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.

Alive and Well Women: Our First Grant!

This week we were notified that our first grant proposal was approved! It was an exciting and encouraging day for Alive and Well Women (and me!). I called my friend and co-founder, Cissy, to squeal and celebrate together in joy on the phone. Another big step for us!

I was particularly thrilled that the grant was from The Sister Fund, a private foundation whose mission is to fund women’s social, economic, political and spiritual empowerment. The founder of The Sister Fund is Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D., who authored Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance, a book I recently read and which inspired me greatly.

In the preamble to her book (Gloria Steinem also wrote a lovely introduction), Helen writes, “The search for connection to our wholeness is the overarching theme of this book and of my life…To me there is no separation between faith and feminism. But many feminists have an ardent mistrust of religion, and many women of faith have a strong aversion to feminism…. I began to feel that we need a broader discussion of the vital connection between religious conviction and social action, the alliance between faith and feminism.”

Faith and Feminism explores the roots of the early feminist movement, led by abolitionist feminists of the nineteenth century, whose activism was fueled by their deep faith in God. The book profiles five women, from different centuries and different cultures, but whose “religious and spiritual lives were indivisible from their public achievements.” Through these women’s stories, Helen explores five stages of the “journey to wholeness” – pain, shadow, voice, action, and community. This is a useful framework to consider not only our individual journeys, but also for feminism as a social movement.

I look forward to exploring the issues raised in this book in more detail

I look forward to exploring the issues raised in this book in more detail

In my own life, I am two years into early retirement after a 25-year corporate career as a lawyer and partner with a national employee benefits consulting firm.  I was involved in the leadership of our firm’s Women’s Network, which was designed to help women steer through the pitfalls of a very traditional male-dominated work culture.  I am also a Christian, and in recent years have been involved in the leadership of our local church. Since I retired, I co-founded and was elected Chair of the Board of Alive and Well Women.  Our mission is to help women navigate toxic cultural messages about health, beauty and sexuality so they can thrive amongst the multiple stages of the female life cycle. We support women’s wholeness and empowerment through workshops, classes and programs.

Faith and Feminism gave words to my dual experience of feeling awkward sharing my religious self with many female friends from my corporate working career, while also feeling reticent around church friends due to (what I assumed to be) my too-liberal views on certain social issues.  I often felt straddled between two worlds. Then there is the issue of learning when and where to give voice to my beliefs and opinions – at work, at church, and even with my family (such as my husband who often has different political and social perspectives than I).  Too often, as women, we are taught to be polite, to compromise, to keep the peace, to work toward consensus, frequently to our own detriment or contrary to our true selves. When faced with the inevitable big, loud people who oppose or even threaten our beliefs, when is it appropriate to stay silent, to go quietly around, or to confront?  In the spirit of civility and servanthood, I too often keep my mouth shut and am not completely genuine with others.  In Faith and Feminism, I was above all inspired by the stories of Sojourner Truth and Lucretia Mott, who found their voices, and took action based on their core beliefs.

The book further opened my heart and mind to women’s empowerment, in general, and finding our true voices, in particular, as part of the journey toward wholeness.  I look forward to unpacking these topics in more depth through this blog and to potentially incorporating those themes into our Alive and Well programs. I do feel a passion for helping myself and other women explore ways to heal the rift between faith and feminism and to find our voices and take action. I am excited for the journey!

Fear and Friendship

I am not a courageous person. My older brother claims I was born afraid of everything. This may surprise some, as I have learned confidence over the years. But even today, my Fear List is long and ranges from things I am not particularly fond of to those I hold in stark terror. Darkness, bats, heights, clowns, men with black hair and mustaches (I’ve mostly grown out of that one), to name a few.

When I hike (usually with my husband) I worry about cliffs, bears, falling rocks, drowning in cold water, tripping on roots and breaking my foot. Approximately 75% of the time, I am happy that I powered through, but I am usually more comfortable on the hike back (once I’m familiar with the hazards). In the past week, I walked a mile-long cave in pitch black darkness. One that required lanterns and was billed as habitat to several variety of bats. Then I canoed six miles down a river, about a third of the way going in circles and zig-zagging from shore to shore. And the piece de resistance – I rode a tandem bike with my husband (previously, our first, last, and only tandem bike experience, about 25 years ago, did not, shall we say, go so well). And it was all awesome.

It was awesome mainly because I was with good friends, first on a girls weekend in Oregon and then with my husband, who joined me, and another couple. We are at that sweet spot where we are okay with our limits. And our choices. When someone floated the idea of touring a volcanic lava tube cave, I was perfectly free to ask to be dropped off at Starbucks. Or, as I actually did, I could confess to my friends that I would go in the cave but would likely be slightly nauseous the whole time.

Facing fears is part of growing up. And, even in this later chapter of life, I still have growing up to do. Being a naturally fearful person, I have had to stare fear down all my life, and it sometimes leads to inertia or even failure. But as Eleanor Roosevelt once said “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”

My recent adventures illustrate some important principles on approaching fear and anxiety…and the power of supportive friendships in the journey:

First, it was important to recognize and acknowledge the fear. When I heard the words “cave” “dark” and “bats” all in one conversation, I recognized the familiar pit in my stomach. I acknowledged the fear by being honest with myself that I was scared. I was also honest with my friends, who were then able to care for me. There were four of us in the cave with two lanterns, and my “lantern buddy” Kathy graciously let me hold the lantern in a death grip and walked in front of me.

The end of the cave. No sign needed for me to go no further!

The end of the cave. No sign needed for me to go no further!

Second, I embraced the fear. The entire time I was in the cave, I felt uncomfortable. When I was in the canoe, with my friend Monica, we were slightly out of control until we got the physics of rowing under our belts. At one point on the river, we were floating backward and heading for a large tree jutting over the river, and the beginnings of terror were forming in my gut. On the tandem bike, I was riding in back, unable to see where I was going, brake or steer. I was doing the best I could but occasionally my husband would call out “Are you pedaling?!” which indicated I was probably intermittently freezing up or spacing out. But I have learned over the years to distinguish “good” anxiety, which often accompanies growth, from “bad” anxiety, which can be a sign of danger. As long as I am able to tolerate the good anxiety, I am open to experiences and growth that I might otherwise miss if I gave in to fear.

Third, it helped immensely that I could lean on trustworthy people. Good friends are the embodiment of God’s love: “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid or terrified….God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 3:16, NIV) I had friends around me that I felt comfortable confiding in, who were not judgmental and who were encouraging and supportive. In the cave, Kathy occasionally asked “How are you doing?” (To which a little girl, coming the other way, responded, in tears “Not so well” which made me feel brave in comparison). On the river, Monica laughed good-naturedly as we spun in circles, saying “Don’t worry, we’ll get the hang of it!” As for the ride on our tandem bikes, my friend Kathy (also my cave lantern mate) encouraged me to give it another try and she and her husband accompanied us and cheered us on.

Our successful completion of tandem bike riding

Our successful completion of tandem bike riding

Finally, celebrate the victories. I have not conquered my fear of caves or the dark or bats or tight places or drowning or falling off a bike. But, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, I gained a measure of strength, courage and confidence with the experience. And in the midst, I felt a profound sense of gratitude and joy. I occasionally stopped in the cave to shine the lantern on the walls, marveling at the structure and grandeur. Our day on the river was beautiful – spectacular weather, breathtaking scenery, and a variety of wildlife. And before this week, I assumed that riding a tandem bike with my husband was not a good idea, when in fact, it was a great idea. When we completed our ride, we did a victory lap for the sole purpose of taking photos. And to celebrate our day of tandem-tandem riding, our foursome went for ice cream and I treated myself to a hot fudge sundae. I am never too old to grow up!

An Homage to Diane, or, Life Lessons I Learned from my Yoga Instructor

Diane is my favorite yoga instructor at the YMCA. She’s been teaching yoga there for over 20 years; I’ve had the good fortune of taking her classes the past two. Last week she announced she’s rolling up her mat and will no longer be teaching. I sniffled all the way home. At my final Gentle Yoga class with her last Wednesday, during savasana, she played “It’s a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong and I bawled like a baby into my towel. Why the sadness?

Gentle Yoga classes with Diane have been my refuge, my Happy Place, these past two years. I have come to love yoga, but it was Diane who instilled that love. She taught me yoga, and so much more. For someone I barely know on a personal level, she became an immensely important part of my life.

As I consider my ‘Alive and Well’ journey, yoga has been a key. It has become an essential part of me. When I think about it, I find this somewhat laughable, almost shocking. I am tall, inflexible (I can’t even touch my toes without seriously bending my knees), fairly uncoordinated (a Pilates instructor at the Y once studied my back up-close, thinking I had a serious curvature of the spine, only to conclude that I “just have no sense of where my body is moving”), I don’t much care for pain, and it is almost impossible for me to be quiet and calm my thoughts for any significant period of time. I tried yoga once years ago and was so turned off that I never went back.

But after I retired, I decided to try Gentle Yoga, thinking maybe I could gradually work myself up to “Big Girl” Yoga. My first 90-minute class with Diane flew by (the worst part was when she turned on the lights at the end while I was blissfully laying in corpse pose and suggested we get up and leave) and I felt both energized and relaxed  –  like I’d just returned from a two-week beach paradise vacation somewhere. Two years later, I still don’t do the regular yoga class (the one day I tried, they were all doing headstands) and I’m not much more flexible, but I have experienced profound benefits.

Gentle Yoga, my "Happy Place"

Gentle Yoga, my “Happy Place”

So, what exactly are the life lessons I learned from yoga with Diane?

1) That I can do yoga! And more! This may sound silly, but for someone like me who sits frozen at a 90-degree angle, watching in horror as the limber ones effortlessly dip their “third eyes” (foreheads) to the ground, yoga can feel like it’s just not my thing. “Nonsense!” said Diane. She taught me that I could do my own practice, at my own speed and at my own level.   She showed me modifications, and use of props (blankets, blocks, weights, straps) to help me with the poses. The very first day I showed up at her class, Diane asked me my name, and from then on, I’d hear “Good, Betsy!” or “Don’t go so low, Betsy” or “Try it with the blocks, Betsy.” Her personal encouragement made me believe in myself and kept me coming back. And learning to do yoga on my own terms gave me tremendous confidence to try other things on my own terms. Just because I am not naturally gifted at something doesn’t mean I can’t learn to do it, and enjoy it, even though I may not do it like anyone else. I now look, unashamed,  for the “props” and “modifications” in life that will make tasks attainable to me. And I saw and learned the tremendous power of encouragement.

2) How to listen to my own body. Diane would model poses and suggest modifications, but she would also stress that I am the one who knows my own body best. It was always okay to come out of a pose early, stay in a pose longer, or not do the pose at all.   I began to listen to my body and know when I could push myself while also understanding my limits. After years of exercise regimens (jogging, aerobics, biking, hiking, tennis) where “powering through” was a central premise, learning to listen and be kind to myself was liberating. I am learning to apply this to other areas of my life – to stop and listen to signs of fatigue, unhappiness, stress, joy and contentment. I am finding that my body sends signals that I often ignore or overlook but which are important windows into my wellbeing. I find I now know earlier when something is not right with me. Listening is an important step in reaching a state of wholeness and unity between body and soul.

3) The connectedness of body, mind and soul. Diane started our classes with a good twenty minutes of breathing and meditation exercises (“pranayama”). She would dab eucalyptus oil on our wrists to help us follow our breath. At first, my mind would wander relentlessly, but over time, with Diane’s soothing voice and gentle urgings, I learned to focus on my breathing and clear my head. She explained the concept of the “chakras” which in yoga refers to wheels of energy throughout the body. There are seven main chakras, which align the spine, starting from the base of the spine through to the crown of the head. She described the energy coming from each. For example, our crown chakra is our ego, our third eye chakra is wisdom and our heart chakra is love. As we practiced pranayama we would focus on each chakra, seeking awareness of issues that arose. This was a helpful structure for me to experience the link between body, mind and soul. I have found my prayer life enriched, and I can more easily sit in contemplative silence, open to the stirrings that result. And when I am troubled, anxious or sleepless, I have my breathing and meditation exercises for relief.

4) The wisdom of Diane. During our yoga practice, Diane invariably threw out random bits of wisdom. It was uncanny how often those bits were like God’s truth to my ears. She talked about letting go of ego, about finding wisdom and creativity, about concentrating on the important and letting go of the rest. And then, during savasana (final relaxation) she would come around to each of us, dab fragrant oil on the neck and do a pectoral release, gently pushing the shoulders down and then releasing, ending with an outward sweeping motion (signifying the sweeping away of negative emotions). I left each class feeling like a re-filled water can, ready to go out and sprinkle the earth!

I am sorry to lose Diane, but I am grateful that she opened my heart and eyes to yoga and guided me these past two years. Even if I don’t find another teacher I like as much, her lasting gift is leaving me equipped to navigate a class with someone else, knowing I can do the class on my own terms. And who knows, someday you may find me doing headstands in Big Girl’s Yoga!

Finding your Rookie Groove….at any age!

Is it possible that we are at our best when we know the least? That is the question posed by Liz Wiseman in her book “Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.”

I recently had the privilege of hearing Liz speak at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. As she spoke, I couldn’t help thinking that my life this past month has been a case study in what she terms “Rookie Smarts” (how we tend to think and act when we are mindful that we are doing something for the first time). And apparently, I am never too old to be a “Rookie.”

On August 1, I officially began my new “job” as part-time grant-writer for Alive and Well Women. On paper, I am completely unqualified for the role. I helped write one grant proposal in July. Period. On my first day of “work” I went to a community college class to learn what a grant-writer does (which I thought might be helpful). It didn’t seem too hard….after all, I researched companies and wrote tons of responses to RFPs during my corporate career. How different can it be? And since the nonprofit world is presumably kinder and gentler, I figured raising, say, $400,000 by the end of the month seemed totally reasonable. Rookie mistake!

I quickly learned there is just as much research required in finding grant money as there is in finding corporate project money. The go-to database for searching foundation grants is a paid subscription service, but available for free at certain local libraries. No longer having the deep pockets of (or paychecks from) a Fortune 500 company, I trudged off to the closest library site, which is in a particularly rough neighborhood of Pasadena. After fumbling around for a couple hours on the computer terminal, I signed up for a free one-on-one with a librarian the following Friday.

My new "office" building in Pasadena.

My new office building in Pasadena, also known as the public library.

That Friday, I put on make-up and my best shorts and showed up for my appointment with Darrell at the library. He was a very kind, soft-spoken African-American gentleman who met me in the non-profit research center room, and who I was fairly certain would not care a whit about Alive and Well Women. I was itching to get started on the training, but instead of turning on the computer, he leaned back, looked at me, and asked, “What are you trying to do?” I explained I am co-founder of a nonprofit and need to learn how to use the Foundation database to find grant money. “OK, what is your nonprofit all about?” “What are your goals?” “Who is your target audience?” “How do you expect to accomplish your objectives?” “Do you have a functioning Board?” “Have you received 501(c)(3) status?” Before we ever looked at the computer, we had a 45-minute in-depth discussion about organizational planning, goals, resources, and mission. “The reason I’m asking you these questions is that I want to see how far along you are in your nonprofit, and how well you are able to articulate your vision.” To my utter astonishment, Darrell then shared his positive assessment and detailed thoughts about where he saw the need for Alive and Well Women, which was a stunning confirmation that he actually tracked with my rambling presentation.

It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but it was exactly what I needed. By the time we finally turned on the computer, we were ready to effectively search for foundations that shared goals with Alive and Well Women. After we compiled a list of hundreds of foundations that were potential matches, Darrell gave me the homework assignment of going through each one of them to narrow the list. “Then I start calling them?” I asked. “Nope, then you do more research,” Darrell said, pointing to the volumes of resources in the shelves behind him.

Since then, I’ve spent countless hours poring over records of foundations, looking for grant limitations that would exclude them from my list, finding their stated mission and goals to see if they align with ours, and then reviewing their Form 990s for additional financial and grant information. The work is tedious and time-consuming, and I haven’t been as efficient as I’d like, and I already know I’d love to hire a intern to help someday, but I also know it is necessary for me to learn. It is almost the end of August, and I haven’t raised a dollar. But, I have become familiar with hundreds of foundations, whittled my list down to 10-15 strong matches, and assembled a good profile of each. In the process, I’ve gained a better sense of how to do research and where to find information. And in spite of my occasional frustration with the pace of progress (I must remind myself that I’ve only committed two afternoons a week – God continues to work with me on patience) I do feel a sense of accomplishment.

According to Liz Wiseman, it’s not what you know, but how fast you can learn. The Inexperienced benefit by being unencumbered by assumptions. We (I’m putting myself firmly in the Inexperienced column) solicit information by asking questions and seeking information. Rookies have a steep learning curve, and often don’t know how hard the work is at the outset. We move in baby steps at first. But rookies achieve quickly because we learn fast (we are desperate!) and are resourceful.   Liz says the learner’s advantage is that we tend to do our best thinking when our challenge level goes up. And, importantly, our satisfaction also goes up.

This past month took me back to various times in my life and career when I was new to jobs or projects or roles. It wasn’t always enjoyable, in fact often stressful, but there was also excitement and contentment in meeting the challenges. Although I don’t have the same level of risk or anxiety associated with being a “Rookie” in my current situation (I’m not worried about losing a job or salary) it is still a sharp learning curve. Liz Wiseman reminds us of the benefits of re-igniting our “Rookie Smarts,” even as leaders or at advanced stages of career or life.  She warns us that when we plateau – when things are smooth, we have all the answers, we get positive feedback, when we’re busy but bored – we start to die. On a learning curve we find the divine, the satisfaction, our greatest joy. We can and should strive to be Rookies…no matter our phase of life!

Notes to self:

  1. Look for opportunities to be a Rookie again.  Put yourself at the bottom of a learning curve. Volunteer for things you’ve never done before or look at things you’ve done before with Rookie eyes. Sometimes backward is the best way forward.
  2. Be open to unexpected mentors (like Darrell at the public library) and learn all you can from them.
  3. Be willing to mentor other Rookies when they need help.
  4. Be aware that Rookie Smart Mode can be stressful, but look at the anxiety as a sign of growth.
  5. Don’t be afraid to think like a Rookie in any situation!

Alive and Well in Retirement!

This past weekend was the two-year anniversary of my first day of retirement. Looking back, these past two years have been a somewhat inconceivable journey, an education in more ways than I expected.

My last blog post was November 2014. I meant to keep it up, but for a variety of reasons I didn’t have the time or the inclination to post.   Among other things, I was consumed with planning festivities around my son’s graduation from USNA, suffered a major illness in March (pneumonia) that really knocked me for a loop, and then, once recovered, more travels with my husband (a 52-day road trip!).

Along the way, however, I felt a need to be more intentional about crafting a future life for myself. My first year or so of retirement I was purposely open-minded but noncommittal to activities and experiences. I tried new things, discovered activities I unexpectedly love (like yoga) and others that didn’t click as well. I mostly resisted obligations so I would be free to travel with my husband (another thing I found I love). I searched for the right rhythm of time spent alone, with husband, with friends. But with my son now graduated from college and fully launched, I sensed a new phase of my life that could be one of the best yet – if I was deliberate and purposeful about it. When else would I have my current absence of responsibilities (no job, parents or children depending on me) and the time, health, and money to be doing things truly fulfilling?

Mammoth Lakes… a stunning example of why I love our travels

As my husband always says, I have way too much horsepower to not be doing something. But what was that “something”?   Although I didn’t realize it at the time, in hindsight, this kicked off a soul-searching process, in which I examined everything in my life – marriage, family relationships, friendships, faith, leisure, work. I threw things up and arranged and rearranged the pieces in my mind. I thought and prayed about each area of my life and how they would fit into my ideal purposeful life. All this mental activity was overlaid by a relatively new factor in my decision-making – my own mortality – which argued against wasting time and for decisiveness and risk-taking.

A key awareness that came out of this contemplative process was around the question of work. Although not feeling a call to go back to full-time employment, I do miss aspects of my former work life – the structure, camaraderie, challenge, and, honestly, the compensation.   I considered various part-time and contract job options. I thought about writing or blogging as a career. I prayed for opportunities that would address my longing for meaningful work but also allow space for other parts of my retired life that I now cherish. In one of my 1:30 AM brainstorming sessions (I often do my best thinking in the crossover between awake and asleep) a plan materialized. But first I must back up.

In January of 2014, about five months after I retired, I reconnected with my friend Cissy. She and I were in a women’s prayer group many years ago and had kept in casual contact with each other after the group disbanded. Over lunch, I told her I’d long wanted to work with a nonprofit organization after I retired, but was not sure which one or in what capacity. Cissy shared that she wanted to start a nonprofit and asked if I would be willing to help. That invitation started us both down an often-miraculous path resulting in me today being the co-founder (with Cissy) and Board Chair of Alive and Well Women. Our mission is to help women navigate toxic cultural messages about health, beauty and sexuality so we can thrive amidst the multiple stages of the female life cycle. In the past year and a half, we have formed the Board, obtained 501(c)(3) status, and raised enough money to develop our branding and website (which we are in the process of launching).

Alive and Well Women was clearly Cissy’s brainchild. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) and nationally recognized eating disorders specialist. She began offering retreats, workshops and groups in 2007 out of her discovery that community support is the key to healing women’s shame-based relationships with their bodies. Her idea in forming the nonprofit was to allow us to bring the curriculum to women who might not otherwise be able to afford the workshops.

Thus far, I have thought of myself as the person who helped Cissy launch her nonprofit. I was reluctant to commit too much to the effort. Then, during my period of soul-searching, I worked with Cissy on a grant proposal. What I discovered is that grant writing is not much different than responding to RFPs, something I did in my former corporate career, but far more satisfying.

Fast forward to my 1:30 AM Sunday session. What came to me in an inspired flash was that I could be the Grantwriter for Alive and Well Women! That would allow me to work part time (and still have the flexibility to travel), to write, collaborate with Cissy, develop new skills and networks, and potentially earn compensation (if I am successful in winning grant funds). I proposed the new arrangement the next day to Cissy, who was both grateful and encouraging.   The following Saturday I took a class that was offered coincidentally (or not!) through the local community college on grantwriting, which undoubtedly spared me significant trial and error time.

So, I’m off on my new “career”! What I have since discovered, through research and meetings with other nonprofits, is that grantwriting will not be as easy as I first envisioned. Prior to even writing a grant proposal, it takes a fair amount of research to find appropriate funding sources, and then more effort to determine whether potential grants are worth pursuing (as in the corporate world, a big part is who you know so networking is important). Then there is strategy for finding the “mission match” (discovering and demonstrating the complementary goals for funder and recipient). But I am so enjoying the challenge!

And something else remarkable happened along the way. As I have become more emotionally committed to Alive and Well Women, I find myself crafting my own “Alive and Well Women” story. Rather than just being Cissy’s friend who helped start the nonprofit, I am discovering the parts of Alive and Well Women that speak to me in my own life journey and embracing them. I am finding that, for me, I have more passion for issues of women’s empowerment than embodiment. As a result, I have decided to re-focus my blog as a forum to discuss what “Alive and Well Women” means to me in this phase of life. Stay tuned!

The Return of the Blog

This is no Japanese horror movie (that was Return of the Blob). Rather, it’s the first post I’ve written since August, in which I commemorated my one-year anniversary of retirement, or my “Retireversary.” Since then, my new norm life has been so abundantly eventful and hectic that I haven’t either found or taken the time to write. Yet, to my surprise and delight, many friends have asked about my blog. And I’ve found that I’ve missed the writing. But where do I pick up?

I have become increasingly aware that the single most meaningful thread weaving through my current life, the central emergent theme, is the significance of my personal relationships. With the corporate career over, the kids gone, the merry-go-round paused; retirement has been a time to take stock. Although I have been busy with travel and activities, what has truly fed me emotionally and spiritually has been the time spent nurturing (and in some cases re-establishing) close family and friendship ties.

In fact, travel has been, most importantly and somewhat unexpectedly, an avenue for my husband and I to reconnect. After years of co-parenting, tag teaming and separations while I traveled extensively for work, adjustments were required when I was suddenly home full-time. I blithely anticipated that all of our “challenges” would miraculously disappear once the stress of work was gone. Instead, not only were many of the “challenges” that we’d successfully ignored for 25 years still there, but now we had new ones. We’ve since gone on 3 major trips together (Paris, our cross-country Routes 50 and 66 road trip, and Ireland) and they were akin to enrolling in an intensive Marriage 101 Lab. Not always easy, we’ve learned (or re-learned) skills such as teamwork, how to live alongside each other, how to compromise and manage expectations, and in the process found renewed enjoyment, companionship and discovered a shared passion for travel.   Most importantly, we find ourselves exceedingly grateful and content in this “Just the Two of Us” stage of life.

Similarly, I’ve been blessed by the rich camaraderie of friends. I’ve enjoyed meeting some new friends through recent activities, like yoga and study groups. But mainly, I find myself enthusiastically devoting time and energy to nurturing longstanding relationships (friends and family) that, in many cases, had been relegated to the back burner in years past due to other demands on my time. I am finding that I am most energized and renewed by the company of dear friends. My husband warned me before I retired that my friends would all be too busy working to spend any time with me, but I’ve happily found I have more social opportunities than I have time for!

I was recently reminded how precious, and fragile, long-term friendships can be. Near the end of our recent trip to Ireland, not long after we arrived in Dublin for a 3-night stay, I was notified that a very dear friend of mine was critically ill. We’d been friends since I was eleven years old. We were close friends through high school, and roomed together in college. Not long after college, she moved across country, but we kept in touch over the years. I had hoped to finally be able to visit her in Green Bay, Wisconsin, now that I was retired. But two days after my friend was admitted to ICU, on the last day I was in Dublin, she passed away. That night, I went to a pub and sang a ballad and raised an ale for my beloved friend Sue, who once told me she would love to go to Ireland together.

Some of the anam cara in my life

Some of the anam cara in my life

When I returned home, I organized a gathering of a group of close friends from grade school for a Day of Remembrance.  After thinking how I could best grieve the loss of my friend Sue, I turned to this group for love and support.  We had all been close friends with Sue through the years, and together we celebrated her life and our enduring friendships.

Someone recommended to me a beautiful book called “Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom” by John O’Dohohue. The book almost poetically explores the spiritual landscape of friendship:

“In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam ċara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and ċara is the word for friend. So anam ċara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam ċara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam ċara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam ċara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.”

What this book has illuminated for me, something I already sensed but not completely understood, is that there is a spiritual aspect to our friendships and the effort we devote to them. As I’ve become more aware of their significance, I am grateful that I have anam ċara in my life, and that I have been given this season of life to be open to them.

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)

An Ode to the YMCA: Exercise to the rescue

I HEART the YMCA.  It has been a lifesaver.  Following the conclusion of our 5-month post-retirement travel blitz, my subsequent mini-meltdown over what to do with myself, and my husband’s almost tactful suggestion that I get a life, I turned to the YMCA for refuge.  Regular exercise is one of those activities that previously fell into my “Something I’ll Do When I Retire” category.  I’m finding many of those pursuits were not ignored solely due to lack of time.  They are still not appealing now that I have time.  Exercise classes at the YMCA, however, have proven to be a godsend.

Every weekday morning I now spring out of bed, excited about walking the short block to the YMCA.   I comb the schedule and try a variety of classes.   Before retiring, I was never able to make it to classes after work so I was thrilled to try some. Admittedly, I got off to a rough start with my first exercise class, on a Monday morning, called Body Works.  The class description read “The ultimate muscular challenge. This class uses hand held weights, bands, step, body bars, and resistance balls. The focus is muscle strength, endurance and body definition by using proper alignment.”  Now, at one point in my life I was an aerobics junkie, which I credit with getting me through the summer of my Bar Exam.  Obliviously assuming I have the same stamina and abilities I had in my twenties and remembering my doctor’s suggestion that I incorporate weight training in my regimen, I decided this class would be perfect.

For the livelier exercise classes, the room is brimming with mostly female energy

The Body Works class – a room full of women and barbells

The class was not perfect. It started off well enough. The room was full of women, several I knew from around town, and bustling with vivacity.  I was absurdly giddy to be out of the house, surrounded by females and the loud beat of music.  For the first 10 minutes, I jumped and hopped and lunged and ran in place with the best of them. But it soon became clear I had bitten off more than I could chew. I was gasping for air.  As the class progressed, I felt like I was going to die. I decided to dial back and go at my own pace.  I replaced jumps with toe taps and lunges with baby steps. Fortunately for my ego, there was an 80-year-old woman (who I think wandered into the class by mistake) that was having more trouble than me.  If nothing else, it was a class in humility.

Next I checked out Yoga.  I’d never done yoga, which was another thing on my Retirement List. So that Tuesday I decided on the Yoga Stretch class – mainly since, after my class in humility, it had an “E” for “Easy” next to the title. The class description read “Emphasizes physical and mental relaxation, controlled breathing, balance, proper posture and alignment and flexibility. Develop a keen sense of body/mind awareness.”  Great!  It was certainly easier than that damn Body Works class, but it was still challenging to achieve and hold the poses, particularly since I am one of the least flexible people on the planet.  But, after just one class, I could feel improvement in my joints, posture and relaxation.

My set-up for Gentle Yoga class at the Y.  Ninety minutes of bliss.

My set-up for Gentle Yoga class at the Y. Ninety minutes of bliss.

Then I tried Gentle Yoga  (“Focus on releasing tight muscles, increasing range of motion and stress relief”) with an instructor named Diane.   OMG!!!!  It was an hour and a half class, which flew by, of pure bliss and when it was over, I felt like I’d had a spa weekend.  It was divine – Diane’s soothing voice, the focus on breathing, the gentle stretching and poses, aromatherapy with lavender oil, culminating in an extended time of relaxation and mediation.  The worst part was when Diane said it was time to get up and leave.

I also tried two Zumba classes.  One was a regular Zumba class and the other Zumba Gold, which is supposedly lower intensity. The class description read “Zumba fused hypnotic Latin rhythms and easy to follow moves to create a cardio experience that is exhilarating and energizing.”  The description I would’ve written was, “Impossible to follow moves, requiring too much hips and swiveling and coordination, excessive jumping around and a cardio experience that was alarming and exhausting.” I’m certain my heart rate reached 300 and at one point I glanced around for a defibrillator.  I knew I was in trouble when I noticed women wearing Zumba belts, which are apparently designed to accentuate all that hip swiveling.  The Gold class was less jumping around, but had more complicated dance moves, and I wondered how the Zumba instructor was able to watch me without laughing.  I was that clumsy aging celebrity who is the first to go on Dancing with the Stars.

When I saw the Zumba belts I knew I was in trouble

When I saw the Zumba belts I knew I was in trouble

I have since stayed with the Body Works class on Mondays.  I’m determined to get better, and this week I kicked butt the first 20 minutes, which gave me a false sense of competence. Then the [drill] instructor barked orders to go from plank position to standing to plank position to standing, over and over, until I saw stars and heard birdies. I literally came within a resistance ball of passing out in the middle of the class.  The first week I learned humility.  This week I learned to eat breakfast before class and not show off.

What I have really fallen for is yoga.  After I get through Monday and the damn Body Works class, I love, love, love going to my yoga classes.  Yoga relaxes me, helps with my stress level, posture and flexibility.  It feels so much kinder to my body and psyche than the faster aerobic-style classes.   The meditation included gets me centered and calm. I really wish I had discovered yoga when I was working!

The YMCA provides a welcome haven brimming with positive energy.  My exercise classes give me incentive to get up and go, get me off to a good start and they impart structure to my day.  They offer a social experience where I see friends from the community and I’m meeting new ones.  Most importantly, I notice my higher energy levels, improved disposition and a decrease in various aches and pains.  I feel better, both physically and mentally.  I leave the YMCA after one of my workouts and I’m ready to take on the world. Interestingly, my husband has taken my lead and he is back at the YMCA, too.  He even came to a Gentle Yoga class with me.  Why didn’t I do this before?  When I REALLY had stress in my life?