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!

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.

What I Learned on Route 50

My husband and I recently completed our first-ever cross-country road trip together, driving eastbound on Route 50 from San Francisco, CA to Ocean City, MD.  After logging 3,889 miles (including detours) through 13 states, plus the District of Columbia, and an astonishing array of landscapes, here’s my Top Ten learnings.

Route 50 signs

U.S. Route 50 runs east-west stretching over 3,000 miles between Sacramento, CA and Ocean City, MD

#1 – Always check multiple sources before booking a hotel room.

Before our trip, I sketched out a tentative schedule for each day, including potential hotels. We then booked rooms each night on our trip for the next night. The night before we drove to Grand Junction, CO, we found a great deal on-line at the Historic Melrose Hotel, which was mentioned in my guidebook, but was not the one I chose for my itinerary. Not remembering why, we booked it.

The Historic Melrose Hotel, which looked lovely from the outside and was in the quaint Old Town section, turned out to be affordable housing for low-income residents – one step up from a homeless shelter. Which explained the great price. Had we checked TripAdvisor (or had I remembered what I learned when I checked TripAdvisor three weeks earlier) we would have been more educated consumers. Instead, we parked the car below our room and spent the night half awake listening for sounds of a break in.

#2 – iPhones are not ideal high-speed cameras

Since we were on a fixed schedule going eastbound, we didn’t make too many stops, so I became marginally competent at taking photos from inside the car through the windshield and side windows (with attendant glare and reflections), avoiding the radar detector and GPS and rear view mirrors, at 55-65 mph. My husband would suddenly blurt “There!” and I was expected to instantaneously (1) figure out what he was talking about and (2) take a great photo of it. He would often say, “Oh, you were too slow” or “Did you frame the picture with the trees?” to which I would always reply “Got it!!” (my strategy being that whether I got it or not he would never remember). I learned where the “sweet” spots were on the windows (and some contortionist positions that worked well) and learned to take multiple photos that I would go through each night to weed out the best shots. I relied heavily on the photo editing tools in the iPhone – as long as I got the subject somewhere in the photo, I could enlarge and crop and lighten. Even so, in addition to a few good shots, I have an impressive library of blurry, blank, and unidentifiable transcontinental pictures. My photo of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, DC looks right out of “The Blob” (my favorite vintage horror movie).

#3 – Make lunch stops a priority 

Because we didn’t make too many impromptu stops along the way, our lunch breaks were a highlight of each day. Sometimes we were tempted to power through without lunch, but I’m glad we didn’t. First, they provided a much-needed respite from the car and driving. But more importantly, they were consistently fun. We tried to find little towns and older restaurants characteristic of Old Time America. We learned about the towns we visited by chatting with the waitresses and proprietors that we encountered. In Eureka, NV (Pop 610) our waitress told us she had 17 in her graduating class in high school. She said her school offered all the usual sports, but every student had to play most sports in order to have enough players to field teams. In Olney, IL (pop 7.994) , home to a colony of albino squirrels, our waitress instructed us that the best way to see squirrels was to visit the city park with McDonald’s French fries.

 #4 – Rest days were like a stop at the oasis

We spent 12 days traveling across country, but two of those were rest days. On one rest day, we visited dear friends in the Denver area. On the other, we visited my brother in St. Louis.

While in Denver, we had two home-cooked dinners, slept in a quiet comfortable room on a super-comfy bed, took a leisurely tour of the local area, and caught up with our friends. In St Louis, we were also fed and put up in our own cozy room, and got precious quality time with family we don’t see often. Although my husband initially questioned the need for rest days, we later agreed that they really helped us recharge and get back on the road fully energized.

#5 – You must be smarter than your GPS

Our Chevy Traverse has a built-in GPS system, which we have found to be rather clunky. We’ve had to learn multiple workarounds to get it to do what we need. Therefore, we also travel with our portable Garmin as back-up.   In a pinch, I also fire up Google Maps on my iPhone. And of course, there is the iPad.

There were many days when I joked to my husband that he was in the unenviable position of driving with 4 women (including me) telling him where to go. And even with all the help, the Navigator was still a full-time job for me and I had to know where we were at all times and not rely on GPS. Since we were trying to stay on Route 50 (not necessarily the fastest or shortest route) I had to learn tricks to outsmart the GPS (with waypoints, etc.) to get where we wanted to go and mediate disputes between the “women” (our GPS systems).  But then there was the time we drove right by the bank that was just down the street from our hotel because were so busy fiddling with the GPS rather than just looking at the address.

Even with all the gadgets….

#6 – In addition to the [multiple] GPS systems, you still need maps

Before we left on our trip, I visited the local AAA office and picked up 3 bags of maps and tour books, covering every state we intended to travel. Thank goodness, because we would otherwise have been at the mercy of our GPS systems and probably lost somewhere in Kansas. It was essential to get a sense of the route before programming the GPS, plus it was more meaningful to follow along on a map as we drove. The maps told me more details about what we were seeing (rivers, mountain ranges, etc.) so I could act as self-appointed Tour Guide.

#7 – Don’t travel with just one big heavy suitcase.

We retrieved our luggage sets from the garage before we left, and packed our big suitcases since we would be gone for an extended period. We had every intention of bringing along the smaller weekend bag or the smaller roller bag that went with our sets, but for some inexplicable reason we forgot them.

As a result, every night as we checked into a new hotel (always requesting a second floor room) we found ourselves lugging incredibly heavy suitcases with everything we owned out of the car, across the parking lot and up the stairs.   Then our room (being typically Comfort Inn rather than Ritz Carlton) was almost completely filled with suitcases. We looked like the Kardashians, or more the Beverly Hillbillies, checking into town.

After a couple nights of this nonsense, I started using an empty tote bag I’d brought along to pack one or two nights’ provisions so I wouldn’t have to mess with the Two Ton Suitcase. I will definitely bring that weekend bag along next time, in addition to the Big Suitcase, and plenty of tote bags for flexibility.

 #8 – Document the trip as you go

After about Day 4 or 5, I couldn’t tell you with any conviction where we had been even the day before for lunch. It all became a blur. I found the written itinerary listing all of the lunch and dinner stops and hotels very helpful, and I learned to note any changes or any additional sights we saw along the way. That way, between the photos and the itinerary, I should be able to reconstruct a decent memory book of our trip.

#9 – We need to find a balance of driving and stops

This trip was a little too much driving with too little sightseeing for me. Since we were on a fairly strict timetable, we didn’t have much time for spontaneous exploration of sights and attractions along the way. There were a few unscheduled stops we made – to see the remnants of an old pony express station in Nevada (or was it Utah?)- that were interesting, but for the most part we simply saw what we saw from the car along Route 50. On our next trip, along the old Route 66, we plan to meander more. The trip did give me ideas, however, of places to return to see (Kansas City, for example) in more depth.

#10 – America is a really incredible country

Driving through the entire middle of the continental United States was a thoroughly amazing experience. The vast and varied landscape, from the barren desert of Nevada to the rugged mountains of Colorado to the great plains of Kansas to the lush West Virginia countryside, simply took our breath away. There were days that we turned off the radio and sat in silence taking in the magnificent beauty of the scenery before us. We so enjoyed our encounters with the people we met in small towns across the country. We will never forget the day we smugly stopped for a photo of ourselves at Monarch Pass (elev 11,312) at the Continental Divide in CO and we met two young men who had RIDDEN THEIR BIKES from San Francisco. We emerged from our trip more in awe of the spirt and beauty of this extraordinary nation and its people.

How Our Road Trip Almost Stalled

We have been planning a cross-country road trip for quite some time.   It started with a proposed trip to my brother’s house and morphed into a Great American Road Trip. And then it almost broke down before we left the garage.

Our projected itinerary follows Route 50 eastbound and Route 66 westbound.   I initially wanted to drop some things off at my brother’s house in St Louis, and then we decided to keep going to Annapolis to visit our son. And since we have to get home, we decided to do the return trip via Route 66. Then we added a couple of stops with friends and family…and viola…our delivery trip became a national expedition.

Last month, I spent two full days sitting (without moving) at the dining room table with my laptop planning the itinerary and stops, complete with hotels and lunch and dinner spots. I scored 2 bags of maps and guidebooks from AAA, and my husband ordered me a complete Route 66 library from Amazon so I consulted piles of maps, books and guides in the process.

A small sampling of my planning tools

A small sampling of my planning tools

My husband also found some guy on-line who plotted and posted the coordinates for Route 66 on his Garmin, so my husband was in charge of plotting our exact driving route and making our hotel reservations.

As of 3 days before we were scheduled to leave, I noticed that the hotel reservations hadn’t been made. Which wasn’t critical, since we could always make them as we went.   Two days before we were scheduled to leave, I finished my packing list and all that was left for me was the actual packing. I glanced at my husband’s To Do list, and noticed it was two pages single-spaced, including the laundry.

Then disaster struck. Two days before we were scheduled to leave on our trip, we returned home late that evening from a family event. I remarked that the house seemed rather humid, and I was getting ready for bed when my husband rushed in, looking like a doctor with a grim prognosis. He stated very seriously “We may have to delay our trip. I’m serious.” He went on to explain how he had discovered a broken pipe under our house that was spraying water in the crawl space. The most worrisome part was that this probably had been going on for a while since we had heard a mysterious whooshing sound coming from below our dining room for months. We were concerned about mold. I started researching mold and water damage, and then flights to Annapolis.

My husband turned off the water (no laundry!) and decided to call the plumber first thing in the morning.   We woke up at around 6:00 AM and drove 1 block to the YMCA to use their toilets (I told you the YMCA membership was a lifesaver). After we called the plumber, the pool guy showed up. I only heard part of the conversation but some important “cell” was broken and in need of repair or replacement. At that point, I decided what would be the most helpful was for me to return to the YMCA for my Gentle Yoga class. I also did what I am getting much better at since I retired – I turned the entire situation over to God and decided I would be at peace with whatever outcome, which was looking less and less like an extended road trip.

Two hours later, I returned from yoga to discover that my heroic husband had everything under control. The pipe had been repaired, there was no evidence of mold, the pool part was ordered and the washer and dryer were going. He had made arrangements with the plumber, pool service and our house sitter to have everything handled while were gone.

When I asked if he thought we would still be able to leave, perhaps a day later (since with all the house problems I assumed the To Do list still needed tackling), my husband informed me that we would be able to leave right on schedule.   And we did – having begun our adventures before we even left the house.

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!!!!!

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?