimidating. I would huddle over my laptop, feeling less alone in the writing and the posting, even with tears dripping down my face. The writing enabled me to focus on thinking and analyzing me, him, our daughters, the situation; it kept me detached enough to not crumble continually—only some moments, every day. Friends would tell me that they would read the blog to see how I was doing. Readers would comment, letting me know that I was not alone. I would feel strengthened by the connection that writing and sharing made—it was the most secular and heartfelt of prayers.

It took years to get through that experience with my dignity and a shred of humor intact.

At some point, my posts transitioned from internal pain to observing that the world outside of me does, indeed, still exist. It was fun to write and see where my thoughts went, rather than being held within the grip of needing to write as a cathartic experience. I started to write with less pain and more joy. I could write about the comedy of online dating (it may be funny after a failed date, but it was rarely funny during one) and the frustrations of teaching. I shed my main identity as an abused woman, as a divorced woman, and was able to write about life. Yes, the deep meaning of it all, well, as deep as I go. I came to see myself as an essayist, and that did bring me some satisfaction.

While I have always been anonymous on the blog, it is hard to strip all connections, especially if you link to it on other apps in order for people to find it and read what I have to say. Over time, a few students and parents found the blog. Parents complained to administration. I’m not quite sure what there was to complain about; after all, at the first “sighting” of the blog, I deleted the post about having divorce sex. Funny, parents complaining about an English teacher writing. Well, not so funny when you realize that they expect you to be fully committed to their children, more than them it felt like sometimes. I can say that now that I'm retired! And some students, well, they seemed to think that they had one up on me by letting me know that they found it. It’s not as if I was hiding my thoughts in a drawer, but it was uncomfortable.

In the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, a parent spoke to my assistant principal who let me know that it would be wise to hide the blog from the public. For the first time a student commented on the blog, rather than just looking around silently and making a comment to me. This time I felt violated. So, I took the blog offline, until right before I retired in June. In that time, though, I also stopped writing. I wrote a few poems at the beginning of the pandemic, but I just wasn’t sure of myself as a writer, what I wanted to express and if I wanted to express myself in words.

I focused on retiring after 16 years of teaching and wondering what I would do after. I’m only 60 (wow, using “only” with that number), so I'm not retiring from the world, just a job that got increasingly difficult and unsatisfying, and at the minimum age to get a partial pension. There are things that I enjoy doing (especially baking and cooking in concert with eating), and while I might do something with that (I do make excellent veggie spreads!), I have felt a bit lost without writing. It really is true for me that I don’t explore my thoughts without writing. And now that I don’t have classes to teach, and students and colleagues to talk to, it seems that my mind is fluttering about. It needs to land occasionally.

At first, I thought I would write a book. But whenever I start writing a book, I don’t get anything done. (I will add in my defense that I have written a few books in the past, but the process was always an unsatisfying battle.) Each day I would rewrite what I wrote the day before, filling my “notes” document, but not my Chapter 1 document. When it comes to writing these shorter posts, personal essays, I get right to it. One sitting, one post. My body and mind sync with that. Why fight who I am and what I do best? Doesn’t being 60 and retired mean that I need to be honest with myself about my abilities, and my strengths and weaknesses. My truths! So, here I am, back here.

This blog has been home to me for longer than any physical home since I went off to college at 17. I still feel that I am a rebellious woman expressing my thoughts. I hope you will join me in this continuation of my/our journey and subscribe (Yeah! I figured out how to do that now that the app I used before is no longer supported), and even comment. I look forward to continue meeting here into the future.

Welcome!  

Laura