AN ARTS AND CRAFTS MOVEMENT

After writing my last post, many of you wrote telling me what gave you renewed purpose in life after transitioning from work life to retirement. THANK YOU! I enjoyed reading all of your stories, comments and notes. There were a couple of surprises from this informal survey but most of you found renewed purpose by finding a new activity, which struck a personal cord. There was an undeniable thread of joy, which ran through all of your stories of self-discovery. Now, I’d like to share the results with all my readers. Since many of the writers asked for anonymity, I’ve decided not to post any comments received on the previous post nor give too much detail.

Most of you retired as I did, cold turkey. No part-time work to ease into retirement like my doctor suggested as the ideal scenario. In fact, a few wrote about leaving work due to stress. For the most part, it wasn’t clear what type of stress but a couple of people wrote about age discrimination and being pushed out by a younger supervisor and/or co-workers. One writer mentioned feeling an urgent need to find new purpose in order to fully move forward in life and leave the stress behind. There was only one writer, but it’s good news we had one, who chronicled a five-year transition into retirement, working three-quarters of the month, including some telecommuting for the company that employed them for 37 years. This writer’s spouse enjoyed a similar arrangement with their employer. So, I guess we can count that as two who were able to transition into retirement the way my doctor suggested. Even after this transitional period, the employer still wanted to keep them around for special projects. Smart employer! Since this person did a lot of pre-planning and transitioning into retirement, when the moment finally came, it was more of a non-event with little transitioning left to do. Most of us, however, do not have the luxury of such an accommodating employer.

The big surprise for me is how most of you found renewed purpose in arts and crafts. While there are a few of you who fell in love with gardening, even a couple who have hobby farms, it seems most retirees are part of an arts and crafts movement. And, gardening can even be considered a type of art form for it requires a certain amount of creativity. Far from unusual, I am not the only one to discover artistic talent after a career in a vastly different environment. After life as attorneys, accountants, bankers, realtors, office managers, manufacturing jobs, medical technicians, teachers, IT administrators, nurses and more, most of you found renewed purpose in painting in all mediums…watercolor, acrylics, oil, jewelry making, sculpture in both clay and metal, glass bead making, knitting and felting, stained glass, photography, weaving, quilting, wood carving and collage art. Two of you mentioned supplementing retirement income with the sale of your art work and one is even teaching an art class. Some of you spoke of travel but it was almost always in conjunction with your ability to photograph new scenes or explore local art and culture. You also spoke of making new friends within the arts and crafts community, joining clubs and social networks centered around your chosen art or craft. I recently spotted a sign in an art shop. It said, “Artists never retire.” Perhaps that’s why we are drawn to our creative sides in retirement. We have now created a job for life.

Another surprise was how no one mentioned volunteering as an activity, which offered renewed purpose. Only a couple of you mentioned any volunteer work at all and even that was as an aside, an “I also do this” type of remark. As a volunteer for the Master Gardener Program, I fully enjoy working the booth at the local farmers market where I answer gardening questions and hand out information to all kinds of people from all walks of life. It makes for a fun morning. However, it’s not something I want to do everyday. Yesterday, at lunch with a friend, I asked for her thoughts on this as she, too, does volunteer work, but, it’s not her focus. Her not-so-surprising comment, “ I don’t want to be scheduled.” I believe, for most of us, volunteering is too much like working a job. It comes with time constraints, supervisors and work-like responsibilities. Many of us want to give back to our community in some way but in retirement, we also want to enjoy a less structured, more relaxing life. If anyone has other thoughts or ideas about this, please chime in.

To all of you, no matter where you are, no matter what your circumstance, I thank you for all of your heartfelt responses. I hope this post inspires those of you who have not yet found a renewed purpose in life to explore the possibilities, explore your wants and needs and perhaps ignite a spark within, which you didn’t know was there.

THE LUCK OF THE DRAW

Native American in pencil

Native American in pencil

We need purpose in life. That is a given. And, that is one of the challenges we face throughout our lives. Retirement is no different. While you lived your work life, you probably reinvented yourself many times, developing new skills, taking on a new position or switching careers altogether. If you looked for a new job at a new company, you probably threw yourself into job hunting, updating your resume, looking at different companies and opportunities. This may have been a very exciting endeavor giving you a renewed sense of purpose. During this time, you may have also taken on the role of spouse and, then, parent. More transitions, adjustments and challenges as you wended your way through these new roles. Though stressful at times all of these provided purpose in your life.

Now, you have waved goodbye to the regular work life and the kids have flown the nest (hopefully). And, as some of you have written, retirement is not all you dreamed it would be. Setting aside the normal transitioning, disillusionment, grieving the good parts of your old work life, in order to reach a state of renewed purpose, put yourself in the same mode you did when you went after a new position, a promotion, a job with another company. Become open and exploratory. Prepare to reinvent yourself in order to re-purpose your life. The sooner you do this, the sooner you will find satisfaction with your retired life.

A reader recently mentioned how they would love to hear more stories about people successfully transitioning into retirement. So, would I. If you have a story to tell, please pass it on.  To get us started, here’s how I found retirement bliss or Atchley’s Stage 5 of a Retirement Routine. It took me about two years. For some it will be shorter; for others, it may be longer.

If you don’t have a bucket list, make one. Though it’s become something of a cliché these days, the bucket list is a very useful tool for getting your dreams down on paper. I have my bucket list and, for those of you who have been with me for a while, you know one of my dreams was to take classes in watercolor painting. I didn’t expect to become world famous or even be all that good as I never thought I had any artistic talent. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised or felt the disappointment I did when the class turned out to be a disaster. But, being the trooper I am, I decided the real problem was not knowing how to draw.

On a whim, I signed up for a drawing class. Then, the little voice in my head started saying things like, “Who are you kidding? You can’t even draw a smiley face so what makes you think you can draw anything at all?” Doubt, that destroyer of dreams, would not get out of my head. I decided to cancel. But, my dear husband, talked me into sticking with it and giving me an out. If, after a couple of classes, I felt the same as I did with watercolor, I would just drop the course.

'Bella' in pencil

‘Bella’ in pencil

Well, I never dropped it. Instead, by the fourth class, it was exhilaratingly apparent that not only can I draw, but I am talented. Since then, I have taken two more classes, moving on to pen and ink and colored pencils. I spend hours upon hours drawing. I’ve made new friends. In addition to the art, I enjoy the camaraderie with the other students.

I’m looking forward to more courses this fall with a new instructor and other perspectives. I have not felt this much excitement about a discovery of my personal abilities since I was 16 and took my first journalism course. Learning to draw has changed my life. And, think about it, I almost didn’t even give it a shot. What seems like a masterstroke from the outside, I know was nothing more than the luck of the draw. I tried something that stuck.

‘Autumn Joy’ pen & ink pointillism

If you are carrying around old notions about your likes and dislikes or what you can or can’t do, discard them now. If doubt clouds your thinking, kick doubt to the curb. Henry Ford once said, “Think you can, think you can’t; either way you’ll be right.”

Reinventing yourself, repurposing your life requires an openness to new possibilities. It requires a willingness to try new activities. It requires taking some risk. In order to be a success at anything, you have to be willing to fail. After my perceived failure with watercolor, I didn’t want to fail again with drawing. It was easier to cancel then to face the possibility of another mistake. But, in retirement, all bets are off. Put yourself out there today and find your purpose. And, send me your story.

UNCONVENTIONAL LIFESTYLES

About a year ago I went to a new doctor for my regular checkup. There was nothing wrong with my old MD excepting she moved to an office 20 minutes further down the road. So, now I sat before a new doc (for me) at the old practice. At the time I was retired for several months. As chronicled in this blog, it was a time of exploration and transition as Martin and I sought to create a life without a work routine. As my new MD went over my chart, she made a comment, one that threw me a little off balance at the time and has been cause for some thought since.

“Ohhhh…you’re retired!”, she said in a tone which made me think I’d done something incredibly wrong, sort of along the lines of oh, you naughty child. “So, young!”, she lamented. “Have you started to withdraw yet?” Withdraw from what?

Obviously, the ‘withdraw’ word gave me pause for thought. Continuing to lament my retired state, my doctor very nicely explained how the best way to retire is to work part-time for a few years and ease into retirement at a later age. I gathered she meant much later than the 61 I was at the time. Considering how most employers today are not that keen on part-time workers and are even less thrilled about providing health benefits for them and then there’s the bugaboo of age discrimination and whether or not employers are really into having older workers around even on a full-time schedule, I thought my doctor’s advice was somewhat unrealistic. She also sounded like my hair stylist did when she told me I was too young to go gray. I fired my stylist.

After several months of ruminating and once again trawling the web looking for information to support the idea that retirees withdraw from society or do not withdraw, this looks like just one more example of an antiquated idea whose time has come to be burned at the stake, drawn and quartered, and whatever else we can think of to dispose of it. While I found lots of online dictionaries touting the meaning of retirement as, you guessed it, withdrawal or termination from work, every article I found was about withdrawal of retirement funds. When it comes to retirement, as always, there’s plenty of info on the financial component; little on the human component.

But, what I did find was a story about a woman named Sue Aiken. At 51, Sue is not retired. The interesting thing about Sue is she lives 197 miles north of the Arctic Circle all by her little lonesome. So, she is about as withdrawn from society as one can get. Oh, she sees people all right. From May through September when she’s running what she calls a remote bed and breakfast for hunters, ecologists, bird watchers and the like. The rest of the year Sue lives alone in the wilderness even facing down grizzlies on occasion. Now, obviously, Sue is living an unconventional lifestyle in the extreme. Does her doctor worry about her isolated state? I doubt it. You see Sue is celebrated for her isolated state and even has a TV show on National Geographic channel called Life Below Zero. One of the comments Sue made about her choice of lifestyle is how just because she prefers to be alone doesn’t mean she isn’t social. I think that is downright profound and something all retirees (and their doctors) should think about. Maybe all of conventional society should think about it. After all, Sue is living her life on her terms. Something most of us rarely do.

Reading about Sue I learned a few things about myself and retirement. For starters, I’m living life on my terms. I chose to leave work at an early age and live an unconventional lifestyle, one of self-exploration. In order to explore one’s inner self, one needs some quiet time. I guess my doctor may look at that as withdrawal. I see it as getting off the hamster wheel to spend time inside my own head. Sometimes I even talk to myself. Spending time with myself has resulted in less stress, being more comfortable in my own skin and discovering talents I never knew I had. As the tagline of this blog asserts, “Retirement is a journey, not a destination.” This is the journey I have chosen because it suits me. It’s mine. It’s personal. I shunned work and certain trappings like fancy clothes, new cars and lots of nights out on the town in favor of jeans and t-shirts, my old beater of a car and home cooked meals. And, just because that’s how I prefer to live doesn’t mean I don’t like people. Why just last week I gave a presentation at the local library on growing herbs. My talk was attended by 59 people who I believe had a good time. I know I did.

Just because someone withdraws from our society’s view of a conventional lifestyle and work life, which our workaholic spend, spend, spend society sees as odd, doesn’t mean they have withdrawn from life…at any age. They’ve simply withdrawn from that life. I’m super happy with my choice and perhaps happier than I have been in my entire life. I get to garden, write and draw. Yes, part of my journey has led to the discovery that I am artistically talented. That, alone has opened up a whole new world for me, a world I never had time for but always wondered about when I worked.

Did I fire my doctor? No. In fact, I recently had an appointment with her and she exhibited a decidedly different attitude toward retirement or, at the very least, my retirement. Maybe my indignation on the last appointment caused some pause for thought on her end. Whatever the case, like Sue Aiken, I’m living life and retirement on my terms. Think about it. What will your journey look like?

STAGES OF RETIREMENT II

Last Sunday, as Martin and I sat in the kitchen waiting for dinner to finish baking in the oven, we sipped a glass of wine and talked about our latest projects. Suddenly, I realized the day before was our one year retirement anniversary. A year!?! Gone already! And, we didn’t even celebrate having made it a full year. A year of ups and downs as we adjusted our way to a fulfilling retirement routine. Mind you, we’re not there yet. But, we managed to make it into Stage 4, the Reorientation Stage. With six retirement stages, we’re more than halfway there. Yipeeee!

Last week I wrote about Disillusionment, Stage 3. After meeting someone who was obviously disillusioned with retirement and having been there myself, I felt the need to forewarn as many people as were willing to read my post. But what happens before and after disillusionment? Well, in the past year we’ve experienced all the before.

Pre-retirement, Stage 1, was filled with euphoria. We planned what we would do in retirement. Martin gave his notice at work. His employer threw a catered retirement bash. Bucket lists were made. Lists included all kinds of things we always wanted to do but never seemed to have the time for. Travel made it onto the list, an activity we never liked much before, so whatever made us think we’d like it in retirement, is anybody’s guess. After a work life of travel, travel, travel for both of us, we decided travel was, in reality, one of the last things we wanted to do. Little did we know, this was just the beginning of adjusting our retirement goals and outlook.

Initially, Stage 2, Retirement, aka the “honeymoon” took on a feeling of perpetual vacation as we motorcycled, hiked, gardened, bicycled, engaged in some artwork, sat on the screened porch reading in the warmth of sunny fall days. Winter arrived to a long trip to visit family for Christmas, a luxury we never enjoyed while we worked. That was followed by lazy mornings sipping lattes by the fire and staying in my jammies ’til noon as I took on the new hobby of knitting.

But disillusionment was seeping in. Spring arrived to six months of perpetual vacation giving way to a feeling of restlessness. A feeling of missing the challenge, the mind stimulation, the purpose afforded by the everyday grind of work. What!?! Miss the rat race? No. Not possible. And worse of all, we were getting on each others very last nerve. Our marriage, made in heaven, was being tested at every turn or so it seemed. We arrived at Stage 3, Disillusionment, not even realizing what it was or that it happened to most retirees. But, we did know, something had to give. So, once again, I trawled the web for answers. I’m here to tell you, there’s not a lot out there, not even on the so-called “senior” (I hate that word but that’s what we have) websites. However, in one Google search, I stumbled across Robert Atchley’s research into the stages or phases of retirement and voilà!, a lot of things fell into place. For starters, we made a conscious decision to aim for Stage 4, Reorientation.

To me, Reorientation, is a couple of things. First of all, you put on your designer cap and pull up all the creative muscle you can find on the right side of your brain and start designing a retirement lifestyle to put you smack in the middle of your happy place. Secondly, kiss the rat race goodbye. Let it go. Sever old ties, if necessary. You still need people in retirement. You still need human connection. You still need to network. But, staying in touch with the old gang still tethered to the work place can keep you tethered there as well. Keep the real friends. Let the rest go. And, give them permission to let you go.

Retirement is a reinvention of who you are. For us, we are right brain people who lived our work lives in a left brain world. We wanted to explore different art mediums in retirement but held ourselves back. You know, the old fear of failure specter. What if I can’t draw? Can’t paint? Can’t carve? What if I produce ugly stuff nobody likes? Scary as the thought was, when we decided to seriously enter the world of artists, that is the precise moment we started our reorientation. After several enjoyable weeks of watercolor class, yesterday I took my first drawing class. Don’t even think it…I already know I put the cart before the horse. Anyway, my drawing instructor told our class, “After today’s class, if anyone asks you what you do, you tell them, you’re an artist”. He went on to tell us how he wanted us to start thinking of ourselves as artists. Think it, feel it, be it. (I really like this guy.) Besides classes, we’ve become involved in a couple of artists’ guilds, Martin helping out with the fall arts festival, both of us attending openings (wine, cheese and art…doesn’t get any better than that) and me joining a board of directors. We’ve made new friends. Artist friends who encourage and support. We feel like we’re well on our way to creating a rewarding Retirement Routine, Stage 5.

Once we are comfortably settled into our new retirement lifestyle, we intend for it to last a long, long time. What about Stage 6? you ask. Stage 6 is the Termination of Retirement. That’s when you’re so old and frail, you can’t do any of this fun stuff anymore. You’re focused on meeting your maker. As I said, that’s a long way off. Until then, I’m an artist.

PLAIN VANILLA

Maybe it was our inability to find deli grade authentic Italian hot sausage in Upstate South Carolina. Maybe it was my constant whining about most chardonnay no longer being aged in oak barrels. Whatever the cause, lately everything seemed to be plain vanilla.

Instead of Italian sausage having real herbs and spices like fennel seed and hot pepper flakes, some ground up hot chili mixture was thrown in for color and heat by the butcher. “People don’t like all that fennel seed in their sausage”, he told me. A local vintner chimed in, telling me chardonnay was no longer aged in oak barrels because “the public” didn’t like the “oaky taste” of tannins. So stainless steel vats were now used to age the wine, not only leaving it devoid of the rich taste I enjoyed on a hot summer day but also the deep butterscotch yellow color, a tell tale sign of an oak barrel aging. And to be sure, as a real estate broker I used to tell people, plain vanilla sells. Most buyers wanted a shade of beige on the cabinets, walls, tiles and carpet. I even worked for one company where the president insisted his employees wear navy, gray, black and white. And vehicles? White seems to be the most popular color for SUVs, trucks and vans these days. We live, for the most part, in a plain vanilla world.

Retirement, though, offers up yet another opportunity. An opportunity to break from the collective thinking I, too, have engaged in. After decades of living in a plain vanilla world, I’ve been slowly rebelling. And, my life’s partner has joined me on this quest to bring back not only color but spirit to our lives. After all, we were married in a hay field. So, our renegade spirit has been there all along, just buried beneath the trappings of corporate America. With that cloak lifted, retirement affords a new freedom.

So, recently, when the mail box needed painting, Martin asked if I’d be O.K. with his painting it something different. Go for it, said I. Letting his spirit run wild, he proceeded to produce a sparkly silver and blue concoction with little copper faces and shimmering car striping for accent. Even the birds are wowed by this new look, no longer perching atop to desecrate our box with their poop. Now, sitting at the end of our driveway is a message to birds and the world at large…Plain vanilla doesn’t live here anymore.

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A DAILY LIFE

OK! I’ve been derelict two weeks in a row. I didn’t post on my appointed Monday date with you. Please forgive me. I’ve been galavanting around the southeast, didn’t have anything I felt post worthy to put out there and so, dear readers I’m a derelict. That said, this experience made me think of yet another great thing about being retired…I can spur-of-the-moment, or not, take off to parts known or unknown. So, when one of my sisters and her partner decided to make a trip south on the spur-of-the-moment (they’re also retired), we were able to say, “Hey, stop by for a visit”, with little upset to our routine. Yes, even in retirement we have a routine. Routines add structure to our lives and it’s structure which makes the special moments special. That doesn’t go away in retirement.

After years of getting up at the same time, getting ready for work in much the same way each day and having to be at your desk, office, station, work site at a specific time, suddenly all of that comes to a screeching halt. You can sleep in everyday if you want. You can get up and throw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt or hang out in your pj’s ’til noon or all day. You have no place to go unless you manufacture a place to go. You have nothing to do unless you create something to do. So, part of challenge in retirement is how will you create structure. Why? Do you really want to spend the next thirty years of your life sleeping in and sitting around the house in your pj’s doing nothing more than watching the tube, surfing the net and leafing through magazines waiting for the special moments?

After placing in the state time trials, the question Martin has been asked most often in the last week is, “So, what will you do now?” It’s also similar to an often asked question since we retired, “What do you do all day?” And, therein lies the rub. After 40 years or more of someone telling you what to do all day, there is suddenly no boss. There are no corporate directives. There are no promotions to a higher level. There are no new products to roll out. There are no employees bringing you problems to solve. There is no job description. There is no company policy manual. There are no rules. Only you. In retirement it’s up to you to determine your fate. That, folks, is probably the number one challenge of being a person of independent means.

Martin has already decided he won’t be competing in the national time trials. He’ll continue to ride for exercise and the company of a local group of cyclists. He’s already exploring taking a college course or two in photography and/or painting with acrylics. We can always find something new to challenge our brains and satisfy our creative vision. But, understand this. Determining your fate isn’t one big round of finding something creative or challenging to fill your days. Your days also need some of the usual. The everyday. The oftentimes mundane. Because one of the things which has also vaporized with your work life is structure. Maybe not entirely but a significant amount of your routine is gone.

When working, long weekends and vacation days often become moments when we do something special in between the structure of work. Structure is the juxtaposition which creates the excitement of say racing in the state time trials or running a marathon. To be sure, there’s the structure offered by laundry, grocery shopping, house maintenance and family obligations. The latter remains even in retirement. Although for us, shopping and errand running on the weekends and evenings has been replaced with doing those chores early morning weekdays when the stores are pretty close to empty. Now we do laundry whenever the hamper is full. House cleaning is whenever we feel like it or to motivate ourselves, we invite someone for a visit or dinner.

But, back to our daily life and the importance of routine. After years of dinner sometime between 6:30 and 7:30, in our new life, we enjoy starting dinner early and eating around 5:30. Structure. Thanks to a little diluted orange cat named Carmen, Martin still gets up in the morning around 5:30 to 6 a.m. Carmie doesn’t realize Daddy doesn’t go to work anymore so, she sticks to the routine she was raised with, meowing at the bedroom door in anticipation of Martin rising and giving early morning pets and breakfast. I sleep in until Martin brings me a latte bedside around 7 a.m. That’s right, girls, he makes me a latte every morning…structure! Even our choice to age in place on our six acres provides routine, albeit different routines during the different seasons. With an overgrown woods looking like something the Prince had to hack through to reach Sleeping Beauty in the castle, winter’s routine is bushwhacking. This time of year with summer approaching, mornings are spent picking berries and vegetables, deadheading flower beds and doing chores in the garden. Then, there’s house maintenance like cleaning gutters, painting the house trim, fixing a leaking toilet and all the other things you now have time to do yourself instead of paying someone else to do it for you.

So, no matter what you plan for retirement. Skydiving. Bungee jumping. Spending a year in an RV traveling the country. Going to Europe or Hawaii. Sailing the seven seas. No matter what you plan for excitement or challenge, in order to make it truly exciting, you’ll need a daily life of the usual, the everyday and mundane. you’ll need structure and routine. However, even if you have a blog to write, you can take off spur-of-the-moment to parts known or unknown.

SECOND FASTEST OLD MAN IN THE STATE

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After nine months of training including over 3,000 miles of bicycling, we headed for the coast last Friday for Martin to compete in the South Carolina State Time Trial Championships. When he was working, he didn’t have the time to dedicate to rigorous training and the chance to place in the top three. So, the time trial made it onto his retirement bucket list. The championship breaks the riders up into age categories. Even though Martin is only 59, on his next birthday, he’ll be 60 so he is in the 60 – 65 year olds. Weird, but that’s how they do it. Being one of the youngest riders in his age category presents the opportunity to check a gold, silver or bronze medal off his bucket list.

Packed and ready, Friday morning we drive the three and a half hours through the Land of Charles to Charles Town for the race. For you history buffs, Carolina is latin for Charles. The “Merry King” Charles granted the land of the Carolinas to his buddies but named it for himself. Then, his grateful friends, named the sea port Charles Town, which, obviously, eventually became Charleston. A liberal bastion in a conservative state, Charleston is known world wide for its gracious southern hospitality, beautiful historic district, jazz clubs and inspired regional cuisine. However, the area is chosen for the time trial, not for any of the above, but because it’s flat, flat, flat. Oh, yeah, the beaches are gorgeous, too.

After a yummy lunch of chicken and pasta in fresh tomato sauce at the Kings Street Grill, Martin and I head north on Highway 17 to find the time trial course. The 25 mile course starts at Seewee Outpost north of Charleston. Driving the highway, the first thing I notice is the lack of buildings and parking lots up against the street. Looking down the road, it appears you’re in the middle of no where, as all you see are towering pines and oaks with an occasional sign announcing a shopping center or business hidden behind the green space. These folks do not want an ugly view of brick, steel and asphalt. Whoever’s in charge of city planning is really in charge. The green space isn’t the usual landscaped facade put up after all the natural vegetation is bull dozed to oblivion, then burned or hauled away. It is the natural vegetation! It’s the green stuff Mother Nature put there. Under mature pines and oaks is what most folks would call scrub brush. Saplings, native grasses, Spanish bayonet, Dogwoods, vines, whatever Mother Nature dictates. And, peeking through the deep expanse of green, I spy the most beautiful Walmart I’ve ever seen. Yes, really. A Walmart in full brick, huge curved front wall and columned portico on its face.

Looking at all this, we somehow can’t find the Seewee Outpost. Well, maybe it’s because the navigator (me) is too busy looking at the great big nursery we pass. But, with all the green space, we zip right by the Outpost. Looking at our map on the iPad (no, we don’t have a GPS…we’re old fashioned that way), I know it should be on the edge of Francis Marion National Park. So, I tell Martin to pull into the Education Center of the park and I hop out to just, quick like a bunny, run in to ask where the Outpost is. Inside, the ranger tells me the Seewee Outpost is about a mile back on the right. As I listen to her I see a table filled with info on native plants, habitat building and attracting butterflies. When she finishes giving directions, I tell her how I’m a Master Gardener with an interest in native plants and ask if I can take some of the flyers. “Oh, I have something for you! Just come with me.” She says. So, I follow her into a back room where we keep chatting as she pulls open long, narrow drawers and starts handing me beautiful posters on slick paper. Posters of South Carolina wild flowers, edible plants, mushrooms and trees. By the time Martin starts worrying about me and comes inside to hunt me down, I have four posters, which the ranger and I are rolling up to secure with a rubber band. Did I mention Charleston is known for it’s southern hospitality? Saying goodbye to my new friend and wishing I had more time to spend at the Education Center, Martin and I drive back to the Seewee Outpost, buy some bottled water and then drive the time trial course so he knows what to expect with the terrain. It’s flat, Baby, flat. Before heading back to our hotel, we stop at the big nursery and, of course, I buy a plant.

Next morning race registration starts at 7 a.m. so we arrive at, you guessed it, 7 a.m. Martin registers. Then, we forage for breakfast. He’s #67. Time trial starts at 9 a.m. with a rider pushing off every minute. That translates into a start time of 10:06 for Martin. The wait begins. Back from breakfast, he wanders around talking to other riders and watching the first ones out of the gate while I start taking photos and log in to Facebook to post the event for our family and friends. The well wishes come rolling in. Finally, shortly after 9 Martin starts getting ready, squeezing into his, well, skintight skin suit. A 76 year old rider, the oldest person in the time trial, holds the bike for Martin as he gets into his shoes, shoe covers and tear drop helmet. Then, off he goes to warm up. I keep shooting photos and posting, family and friends engaged in our event as the “likes” and comments keep coming.

10:06 a.m. and he’s off! I won’t see Martin again for another hour plus a few minutes. So, I stand near the finish line, talking to other waiters as we listen to the officials shouting “rider coming in” and watch as each competitor pedals furiously toward the end. As the riders stop and talk to each other, I overhear comments about a 10-12 mile an hour wind. Headwind in both directions. How is that possible? One after the other, they report not their best times. As 11:10 turns into 11:15 and still no sign of Martin, my heart sags. His time is not what he expected. He probably won’t place. Yet, a part of me holds hope the riders talking about the wind interfering with their times represent all the riders. If everyone’s having slower times, Martin could still place. I remind myself he’s a winner no matter what, just for all the effort he put into training and then, showing up. But, I want him to place. I want him to proudly check this off his bucket list.

Finally, I see him. Even under the helmet and sunglasses, I can tell by the way he’s pedaling, he’s out of energy. Tired. Like every other rider, Martin summons a last ounce of will power and pedals furiously to the end as I snap a photo. Whizzing by me he pedals to the end of the road, turns around and comes back. He can hardly talk. Sweat pours down his red face. Is he shaking? Yes, he’s shaking. I ask if I can get him a water. He mumbles, “Later”, then, s-l-o-w-l-y rides back to the car. I stop at the water tent anyway where one of the officials gives me some type of energy drink. “He’ll like that”, the official tells me. As I hand Martin the drink, I see disappointment on his face. We talk about how his time wasn’t good and I tell him about the other riders’ comments about the wind. “Yes”, he says, “the wind was awful both ways.” I see a gleamer of hope in his eyes.

As Martin sips the energy drink, he recovers from the stress of the ride and walks down to the officials’ tent where they tell him they’re close to posting everyone’s time. He walks back to the car to tell me. Well, at least the wait will be over. Finally, at the tent, crowding around a board with all the other riders, Martin looks on the sheets of paper for his age category and name. Reading across, he sees it. And, next to his name under state ranking is the number 2! Wahoooooo! A silver medal. All smiles now, he finds me. “It’s official”, he says. “I’m the second fastest old man in the state.” Check.

REFLECTIONS IN GRAY

It was sitting in a restaurant watching a large group of retirees when I decided to stop dying my hair. The group was so large a half-dozen tables had been strung end on end so they could all sit together. I guessed the ages to range from early 60’s to late eighties. Quite a stretch. A bus outside told me they were on some type of tour and all seemed to be having a great time. They were laughing, talking and very loud, so boisterous they were hard to miss. As I watched them I noticed all the men and most of the women had some variance of salt and pepper. It was the women without gray who stood out. And, not in a good way. As my eyes searched the table, they rested on a woman who looked to be about 80. She had blond hair, the new gray. I’m not getting older; I’m just getting blonder. But, there was a disconnect. The deep lines of her face and her softly wrinkled neck and arms didn’t mesh with the blond hair. Looking at her gray-haired counterparts, I realized she looked like a caricature while the women in gray actually looked more fresh, more real, more attractive. As they departed, one woman sporting brown hair was helped from the table to a walker. Late eighties, at least. Big disconnect. My mind was screaming. As I sat there, I decided gray. I want to be authentic as I age, not a weird shadow of my youth.

That was more than two years ago and I’m still happy with my choice. Even before the restaurant encounter, there were a couple of things moving me in that direction. First, my hair was not color friendly. I’d gone from coloring every six weeks to every 5 weeks to every 4 weeks and finally, my stylist suggested every 3 weeks. Every 3 weeks!?! Why don’t I just move in with you and you can touch it up every day? Secondly, I loathed the process and the way I looked for the next couple of days until dye stuck to my hairline faded away. With every stylist I’d ever gone to, nothing irritated more than their telling me to put a little more foundation around my hairline before leaving the salon. Pancake anyone? Foundation is not hiding this stuff! The idea of spending yet more money to keep up appearances while going through an experience I didn’t find pleasurable in the least was, in my mind, just plain nuts. A friend suggested I color my own hair. Been there, done that, I told her. It was cheaper but even more unpleasant than having someone else color it and the color faded quicker than a New York minute, revealing shimmering strands all over my head within the first week.

My decision, however, affected others in ways I didn’t anticipate. I didn’t expect the reactions a gray-haired woman can invoke in our youth obsessed culture. Take, for example, the women I hardly know who continue to insist after two years, I am “too young to be gray”. Aside from the minor annoyance I feel along with biting tongue to refrain from telling them it’s really none of their blankety-blank business, I think their constant objections reveal more about them than it does about me. Does my decision threaten them as in does my gray head remind them of their own fading youth? After all, they are also gray. They’re just pretending not to be and thinking covering it up makes them look younger. Well, for a while it does.

Or, take the day I sat at a major intersection in the right lane which, while it went straight across, disappeared on the other side. As the first and only in line, I was betting my Mazda-3 could out accelerate the delivery truck to my left before the driver, whose lane didn’t disappear, even crossed the intersection. The lane on my right was a turn lane only. As I sat there, I noticed a BMW pull into it but not take the opportunity to turn right on red. You can imagine my surprise when, as the light turned green and I shot out of the gate in my little zoom zoom, from the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the BMW crossing the intersection next to me! What? And, just imagine as I zipped forward and into the left lane, how shocked and amused I was to look in my rear view mirror at the two young men in that car, trailing me, waving fists in the air and giving me the finger. Well, guys, I’m the one with the right of way. Then, I thought, did they think my gray hair meant I was slow? Did they think they could beat me across the intersection because I was old? Ha!

Conversely, I’ve also received lots of compliments on how good I look with gray hair. A little off-handed but, hey, a compliment none-the-less. I also receive more “yes, ma’am’s”, doors held for me by both men and women and carry out help. I shop a big box store where help lifting 40 pound bags of compost used to be hard to come by. Sporting a gray head gets me plenty of muscle these days. I do get some double takes and questions when someone checks my license against my new look. But, at least I know they’re really paying attention. There are also the complete strangers who ask me about my gray hair as they wonder out loud to me about how gray their own head is. With lots of brown still to be seen on my head, I’m not totally gray. I can tell by the look in their eyes and the wistful sound of their voices, they’d like to be free of the color continuum, too.

So, going gray has revealed some interesting moments. I could almost do a study about the social impact of aging with a gray head. Nahhhh. But, seriously, ditching the dye was a very personal decision. I decided the time was right for me at age 59. The right age for someone else may be 65 or 70 or 80 or never. Or maybe you’re one of the women who decided to never spend a dime on color right from the appearance of that first strand of gray hair. Lucky woman. You’ll never have to look in the mirror and wonder if it’s time.

KISS

When I decided to write a blog, I searched online for other retirement blogs. One of the blogs I encountered is earlyretirementextreme.com. This guy retired in his thirties and lives on $7,000 a year. That’s his half of living expenses. His wife kicks in her half adding another $7,000. So, the two of them live on $14,000 total. Although he insists he has a great life, living below the poverty level isn’t my idea of a fun time. He lives in an RV (I like my 2,300 square feet). He has a garden (me, too). Fixes a lot of his own broken stuff (Martin handles a lot of broken stuff for us). Reading about his life, however, does bring to mind a very important principle about life and retirement, in general. Using a sort of negative sounding cliche we’ve all heard from time to time describes it best for me…Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). The KISS principle was originally used by a Navy engineer who believed most systems operated most efficiently if kept simple in design. So goes our everyday life. At least that’s what works for me and that’s what I believe will continue to work best.

So when people continue to be incredulous about our early retirement and how we did it and are doing it, I now think KISS. Living a simple life isn’t living a life of denial. It isn’t living a life of poverty. It isn’t living a life in austerity. It’s living a THOUGHTFUL life. For example, today I had the pleasure of having my fifth grandchild with me all day. He’s four. Rather than plopping him on the couch to spend the day staring at the boob tube and feeding him junk, I thought what can we do that won’t cost a bundle and will be lots of fun.

What I don’t grow in my own garden, I buy in season from local farmers and freeze myself. Today in South Carolina strawberries are in season. My favorite place to buy strawberries is, where else, but Strawberry Hill, USA. A family owned fruit farm of several hundred acres of strawberry fields, peach orchards and blackberry patches, Strawberry Hill also offers up giant antique John Deere tractors for kids to sit on, farm tours and a family run cafe with a 1950’s feel and homemade ice cream to boot. Go another six miles down the road and you’ll find Cowpens National Battlefield where one of the decisive battles of the Revolutionary War was fought and a Junior Ranger Program promises badges, medals and education for kids of all ages. And, best of all, it’s free, though we usually push a donation through the slot of the box in the lobby. So, with a little thought I was able to pick up field fresh fruit at a bargain price, which will taste as great tonight with vanilla ice cream as it will next winter from the freezer and I entertained a four year old who went home with badge, Junior Ranger certificate and coloring book not to mention the big smile as he proudly handed strawberries to Mom. All for little money.

As I write this, I’m looking out the window at my beloved garden with flowers opening by the second, sipping a glass of white wine (yes, I write under the influence) and looking forward to Martin making fajiitas with beef smoked on the Green Egg, onions from the veggie garden and all the other fixings. Later, we’ll eat the fresh strawberries on ice cream and listen to the whippoorwill make his mournful call, bringing memories of Hank Williams singing on the record player at my parents’ home in New Jersey. The simple things in life.

So, whether you want to retire early or you want to retire at all, the best advice I can offer is to Keep It Simple Sisters and brothers. Keep it simple.

WHAT’S YOUR PASSION?

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For those of you who have been following my blog, you already know I live on six acres, a hobby farm of sorts. While I’m not a real farmer by any stretch of the imagination, I grow vegetables 365 days a year (you can do that in South Carolina) and have a home fruit orchard. What you may not realize is gardening is my passion. Not just food gardening but landscapes filled with flowers, shrubs, trees and whimsical garden art. Because spring has sprung and my passion has ignited, I will only be posting weekly during the high gardening seasons of spring and summer through to the first frosts of October. So, lets talk about passions. The kind that makes you want to roll out of bed everyday instead of hitting the snooze button.

Maybe you were one of the extremely fortunate who discovered their life’s passion at an early age, acted upon that knowledge and have lived your life not just making a living but actually living. Most are not so fortunate. I, for one, did not act upon my passion for writing. I did, however, act upon my passion for gardening, but kept it on the back shelf as a hobby instead of a means of earning a living. It’s when you work at whatever your passion in order to also put a roof over your head that you truly live your life. Although the gardening bug bit me in my twenties I couldn’t see myself giving up an established career pattern to start a landscaping business or go back to college to become a landscape architect. That was scary stuff. And, at the time, I was gutless.

A short time later, I came across a man, a doctor as in MD, who gave up his practice to pursue becoming a novelist. He’d always wanted to be a writer but his dad wanted him to be a doctor. So, he pursued his father’s dream, instead of his own dream only to find himself miserable after going to med school, interning, residency and establishing a practice. I have no idea if he was ever successful. I can’t even remember his name. But, I do remember his family was not supportive of his decision. His wife left him. His parents were bitterly disappointed. He pursued his passion anyway. And, that’s what it takes. Ignoring the wants and needs of everyone else, listening instead to your own heart. Selfish, you say? Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another may be looking at the selfishness of a parent who foisted their own wants upon a child to the point where the parent was so proud to brag about their son, the doctor, while ignoring the misery they visited upon that child.

While most of us don’t live our lives working at something we are passionate about and most of us don’t have the gumption to change course mid-stream, we do have a second chance in retirement to pursue our dreams. Retirement, by definition, is a conclusion, ending, termination of work life. Since most of us don’t work at our passion, maybe a more appropriate definition is the conclusion, ending, termination of the work life you dragged yourself to everyday because you had to make money. With that off the table, you can reignite your passions. Finding your passion, however, may be one of the hardest things for retirees to figure out. We’ve spent so much of our lives doing what we were supposed to do, we’re out of practice at figuring out what it is we want to do.

As mentioned, I pursued my passion for gardening for decades, living for the weekends, turning every yard we owned into a beautiful oasis. To Martin’s satisfaction, some of them were nearly devoid of grass. Translation…no mowing! So, ten years ago, when we started looking for property to build our “retirement home”, I knew turning it into an ever expanding garden would my life’s work. With the warming weather, I jump out of bed at the crack of dawn excited to get out there and dig in the earth. I rejoice at every thunder storm sprinkling nitrogen through the atmosphere into my garden. This spring I have divided every plant I could, spreading the wealth into new beds. I’ve seeded tray after tray of vegetables in anticipation of the warming days, planting seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and cucumbers yesterday along with blue potatoes. I’m also anticipating pulling the onions and garlic I planted last winter. This is what I live for!

For some, what I get excited about is hokey. But, it’s what ignites my soul. And that’s what counts. No matter where you are in life, retired, about to retire or far from it, dig down into the depths of your soul and find yourself and ignite your passion. Who are you really? Not who you think you are but who you feel you are. Not who your parents, partner, friends or society think you are or should be but who you want to be. Do the work to answer that question and I promise you will enjoy a more rewarding, fulfilling life. And you won’t need a snooze button. You won’t even need an alarm clock.