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!

The Best Trip Ever

Whenever someone asks me which was my favorite retirement trip so far, my answer is usually “The last one!” But, I have to say, with all due sincerity, this last trip may have really really truly been the Best. Trip. Ever.

Looking back, one of my stated goals, in my quest to be ‘Alive and Well’ in retirement, was to “discover rewarding activities that feed me physically, spiritually and emotionally.” In part, to pursue joy and beauty in my world.

In thinking about our last adventure, a road trip from the Pacific Northwest (Washington state) down the Pacific coast to California, there were so many elements that I’m recognizing are the building blocks (for me) of pure happiness:

Travel Bliss. Many urged me to find something my husband and I would enjoy doing together in retirement. We don’t have many common hobbies (other than our son, who technically shouldn’t be labeled a hobby) so we’ve experimented with a few of the obvious things, like hiking, biking, golf and tennis, with some success, but none of them a home run. Our “thing” seems to be travel, especially driving trips.  Some have marveled that we can be cooped up together in a car for weeks at a time, not only without killing each other, but actually enjoying ourselves. A very odd and magical thing happens on the road, and we actually seem more compatible. We have a sense of freedom when away from the responsibilities (and the unfinished projects) of home, we enjoy similar sights and activities, and we work well together as a team. With each trip, we fine-tune our processes (preparation, packing, etc.) so our travel has progressively become more fun and less stressful. On our last trip, I was particularly struck by a profound sense of joy and gratitude to have a partner, in my husband, with whom I can experience these great adventures.

Girl Time. An added bonus was that this trip started with girlfriends. I initially left home with two female friends on a two-day road trip (see my previous blog The Girls Road Trip), then spent the weekend in Sunriver, Oregon with four girlfriends. After the weekend, my husband drove up to join me. First of all, this set-up was brilliant in that I avoided the whole joint packing and departure step – by far The Most Stressful part of any trip with my husband. But more importantly, our girls weekend was pure joy and beauty in itself. Beyond the beautiful location, shopping, cupcakes, giggling, and super fun activities (like canoeing down a river á la Lewis and Clark), there was something restorative, which blessed me deeply, in being with close female friends for an extended time.

Connection with Friends. After the girls weekend, most left, one stayed, and my husband and her husband joined us for a few days. We had not previously spent extended time together as couples, but we had a delightful time getting acquainted and playing together as twosomes. We rode tandem bikes, frolicked in the pool and water slides, went for ice cream, and generally enjoyed an extended, enchanted old-fashioned double date. On our next stop, we had lunch in Portland with a college sorority sister I hadn’t seen in thirty-five years. In Seattle, we were treated to a lovely dinner with three of my favorite former work colleagues and spouses (at the charming Bainbridge Island home of one of them). The next day, we traveled via car and two ferries to a fairly remote location in Washington to visit a good friend who previously lived around the corner but moved a few years ago. We spent the afternoon touring her new town and savored a fresh salmon dinner together. Rekindling long-lost or neglected friendships or spending time and deepening bonds with current friends, has proven to be one of the best parts of retirement. I’ve met a few new friends, but I have mostly cherished the opportunity to spend more time with the people I already know and love. I generally only spend time now with the people that I want to. What a marvelously liberating realization that was!

Family Time. Our first stop after Sunriver was a 3-night visit with our niece and her family in southern Washington at their new house. Our two adorable little grandnephews had grown leaps and bounds since we last saw them in May. I played as much as I could with the boys (until they wore me out), and we had great unhurried conversations with our niece and her husband. Finally, our last stop before heading home was a night with my sister-in-law in the Bay Area. She and her husband are preparing to sell their house, which was the site of many family gatherings and weddings, and we enjoyed reminiscing. Time to visit with family across the country has been another unexpected blessing of retirement. Since we are essentially on our own (as far as family is concerned) where we live, the more frequent contact with family has been precious.

This was the view from our breakfast table at the Lake Crescent Lodge in Washington

This was the view from our breakfast table at the Lake Crescent Lodge in Washington

Breathtaking Scenery. On top of everything else, the landscape of the Pacific Northwest was arguably the most beautiful of any of our trips. At times I was stunned by God’s creation so spectacularly laid before me. We took scenic ferry rides; saw rain forests, waterfalls and redwood forests. We stayed in historic national park service lodges. We saw a long list of wildlife – gray whales, seals, seal lions, sea otters, sea elephants, elk, deer, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, fox, bobcat, bear. We went for long hikes through forests and walks through picturesque small towns. A refinement that worked well was to plan shorter daily drives with plenty of time for active stops (walking, hiking and physical activity). On previous trips, we’ve found that long unbroken stretches in the car not only wreak havoc on us physically, but also inhibit us from truly experiencing the land we are touring.

To summarize:

Travel Bliss + Girl Time + Connection with Friends + Family Time + Breathtaking Scenery = Best.Trip.Ever.

WHAT COULD BE BETTER THAN THAT?   Just ask me after our next trip.

Early Retirement: My Mid-year Review

Well, I’ve been doing this Early Retirement Thing for almost eight months now, so it seems as good a time as any to step back and evaluate how it’s going. I looked back at my earlier post (“The Great Experiment: Early Retirement….or Now What?”) in which I outlined my objectives for this year:

  1. To finish long-ignored cleanup projects around the house;
  2. To learn how to “do” retirement happily; and
  3. To discover rewarding activities that feed me physically, spiritually and emotionally (and perhaps financially).

In the same post, I also set up a “To Do List” for myself that I intended to complete this year:

  1. Visit Paris for the first time with my husband (a life-long dream!)
  2. Clean out the garage and a storage shed
  3.  Inventory my deceased parents’ belongings (in said garage and storage shed), work out with my brothers what to keep and what goes to who, and get rid of the rest
  4. Pack up the parental items for my brothers in our new SUV and…..
  5. Do a Route 66 driving trip with my husband (another life-long dream) to deliver the goods
  6. Determine what our next big trip will be and when
  7. Rest and recover from the corporate world!
  8. Beyond that, I will go with the flow, open myself up to new experiences, not make any commitments for a year and purposely let things evolve.
The view from my new morning commute - I walk from home to the YMCA and admire the neighbors'

The view from my new morning commute – I walk from home to the YMCA and admire the neighbors’ gardens

As I look at my lists, it’s surprisingly heartening to see that I am generally on track (since some days I don’t even know what day it is or what I am supposed to be doing).   And here’s my lessons learned so far:

Clean-up projects: I’ve done a good job of cleaning out closets and drawers inside the house and my husband and I are off to a good start on the garage. (Its now organized but we haven’t thrown much out.)  But, I will be shocked if we have the garage and storage shed completely cleaned out by the end of the year. It is highly unpleasant and emotional work and there is nothing in our immediate future (like an imminent downsizing or move) forcing us to purge. Furthermore, we have differing ideas about what to keep and what to toss, so I am finding it is best to take it slow. Life’s too short!

Family heirlooms: I have been much more successful in weeding through my parents’ stuff, deciding objectively what to keep, and we will be taking a load to St Louis to deposit with my brother. I am finding it much easier, with the passage of time, to be able to part with things that were hard to even look at a few years ago.

Travel: Our trip to France was indeed a dream come true. As expected, there were a few bumps along the way, but we saw and did everything I hoped, and we both have great memories to last our lifetimes. We also enjoyed our trips last fall to Annapolis for Navy football games. We are now planning a cross-country road trip (Route 50 eastbound and Route 66 westbound) that should be quite the adventure and have decided our next big trip will be Ireland in the fall. In general, I have found travel to be the best part of retirement. It takes my husband and I out of our normal routine, encourages us to work together on the planning and execution, and gives us a shared sense of adventure.

Home life: I have found one of the biggest adjustments has been to a 24/7 marriage relationship. When I was working, I was gone much of the day and traveling quite a bit, so it was a big change (for both of us) to suddenly be home all day, initially with nothing to do. This is one of those areas where “experts” advise extensive pre-retirement planning and communication as to post-retirement activities, expectations and roles. However, despite our best intentions, we found it difficult to anticipate exactly how things would play out until we actually found ourselves thrown together in the same house all day. I suppose those with more perfect marriages would find the adjustment effortless, but for us it has taken (and will continue to take) work to find the right balance (e.g., things like individual v. joint activities, time apart v time together).

My husband and I are very different in several key areas, which we already knew after 25 years of marriage, but it became more pronounced the more time we spent together. For example, he is more of an introvert than I. He can go hours, days (weeks!) with very little social interaction; whereas, I am quickly climbing the walls after too much quiet time. What has evolved is that I am often out of the house on my own – at exercise classes, lunches/outings with friends, book club, study groups, etc., while my husband putters around the house working on his projects. We do have some lunch or golf dates, but we have learned to give ourselves freedom to have plenty of separate time. When we are both home, we are often working in opposite ends of the house – I have taken over the den as my “office” and my husband has his “office” in the family room. Most days when we are home, we have breakfast together, go our separate ways during the day, and then come back together for dinner in the evening. I suspect other couples may have different routines that succeed for them but this seems to work for us – it gives us each space to do our own thing, and we have things to talk about when we come back together. As with so many other areas of my life, I am finding this year to be a journey of self-discovery and a time to devote effort toward deferred relationship issues (both with myself and significant others).

Friends: Unfortunately, I have not kept in touch with as many of my work-friends as I’d hoped. I suppose it was inevitable, but as time passed we had less in common without the shared workplace, and we have not put in the effort to build personal relationships. Over the years I developed many on-the-job friendships with colleagues and clients strictly over shared work projects and interactions (many of them long-distance and some of them I never or rarely saw in person). Without the daily professional exchanges, it takes time and effort to maintain all those relationships! The few work friends I do keep in touch with regularly, however, have been those with whom we reciprocate with time and energy, and who have developed into close and cherished personal friends.

Because of this, I am grateful that I maintained strong personal friendships outside work throughout my career. Post-retirement, I turned to a solid core of friends whom I am now happily spending more time with and deepening those bonds. In some cases, I reconnected with good friends from high school or those I’ve collected in the area over the past 25 years. I’ve met a few new people, but close friendships take time to develop so I’ve never been more thankful for my old friends, my golden friends.

Physical health. I have never felt better (knock on wood!) My stress level is way down, I’m exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and I’m usually pretty happy!

Work prospects. Never say never! I am starting to feel like I wouldn’t mind holding down a job again someday. It wouldn’t be the type of work I previously did, but I do miss many aspects (going to an office, the camaraderie, challenging myself, the sense of satisfaction with the mastery of skills and accomplishment, self-esteem, and of course, the paycheck).   I can also see myself becoming bored and/or restless at some point. So, another part of my journey is to be open and imaginative about work opportunities; to find something I love that affords me flexibility for travel and other activities I enjoy.

Stay tuned!

If I’m Retired, Why Am I So Busy?

The other night as I lay in bed my head was spinning (as it regularly did at 3 AM when I was working).  The difference, thankfully, was that I didn’t have that old panicky, pit-in-the-stomach, cold-sweat, something-awful-is-going-to-happen-tomorrow type of anxiety.  But, I did realize I am dang busy!   How did that happen?!

Even though I made a promise to myself, that I have largely kept, not to make any major commitments to anyone or anything this first year of retirement, I have still found it surprisingly easy to fill up my calendar. First, there are the extra lunches, golf outings, exercise classes, cooking attempts, manicures, Bible studies, retreats, and various other adventures I am now enjoying with my husband and friends. And then there are my personal projects – all of them voluntarily and enthusiastically taken on, but time-consuming nonetheless.

Since I had so many loose ends floating around in my mind, I decided it was time for a comprehensive, detailed, official To Do list. I’m usually pretty good about keeping my calendar and To Dos mostly in my head, but when I start “brain swirling,” I have found it much more manageable to get everything down on paper.  Then I don’t have to keep it all brain-filed, and my life usually doesn’t look quite as intimidating as I feared at 3 AM.

My To Do List - it continues on the back.....

My To Do List – it continues on the back…..

This time, I surprised even myself with my To Do list. No wonder my thoughts are whirling!    I have an extended out-of-town family reunion I am organizing, a cross-country road trip I am plotting, a nonprofit organization I am helping to launch, a trip to Ireland I am planning, photo books from our Paris trip I am finishing, a son’s upcoming college graduation to manage, and some financial planning and estate planning issues to work through.  On top of that, I am taking community college classes and exploring potential second career ideas.  And those are just the major headings without all the underlying details!

The delightful part is that I’m loving all of it.   I do need to continuously monitor my busyness level so I don’t end up back on the hamster wheel, but I am incredibly grateful to have a To Do List that looks like mine.  I am increasingly mindful that our trips and activities do take time and effort to plan and execute, and I am Chief Planner in our family. (All this fun takes work!) I don’t know how I could do more than one major international trip a year.  I spent probably 4-6 almost full-time weeks planning our trip to Paris, another month away on the trip and another couple of months recovering and creating slide shows and photo books.  And all those projects I never had time for when I was working? Well, some of them I still don’t seem to have time for!

I had to laugh when, as often happens nowadays, I was being heavily recruited to take on a major job with a social club we joined a couple years ago.  The President began by saying “You’re retired now – you should have plenty of free time!”  Well, yes, and no. I should’ve showed her my To Do list. But then, that wouldn’t gain me any sympathy.

My Weekend with the Monks

Several weeks ago, when my friend Louise invited me to be her roommate at a weekend Silent Retreat, I thought ‘What the heck’ and agreed to go.  Since I intended this year to be one of rest and discernment, it seemed to fit my agenda nicely.  Besides, I have never been on a silent retreat, and the notion has always intrigued me.

I subsequently learned that the retreat would be at St. Andrews Abbey, a Roman Catholic Benedictine Monastery in Valyermo, just north of Los Angeles in the high desert.  After querying Louise further, I determined it was not to be a structured meditative retreat; rather, we would be free to do whatever we pleased as long as we kept quiet.  I wasn’t completely sure what the point of that was, and my husband expressed doubts that I could last a weekend without a word, but I thought I’d give it a shot.

A view of the Gift Shop and Conference Center

A view of the Gift Shop and Conference Center

On the appointed day (a Friday) we drove to the monastery. Louise and I checked in at the office, where we found an elderly, stooped, and bearded monk manning the front desk.  Just as one would expect, he looked up our reservation and recorded our arrival in a large journal by hand.

We located our room, which was Spartan but comfortable (and actually nicer than the Hotel Chintzy we booked in Scottsdale).  It had twin beds, a nightstand, desk, heater and private bathroom with toilet, shower and sink.  There was no TV, radio or telephone, and no Wi-Fi (which I confess I checked for almost immediately upon arrival).

Once settled, and after Louise gave me a brief tour of the grounds, we proceeded to the Dining room for a “talking” dinner. Afterwards, we headed to the Lounge for our preparatory meeting with the retreat leader and other participants (about 30 in all).  After introductions, our leader, Shelley, reviewed with us the schedule and ground rules.   At the conclusion of this meeting, after a closing prayer, we entered into our “Grand Silence” which would last until 10:30 AM on Sunday morning.

Spread along the hilltop on the grounds were some sculptures depicting The 12 Stations of the Cross

Spread along the hillside on the grounds were sculptures depicting The 12 Stations of the Cross

Shelley said the weekend schedule was very free and the time was ours to use as “needful” to us. She explained that the purpose of silence was to offer a break from the noise of the world and a time for rest and reflection.  In the Lounge, there was a library of books, many on topics relating to prayer, meditation and discernment.  There was a craft table containing art supplies and other materials (such as origami) for those who enjoyed arts and crafts.  And then there were the grounds of the monastery, containing acres of desert landscape, including walking paths, a duck pond and a gift shop, that we were free to wander. The only rule (besides being quiet) was that we show up on time in the Dining room for any meals.

I wasn’t particularly nervous about the silence (since my current empty-nest-retiree home life often feels like a silent retreat) but I was curious as to how I would experience it.  My biggest hope going into the retreat was that the Lord and I would have some high-quality dialogue, and that between us we’d come to agreement on some issues.  My biggest concern was I’d get bored, so I brought my iPhone, my laptop and plenty of reading material.

The armchair in the Lounge that became my home for most of the Retreat

The armchair in the Lounge that became my home for most of the Retreat

Saturday morning, a monk ringing the bell awakened us at 7:30 AM, and we proceeded to the Dining Room to eat our breakfast together in silence.  The bad cold I came with had unfortunately worsened, and my room was quite chilly in the morning (this being the high desert) so after breakfast I opted to hang out in the Lounge.  I spent most of the day curled up in an armchair, by a crackling fire, with a box of tissues, sipping hot herbal tea, reading my book and writing a blog post.

I made one trip to the gift store where I bought a few of the ceramic angels that the monks make on the premises. On Sunday morning, I felt better, and walked around the grounds and up to the cemetery on a hill overlooking the valley.  The time went by quickly and I never felt anxious or bored.

So what did I learn from my Silent Retreat?

  • It is surprisingly easy to be quiet.  Once I settled into the silence, it was actually a relief not to talk.  It takes the pressure off having to think of things to say or to make conversation.  It allowed me to concentrate more on myself and relax. There were a few times I wished I could talk to Louise, but mostly I was content being quiet.  In fact, there were a few times during the weekend where talking visitors showed up at the monastery and I found it unsettling.
  • It feels quite comfortable being quiet around others.  Even though I did not know many of the retreat participants, it was not awkward hanging out with them in silence.  In fact, it was unexpectedly comfortable, and I found it soothing having a few folks around me all day while I was reading my book and blowing my nose in the Lounge.
  • There is a shared intimacy in being quiet together.  Not only was it comfortable being around others in silence, I actually felt close to my companions.  They became like dear friends, and I grew familiar with their rhythms, their walks, and their patterns. There was a trust and harmony that developed.  There was one woman named Beth that I had never met before Friday.  I found myself sitting next to her for several meals and appreciating the quiet calm that she radiated.
  • I talk way more than I need to.  I realized how unnecessary my speech often is. In social situations, my words are often used as mindless filler to avoid silence or to manage anxiety.  It can feel risky to sit in silence, but that can actually be the most comfortable and intimate way of being with another person if we are not afraid of the stillness.
  • The strength of a smile.  Since we couldn’t talk to one another, we often smiled at one another as we passed on the grounds or ate together or caught each other’s eye.  It was also okay to not acknowledge others. But a simple smile could convey volumes.  There was a woman named Kay who was also sniffling, and the two of us bonded with sympathetic facial expressions all weekend.  She worked on some sort of interpretive art project that she brought over to show me when she finished, and without exchanging a word we shared a moment of deep connection.
  • I noticed a lot more when I wasn’t yapping.  What I noticed (and saw and heard) when I was not talking was amazing.   I heard the breathing of those around me. I noticed the wind blowing.  I heard the birds chirping outside the window. I felt the rays of the sun on my face.  I saw the lizards scurrying around the grounds.  I tasted my meals more intensely.
  • The Monastery Dining Room, with the exquisite artwork the I contemplated during my meals

    The Monastery Dining Room, with the exquisite artwork the I contemplated during my meals

    The power of being served.  Probably the most touching moment came at our first lunch, when the monks served us.  There was peaceful orchestra music playing quietly in the background while the monks brought a bowl of soup to each of us in turn.  I was suddenly overcome with emotion at the devotion of these men who take vows never to turn anyone in need away and to serve all as Christ served.  I found myself suddenly in tears over the deep gratitude I felt in being ministered to.

  • My social media habit. I must admit, the hardest part for me was being cut off from Facebook, email and texting for the weekend.  I had this vague unsettling feeling that I might be missing something. I had 0 bars in my room or in the Lounge, so several times I walked surreptitiously around the grounds with my iPhone in my pocket to find coverage.  When I walked up to the Monks Cemetery, I suddenly heard my text alerts go off and I had coverage!  I spent more time than was piety-driven amongst the dearly departed, texting my husband and son.  I probably should take more breaks from social media.
  • The Monks Cemetery, which was spiritual and beautiful and the best cellphone coverage

    The Monks Cemetery, which was spiritual and beautiful and had the best cellphone coverage

    The monks are cool.  I have to admit; I was slightly frightened of the monks at first. Not being Catholic, I have historically found nuns and fathers and monks a bit mysterious.  All weekend, I was fascinated with watching the monks and found them utterly endearing.  I watched one leave the Dining Room and slip on his cap (the hip kind Samuel L Jackson wears} as he headed to his car.  I watched another completely quell a little boy’s (who was visiting with his parents on Sunday) potential meltdown with patience and humor.  On Sunday, after we emerged from our silence, one of the other retreat participants relayed the hilarious story of her 30-minute “illegal” conversation with a monk in the gift shop.   She asked him questions ranging from “So what do you Monks do all day?” to “Which Saint would be the best for me to pray to about my dating life?”  He answered each one without skipping a beat.

  • The silence itself was spiritual. Even though I didn’t do anything particularly “religious” most of the weekend, such as the intense prayer or meditation I thought I might, it was nevertheless a very spiritual experience.  Each day, I asked God to give me ears to hear his word.   I felt much closer to God and to who He created me to be, and left with a general sense of peace as I contemplated the verse  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 (New International Version)

Spring Training

We just returned from a week of Spring Training, and as they say in baseball, it was a rough outing.  In the baseball world, Spring Training helps players get back in shape after a long winter hiatus and prepares teams for the upcoming season.  For my husband and I, the trip was about getting our recreational relationship back in shape after years of career and childrearing, as well as good training for our next season of life.

Here I am in my Giant's gear before our first game

Here I am in my Giant’s gear before our first game

I have several friends who thoroughly enjoy Spring Training games in Arizona.  My husband is a huge San Francisco Giants fan.  So I hatched the brilliant idea of taking a trip to Scottsdale for Giants Spring Training. I went on-line January 9 at 10:00 AM when tickets went on sale, not sure if anything would be available for non-season ticket holders.  When I gleefully discovered there were indeed tickets available, I binged on 5 consecutive game days.   I was sure this trip was going to be a home run!

In the meantime, I’ve been taking golf lessons.  I still stink, but at least I can (usually) make contact.  We recently unburied our golf clubs and bikes in our garage excavation, so we decided to take them with us.  My husband was playing quite a bit of golf when we first met, and riding bikes was a favorite activity in our early years.  My husband volunteered to book the hotel and found a place that was walking distance to Scottsdale Stadium and surprisingly inexpensive.  Man, this was going to be a grand slam homer!

In general, the trip was enjoyable and I would definitely do it again.  We loved the scenic afternoon and sunset drive through the Mojave Desert.  The baseball games were fun and it was interesting to see the different team stadiums.  Three of our games were at the Giants’ stadium in Scottsdale, one was at the KC Royals’ stadium in Surprise, AZ, and the last was at the Dodgers’ facility in Phoenix.  We found some great restaurants, including one quirky place in a former dentist’s office with a lovely outdoor patio in a mostly residential section of Phoenix, where a Charlie Byrd-type character with floor-length dreadlocks and an electric guitar was the entertainment.  On Saturday night, we explored the Desert Botanical Gardens, where there was a special “Chihuly in the Gardens” exhibit featuring spectacular blown glass artwork intermingled with the cacti.  I’d never seen anything like it and it was breathtaking.

We were pleasantly surprised to find our seats behind home plate in the shade for the game against the Royals in Surprise

We were pleasantly surprised to find our seats behind home plate in the shade for the game against the Royals in Surprise

However, the trip was no home run, but rather, as with any typical Spring Training, there were some errors as well as lessons learned.  As I thought about our past trips and recreational activities, I realized that, in the first 23 years of our marriage, we had only two years without kids in the house.  Even our activities during our courtship often included my stepson.  We have been empty nesters the past two years, but until six months ago I was still working and most of the trips we took were to visit our son.  Our married life has predominately been focused on children and work, not on leisure.  So it is understandable that we may be a little rusty in the fun department.

So, in no particular order, here are my observations (or “Coaching Report”) of our Spring Training performance, lessons learned, and things to work on:

1)   Don’t be overly chintzy on the lodging

Once we saw our motel, we understood why it was so inexpensive.  After a lovely first dinner at an upscale pizza joint in Scottsdale, we arrived at the motel, and found that our room included absolutely necessary items but not an inch of excess space or additional amenities.  We also discovered it emitted every sound imaginable.  Cars, trucks, refrigerator, air blowing from the A/C unit, neighbors, babies, you name it.  On top of the noise, the room had an odd odor.   I don’t think I got a restful night sleep the entire time we were there.  Granted we are now on a fixed income, but I am too old and have stayed at too many upscale hotels during my business travel days to go back to Motel 6.  We realized how much an uncomfortable lodging situation detracts from the fun factor.

2)   Be mindful of your partner’s preferences and temperament

After 25 years of marriage, I already knew my husband and I are quite different in certain key areas.  But there is nothing like being cooped up together in a car and a tiny, noisy, smelly room like lab rats for a week to accentuate the dissimilarities.

First of all, my husband is not a morning person.  He’s typically unenthusiastic about anything before noon.   He may wake up at a reasonable hour, but he likes to putz around, catch up on his sporting news, and generally ease into his day.  While I am not a crack of dawn person, I (especially since retiring) am probably most hyper in the morning and start to lose steam as the day progresses.  To me, sitting around all morning is an unfortunate waste of half a day.

An example of the amazing exhibit of blown glass at the Desert Botanical Gardens

An example of the amazing exhibit of blown glass at the Desert Botanical Gardens

Second, when I go on vacation, I love to see and do as much as possible.  The world is my oyster and I can’t bear the thought of missing something really cool.  My husband, on the other hand, likes a slower pace and plenty of downtime to relax.  Naps are one of his favorite vacation activities.

Somewhat related, I am also more of an extrovert than my husband.  He can be quite sociable but he is also perfectly happy with solitude and finds extended bouts with people tiring.  I, on the other hand, although not an extreme extrovert, am more energized by personal interactions and can feel isolated with too much quiet time.

With that as background, and in hindsight, it is not surprising that our two morning golf outings in Scottsdale were just short of disastrous.  After our first baseball game on Wednesday (to which we arrived bleary-eyed and sleep deprived after our first night at Motel Chintzy) I insisted we check out the golf course and reserve tee times for the next two mornings (since the baseball games were at 1 pm).  I also decreed that Saturday morning we would ride bikes.   In my current just-released-from-prison-i.e.-retired state, I was determined to not waste a moment!

But as I should have more wisely predicted, when the alarm went off at 7:30 AM the next morning after another rocky night at The Chintz, I realized I had Mr. Grumpypants for a golf partner.   My husband was clearly not happy to be rising so early and barely spoke until the 5th hole, and even then it was something like “Hey, can you move…. I can’t see the pin.”  He had no patience and it didn’t help that:

1)   I whiffed the ball more than I actually hit it

2)   I was averaging upwards of 9-10 strokes per hole

3)   We had a foursome behind us breathing down our necks

4)   I kept asking if I should use a 1-iron (which apparently doesn’t exist), AND

5)   I was texting on the course (which apparently is poor form)

 Things improved somewhat as the day wore on, but I wouldn’t characterize the outing as Fun.  I looked at it more as a character building exercise.  I remember reading about how Tiger Wood’s dad would employ all sorts of purposely disturbing techniques (like yelling or suddenly rattling keys when Tiger was putting) designed to teach focus and resilience and I thought perhaps golfing with Coach Grumpypants would somehow make me a tougher golfer.

And then, if you can believe it, we went golfing again the next morning with an even earlier tee time!  It was an only slightly better but similar experience and thus unfortunately, largely because of poor timing, our first golf outings together weren’t exactly the home runs I was expecting.

I finally got smart, and we moved our Saturday morning bike ride to that evening, which was much more pleasant.  We rode a beautifully scenic bike path along golf courses, parks, a canal (where we stopped to watch crew racing), and stopped to observe another stunning AZ sunset.

3)   Communicate, communicate, and communicate!

I would characterize communication as one of the strengths in our marriage.  We have always been able to talk through issues and resolve conflict through communication.  After we returned from this trip, we had our usual post-mortem debrief.  We both realized that not everything went as well as it could have.  We identified where we could have done better.

Through our conversations, my husband admitted he was deeply embarrassed about the motel room since he was the one who booked it, and that greatly affected his experience of our trip.  Since he prepaid through Expedia, he felt powerless to remedy the situation so he didn’t address it.  However, we concluded that we should have talked about it and our options on the spot, which would have at least called out the elephant in the room (albeit miniature pygmy elephant in that room) to alleviate any sense of shame.

We also talked about our contrasting temperaments and preferences and how we could better respect and accommodate our differences on future trips together.  Some options may include “parallel play” in the mornings, where I find things to do on my own before noon, leaving him to his quiet time, or, for example, having only one golf morning rather than two.  But in any case, giving each other space and permission to do things differently or separately.

We agreed the most important skill for us to work on is better communication earlier, before feelings get hurt and things go south fast.  The two bad golf outings not only colored our later experiences in the day, but also provoked negative emotions that were hard to put back once they were out of the bottle.   One of my disappointments at the time was that my husband agreed to my frenetic morning plans before we left on our trip and I felt we had a “contract”.  But, as much as pre-trip communication and planning is important (and my husband may have honestly thought he would enjoy golfing in the morning) we don’t always know how we will feel until we are actually in a situation, so there must be room for communication and negotiation and change to address one or both partner’s needs in the moment.

All in all, I think we effectively did our own marital version of Spring Training on this trip.  We worked on getting ourselves back in shape as a couple, identified areas for improvement, and prepared for the upcoming season.  And maybe we learned something.  We went golfing yesterday (LATE morning tee time) and had a great day together on the golf course.   My first home run of the season!!!!!

Cleaning out the Closets

I’ve been mulling over the term “spring cleaning” lately.  I’ve decided it’s a helpful metaphor for me in my current life stage.

The phrase connotes a seasonal aspect, like my new season of life, as I leave behind a 25-year corporate career and begin early retirement and my next life phase.   Spring suggests renewal, a time of new life and new discovery.    The expression also refers to a process of cleansing – washing, scrubbing, scouring, and dusting  – that is necessary after a winter of neglect.

It’s now been six months since I retired.  The first few weeks were akin to waking up in the Recovery Room after surgery.  I was ecstatic to be done, but felt groggy and needed rest and time to heal.  In mid-September we embarked on a hectic (some say manic) travel schedule, including a dream trip to Paris and multiple visits to the east coast.  Then came the holidays and one more trip east in January.

Now we are home for a spell.  I’m rested and relaxed.  I can’t imagine returning to my former corporate job.  And it feels like springtime – besides the unseasonably warm weather we are experiencing on the west coast, it’s as if my sensation of the world around me has sprung back to life, after what I now realize was a prolonged period of stress-induced numbness.  I’m enjoying the exploration of new activities and hobbies.  Every morning I wake up excited to experience the events on my calendar.  On weekday mornings, I walk to the YMCA, filled with gratitude, and participate in exercise classes.  I’ve particularly fallen in love with yoga.  At my first yoga lesson, I could barely touch my toes and had no clue what a downward facing dog was.  Now I do a kickass cat/cow pose and I find it unbelievably relaxing. On Wednesdays, I go to golf lessons.  Sure, I hit the guy next to me on the driving range (ball to shoulder) with an errant swing, but then I occasionally drive a shot straight and clean and bask in my moment of awesomeness.   I’ve joined a Women’s Bible Study on Tuesday evenings and we are doing a study on the book of James.  I like the women in the group and the Beth Moore curriculum feels like it was written just for me.  On Wednesday evenings I plan, cook and serve dinner to my husband.  I’ve had not one culinary disaster and we are both enjoying this new tradition.  I’ve reconnected with my good friend Cissy from my women’s prayer group 20 years ago, and I’m helping her start a nonprofit corporation.  I see this as a good way to learn the nuts and bolts of nonprofits, while having regular lunches with my very entertaining friend in the process. Finally, I’m still getting kicks out of all the adult education classes I signed myself up for.

But in the midst of my excitement and renewed energy for my current and future life, I’ve realized there is some “spring cleaning” needed following a long winter season.  When I stopped and really thought about it, I was stunned to realize I endured a 12-year-long winter, that only just ended with my retirement.   It started in 2001 when we put our townhouse on the market and then bought a fixer-upper house in a new town  just a few miles away.  In the midst of the moving process, we suffered the death of my stepson.  After we moved to our “new” house, I returned to a full-time work schedule (I’d happily worked an 80% schedule for 10 years beginning when my son was born).  Soon after I went full-time, I was offered and took a challenging new leadership role with my company. I was given 2 big promotions and increasing responsibilities in the next four years.  Within a year after taking the leadership position, my father was diagnosed with cancer, which was especially tragic given he was the caregiver for my mother, who was suffering from dementia.  My father’s cancer diagnosis began an incredibly challenging five-year period (my Sandwich Generation years), ending with the death of first dad and then mom.  I was strained to navigate end-of-life issues with both parents (with minimal help from my siblings who lived afar) while balancing career and my own family.  If there was ever a time in my life I came close to cracking, it was during my Sandwich years.  And somehow, somewhere in the middle of all this, we remodeled our house, requiring us to move into a rental for 14 months, and my uncle and father-in-law also passed away.  I am shocked now as I write all this, but at the time I just tried to put one foot before the other and not think too much about what was happening in my life.

Following my parents’ deaths and the conclusion of our home remodel, I was left feeling completely disorganized and very out of control.  We moved many of our things to off-site storage during our first move in order to clean out the townhouse for showing, and then decided to just leave belongings in the storage shed until after our remodel.   Over time, possessions of my stepson and our parents were added to the mix.  Our garage was increasingly filled with clutter.  But, I still had a very stressful work life that was sapping my energy, and I was too weary and beaten-down to address the mess.  At some point, I just decided to defer cleanup to retirement.

Our garage, which is the most egregious, but emblematic of other messes in my life

Our garage, which is the most egregious, but emblematic of other messes that need sorting out

Now that I’ve retired, and our initial travel blitz is over, its time to start the cleanup!  My husband and I have taken some baby steps in the past couple weeks to attack the garage, which we’re finding a highly unpleasant and disagreeable job.  (No wonder people don’t clean out their garages!) But more than the physical cleanup, I’m discovering there’s emotional tidying to be done.  It seems I am now constantly opening closets and pulling up rugs and finding messes that I’d left for another day. The deaths of my stepson and parents recently bubbled up.  (See my  post about how these losses smacked me anew.)   As I was going through my parents’ boxes, I opened one containing my mother’s favorite china.  A rush of wonderful memories flooded me, followed by my still-confusing range of emotions surrounding my mother’s descent into dementia.  The other day I walked by my son’s empty room (he’s away at college) and felt a weighty sadness about our empty nest and my son’s absence.  Now that my husband and I are together 24/7, we’re adjusting to new rules of engagement and it’s harder to skirt those pesky relational issues we’ve artfully ignored for over 25 years. And then there are questions of my own sense of worth and ego.   If I’m not bringing home the bacon, am I still important?  My springtime renewal seems to include the entire range of emotions.

Make no mistake – this is all good stuff.   I see my heightened awareness as a positive sign that my heart, mind and body are engaged and ready to start taking on not just the good stuff but the messes.   God has faithfully placed incredible people and experiences in my path to guide me toward healing and I welcome the process, although I know I will never be “done” and I need to remember to pace myself.  I am blessed with a husband who is willing to slog through the mud with me.   I have wonderful supportive friends. It does make me wonder, however, if what I’m experiencing is common for those who slow down and experience a place of relative calm.  Could this be why some purposely stay on the hamster wheel – to avoid the messes? I believe I will be stronger and wiser as I get my house in order.  I just wish sometimes that messes weren’t quite so messy.