I’m writing this one on the fly. A short one at that. Now on the cusp of May, April was a whirlwind, kicking up dust everywhere, pushing me into my future. And, there’s still so much to do. I feel overwhelmed, yet exhilarated to be moving forward. After putting my house on the market, it is under contract with the closing looming just ahead, the inspections and appraisal but an April memory.
During all of that, out of the blue came my optometrist’s diagnosis for cataract surgery. Silly me, I thought I was just in need of a new prescription. You know, aging and all. When I couldn’t read a single letter on the chart using my left eye, my stomach felt as if an iron ball dropped into it. My first instinct was to put surgery off until the house closed and I’d been to Italy and back. But, if I was to see anything in Italy and find my way around airports, surgery was a must have it done. I could feel my shoulders drooping under the additional weight. Fortunately, it’s a common surgery and I was in good hands with people who orchestrated all the appointments, and there were many, without a hitch. That’s now behind me. After 30 years, I can see without glasses! Tuscany here I come.
My son-in-law is a busy guy who has my new build on his calendar for an October start. No, I don’t get favoritism for being his mother-in-law and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Fair is fair, which brings me to finding a place to live for the next year. Rents are high with few apartments available. Feeling further burdened with finding a suitable temporary home, you can’t imagine the happy dance I did upon discovering a one story two car garage unit in a new walkable neighborhood at a reasonable rent. And, both my roommates are welcome (meow meow).
Now for the packing, closing, transferring utilities and the bazillion changes in address, moving, unpacking with no time to settle in before flying out to Tuscany for the trip of a lifetime. My biggest worry? Yes, the cats. I’m upending their little lives then disappearing for ten days. Did I mention feeling overwhelmed? Through all the packing I’ve thought seriously about becoming a minimalist. Not joking. With all the giving away, selling and donating over the last year I still have so much furniture and stuff, too much furniture and stuff. But, I’ll address that at some other moment in time. For now, I’m moving forward. And, that is what counts.
During the last 20 years a lot has been written, reported, spoken about being our authentic selves. When the idea of living authentically first entered my head space, I was working. I wondered then how that might be looked upon in our rule based society where fitting in was a job requirement for most of corporate America. Different ideas were often met with, “but that’s the way we’ve always done it”. Rules and policies reigned. Employee manuals included everything from acceptable behavior to dress codes. Group think or face the wrath assigned to anyone not perceived as a team player.
Going further back in time I grew up in a very conformist household. My family was, like many other families of the era, rule based. Rules for inside the home and rules for school, church and social activities. Rules for speaking and rules for dress. Rules for daily living and rules for thinking. The rules were there to ensure that we did fit in, were accepted and belonged. We had to act the part and look the part and sound the part. We’ve all heard the saying, “Go along to get along.”
From an early age I was always the odd girl out among my siblings. I didn’t do sports or fishing or deep sea diving or horseback riding or going to the stock car races. While the kids in the neighborhood played baseball in the empty lot, I reveled in books, dance, theater, music, art and anything avant-garde. The Sizzling Sixties rocked my world and I enjoyed the ride. Growing up an hour train or bus ride to New York City, I was smitten with the anything goes in the city that never sleeps. Back in my little borough on the Jersey Shore, it was rules, beliefs, fitting in and being normal. Anything I did that was different from the perceived normal was shamed and ridiculed ending with the refrain, “We don’t believe in that” or “We don’t do that” or my mother’s favorite, “Kathleen, how could you?!”.
From home, church and the school yard we move on to the work place. Here’s where not fitting in can hit us in the wallet. The job or career where we have to fit in, go along to get along and work, work, work to achieve more and more in order to gain higher levels of prestige, money and success. We create goals to satisfy our egos and our supervisor’s annual review. We burden ourselves with more tasks which, comes with more stress, perhaps competition, and sometimes jealousy, from co-workers, then more hours, education and experience grabbing to do the same thing over again. We dress to fit the role we play. For this t-shirt and jeans type, hands-in-the-dirt gardener, the designer suits, acceptable hair style, perfect makeup and well heeled look grated. It wasn’t dress for success to me; it was a strait jacketed uniform that helped pay the bills.
Throughout our lives for any number of reasons we often strive to fit in, so we will belong, suppressing our very authenticity. We self-edit our ideas and desires to become someone else’s version of normal, acceptable, to meet their reality. It may be for family or societal pressure, to bring home a paycheck, to be liked. For me, that always chafed as if I were wearing a pair of ill fitting slacks. Retirement is a cathartic release of all the above. As poet Mary Sarton said, “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” Retirement is the opportunity of a lifetime to be truly authentic. Whatever identity we wore in our previous two-thirds of life, we can now create an identity of our own making.
Today I don’t have one designer anything in my closet. My wardrobe consists of many pairs of my coveted jeans, t-shirts and sweaters. I rarely wear jewelry, not even earrings. I let my hair go gray years ago. I write, read, paint, draw, listen to music, garden, of course, and plan solo travels like my upcoming trip to Italy or building my new house. There will always be people who tell us we should do this or should do that. They are thinking what works for them must surely work for you. Listen to them, politely, if you can, then do whatever the hell you want! You have nothing to prove to anyone. You don’t need anyone’s approval.
To an extent we will always need to follow some rules as a society without rules is a mass of chaos. I see this time as choosing to live my reality built upon my dreams. I see it as I need people who support me, who may disagree with me, but people who accept my authentic self. I see it as this time in my life is irreplaceable and it belongs to me with open arms for those who love me and I love in return. I see it as wanting people in my life who see me as amazing as much as I see them as amazing. In this moment I realize the gift of retirement is freedom to be who I am, where I am. I no longer have to fit into someone else’s idea of me. That’s my new reality. That’s my rule now.
Along with crocus and pussy willows signs of spring include more home buyers. Consequently, as a seller I’m preparing to put my house on the market. I can’t afford to build the new house without selling the old house, which presents a whole set of additional challenges like where will I live in between. But, that’s another post.
Unlike the sale of my South Carolina house where my main consideration was Martin, here I sort of have the luxury of not having to sell in a hurry. There, I needed a quick sale to spare Martin (and me) from the stress of weeks of showings, making sure each day the house was clean as a whistle, and leaving on possibly short notice for a showing. I also didn’t want us moving to Michigan in snowy January. Having spent decades in the business I knew the realities. I did what was best for our emotional health rather than getting an extra few dollars.
Every sale has its challenges though. This time I’m in a market, which is transitioning from a sellers’ market to a buyers’ market. With inflation building costs have skyrocketed. Some pressure most definitely exists to get the new house under way. I’ve been here before as well. Clean, clean, clean and plain vanilla sell in any market, but it’s even more important in a buyers’ market. They can be choosy about not wanting to paint over the sellers’ blue, pink or mint green colors. They can turn up their noses at what appear to be small maintenance or repair items. They can demand move-in ready. So, here I am touching up my plain vanilla wall paint, decluttering yet again and looking with a buyer’s eye at every detail.
I hunted ruthlessly through closets for anything I hadn’t worn or used in the last year, packing my car for one more trip to Goodwill. On a sunny 52º day with the drip, drip of melting snow sounding in my ears, I burned reams of old records and paperwork in the fire pit, some as much as twenty years old. Why I was hanging onto this is anyone’s guess. I think it was like discarding parts of my life, but on that day it was past energy from which I needed to free myself, not to mention the space it was taking up. While I watched my life going up in flames I envisioned the Phoenix feathered and golden rising from the accumulating gray ashes. That was me rising to rebuild my life. Then, I spied, just beyond the fire pit, fuzzy pussy willows budding out. Retrieving a pair of clippers from my garage I happily snipped several branches to bring inside. Yes, there were signs of spring, a new beginning, a fresh start.
Mid-February I enjoyed a week of socializing. Valentine’s Day was filled with appointments including a lovely long luncheon with other women, mostly widows like myself. There were flowers on the table, at each seating Lindt chocolate paper hearts filled with truffles, wine and good food and great camaraderie. Then, of course, yoga Monday and yoga Wednesday followed by my third Thursday book club tribe and a stimulating discussion of The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve.
I was flying high when suddenly I crashed with a nasty head cold. Rachel brought a Covid test. I was negative followed by the happy dance. Did we ever think we’d be glad to have a cold? Just a cold. Yay! But, not yay. I felt like crap. No amount of hot tea with honey, throat lozenges, fluids, fluids and more fluids or meds could make me feel much better. And, sleep. That’s all I wanted to do and did as much as my physical discomfort allowed.
On one of those days when rest escaped me, I stared out my second story window watching feather light flakes of white meandering slowly to the ground. Snow accumulating on the branches of the oak outside the turret highlighted its winter gray color, a few dead leaves still dangling as if to be brown ornaments swaying in the light wind. This was supposed to be my winter of just being. In January I envisioned a winter of contemplation, introspection and the claiming of much needed space – mental, emotional, spiritual and physical as I distanced myself from the past. At the same time I wanted to throw myself into activities, which not that long ago were difficult, if not impossible to enjoy.
Now held hostage by this dreadful cold and impossibly icy roads at first I felt trapped. But, as the days of endless nose blowing and coughing wore on my feelings became ones of contentment. I couldn’t remember the last time I just was. No place I really really had to be. No preconceived notions of time to rise or go to bed. No one asking what was I going to do today. When was the last time I actually looked at the oak? I mean really looked, noticing the branches softly swaying in the unseen wind, the deep wintery gray of its trunk, the hint of swelling buds promising spring will come yet again. When was the last time I lived in the moment, every moment, not thinking about what I thought I had to do, but really didn’t have to do?
Once upon a time this is how I wanted my retirement to play out in part. And, I still do. In between all the big events during retirement, the travel, moving, socializing, there is a lull where everyday life hums along. I want that slow, steady whisper of daily events, not the rushing crescendo as in my working and caregiving years. Even vacations were once crammed with places to go, to eat, to see, things to do. Go, go, go. Lists and lists. To do lists at home. To do lists at work. Bucket lists for retirement. I always felt like a squirrel in a cage. No. I want days of just being, of contemplating my surroundings and turning inward toward self-knowledge and contentment and noticing whatever is outside my window.
After being updated, this article is being reposted as it has more meaning to me now than it did when originally published in 2017. Retirement affords an opportunity to grow again, to dream, wish, stretch and do that which may not have been possible when we were young.
Growing up on the New Jersey shore, my parents, younger brother and I sometimes went to an inlet at low tide to hopefully collect crabs. An old wooden bulkhead provided a place for the crabs to clutch or, perhaps, be blocked from rolling back out with the tide. As the tide ebbed, we searched for the crustaceans clinging to the decaying wood. Back home in my parents’ kitchen, my brother and I played with the crabs on the floor as my mother boiled a large pot of water on the stove. Once the water came to a full rolling boil, my Dad put the crabs in the pot. It seems cruel to me now, but as children my brother and I liked to watch the drama of the crabs in the pot. You see, one of the crabs always tried to climb out of the pot while the other crabs pulled it back in until they all boiled together providing quite a show.
It wasn’t until I took the Dynamic Aging Program at Furman University that I heard crabs in a pot used as an analogy to describe people who are aging in the way our society expects us to age. According to the program creator, Dudley Tower, Ph.D, most people today just follow the expected norm, retiring to a life of leisure where they play golf or cards, travel, do a little volunteer work, watch TV or whatever activity they choose to occupy their time, until they slowly decline mentally and physically, sliding little by little, day by day, inch by inch, toward death.
We expect to take care of ourselves by following a healthy diet, doing some type of exercise, but believing, inevitably, we’ll need assisted living and eventually, maybe, probably, nursing home care. Prior to my mother’s death several years ago, she spent the last three months of her life in a nursing home. After visiting her with Martin and our youngest daughter, as we rode the elevator down to the ground floor, I said to my daughter, “If I ever have to be in a facility like this, it is my express wish that you just shoot me.”
As dreary and desperate as that sounds, my view has not changed, especially after Martin’s illness and demise in a memory care home. So, the story of the crabs in a pot resonates with me. But, what is the alternative? Is there an alternative? We all know we are all going to die. As my father used to say, “Nobody gets out alive.” Then, of course, he’d chuckle at his little joke. In fact, most of us have probably lived our lives based on societal norms and expectations of how we should behave. We went to school, grew up with little push back, got a job, got married, had kids, bought a house with a mortgage, raised the kids, advanced in the job and finally, here we are, retired. And, now, we are following the normal model of aging, retiring to a life of leisure and slow physical and, maybe, cognitive decline until we have to go to a nursing home. In other words, we are waiting to slowly boil to death like crabs in a pot. Ugh!
Now, for the alternative to what was the normal aging experience for our parents and grandparents. People are living longer with more and more people in developed countries living to be 100. Retiring at 70 years of age could leave you with 30 years until you die. Think about it! If the idea of spending 20 to 30 years playing golf or mahjong or traveling or gardening or whatever and then going to assisted living followed by nursing care, is your idea of a great life, that’s entirely up to you. But, wouldn’t you rather do something more exciting?
I asked myself the question, “What would you do with the last third of your life if you were not afraid?” It is self-imposed limitations that hold us back. Self-imposed limitations are something we attribute to ourselves out of fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, fear of ridicule, fear of whatever we are afraid of. What would you do if society, your friends, your family, your neighbors didn’t expect you to live a life of leisure until your world becomes smaller and smaller and you decline further and further? Would you go back to college, start a new career, open a business, learn a new skill, follow your heart, resurrect a childhood dream?
The last third of life offers a freedom like none we have ever experienced. What others think about what we do with our lives really doesn’t matter. We can let our imaginations soar. We can take some behavioral risk. Our society, however, does not readily support personal development as we age. Someone who is 20 or 30 or 40 or even 50 is expected to continue developing on a personal level. It’s a given, the same as society’s expectation of decline for our aging population.
By the time we hit the big 60, we are expected to slow down. We start hearing the ‘at your age’ mantras. Oh, yes, we hear on occasion about the 79 year old weight lifter with a great set of abs or the 89 year old gymnast still vaulting off equipment like a teenager or the 98 year old publishing a first book. Why aren’t we all striving to do something we always longed to do but never had the time to pursue? Because we believe the aging euphemisms about slowing down, about being too old to do this or that. As children, we all had dreams. We all learned new things every day, day in and day out. Aging dynamically requires more than taking care of our health. It requires that we look inside ourselves and resurrect our thirst for learning, our thirst for living on our personal edge and maybe a dream or two. We really won’t know what we are capable of as we age until we throw out society’s expectation of aging.
Shortly after retiring, it occurred to me that retirement was not all it was cracked up to be. Sure, I enjoyed the honeymoon after leaving work, when everyday seemed like an extended vacation. It didn’t take long, however, for disillusionment to set in. I missed the challenge and excitement and camaraderie that work provided. Yet, I didn’t want to go back to work, at least not the traditional work place.
Instead, I resurrected a dream and have been pursuing it ever since. My dream was to be a writer. Long, long ago life got in the way. Having to support a family and taking a different career path, I gave up my dream. Shortly, after retiring, with the power of the internet, I started my own blog. I became a writer. Recently, I started taking courses in writing to sharpen my skills. I decided to seriously pursue writing as a craft. And, now I’m writing my memoirs along with some short stories. I may or may not find a publisher. I may have to self-publish. It doesn’t matter. What matters are the possibilities I am creating for myself.
I am feeling more alive and excited about the future than I have in years. I’m more mindful of what I am doing with my life. I have a vision of how I want the rest of my life to play out. I am aging dynamically. And, that is the alternative. We can meet society’s expectation of how we will age or we can chart a new course, throwing away previous models and maps. How about it? Are you going to be a crab in a pot? Or, will you be the one who scrambles over the side to freedom? Come on…dream a little dream or two.
I’ve always been a foodie. In fact, my love of gardening started in the 1970’s with growing fresh herbs for all the dinners Martin and I prepped at home. That was followed with growing my own produce and finally, gardens to fill the senses. But, food, glorious food was always at the center of my enjoyment. And at the center of family time. Dinners out were not the normal routine for us when we could make it better in our own kitchen.
As our daughters grew and moved out of the house, we empty nesters adjusted to smaller meals. Then, after decades of cooking together, Martin’s move to memory care left me cooking for one. At first I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to continue cooking for myself. But, after years of delicious home cooked meals, the alternative of processed, frozen dinners or take out left, well, a bad taste in my mouth. With Covid, of course, fewer restaurant options remained and eating out solo as I’d done when I traveled for work was also unappealing. What to do? What to do?
At one of the occasional meals I have at Rachel’s house I savored a yummy chicken chili made in a crockpot. I lamented the idea that such a meal would leave me with so much extra food. Then, Rachel to the rescue!
“You could get a small crockpot used for appetizers or smaller meals and cut the recipe.”
What? Feeling out of touch with the conveniences of today, I was amazed to find there are crockpots for two. Of course, I bought one for $30 along with Pamela Ellgen’s book, “Healthy Slow Cooker Cookbook for Two”. One of my favorite recipes is Chicken in Mango Chutney. Spiced with cinnamon, ginger and curry I love the smells that fill the air. Another who knew is mango comes all diced in a can!
The crockpot revelation gave me the impetus to alter my frame of mind about cooking for one. I discovered the website https://www.allrecipes.com, which offers the ability to modify the number of servings for many recipes. Since most recipes can’t be reduced all the way down to one, I cook a meal and freeze the other half or have it for dinner a couple nights later. That gave me another idea.
Instead of looking at recipes as that’s too much for me to eat, I began looking at whether or not the meal could be broken into smaller portions and frozen. Yes, I know I didn’t want to buy frozen meals at the grocery store, but my hesitation was based upon too much added salt and/or sugar along with ingredients the names of which I can’t pronounce. During my current Michigan winter I’ve found a big pot of soup, stew or chili freezes well and provides a cozy comfort food dinner on bitter cold nights. Grandma Merlino’s spaghetti sauce can also be made as for a crowd then divided and frozen for future pasta dishes.
Other favorite comfort foods include lasagna and enchiladas, easily made in a casserole dish, divided and frozen. As my days fill up with activities outside the house, these dishes along with the crockpot provide ready meals upon my return. Paired with a salad I can still eat an enjoyable healthy dinner.
Speaking of salads I upped my game from the usual greens to making some interesting additions. With winter comes a dearth of fresh greens, tomatoes and cucumbers. Roasting root vegetables (parsnips, carrots, turnips, beets and whole cloves of garlic) to be added to kale, spinach and arugula along with chopped nuts, dried cranberries or other fruits and some feta cheese makes for a nourishing winter salad. I also started adding a touch of maple syrup not only to my chili recipe, but also my balsamic vinaigrette. It provides an earthy nutty flavor. Dried lavender buds, reminiscent of a summer day, is another favorite addition to the vinaigrette. Summer fare may also include salads which are not limited to greens. Three bean, asian noodle or fruit salads shake things up a bit.
On days when I find myself without a meal plan I turn to my egg carton and vegetable bin for a quick frittata in a small fry pan. I add anything I can find including some roasted root vegetables, peppers, shallots, potatoes, celery or asparagus. What’s left can be re-heated for breakfast or even a lunch.
Never one to count calories I try, not always successfully, to simply eat healthy. My one guilty pleasure is bread. Any kind of bread, but especially a hard crusted bread or a moist muffin. So, I indulge in a baking day making anything from crusty rosemary bread to carrot pecan muffins to focaccia bread. Again, the muffins freeze well. Breads can also be frozen, but should be used within the month.
Eating for one, which started out as a depressing thought, has turned into an exploration of my senses as I experiment, discover and enjoy what food, glorious food has to offer. It gives me something delectable to look forward to at the end of the day. And, the results have been very satisfying indeed.
After a long holiday hiatus, yoga classes picked up again at my local community center. I never thought I would be so excited about an exercise class. But, as I learned during the past few months, yoga is so much more than exercise. For me, it’s been an adventure. Aside from the physical benefits practicing yoga is aiding my transition from emotionally, mentally burned out caregiver widow to calm, strong, resilient me. I am no longer carrying darkness. Instead, I’m restoring the light.
This revelation began on a sunny late August day when I decided (on a whim, of course) to turn onto the road leading to the Richland Area Community Center (RACC). A pleasant friendly woman named Jody greeted me at the front desk. Soon Jody was showing me around as she described the activities offered by RACC. We peeked through a windowed door at a yoga class in session. Shhhh. A sign posted outside the room asked for quiet. Something about the women, and it was mostly women, lying on their colorful mats in silent repose called out to me to join them.
With a six week instructional class starting in September I enrolled on the spot. No time like the present to feed another whim. There were also three drop-in classes offered every week. I decided to take a wait and see approach before jumping into one of those. However, it wasn’t long after starting the formal class that I began dropping in on Mondays as well. As a friend who is a long time practitioner said, “How can you not love something that ends with everyone wrapped up in warm blankets?” Indeed.
On my first day of class any trepidation I felt soon melted away as our instructor approached me. She asked my name and announced she was also Cathy, “with a C”, as she flashed a captivating smile and said a soul warming “welcome to the group”. Cathy also took care to ask if I had any physical constraints. I did. A knee was giving me pain to the point where I thought I should take my orthopedist’s advice to have cortisone shots. Handing me knee pads I soon learned to adopt Cathy’s mantra of “listen to your body”. There was no pressure ever to move beyond my personal scope of abilities. Mostly of a more mature age, including a few octogenarians, we all seemed to have some limitation or another.
As week after week I stretched and balanced and strengthened and groaned my knee pain disappeared along with the knee support, painkillers and topical treatments. I still listen to my body (and my doctor) and use knee pads, but to say I’m amazed at this result would be an understatement. Oh, yes, I do get a tinge of discomfort now and again, which is when I back off from whatever I’m doing with ‘listen to your body’ echoing in my ears.
However, the most significant surprise wasn’t the physical benefits. Like a benediction following each session savasana delivered a deep far-reaching spiritual calm in the midst of my personal storm. You may be asking what exactly is a savasana. If so, you can see that learning the vocabulary of yoga is one of the good for your brain challenges. To put it in simple terms, savasana is also known as the corpse pose. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it? It actually is delightful and difficult all at once.
Twenty minutes before the end of my first class, as we readied ourselves for savasana out came blankets and sweat shirts, socks and eye masks, small pillows. It was as if we were preparing for adult nap time. Then, we adopted the corpse pose, lying flat on our backs, eyes closed, hands open-palmed facing the ceiling. Now for the hard part…totally relaxing, not just your fresh-from-a-workout body, but your mind. Despite soft meditative music playing in the otherwise extreme quiet my ever busy mind worked against my efforts to calm.
Never able to meditate for more than five minutes, thoughts materialized in my hamster wheel of gray matter faster than it emptied them out. Oh, busy busy mind. Relax. Relax. Around my third or fourth class we were introduced to the Sa Ta Na Ma meditation. Coincidentally, the next day my grief counselor introduced it to me as well. Ask and ye shall receive. The universe knew I needed a crutch to lean on. With this method I now meditate during savasana to the point of nearly falling asleep!
As the handout Cathy gave us says, “Sa Ta Na Ma is intended to bring mental balance clearing your subconscious for a fresh start. It improves concentration and brain function, increases intuitive abilities, and brings peace and understanding to the practitioner.” And, so it does.
Again the vocabulary. Here is the meaning of each word as each finger is touched in a pressure point to the thumb. This is done slowly with inhales and exhales as each finger presses the thumb and each word is silently, mindfully said.
Sa = birth = index finger pressure point
Ta = life = middle finger pressure point
Na = death = ring finger pressure point
Ma = rebirth = pinky finger pressure point
As I practiced this at home my ability to meditate grew to ten minutes of keeping my busy mind at bay. I’d even venture to say meditation has calmed not only my mind, but my spirit as it allowed much needed rest, peace and mental space to blossom. After savasana, each session ends with an inspirational or poetic reading by Cathy. Then, we all place our hands at heart center and say, “namaste”, which is a Sanskrit word meaning “I bow to you”. The word never fails to leave me with a peaceful feeling of being here and now and part of a larger community.
According to John Hopkins Medicine (hopkinsmedicine.org) yoga improves balance, strength and flexibility, can help with back pain and arthritis symptoms and supports heart health. Managing stress, better sleep, more energy and brighter moods and connecting with a supportive community are other benefits cited. Yoga has provided that and much more for me. As I sit here looking out my window at snow floating softly to the frozen earth, I’m grateful for this adventure in yoga and its many rewards.
Here we are again. The end of another year. One of the rituals of the culmination of the year is reflection upon where we’ve been as we make resolutions for the next year. I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions in I don’t know how long, although I opted a few years ago to embrace a Word Of The Year or WOTY for short. For me, the last few months were dedicated to reflecting not only on 2022, but my entire lifetime. Many times I asked the question, “Where have you been?” So, I’m not inclined to reflect further. Instead, in early December I began thinking about where I was going. My contemplation resulted in action.
Now, back to the WOTY. The Oxford Dictionary actually chooses a WOTY to reflect the mood of the past year. On the other hand a personal WOTY is meant to bring clarity to what you expect to change in the next year. Originally, I chose ‘joy’ then ‘create’ then ‘balance’ then ‘renew’ then ‘discovery’ then no word at all. I decided I was having such a time identifying one specific word that I didn’t actually want 2023 to be defined by a WOTY. I desired the freedom to wend my way through any number of experiences and ideas and feelings and emotions and whatever life brought my way.
After seeing the book on a friend’s coffee table, in October I bought, “A Year of Positive Thinking” by Cyndie Spiegel. Spiegel provides a positive thought for each and every day of the year. The dates are non-specific to a certain year, so you can pick up anywhere in any year. I added it to my morning reading along with the “Guide For Spiritual Living”, a monthly magazine from the Center For Spiritual Living. Coupling my daily readings with a course in The After Life at a local college, I drew on these resources as I ruminated about 2022 and planned for 2023. I wanted 2023 to develop without being boxed in.
I reached this conclusion after reading, on December 23rd, Cyndie Spiegel’s thought for the day. She wrote, “Who were you once? Who were you before you began becoming the person others told you to be? Who were you when you trusted and actually listened to your truest self?” Oddly, this was exactly what I had been meditating upon since Martin’s death.
Realistically, we all know the person of our childhood is long gone. Or, are they? Is our childhood person replaced by the person who was not only molded, in part, by those around us, but also by our life experiences? “No”, I answered. “I am the same person yet a different person.” Life can indeed be messy. It can be fraught with hurt and trauma, unexpected pain. It can also be magical, joyful and mystical with unexpected gifts. Through it all, we grow and learn, rising in wisdom and, hopefully, self-actualization, becoming who we are today. Yet, our soul’s code remains deep within perhaps waiting to be awakened.
Spiegel also asked such questions as, “What did you enjoy?” And “Where did you go?” Those questions begged answers providing my mind and heart something to chew on. Even before reading this passage in Spiegel’s book, I determined to do some things I now had the freedom to make happen. Drawing on my work experience I knew resolutions often fail because they are not developed as step by step goals. Knowing what action is required to make a want a reality is the key to success. Drawing on my childhood dreams I began taking action.
Of course, whatever I did would most likely be done solo. Traveling was a dream from childhood carried into my derailed retirement. Now, I was putting that train back on the tracks full speed ahead. Trepidation over traveling by my little old self was assuaged by the Michigan State University Alumni Travel Program. As an alumnus I could take advantage of the numerous tours offered each year to Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. A friend also reminded me of how, in our much younger days, we traveled solo for business as a matter of routine. I could do this! And, so I dove into the idea by booking a 2023 tour to Tuscany, Italy.
Ah, me. I had written lots of contracts in my career days and then, there’s this blog. My soul still longed to write. To that end, I reserved a spot in a writing workshop at John Campbell Folk School. I’ve been to John Campbell twice before. There’s a certain comfort in spending a week in a familiar, friendly place where community and fellowship abound. Following the pandemic meals are back to being communal along with Morning Song and evening activities. Living on campus is part of this uniquely American experience amidst artists and art, American folk art.
And, of course, the house I’m still sitting in as I write this is going back on the market next spring. While my new house is being built I’m not sure where I will land to call my temporary home. Yet, I feel strangely secure in the idea it will work out. I know how the big picture will look if I’m off on one of my forays. It’s the details, which allude me due to timing and the market and all the unknown little things that surface only when a contract is put together. One of the gifts of Martin’s passing is my spiritual transformation to faith in the power of the universe. I am not a body with a mind; I am a mind with a body. Whatever occurs, everything I need will all come together.
This is my plan for 2023 so far. And, that may be enough for one year. For all the times I could barely put one foot in front of the other, I’m so excited about the future. This is my time. There is unlimited joy in just thinking of the possibilities. Taking steps to make these dreams a reality is empowering beyond anything I could have imagined. I revisited the idea of a WOTY and revised my thoughts. Why not have Words Of The Year? Plural. As I enter 2023 ‘creativity’, ‘self-discovery’ and ‘adventure’ capture my mood and intent.
To all of you, wherever you are, I wish you a creative, adventurous 2023 of discovery!
Shortly after Martin died I walked down my long driveway to fetch the mail. Usually, I have little or none. But, in the days following his death my mailbox held more than junk mail. There were sympathy cards and official letters from various institutions. As I pulled out the cache of the day I saw something I’d never seen in my mail. A penny. It lay underneath the cards and letters and the ubiquitous junk mail. A penny so tarnished it almost faded into the background of the black metal floor of the box.
My mind flooded with the rhetorical questions. Who would leave a penny in my mailbox and why and how? I lived on a busy road, so someone walking by was unlikely. The leaving must have been thoughtful, intentional. “A penny for your thoughts” (Sir Thomas More) came to mind. Was it my faithful mail lady who left it? I lifted the penny out, slid it into my jean pocket and walked back to the house. Inside, before turning my attention to the mail, I fished it out and set it on a mosaic trivet Martin had made in an art class.
Over the next couple of days I eyed the penny still wondering how it got in my mailbox. Did a penny have any significance? “See a penny and pick it up and all day you’ll have good luck” (Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes). Since we can pretty much Google anything these days, my curiosity finally gave way to asking Google. To my surprise a penny has significance for the deceased or their loved ones. In the case of a veteran a penny left at the grave means someone visited. For a widow like myself a penny in the mailbox represents a new beginning, a rebirth, renewal of your life. A penny being first and one represents singularity. If you are part of a couple, one of you will die first leaving the other alone, single.
I’ve been alone for nearly eighteen months. While Martin still lived, it was not with me. If there is a silver lining here, it’s that I had ample time to adapt to my aloneness and grieve this impending, profound, enormous loss in my life. The outcome? I was not filled with the expected feelings of grief. Rather, as I held Martin during his final moments I cried tears of gratitude for the end of his suffering. He was free of this disease. I was free of this disease. Our family was free of this disease. Relief instead of deep sorrow. Comfort in knowing he was at peace. As I stroked his face I noted how serene his countenance. Peace at last.
Though I’ve had fits of grief, I’ve also felt immense joy when contemplating my future. During the last year I deliberately divested myself of anything, which smacked of negativity in my life. I decluttered the house paring my personal belongings. I feel washed clean, ready for a new start. Martin would want that for me. A friend asked if I thought Martin’s spirit left the penny. I would like to think so. I may never know who left the penny in my mailbox, but it is now my talisman for fresh beginnings, rebirth, a reawakening of my life’s potential. And a second chance at the retirement we dreamed of.
The post I had in mind for a month ago was “Cooking for One”, but I found myself, not for the first time, with writer’s block. It’s been a rough last few weeks. So, today, forcing myself to write, I decided to post what’s kept me from writing. “Cooking for One” will have to wait.
It should come as no surprise that my somber mood has to do with Martin. Over the course of the summer he declined significantly, more seriously so in the past few weeks. Hospice says it’s a matter of months. I ask the question. A few months? Several months? They don’t know. Just months. Martin’s primary attending predicts a more rapid decline in the next 90 days. But, even he doesn’t know for sure. All they know is the signs are there for end of life. But, this disease is as unpredictable as it is cruel.
I’ve long steeled myself for this moment, yet somehow through all the years of anticipatory grief, I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming feelings of impending final loss. Adrift. Alone. Indecisive. Unfocused. I feel as if I’m slogging through mud up to my knees. Just putting one foot in front of the other takes effort. Yes, I’m depressed. Who among us wouldn’t be. We all experience loss throughout our lives. We walk through the actuality of our sorrow to hopefully come out on the other side to accept the loss and start our lives anew. It’s the getting there that depletes us.
This end has been coming for the past ten years, twelve if I count the two years prior to retirement. That’s when I noticed changes in Martin’s once predictable personality. Blamed on stress and depression he chose to retire from his pressure cooker job. It was one night not soon after that we sat in the kitchen sipping cabernet and talking about dinner. Instead of bowl Martin described mixing something – I don’t remember what – in a box. “You mean a bowl,” I said. “No. A box,” came his answer. Perplexed, I got up, went to a cabinet and pulled out a bowl. He smiled and said, “Oh. Yeah. A bowl.” I brushed aside my concerns not knowing a years long trial had just shown itself.
My vast experience as a caregiver tells me the best thing I can do for me and Martin is take care of myself. To that end I started seeing a counselor again. Hospice, of course, has social workers and a chaplain to talk to. Family and friends are getting me out to some fun events. And, my readership gives me purpose. Last week I took my first ever yoga class. It was so rejuvenating I wish I had started sooner in my caregiving journey. I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking for a second time. With its honesty her memoir about the year after her husband’s sudden death speaks to me as I experience many of the same emotions, confusion and wishful thinking. Meditating and reading my spiritual guide each morning at least starts my day off on a peaceful note.
I sit with Martin, who no longer recognizes me, looks at me, won’t let me hold his hand, but still allows me to rub his shoulders. He can no longer say even one word. I talk to him soothingly telling him it will be ok, not certain if I’m reassuring him or me or both of us. I’m hoping somewhere inside what remains of my Martin he recognizes my voice and takes comfort from its sound. And I pray for mercy and grace for a peaceful death. Soon.