My Second Silent Retreat

Two years ago I posted about my My Weekend with the Monks at my first Silent Retreat. Still recovering from pneumonia, I missed last year’s retreat, and looked forward to returning this year. (Especially after being in Sin City earlier in the week.) I again enlisted my quiet buddy Louise as roommate, and last Friday we were off.

Although the retreat is always brief, there is no agenda, I expect very little and very little is expected of me, I find it astounding how much I am affected. I took my laptop, my Kindle, and several magazines, just in case, but barely touched any of them. Instead, God met me in unexpected, and completely surprising, ways.

My first shock was to find among my fellow participants at the retreat six young military veterans, three men and three women. Our church supports the Veterans Resource Center at Pasadena City College, and these six were given scholarships to attend the retreat. I found their presence puzzling, as they were about the same age as my son, and I could not imagine him attending a silent retreat.  (I didn’t get the courage or feel the need until I was well over 50.) One of the young men told me that one of the other vets attended the silent retreat last year and enjoyed it so much that he talked the rest of them into attending with him this year.

The first night, before we went into our silence, we each offered a word to express our hope for the retreat. My word was “space,” in that my personal work during the Lenten season has been to embrace the new space in my life, including loneliness and solitude.

Meanwhile, I hadn’t considered this when I signed up for the retreat, but Friday was the 14th anniversary of my stepson’s death, and I arrived with a heavy heart. In feeling pangs of sadness for my stepson, I also found myself missing my younger son who is currently out of state busy with his military training.

The beauty and solitude of the High Desert. Looking down on the Monastery from the Cemetery

The beauty and solitude of the High Desert. Looking down on the Monastery from the Cemetery

On Saturday morning, I decided to take a hike up to the cemetery and spend some time in quiet reflection. After making it up the hill, I arrived to find the young vets huddled together on a bench, solemnly looking out over the rows of cross markers. As I found a spot, nearby but a respectful distance away, to sit and contemplate, I increasingly felt a sense of comfort in being with these young people. I wondered about the buddies they no doubt lost during their deployments. Despite their youth, who else would understand what it felt like to suddenly and traumatically lose someone close to them, someone too young? In that respect, I felt I was with kindred spirits, even though not a word was exchanged between us.

A poignant scene at the monk's cemetery - one of the young military veterans resting on the "altar" contemplating the landscape in solitude

A poignant scene at the monk’s cemetery – one of the young military veterans resting on the “altar” contemplating the landscape in solitude

One of the activities for the weekend was the opportunity to paint a wooden birdhouse (they were tied to a theme for the retreat). On Friday, I picked out the one I wanted, and after lunch on Saturday, I headed over to the main room to work on it. When I arrived, I found the three young male vets sitting around the table painting their birdhouses! I briefly thought about setting up at a smaller table so as not to disturb them, but decided to join them. They graciously made a space for me, and I spent the next 90 minutes wordlessly but blissfully painting birdhouses with three strapping young men. I realized that God had lent me three “sons” for the day to soothe my yearning.

Because of the gracious provision of balm for my grief and aching, I was free to more fully explore my interior space during the weekend. I walked and napped and read, and found myself curiously drawn to books I found on Celtic wisdom and Irish poetry. The silence this time around felt like an old friend, welcome and comfortable.

My final love “wink” from God came on Sunday morning, when I headed back up to cemetery. I had previously noticed a grave marker for a monk whose birthday (month and day) was the same as my son’s. When I looked again, I noticed that the date of death (month and day) was the same as my stepson’s.

It was incredible how quickly time sped by over the course of the weekend. I didn’t experience any dramatic burning bush or road to Damascus encounters, but felt powerfully and deeply cared for and restored as I headed home. Once we could talk again, I tried to express my gratitude to the young veterans. I hugged them all and awkwardly explained to one (a former Army tank driver) how he and his friends had been such a comfort, to which he replied, “Thank you, Ma’am. Glad we could help.”

 

Only in Vegas, Baby

My husband and I just returned from a whirlwind two-night trip to Las Vegas. In my corporate days, I traveled there frequently,  but this had to be my most Vegas-y experience ever.

I know they say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, but, since I’m basically an open book I’ll reveal what happened. I got a “free” Vegas trip. The “free” trip required attendance at a Mandatory Presentation. We dined at two fabulous restaurants, scored front-row seats at Cirque du Soleil and tickets to Celine Dion at Caesars Palace.  We bought a time-share for a day.  And we were barely two days in Vegas.

And now the full story.   My good friend Lakita called a couple months ago to offer me a “free” Las Vegas vacation that she couldn’t use. I had just been thinking about a Vegas trip, so I saw this as an omen. When I called “Ryan” (as directed by Lakita) to schedule my “free” trip, he demanded a refundable $200 credit card deposit and said we’d be required to attend a 90-minute sales presentation to receive our free gifts and our $200 back. I  almost hung up on Ryan at least four times, but he kept adding more freebies, including meals and shows. When I finally agreed to the deal and then broke the news to my husband (who hates sales pitches), a pained look came over his face, and he unconvincingly said he thought it would all be fine and we wouldn’t get swindled. Our agreed strategy was to say no to whatever they tried to sell us, and hope they didn’t separate and lock us in windowless rooms or clean out our bank account.

There's no place like Vegas!

There’s no place like Vegas!

Fast forward to Monday, when we arrived in Las Vegas. Our “free” hotel was adequate but certainly not posh and miles from the Strip. We walked to the discount ticket booth and picked up two half-price tickets to Mystere.  Prior to the show, we enjoyed a magical sunset dinner at Bouchon, a Thomas Keller restaurant (chef of French Laundry in Napa Valley) on a rooftop patio at the Venetian by a fountain. At the show, we were upgraded to middle orchestra seats.  Acrobats were flying overhead, and we could almost touch the performers. What a wonderful, fun night. Boy, was our trip off to an excellent start!

On Tuesday morning, we arrived promptly for our Mandatory Presentation in Just Say No mode and quickly discovered the sale items were time-shares. My husband won the fun group credit card bingo game and received ANOTHER dinner gift card. Then Jeff, the head sales guy, showed slides of all the fantastic properties we would own and spoke movingly of how our lives would be enriched by the program. Then we moved to a table with our assigned sales guy, Norm, who started the conversation by telling us about his late wife who died from cancer and the son he had to raise singly, and how he recently moved to Vegas to care for his aged mother. After which he hit us with time-share numbers and dollars and figures. Jeff came back and earnestly answered our questions. I could now hear the Sirens’ Song – time-share ownership WOULD be perfect AND a good deal with all the money we’d save on hotels – but I knew I had to stay strong and disciplined. Then they left my husband and me alone to talk it over.

My husband, one of the most skeptical people I know, looked at me very sincerely, and said that he thought a time-share would be great for us. That it would give us exciting new travel opportunities and a structure through which we could make great time-share memories together. I found this somewhat preposterous but I have never loved my husband more than I did at that moment. So the two of us, three graduate degrees between us, impulsively agreed to buy a time-share. After we signed all the papers (finishing at about the three hours mark) they took our picture, had us spin a roulette wheel and gave us another $100 VISA gift certificate prize, while everybody cheered.

How did this happen? We never had the slightest interest in buying a time-share; we always research the heck out of everything we buy, and we never make spur-of-the-moment major financial decisions. It can only be that we drank the Vegas Kool-Aid. A party atmosphere with balloons and music from our youth (designed to evoke warm feelings of family vacations?) combined with the lure of a great deal and a total play on emotions. I’m pretty sure Jeff made up most of his stories about how time-shares saved marriages and families and I’m doubtful that Norm even has a mother in Las Vegas.

When I later pulled out the freebies we received for attending the Mandatory Presentation, I discovered that the “free” $200 dinner was instead a couple of restaurant.com cards that are redeemable only at limited cheapo places, and the “free” show tickets were random two-for-one coupons for completely unappealing shows. So we headed back to the discount ticket booth and found low-priced tickets to a Celine concert (hoping to get upgraded again) and used most of our $200 refund to cover the cost.

Before the show, we used the rest of our $200 refund and our $100 VISA gift certificate on Delmonico’s, another great restaurant in the Venetian, and I was rolling on a gift card high. Another great evening!

Celine Dion, from our nosebleed seats in the Coliseum at Caesar's Palace. It was still fantastic!

Celine Dion, from our nosebleed seats in the Coliseum at Caesar’s Palace. It was still fantastic!

However, while waiting for Celine to come on, I Googled time-shares and the company we now co-owned, and I wasn’t happy with some of what I found. I paused to enjoy a beautiful, passionate and poignant show (its was Celine’s first week back after her husband passed away). Later, I continued my due diligence back at the hotel, and found we had only five days to cancel under the contract. Based on some potential red flags we uncovered, our lack of adequate research, and our newfound Buyer’s Remorse, we decided to pull out, and I drafted a written cancellation notice to deliver the next day.

After a fairly sleepless night, we showed up at the time-share sales office, and they seemed to know exactly why we were there. We were quickly ushered into an office with Jeff, who irritably and rather half-heartedly tried to talk us out of cancelling. He soon realized our minds were set and he was not nearly as nice as he’d been the previous day. He even asked us to return the $100 VISA GIFT card. Really?!

After a thankfully brief 10 minutes with Jeff, we were time-share divested and on our way home. We celebrated with a grand slam breakfast at Denny’s (since we were out of cash). But you know what? We had a blast in Vegas. The only real deal we got was a $15-dollar-a-night mediocre hotel, but it was all so, you know, Vegas. We sampled world-class food and wine, we saw two unforgettable shows, I used my legal training, we came home with a pocketful of discount cards. I learned a lot about time-shares, and we even owned one for a day.

Twenty-three and Flying

First I turn 57-½, and now I have a 23-year-old child. The numbers are racking up! What the heck is going on? Where has the time gone?! It reminds me of a time when I was in my mid to late twenties, working my first real job as a young government lawyer in Washington, D.C., and it suddenly dawned on me that I was no longer “right out of college.” That was the day I witnessed a group of young people who truly were “right out of college” disembark en masse from a bus. One look at these babies, and I was struck by the cold harsh reality that I was NO LONGER “right out of college.”

Now I see young moms at the YMCA carting their little boys and a part of me still identifies as close in age. Or at least closer than the “old ladies” in my exercise classes. Maybe I am just young at heart. Or immature. Or delusional.

In any event, today is my son’s 23rd birthday and, hard as it to wrap my brain around, I now have a child who is “right out of college.” And as I have found with most of my life as a parent, just when I get used to one phase, things change and I’m forced to adapt to a new one.

I am finding this “right out of college” parenting phase quite fascinating. My son is now completely independent from us. He has his own place to live, a car, a job, and a bank account. We try to talk to him once a week (if he has time) and we text often. But after years of controlling, then directing, then advising his actions, it is part unnerving, part deeply gratifying, to step back and watch him navigate life on his own. He still sometimes calls for advice, but his decisions are clearly his. And wise ones. It’s like finally nudging the baby bird out of the nest, taking a deep breath, and watching him soar.

There is freedom in not being responsible for him. And immense pride in the responsible, competent, unaffected adult he has become. My grandest joy, however, is the genuine love and affection my husband (his father) and I share with him. It is perhaps the greatest prize of parenting to raise a child that becomes a treasured adult companion.

My son currently lives halfway across the country from us, and although part of me wishes we were closer and more intertwined in his life, it oddly feels right to be physically removed from him. (I do remember being 23, and being glad my mother was not too close by.) At this phase of his life, he is truly coming into his own and this is his time to soar (especially since he is just starting flight training!) We love the excitement of getting updates on his life and marveling at his adventures from afar.

We also find it rather exhausting when he comes home to visit. We forget about the hours that “right out of college” aged people keep, and it always seems someone is coming or going in our house while he’s there.   Much as we love the visit, and we are incredibly sad when he leaves, we also welcome the return of quiet and routine and appreciate the “empty nest” life we’ve grown accustomed to.

My drawing on a recent card I sent my son, totally age-appropriate for a twenty-three year old

My drawing on a recent card I sent my son, totally age-appropriate for a twenty-three year old

As with every other period of his life, I grieve the passing of each stage, since I’ve cherished them all, but I am eager to see what’s next. Like turning the pages of a captivating novel, I am excited to see how this story unfolds, without the pressure of being the author. In this tale, I’m proud of the hero, and am more than content being a supporting character. Happy birthday to my son who occasionally makes me feel old, but keeps me forever young.

Fifty-Seven and a Half

This week I turned fifty-seven and a half. When I was growing up, our family celebrated half-birthdays. The half-birthday honoree was allowed to pick his or her dinner of choice, and I always chose hot dogs and chocolate milk.

My half-birthday dinner of choice. A plain hot dog.

My half-birthday dinner of choice.
A plain hot dog.

The half-birthday celebration was particularly important to me, since my birthday is in early August, a terrible time for a kid in a Navy family.   We were almost always either in the process of moving to, or had just arrived, someplace new. In either case, my hopes for a fancy birthday party with friends, which is all I ever wanted (that, and a new Barbie), were constantly thwarted.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure my mother concocted the half-birthday tradition just for me, mainly to mitigate her guilt over my lack of fancy birthday parties with friends, knowing how gypped I felt. My brothers didn’t seem quite as taken with the half-birthday idea as I was. And the whole family made, in hindsight, a suspiciously over-enthusiastic celebration out of my half-birthday. I suspect they were all in cahoots with my mother, forced to be cheery under severe threat of retribution.

In any event, I enjoyed my half-birthday hot dogs, and to this day, I still keep half-birthdays on my calendar – my husband’s, my son’s, and mine. Not that we do anything special, but I still smile when I see a half-birthday on the calendar.

My half-birthday drink of choice. Milk with Bosco chocolate syrup.

My half-birthday drink of choice.
Milk with Bosco chocolate syrup.

Until this year. I looked at my calendar this week, and saw that I am now fifty-seven and a half. Holy you-know-what!   I am not only halfway between fifty-seven and fifty-eight, but I am halfway between fifty-five and SIXTY!

In my mind, fifty-five was cool. It meant I was eligible for early retirement, and still sounded relatively young. And what could be more hip than a financially independent, relatively young woman? I couldn’t wait to turn fifty-five! But now the years are flying by and I am swiftly approaching SIXTY. Try as I might, I doubt I’ll feel as snug about SIXTY as I did about fifty-five.

Coincidently, this week I read a post entitled The Old Woman I Want to Be on NotQuiteOld, a blog I enjoy following. Nancy Roman, the blogger, recently celebrated her sixty-fifth birthday, and reflects on the significance of this milestone and how she wants to live her remaining years. A sentiment in her post that particularly resonates with me is her fear of wasting time. She writes, “I want to make the most of whatever time I have left – and to enjoy that time. Maybe that still means television and shopping. But maybe not.”

I’ve increasingly noticed in myself that urgency to use my time wisely. This week, during an Ash Wednesday service, I unexpectedly decided to give up Facebook for Lent (and I’m not even Catholic), partly because I often find myself wasting time on it almost reflexively, and I want to make space for more intentional pursuits. (I’ll see if I can link this post to Facebook automatically so I don’t blow my vow on Day Two and enter the forbidden land!)

When I was young, time seemed to be an infinite commodity. I had endless new adventures and new stages of life to look forward to. Not so the older I get.   Today I have the health, resources and time to do almost anything I want. I worked hard all my life to get to this point and I want to squeeze as much as I can out of every day. I am acutely aware that this stage is finite and I want to take full advantage of it while it lasts. This outlook may partly stem from my fairly recent experience as the child in charge of care for both of my parents at the end of their lives. I saw how quickly their lives changed when their health declined.

The flip side of this urgency to live as if I were on leave from death row is that, taken to its extreme, it can be crazy making. Not every day or moment can, or should be, filled with ultra-significant moments or experiences. Left to my own devices, I can easily fill our calendar with terrific events every day of the week, in the process wearing myself out and driving my husband mad. As Nancy quotes John Lennon in her post, sometimes “time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”   It all comes down to finding that right balance.

With that, I think that I will go waste some time and make myself a hot dog and some chocolate milk. Happy half-birthday to me!

My New Favorite Yoga Teacher

Remember when I lost my favorite yoga teacher Diane?  An Homage to Diane, or, Life Lessons I Learned from my Yoga Instructor And I thought (1) my life was, so to speak, over, or, (2) I’d never ever find anyone that I like as much?

Well, guess what? I found my new favorite yoga teacher Lucy. Conveniently for me, Lucy took over Diane’s Gentle Yoga classes at the YMCA, which were my favorites, and still are. Lucy is not Diane, and there are some things I still miss about Diane’s classes. But Lucy does other things I love that Diane didn’t do. And Diane’s lasting gift to me was teaching me how to adapt to any yoga class or teacher.

Whereas Diane was calm and soothing, Lucy is loud and bubbly and fun. Lucy starts each of her classes with a short theme or message. She shares an idea (like when we “open and close”) and how this concept applies in her life and how it can apply in ours and in our yoga practice.   She also works hard on that upper back area where, at my age, we are starting to round and stoop. When I’m in Downward Facing Dog, she comes by and presses down on that sweet spot on my back, where I’m rounding, and then squeals “Yeeeeeessss!” at my straight backbone and her joy is infectious.

One of my "happy places" is yoga classes at the YMCA

One of my “happy places” is yoga classes at the YMCA

I am grateful I have a new favorite yoga teacher Lucy in my life. But even more, this yoga teacher transition came in the midst of a personal gloomy bout and taught me (or I should say “reminded me” since I never seem to permanently learn anything) a few valuable lessons:

Change is hard. I completely understand that transitioning to a new yoga teacher is not exactly a hardship situation. But, it was a reminder that change is constant and sneaky and disruptive. Even when change is good, it is still change and can cause anxiety and discomfort. My recent accompanying mini-funk, I realized, was tied to yet more life adjustments (don’t we ever just reach our comfort zone and stay there for God’s sake?!). Because of some recent health issues, I was rudely and unfairly reminded that I could no longer engage in some physical activities like a twenty- or thirty-something. At the same time, our son is post-college, entering a new stage and one step further along his path toward adulthood and independence. Now, this is a good thing and exactly what we hope for as parents; but the outlook of reduced time with him rendered me melancholy. It helped to acknowledge that I was grieving over life changes, including my loss of Diane.

Be open to new people. During my first yoga class with Lucy, I immediately disliked her, only because she wasn’t Diane. But I kept going to her classes, and gradually started to appreciate the qualities Lucy brought to her teaching. It was Lucy, in fact, who helped me recognize and understand my gloom. Another day, when I was feeling inexplicably detached and pissy, Lucy talked about challenging ourselves to “go toward that which you are afraid of” in her opening comments. That caused me to examine the root of my discomfort and to identify my underlying fears and needs, rather than to simply withdraw or avoid the situations.   Lucy is not necessarily saying anything I haven’t heard before, but being open to, and hearing new voices or perspectives can be powerful.

Be open to new practices. Diane did more breathing and meditative exercises. I usually left her classes feeling like I’d just returned from two weeks in the Caribbean. Lucy talks, then goes right to business, which at first seriously irritated me. Lucy proudly calls herself a “Yoga Geek” and loves to explain the mechanics behind poses. She also uses the wall extensively to strengthen our positions. As I let go of my annoyance and started really listening to and embracing her teaching, I found my understanding of yoga and the goals of our movement increasing. I became more of a partner, rather than simply a follower, in the practice. As much as I valued Diane’s gentle teaching style, through Lucy, I have gained an added dimension to my yoga practice. Outside of yoga, I was inspired to incorporate some self-care practices, like journaling and dance, to my everyday routine.

The Sun Will Come Out Again. When I get too deep in my Black Hole of Despair (as I affectionately call it), it can become a self-sustaining condition. I can begin to only see a bleak future that may never end, through my personal gray-colored glasses. One day Lucy started our class with a confession that she was feeling blue, and she wasn’t sure why. I found her transparency empowering. She then reminded herself and us, that it is normal and okay to be downcast at times, and the important thing to remember is that the sun will shine again. In yoga, we approach our practice as self-care for those times of darkness. In life, we put one foot in front of the other and trust that things will get better. And, in my case, that was true, and in part I can thank my new favorite yoga teacher Lucy.

 

 

Some Things Never Change!

Often, the saying is uttered in exasperation to describe a never-ending irritant. But, I recently discovered I am grateful that some things don’t change.

Two dear friends from college visited me this past weekend. Lynne was my first roommate in the dorm, and Devie lived down the hall. I met both of these women when I was eighteen, my adult self still very much a work in progress.

The first day I met Lynne, she came bounding into our dorm room carrying a field hockey stick in one hand and a tennis racket in the other. Before her dramatic, high-energy entrance, I warily scrutinized the photos already hung on her side of the room, which were mostly of pigs. She later clarified that she was a P.E. major (which explained the multiplicity of sporting equipment) and had been in 4-H (which explained the pigs, whom she proudly declared were named Aristotle and Socrates).   Over the course of our college years, I found Lynne to be uproariously funny, whip smart (she later changed her major to biology), with an almost insatiable curiosity, and a great problem solver. She was our unofficial dorm den mother, a natural caretaker with her calm wisdom and ingenuity.

I met Devie in my Art History class. She was physically striking, talented, creative, slightly neurotic, and I found her endlessly entertaining. She was an art major and a gifted pianist. I spent weekends at her Jewish parents’ house, and she was highly skilled at discussing and dissecting (often inventing) problems (hers and mine) until we were both near exhaustion.

Last weekend was the first time in 37 years that the three of us had all been together. Although Lynne and Devie became two of my closest friends during college, after I graduated and continued to law school and then moved to the east coast for a period, I largely lost touch with them until recently. I was curious to see how much we’d changed, both individually and as a trio.

We quickly discovered that the essence of who we each were at eighteen had not changed, and that we eased almost immediately back into our comfortable, safe friendship. Thirty-seven years later, Lynne is a retired science and special education teacher, married to a deaf Native American man, who lives on a chicken farm in Tennessee and is currently building a fence. Devie is an art therapist who is even more beautiful now than in college, works with children and teens in the Bay Area and is still highly conflicted about many things. They both found their callings, perfectly predictable based on their eighteen-year-old selves. They both claimed that my successful legal career was completely foreseeable (even though I began college as an interior design major).

My weekend also wonderfully illustrated teachings from a recent Alive and Well Women workshop entitled “Deepening Connections” in which my friend Cissy spoke about self-compassion. We talked about how we, as women, are often more compassionate with others than with ourselves. We explored the power of female community, and the healing that takes place when we find those friends to whom we can safely confess our self-loathing, our fear, our shame, our needs, and from whom we can receive loving empathy and compassion.

With Devie (far right) and Lynne (middle), back in my world

With Devie (far right) and Lynne (middle), back in my world

After three solid days of each other, in which we laughed (much) and talked (a lot) and even cried (some), Lynne, Devie and I shared how affected we each were by our weekend together, both emotionally and physically. The best that I can describe it, for me, is that I was not changed by this deep re-connection with my old friends, but anchored. An important part of me, deep inside, never lost but perhaps unnoticed, was re-aligned, reinforced. Through speaking our fears, our shame, our needs to each other, and finding the solid core of our friendship still trustworthy and strong, it became a deeply comforting, healing, and spiritual experience of compassion.

It was also great fun for my friends (and for me) to get a glimpse into my current life.   I took them to my yoga class and my favorite brunch restaurant and we walked around my neighborhood. We’ve now decided to make this an annual event. Next year, whether chasing chickens in Nashville or doodling with crayons in Palo Alto, I will be joyfully discovering new friends in my old.

 

Alive and Well in Retirement!

I was recently reminded of a blog post I wrote back in January of 2014, entitled Existentialism, Disenchantment and the Six Phases of Retirement. It was written about five months after I retired. A fellow blogger who explores retirement issues found my post and used me, in a YouTube presentation, as his comic example of someone bumbling through the early adjustment phases of retirement. As I watched the YouTube presentation (slightly discomfited, listening to a complete stranger talk about the antics of “Betsy and her husband” like we were Lucy and Ricky), I was stuck by how much we’ve evolved since then.

I am quite content with my life now. Looking back, I see it really took me about two years to fully adjust to retirement. Five months after my retirement date, when I wrote that post, I was clearly in the Disenchantment Phase (Stage 4). The Honeymoon Phase (Stage 3) had worn off and I was starting to feel some loneliness, boredom, uselessness and disillusionment.

Stage 5, following Disenchantment, is described as the “Reorientation Stage,” where the retiree moves on to build a new identity in retirement. It is described as the “most difficult stage in the emotional retirement process and will take both time and conscious effort to accomplish. Perhaps the most difficult aspects of this stage to manage are the inevitable self-examination questions that must be answered once again, such as ‘Who am I, now?’ ‘What is my purpose at this point?’ and ‘Am I still useful in some capacity?’ New – and satisfying – answers to these questions must be found if the retiree is to feel a sense of closure from his or her working days. But many retires cannot achieve this and never truly escape this stage – make sure you do!” (Mark P. Cussen, “Journey Through the 6 Stages of Retirement”)

I wasn’t always mindful at the time, but in hindsight it’s clear I did go through this reorientation process, often in fits and starts. It forced me to take a hard look at myself and make some deliberate decisions about how I was going to spend the rest of my life. After all, the rest of my life could be another 30+ years! If I were to summarize my acquired bits of wisdom (and I emphasize that these are MY conclusions) they would be:

Throw out the expectations (especially of your partner) – Retirement is a wonderful and terrifying marriage laboratory, where you get one last chance to finally work out those thorny relationship issues so often ignored during the busy dual-career and childrearing years. Especially for my husband and I, polar opposites in many ways. Plus, I realized that I went into retirement with some unrealistic expectations. In my imaginary retirement la-la world, my husband (already retired) and I would be happily spending 24/7 together, having lunch dates and play dates and going to art museums. We would have an abundance of extra time, and we’d joyfully split the housework and tackle all those long-delayed projects around the house, like cleaning out the garage. We’d do all this together, with any relationship issues magically solved by the absence of work pressures.

That rose-colored bubble pretty much burst the first few weeks of retirement. We never spent that much time together, even when we were dating, so it was bone-headed to think we would start now. And my husband doesn’t even like art museums. After about a week of being together in the house, we had nothing interesting to report to each other. Plus, my homebody husband has vastly different ideas on how to spend his time, and was unwilling to give up his established and cherished routines and household chores. As I noticed my frustration and resentment start to build, I had a choice to make. I could either try to change my husband to fit my expectations, or I could respect his differences, let him be him, and focus on what I could do to structure my own life. I ultimately chose the latter, and also found it works far better to ask clearly for what I need than to expect it.

There are of course some things I still wish were different. For example, I really wish my husband would clean out the garage. I wish we entertained more, and we watched less TV (especially sports). But I finally realized there is an excellent chance our garage will never be tidy, that entertaining can be pretty stressful for us, and that watching a good football game together is a great shared activity. I had to look clear-eyed at those areas where reality and expectations collide and make some choices. If there were deal-breakers for me, I had to address them. If they were not, I had to come to peace with them. Just because Mr. and Mrs. McGillicudy down the street, also retired, work puzzles and drink Moscow Mules together every afternoon doesn’t mean we should. This process of letting go of unhelpful expectations and accepting, even embracing, the goodness in my own reality, with a spirit of gratitude, has been very liberating and my path to contentment.

Look no farther than thyself – I don’t mean this in a self-centered or narcissistic way, but I am learning that I am the one responsible for my own happiness.   It is too easy, but not helpful, to look to others or go into blame mode when I am unhappy. As it is difficult, if not possible to do on my own, there is a spiritual component integral to remaining centered and open, in removing blame and extending grace.

Eliminating unhealthy expectations freed me to look pragmatically, even creatively, at myself, my husband (and our life together), and to craft a fulfilling life. If I need more social interaction, I have a wonderful network of friends to call on. When I need more physical exercise, I hang out at the YMCA right down the street. I have a women’s study group and a book club that provide plenty of regular female companionship.

I also gradually came to the conclusion that contributing to my disenchantment was a growing and nagging feeling of uselessness. Although I initially thought I would enjoy doing more around the house, I found I was honestly just as happy letting my husband keep his chores! (And I am, BTW, the envy of my girlfriends.) I found I need more time out of the house. I was someone who worked my entire life and was used to being the breadwinner in our family and a leader in the workplace. I missed the energy and camaraderie of the office, the business travel, and being a part of teams where we solved problems for our clients. I enjoyed all the fun I was having in retirement, but I began to feel that something was missing.

For me, a providential solution was my involvement with a charitable organization. A few months after I retired, I re-connected with a friend who was long interested in starting a non-profit. She enlisted my help and together we launched Alive and Well Women. Today I am the Chair of the Board and last year volunteered to take the lead on grant writing (something I’ve never done before).

My work with Alive and Well Women has proven to be a godsend. It gives me an outlet for using my professional talents, a sense of value and accomplishment, while allowing me to give back to the community. I love the women I work with and I’m learning new skills. We are in the midst of our first capital campaign and I’m finding it a joy to raise funds for a cause I feel passionate about. And since I am a volunteer, I work when I am home but still have the flexibility to travel with my husband.

Find some things to enjoy with your partner – when we are home, my husband and I find the ideal mix of together/independent time typically skews more toward separate schedules. We have breakfast and dinner together, and go for a daily walk around the neighborhood, but the rest of the day is typically individual time (often we are both home, but separately engaged.)

The danger with our natural parallel play tendency is that we can easily become disengaged. So, we deliberately look for activities that we can enjoy together. For us, our favorite joint activity is travel. Something special happens when we are on the road. We find we love being together 24/7, we work as a team, and we create amazing shared memories. These are the moments when I am overcome with gratitude. And as soon as we’re back from one trip, we start thinking about our next, which gives us something to dream about together.

We also try to do a few things each week while we are home. We rarely miss church and brunch on Sunday. We have at least one lunch or dinner out during the week, and we recently started ballroom dancing classes. We’re still more Lucy and Ricky than Fred and Ginger, but we’re having fun with our salsa!

"Eventually the new landscape becomes familiar, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose"

“Eventually the new landscape becomes familiar, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose”

The Routine Stage (Phase 6) of retirement is when “finally, a new daily schedule is created, new marital ground rules for time together versus time alone are established, and a new identity has been at least partially created. Eventually, the new landscape becomes familiar territory, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose.” (Mark P. Cussen)

You know, I think we might be there!

Christmas Peace

The older I get, the more melancholy I feel around Christmas. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the holiday season. I love the traditions and Christmas trees and cookie baking and lights and carols. But the innocent, pure joy and excitement I felt as a child have given way to a more nuanced experience of the holidays.

This year, as I decorated our Christmas tree, I was reminded of my blog post from two years ago entitled Christmas Memories. Just as I related in that post, the powerful remembrances elicited by unpacking our boxes of family Christmas decorations are enough to plunge me into sudden gloom.   Even though I am generally excited about the upcoming holidays (especially for our son’s homecoming tomorrow), I found myself taking frequent breaks (cookies, coffee and chocolate seemed to help) as memories of people and places and times past came flooding back. I grieved over the loss of my beloved parents and stepson, and a broken relationship with another family member. I missed the days when our son was a young boy and I was a young mom. The mere recognition of the passage of so much time causes its own despair.

I find myself grieving over our broken world. The seemingly everyday news of bombings and shootings and ISIS and terror feels overwhelming to me.   I’m often disappointed by a lack of clear moral leadership coming from political (highlighted in this current presidential election circus) and religious leaders.

While preparing for our family Christmas, I heard from two friends experiencing tragic circumstances amidst this holiday season. One friend’s son was seriously injured in a sports-related accident, her father died, and she broke her hip – all within a couple weeks. Another friend, as a result of a series of setbacks, was on the brink of losing her home. I felt heavy and helpless. What am I to do with all this suffering? And how can I feel the joy of the season with so much brokenness around me? I did what little I could for my friends – I visited the first friend, brought her lunch, Christmas cookies and a wreath (since she couldn’t drive to get one). I sent the other friend some money and prayed for her. But I struggle with a sometimes overpowering sense of futility and pain when people around me are hurting.

How can I feel the joy of the season with so much brokenness around me?

How can I feel the joy of the season with so much brokenness around me?

And then last Sunday, as if on cue, God met me and blessed me.   The church sermon that morning was entitled “Waiting for God to Send Peace.” Our Pastor Megan spoke to our challenge as Christians in finding the peace of Christ in a broken world. It was the sermon for which I had been longing and I needed to hear. It reminded me that, although I can’t turn a blind eye to violence around me, my peace comes through my relationship with God. My worldly responsibility is to show compassion in the midst of pain and strife. Pastor Megan reminded us of Jesus’ parting words to his disciples:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

That same afternoon, our church sponsored a concert entitled “What Shall We Give Him?” highlighting Courtney B. Vance reading the Christmas Scripture from Luke 2. I found myself weeping while listening to the music and the words of the sacred Christmas music. When the Christmas Scripture from Luke was read, what initially caught my attention were these words:

In those days a decree went out from emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Ouirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

Holy cow! Was the family of Jesus Christ an early example of Syrian refugees? As I sat contemplating current events in light of this text, I abruptly felt the convergence of the past, presence and future. I was unexpectedly comforted by the words of carols, many I’ve heard since I was a child, but which in that moment took on new and powerful meaning.

Hark! the herald angels sing,

“Glory to the new born King,

Peace on earth, and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled!”

God blessed me with the reassurance that my care of my friends and family, that my voice for good in the world, will make a difference, and that He will give me peace. As I left the church, like Mary, “pondering all these things in my heart,” the words of Scottish poet Alexander Smith finally made perfect sense: “Christmas is the day that holds all time together.”

What the Heisman Trophy Says About Us

This past Saturday, the 2015 Heisman Trophy was awarded in New York City. The previous Monday night, I excitedly watched live as the finalists were announced. When only three names were read, and Keenan Reynolds (senior quarterback at Navy) was not one of them, I felt an overwhelming disappointment.

First let me say, congratulations to all three Heisman finalists. They are worthy recipients and I wish not to diminish their accomplishments. Let me also say, I am a lifelong Navy football fan (USNA daughter, wife and mom) so its fair to say I am biased.

Why am I so saddened about this year’s Heisman Trophy? I’ve spent some time reflecting about this. (Believe me, I rarely get worked up about anything sports-related.) I am disappointed because it was an enormous missed opportunity. The Heisman Trust and voters had a chance to boldly look past cultural norms of success (Big Schools, Big Money) to choose someone who clearly embodies the aspirational qualities the Heisman purportedly stands for.

The Heisman Trust Mission Statement reads:

The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work. Heisman.com

I hate to single out the Heisman, but the award is emblematic of a larger problem in our culture, where role models are increasingly entertainers and professional athletes, and power and money equate with success, yet we lament the “moral decay” of our society. If we truly value integrity, we must proactively spotlight alternative role models who exemplify exceptional character. I think about some past Heisman winners, who may have been excellent football players and played for top college teams and pursued successful NFL careers, but whose high-profile conduct off the field (played out in the media) exhibited questionable character and choices.  Are they good models of excellence with integrity?

If I were in charge of awarding the Heisman Trophy, I would give it to Keenan Reynolds, a young man who personifies excellence with integrity.

Keenan Reynolds, Navy Quarterback (Navy Athletics)

Keenan Reynolds, Navy Quarterback
(Navy Athletics)

Reynolds deserved serious consideration for the Heisman Trophy based on his football accomplishments alone. In 2015, previously independent Navy joined the American Athletic Conference (amidst high anxiety as to how Navy would fare), and Keenan led the team to a 10-2 record, victories over Air Force and Army (securing the coveted Commander-in-Chief Trophy), and a national ranking of #21. Saturday he became the first quarterback in the history of the Army-Navy series to go 4-0 against its rival. This season, Reynolds received national attention for setting the record (previously held by past Heisman finalist Montee Ball) for most rushing touchdowns in NCAA Division 1 history (85). The list of his records and accomplishments is astounding. See NavySports.com for a more comprehensive review.

More remarkable is the unprecedented impact Reynolds has had on the entire Navy football program, more than any Navy player I can remember. As a four-year starting quarterback (highly unusual at Navy) his mastery of Navy’s complicated triple-option offense is unmatched. This offense capitalizes on quickness and QB decision-making to equalize Navy’s perennial size disadvantage. The triple option requires the QB to make the right split-second decision on every play, and under Keenan, the Navy offense clicked into high gear. The success of the Navy football team under Reynolds’ leadership infused the entire Naval Academy, indeed the entire US Navy, with enormous pride.

His on-the-field accomplishments are particularly extraordinary given that he achieved them as a Midshipman at the Naval Academy. In addition to football, Keenan carried a significant academic load while undergoing rigorous military training. When he graduates from the Academy in May, rather than cashing in on a lucrative NFL contract, he will serve a five-year military commitment in the U.S. Navy. His service assignment is Information Warfare (Cyber security) a highly competitive slot in which 25 physically qualified midshipmen interviewed for five spots.Keenan Reynolds balances football, intense course load

We watched, over the course of his four years at Navy, as Reynolds grew into a true leader of leaders. Since he overlapped three years with our son at USNA, we attended many of his home games and witnessed the excitement he brought to the program. As a senior, he was voted team captain and led by example, on and off the field. I read and watched countless articles and interviews with Keenan, and was always struck by his humble, selfless approach. He consistently deflected individual attention and gave credit to his teammates for every accomplishment. The Navy football team gathered after practice on Monday to watch the Heisman finalist announcement, expecting to celebrate together. They were reportedly “bummed” and stunned that Keenan was not named a finalist. Washington Post

Although only counting as one vote in the overall tabulation, Reynolds won the 2015 Heisman fan vote (partly due to a highly mobilized Navy fan base). Overall, Keenan finished fifth (the highest finish in the Heisman balloting by a Service Academy player since Navy’s Roger Staubach won the award in 1963). According to the Heisman website, between three and eight of the top candidates are invited to New York for the trophy presentation, and these are considered the Heisman Finalists for that year. Presumably because the vote totals dropped significantly after the top three candidates, only three finalists were invited to New York.

Even more disappointing than Heisman voters overlooking this extraordinary young man was the failure of the Heisman Trustees to invite five finalists to New York. Since the Army-Navy football game (in Philadelphia) was the same day as the Heisman Trophy ceremony (in New York), Navy had plans to helicopter Keenan and his family to the ceremony. What an honor, indeed a source of national pride, it would have been to see Reynolds at the ceremony, on national TV, in his Navy service dress blue uniform. Would it have been such a stretch to invite two more finalists to the ceremony?

A Heisman Trophy, even just an invitation to the ceremony, would have meant the world to not only Keenan and his family, but to all the Service Academies and to the men and women serving our country. It would have sent an important message recognizing one of their own as a shimmering example of “the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” I rooted for Keenan Reynolds for the Heisman not only because he’s Navy and deserves the award as a player, but also because he so impressively embodies those qualities we should demand in our role models. Although I am sad for him, I suspect Keenan Reynolds will have a bright future, with or without the Trophy.   What our awards say about us is what makes me most sad.

The Kid is Alright (And So Am I)

We spent this Thanksgiving with our son (my only child) in Florida. He graduated from the Naval Academy in May and is now waiting to start flight training. I am therefore passing into yet another new stage of parenting, having an adult college-educated son who is completely independent. He has an apartment, a car and a job. He really doesn’t need us for anything.

Looking back, the two hardest transitions for me were his first day of kindergarten and the first month after he left home for college. My husband had to peel me away from the front door of the elementary school when we dropped him off at kindergarten. I blubbered all the way home about this being “the beginning of the end.” The first month of his “Plebe Summer” at the Academy, I missed him terribly. Our house and lives suddenly became strangely quiet, and I found myself pacing anxiously around the house and staring at his empty room. I physically ached from the loss of his everyday company.

Somewhere around the beginning of his senior year at the Academy, long after finally and happily settling into my role as USNA Mom, I began to feel a pit in my stomach, knowing that my son would soon be leaving the relatively safe Academy environment (that I had grown to love) and that his chosen career would become increasingly dangerous as he pursues his future training and then faces prospective deployments. After we said good-bye this past May, following his graduation, we knew we might not see him again until Christmas. I anticipated another tough adjustment, but I have to say, so far this stage has been much easier than I thought.   I feel surprisingly at peace being less actively involved in his life.

I believe there gradually comes a point in the parenting relationship, where both our kids and we realize that it is us (the parents) that yearn for more time with them (the kids) than they yearn for with us.  The early to mid twenties is also an important time for our kids to independently build their own identities.   When I reflect on my own past with my own parents, I am reminded of the importance of “releasing” my son for his vital personal development.   Besides, quite frankly, I find much in the life of a 22-year-old male somewhat unappealing, and often the “son” I miss hanging out with is the 8-year-old version (the one for whom I was the center of his universe). Added to that, my husband and I have built an active and enjoyable life together.

As for the future dangers in my son’s military career, I try not to think about it too much.  I put his safety into God’s hands and remind myself that he is doing exactly what he’s always wanted to do and he will be well trained.  (Of course, it is still relatively easy to ignore my fears while he is waiting around for training to begin, so check back in another year or two on that one!)

What is important to me personally, though, as I adjust to this stage of parenting, is to (1) maintain a connection with my son, and (2) know that he is okay. In my quest to sustain a connection, we frequently text each other, and routinely talk every Sunday by phone. Our Sunday calls, however, are often more interrogation than chat. Our son is not naturally talkative – he doesn’t hide information, but he doesn’t freely volunteer it either. Therefore, expertly framing and posing the right questions is a key skill when talking to him. When physically with him, however, we have long conversations (usually over meals) and I feel connected and caught up with his life. Since he had plenty of time on his hands (waiting for flight training to start) our Florida visit was pure gold. He was relaxed; we talked, laughed, and enjoyed several activities (and daytrips) together. He and I have always shared a sense of humor (that sometimes stumps even my husband) and he can make me laugh like few others. We are fortunate that our son still enjoys spending time with us (or at least cheerfully tolerates it). And though I admit I occasionally still long for my little boy, there are many parts of this stage of life that I enjoy even more. What a godsend to realize I’ve raised someone that I truly like!

A visit to my son's workplace

A visit to my son’s workplace

Most importantly, I was able to do my “Mom’s Due Diligence” and feel content that my son is okay. I saw his apartment. It is attractive and in a great location. I met his two roommates. They are polite and respectful. I visited his workplace. I inspected his car. No scrapes or dings, and it has been conscientiously well maintained. I met some of his friends. They are solid buddies. I went to his volleyball and basketball games and chatted with his teammates. They are affable and supportive. He introduced us to his new girlfriend. She is adorable, funny and smart, and she clearly appreciates my son and treats him with respect.

I know I will have fewer such opportunities to pop into his life as his career progresses. The future may be uncertain, and although it may not always be so, for now, we are connected and the kid is alright. And so am I. And that is my Thanksgiving blessing.

Psalm 46:1

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.