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.
In order to reinvent my life I must divest myself of fragments from my past. Like my best memories of Martin, I’m keeping the possessions, which are dear to me. I’m not seeking a minimalist lifestyle, but one honoring our past while giving breath to what lies ahead of me. Unlike past decluttering this one requires a wisdom imbued with greater purpose.
I had a longtime habit of cleaning out closets and drawers each January as my version of out with the old, in with the new. Somewhere along the path I’m on that annual ritual went by the wayside. When we sold our South Carolina house, I did a major declutter. Or, so I thought.
In preparation for the sale of my Michigan house, I began going through drawers and closets with the purpose of decluttering. As I cleared drawers of stuff, I also considered furniture, which won’t fit in my new smaller home. Lists of things to donate and items to sell forced me to realize I wasn’t decluttering; this was the big purge.
There were obvious items that must go, like Martin’s bicycle, gear and outfits along with sport coats, dress shirts, slacks, leather belts and shoes. No reason for any of it to languish in closets and cubbies when someone else could make good use of it. It took two weeks for me to act on selling Martin’s bike. I cleaned it, polished it and looked at it day in and day out. I felt frozen in time, slogging through quick sand. After mustering the courage to drop his clothing at Good Will, I felt relief. Then, a few hours later, came a serious meltdown as grief washed over me in a torrent of tears. Divesting myself of his belongings was accepting he would never walk through the door again. Once I was all cried out, I let go of the bicycle as well. It was a kind of release.
As I sort through our lifetime with a mostly clear head I didn’t have in 2019, I often ask myself why I paid to have this or that hauled from South Carolina. Taking a page from organizational expert Marie Kondo, so much of what I had didn’t spark joy. “Did it spark joy for me?”, became my precept, albeit one which is resulting in keeping a few things that may not evoke a modern farmhouse style. Looking at my Great-Great Aunt Josephine’s crystal jewelry box, I opened it. I lifted out a chestnut. Hard and brown my Mother carried it in her purse as a talisman. As I ran my fingers over its smooth rich decades old surface this memento from my Mother was now my symbol of juju, mojo, good luck. A practical woman, a strong woman, her spirit would help me push through this arduous task.
As with the chestnut, possessions carry energy in the memories they summon in our spirits. I looked at the five sets of dishes from the dinner group we belonged to in the 1990’s. I hadn’t needed nor used all this entertainment paraphernalia in decades. The dishes, napkins and rings, table clothes and serving dishes. In an epiphany I realized it was the memories I was holding onto, memories of those evenings when we gathered monthly to break bread. Fun nights like the mystery dinners where we dressed up as various characters in a whodunit. And then, there was the toga party where neighbors must have thought we were crazy traipsing through our garden, glasses of red wine in hand, with our guests, all of us dressed in bed sheets! I would keep the memories and some of the accoutrements, but it was time for most of the physical trappings to go.
Following my second car load of memories taken to Good Will the picture was becoming clear. There were certain objects, furniture, glass ware, keepsakes I would never part with. Antique pieces from both our families needed to stay with me a while longer. A few pieces of the furniture we bought during our marriage were now vintage, slightly marred with scratches or glass rings where a coaster went unused. There is no place for a couple of items in my to-be-built new home, but I’m making a place.
The large marble coffee table in the great room was originally on the chopping block. Then came the evening I sat in front of the fire place mindfully looking at its smooth surface and rough edges, the tiny scratches from grandchildren running toy cars across it along with a few water marks from spilled drinks. Martin and I had gone to The Street of Dreams charity event while living in Seattle. In an 11,000 square foot show house sat a marble coffee table dazzling us both. A couple weeks later Martin went on a motorcycle ride returning to announce he’d found such a table at Frederick and Nelson Department Store. He wanted to buy it. And so did I. I knew now I couldn’t part with it. It represented a joint purchase, a joint love of beautiful things. Though now imperfect with blemishes from nearly 40 years of use, this table also represents the joyous imperfection of our lives. As with ourselves, we looked upon the blemishes as character. There are possessions, which are just baggage. And, then, there are things, which warm my heart each day, that spark joy and must continue to color my life. Despite its ultra modern look the marble table stays.
As I empty the house of remnants of my past life I feel less overwhelmed, lighter, more forward looking. I’m honoring my past. And, making room for my future.
First I want to say, “THANK YOU” to all my loyal readers for staying with me. I humbly appreciate all of you as well as the kind comments and encouragement. For those of you on a similar journey as mine I wish you a clear path to ease your way forward. It will take some time for me to figure out WordPress all over again as they made many changes in my absence. Time, however, is what I have. My return to blogging is part of my self-care as I share my retirement story once again.
Most of us retire with deliberateness. We plan and dream. As I sit here writing with the serenity of lightly falling snow in my view, I think of all the plans Martin and I made. None of them included a life shattering illness. Yet, here I sit mapping a new retirement path. And dreaming.
As spring 2021 arrived with arrangements to place Martin in memory care, my doctor counseled me. Don’t make any major changes for at least a year. Do engage in a period of extended rest and self-care. After all, I was grieving and dealing with the attendant guilt, which comes with such a decision.
Seven months later I went straight into the deep end feet first with a major change. It felt right and still feels right. On the surface my actions appear to be on a whim, but I assure you much thought went into it.
I knew from the moment we bought this huge house I’m living in it was never going to be permanent. It was too big for the two of us, let alone just me. But, only five minutes from our daughter, it served its purpose. I had the nearby help and support I needed as a caregiver.
After placing Martin, as the months wore on, my mind turned to moving back to South Carolina with its mild winters. Then, there were the blazing summers. So, I thought about two homes, summers in Michigan and winters in South Carolina. Guilt over not visiting Martin for the months in South Carolina chewed at the edges of my heart. Even with Hospice attending now, his disease is so unpredictable. The end will come when it comes.
Yet, while recognizing the fluidity of our situation, I couldn’t help ruminating about my future. With winter approaching, I also realized I still loved living in a true four season climate. Wandering online through homes for sale in both markets, hot markets where nothing remained for sale for very long, I found my future.
Following a visit to Martin one sunny day this past fall, I drove down a pothole riddled road in dire need of replacing. Forget repairing it. The asphalt was beyond mending. But, I noticed the nice homes, the small farms and the seemingly never-ending acreage of a very large farm. Surprisingly, I was only five minutes from a desirable village where I had established relationships with doctors, dentist, a bank and a few businesses.
A large wooden For Sale sign heralded the two acres I came to see. Flanked on one side by freshly painted red barns and the original white farm house, my neighbor’s property looked like a beautiful greeting card. Idyllic. My acreage – I was already calling it mine – was a long and narrow meadow with oaks lining the frontage. I could picture the meadow dotted with wildflowers and paths for walking. And gardens around the house. Gardens with lavender and thyme and rosemary and vegetables in summer.
Wanting to stick with my doctor’s advice, however, I hesitated even after my daughter affirmed, “Mom you should buy this.” Even after my builder son-in-law seconded her motion. Instead I looked at other properties and communities. Self-doubts about what to do floated in and out of my mind.
Eventually, I realized artificial deadlines were exactly that. Yes, I bought it! I determined to forego the one year moratorium on major decisions. This property, this place called to me as no other in my life. It had been on the market for two years just waiting for me. There had been other offers, but mine was the one the sellers accepted. I was giddy with a renewed sense of excitement for my retirement.
Though bittersweet, I dream of the small house my son-in-law will build for me and the wildflowers in the meadow. I’m working on a plan with an architect. A modern farmhouse look, it will be just the right size for my needs. I plan to sit on my back porch with good friends and family and my cats and good wine and great music. And writing and drawing and, of course, gardening.
Oh, the road? Well, I tried to drive down it one day to find heavy equipment being used to tear up the old road before building a new one. Potholes no more. Instead, my new road for my new beginning.
It’s one day short of a year since I last posted. I promise not to stay away so long in the future. That said, fair warning, this is not a cheery, Happy New Year post. It is a post recognizing the pain of my/our year amidst a global pandemic. It is also a post about hope and faith, for without those, we are lost.
As we enter our third year with Covid laying over the globe in a pall like a soft haze cloaking what was once normal life, we struggle to make sense of it all. For me, 2021 became a raging battle with grief as I placed Martin into a memory care home. It was no doubt the worst day of both our lives.
Over the months which followed, I watched Martin decline further into oblivion. My grief over the loss of his personhood, that citadel of self, grew in so many unexpected, public ways. I was surprised at the depth of my anger, the feelings of profound loss, immediate, primary, secondary, anticipatory. Unrelenting spirit robbing emotions. My anger was so prevalent I initially thought there was something wrong with me. This is where grief counselors, social workers and doctors come in. Along with feelings of helplessness, sadness, loneliness and depression, anger is a very normal emotion of grieving.
Viewing news clips of people acting out in various ways over restrictions fostered by Covid, I understood, even as the pandemic took a backseat to my private sorrow. I say private. However, like those tearful or angry people on the news, my sorrow, feelings of loss, of no control, of loneliness declared itself in what’s known as grieving out loud. The downside of grieving out loud is the revelation of our society’s discomfort with the emotions of grief. Judgment abounds, even within our pandemic worn medical community. In my grief I’ve been characterized as “too emotional”.
However, even when grief is publicly displayed, it is personal. We each grieve in our own way, in our own time. For example, to someone who grieves in a cognitive way, volunteering may help them find solace. But, for someone grieving out loud, volunteering may cause the grief to be internalized and never resolved. For caregivers in specific, it may be trading one caregiving role for another. I’ve given myself permission to grieve for as long as it takes, engage in a period of extended self-care and rest, and most importantly, not internalize my feelings due to societal expectations and discomfort.
Knowing this, I would like to wrap my arms around the big wide world in a huge hug of comfort and reassurance. Grief is about what was lost, what is and what may have been. Grief is complicated. While the world seems to be roiling in madness, grief is not a negative. We may not be comfortable with the public displays of grief we see and hear, yet these emotions can give way to a better world. Grieving is necessary for our mental, emotional and spiritual selves to recover our lives and move forward. I have hope both for myself and our global community. Hope lights our path to the future.
As I strive to light my pathway I have faith we, as humans, can transcend beyond the seeming hopelessness of our current situation. As a species, we have overcome so many things in our past including other pandemics and epidemics. Gathering strength from the lost past I mourn, I have faith we can collectively emerge with greater strength and resilience.
In the midst of uncertainty, let us go into 2022 with hope and faith. Faith that humanity will conquer this dark time. Hope for a better day than we ever imagined. Faith in the resilience of the human spirit. Hope for overcoming what appears insurmountable at this moment. Faith that we can care for ourselves and each other with kindness, forgiveness and comfort. Hope for turning our grief into renewed meaning and purpose.
As we look to the New Year, let us embrace it together with hope and faith.
A year ago I was busy thinking about a Word Of The Year (WOTY) to define my personal tempo for 2020. I eventually chose the word “engage”. In retrospect it should have been “acceptance”. I think we can all accept 2020 as a tumultuous year requiring acceptance of so many changes to our way of life, as a Black Swan of massive proportions, altered everything we accepted as normal.
Yet, on this last day of 2020, I sit by the fire looking out a window at birds fluttering around the feeders. Snow melts off the hill. A pot of three bean turkey chili bubbles on the stove. Portia cat insists on snuggling against my thigh while my laptop occupies her usual space. Miles Davis plays softly in the background. I’m writing again. I feel better than I have in years. This peace was a long time coming in an unpredictable year.
Staying faithful to my WOTY, as January gave way to February I arranged for home care help, allowing me a weekly respite to engage with my new community. During January I joined several local organizations for both Martin and me. I planned for yoga and art classes at the Community Center as well as a bookclub. Being the social creature I am, I reveled in the anticipation of making friends. I similarly planned for longer timeouts from caregiving starting with an April spa visit and winery tour at The Grand Traverse Resort. That was to be followed in June with a long trip to storied Mackinac Island.
Then, as we all know, the unthinkably devastating bug known as Covid-19 took over our lives. By early March I became a presumed positive as a local hospital triaged me. There weren’t enough test kits for everyone. Tests were reserved for the worst cases. Mine was mild. Having spent January recovering from bronchitis using a regimen of Prednisone, my doctor later suggested the steroids may have made the difference. Regardless, the experience heightened my awareness of the consequences of the virus. I canceled the trips and home care help. The Community Center shuttered its doors. During the next month we went nowhere, saw no one, excepting our daughter dropping off groceries.
Yet here I sit feeling peace, serenity. I could ask the rhetorical question of why, but I know why. Acceptance. I’m paraphrasing here, but the Dalai Lama said if you can’t find a solution to a problem, then the solution is acceptance. It took me several months to accept even the idea of acceptance. I don’t like change anymore than anyone else. I mentally kicked and screamed a lot. As a result, the thought of acceptance steeped in my consciousness for quite some time before the morning in late November when I awoke to feeling lighter, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.
In the months previous, there were plenty of days playing victim, especially as Martin declined. Feeling emotionally defeated by his disease, wanting to think about anything but that, I indulged myself with negative thoughts about the state of the world, political divisions within the United States, my inability to focus long enough to write anything other than my journal, how much I hated the style of the house we bought, missed my South Carolina social life and anything else that came to mind. But, whenever I have felt this way in my life, I get moving physically. And, that’s what I did.
Despite feeling exhausted after recovering from Covid, I stripped more wallpaper and painted more rooms. I’m becoming quite good at painting walls and ceilings. Looking at the ceilings one day I realized the great room ceiling showed a huge leak coming from the master bath above. I didn’t know whether to cry or do the happy dance. The bath was in dire need of updating. Old toilet plumbing caused the leak. Ick! While I saw dollar signs, lots of them, if the floor had to be torn up, I also saw an opportunity to replace the entire bathroom. I went shopping. Mostly virtually but also in person to a showroom open by appointment only. As a bargain hunting enthusiast I was thrilled to leave paying 20% of retail price for floor models, which just happened to fit my plan.
My son-in-law, the builder gutted the master. In the process, we could see mold where the leak found its way into the hall. Ick! Ick! Carpet was ripped up. New hardwood and tile flooring was laid. My oldest granddaughter ran the table saw while my son-in-law and grandson laid flooring. I tried not to think about the cost.
While the interior was being completed, I stained and sealed the front porch deck. Another new house maintenance experience for me. Then, I began digging out the old gardens, dividing plants to spur renewal and settling them into spaces more attuned to their needs. Martin helped with the gardening, moving soil, digging holes and spreading mulch. By this time I had lost 15 pounds. Yippee! And, the style of the house was being transformed. I was beginning to like it.
By the end of August I finally had a much needed respite. Not 15 minutes from the house I rented a cabin from Michigan State University. Quite by accident I discovered the rentals in an email from the MSU Bird Sanctuary. With about 4,000 acres bequeathed to MSU by W.K. Kellogg, it’s used for various types of research including the Kellogg Research Center on beautiful Gull Lake. The Center boasts the former mansion of W.K. Kellogg along with three cabins for rent on a private beach head. I rented Cabin A, took long walks in the research gardens, swam in white sandy bottomed Gull Lake, laid in the sun. Best of all, thanks to Covid, I was the only guest. However, these pleasant surroundings sans caregiving duties renewed me for but a few days.
Upon my return home I was struck by another virus. Sent to the ER for a Covid test, which came back negative, I received the dubious diagnosis of having a virus of the brain or spinal cord. After a week of fever, stiff neck, excruciating headache, extreme exhaustion and soaked sheets, I recovered.
Also, Martin’s neurologist, for many reasons, recommended committing him to assisted living. During a pandemic? With people dying in residential facilities? My soul and heart screamed, “Noooooo.” But my mind and body started going through the process of finding a suitable residence.
Still tired in every way imaginable, by late September, my frayed emotions gave way to a cosmic meltdown. Geez. The loss of my husband to his dying brain, the move to another state, my illnesses, the isolation, the worldwide pandemic, the division within my country all collapsed inward on me. Logically, I knew I was better off than so many in so many ways. That didn’t help. I felt guilty for feeling this unshakable sorrow. A pall settled over my immediate world. But days of crying, introspection, journaling did help.
As I settled upon an assisted living residence, an entry date was chosen. It was to be a Wednesday. I would have scheduled weekly visits as long as I had no Covid symptoms. Then the Thursday prior to admission, I received a call from the Executive Director. They were in lockdown due to a Covid outbreak. Of 20 residents in the building, 14 had Covid. Although there were separate apartments, communal meals and activities allowed it to spread. Subsequently, even after the residence was cleared of Covid, I made the decision to keep Martin home until there was widespread vaccinating.
If you can’t find a solution to a problem, then the solution is acceptance. We are universally in a difficult situation. Some days it’s intolerable. We all have a story about how the pandemic has upended our lives. Though isolated, we are not alone.
Although I spent many months attending to my material surroundings, what I miss most is not material. I miss other people. The material things were just to occupy time. It’s the touch of a hand, a real hug, not a virtual one, a smile not hidden by a mask, a meeting over lunch with friends, sharing thoughts about a recently read book or another students work of art. That’s what I miss. I accept it may be a while longer before those acts are again normal.
Yes, for 2021 my word is acceptance. Within that word lies inner peace and outer calm, the capacity to be comfortable with oneself, the freedom to look at our current state with an open mind.
In a word YES, we are the captains of our happiness.I’m not going to offer up platitudes here about life handing you lemons and you mix up some lemonade.There is value in sucking on the lemon for a while.Identifying, then unloading negative emotions clears our mental outlook.That said, what I am going to offer up are a few actions which help me get back to happiness after swallowing the lemon whole.
As we travel through life, our time on Earth is fraught with lots of gloomy events — a serious illness, a job layoff, an economic downturn.The list of negative life events and negative people can go on and on.Even something as simple as the weather — rain, a snow storm, a sunny day are occurrences we can’t control, yet may effect our outlook. What we can control is our mindset.
I will quote this truism, known as the Serenity Prayer.For me, it proves a potent reminder of the power of acceptance.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Engaging in what I call mind-spinning, worrying about what may come, drains us of energy and leads to nothing.Whatever is going to happen will happen whether we worry about it or not.Better to not worry about it at all.
This morning I re-visited my gratitude journal from seven years ago.Looking back at my life including my strengths, skills and accomplishments put me in a state of confidence, which led to a blissful feeling.Over the years I learned a gratitude journal can do wonders for shifting my mindset to one of positivity, abundance and happiness.
For anyone seeking happiness, start journaling daily, listing what is good about your life.Whether it’s a beautiful sunrise or sunset, the sighting of a blue bird in your yard, a child’s laugh at the grocery store, even a rain shower or a postcard view of a winter storm.Anything from what appears to be a minor, trivial thing to an awesome event, write it down.
Take inventory of your personal assets.I’m not talking about your material assets.As mentioned above look at your abilities, skills, strengths, those assets.That’s the stuff that got you this far and will take you through the remainder of your journey.Hopefully, you are still growing, expanding those assets.If not, cultivate curiosity about the world around you.
For many of us, we often associate happiness with occasions like buying a new car, shopping for a new outfit, taking a dream vacation, getting a promotion.That brand of happiness is momentary.The new car smell wears off, the outfit becomes last year’s style, the dream vacation but a memory.And promotions?Well, it’s lonely at the top.
It’s recognition of the everyday simple things, which provide a feeling of well-being.We can view our lives as one of scarcity or one of abundance.What we need to survive is basic food, clean air and water, shelter, clothing and a good night’s sleep.Everything else is an abundant life.
While I don’t want to hang my happiness on someone else’s happiness, it makes me feel light-hearted to do a good deed for someone.Volunteering for a favorite cause or just helping someone out through a chance meeting provides a shot of happiness.Recently, at the entrance to a building, I encountered a frail woman using a walker as she approached a car at the curb.Thinking she may need a hand getting into the car, I stopped and asked if I could help.Just then two young men stepped out from behind a thick column.I hadn’t seen her entourage. Their wide smiles and thank you’s for stopping lifted my spirits.And, all I did was offer assistance.
Along with not depending on someone else’s happiness to define your own, refrain from comparing yourself to others.In our social media world that is sometimes difficult to achieve.A number of people have mentioned how they only put positive aspects of their lives on Facebook as they want FB to be a fun place to visit.The downside to that view is other people begin thinking you have a lemonade life.No one is without a few lemons.It is a wonderful life, but no person has only good times.Keep that in mind when you feel the urge to compare.
If there is one truly important lesson I learned as a caregiver, it’s take care of yourself.In order for the good times to out weigh the negative, put some self-inflicted joy in your life.Do what makes you feel happy.Get out for a walk, join a gym, take a class, lose yourself in art, create a network of friends, meet someone for coffee or lunch, tour a museum or arboretum, get a massage, a manicure.I recently learned my supplemental health insurance policy covers gym memberships 100%!Now that’s a benefit to be happy about.A local college offers a 60 minute massage by an advanced student for only $20.Look for the happiness perks in your world.
No one is going to create happiness for you.As the Dalai Lama says, “Happiness is not ready-made.It comes from your own actions.”We are the captains of our happiness.
Fifty years ago today my mother gave me permission to accompany my brother, Rick and sister, Dianne on a trip to Washington, DC.It was my sixteenth birthday.Rick was driving south from our Jersey Shore home to see his future wife as she visited her sister living in Maryland.I hopped up and down with excitement at the thought of seeing cherry blossoms in bloom along the Potomac and all those monuments.
Concerning my missing a school day, my mother said she’d write an educational excuse, meaning my absence should be excused because a visit to our nation’s capitol enhanced my learning experience.At that moment neither of us could imagine how educational it would prove to be.It wasn’t until early evening that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Tennessee.
The following morning as we three drove to Oxon Hill, Maryland I watched Rick or Dianne intermittently fiddle with the radio dial in an effort to keep up with the news.From my back seat perch I listened as reporters announced riots breaking out across the country, including turmoil in Washington, DC.Should we turn around and go back home?No, we decided to continue on to our destination.It was a somber ride as we pondered the implications of King’s murder, the riots, an impassioned plea from Bobby Kennedy to choose peace over violence.
In Oxon Hill we saw peace, but plumes of smoke rose in the distance as something burned in Washington, DC.The door to the apartment where my brother was staying was opened by a man holding a pistol.I wasn’t afraid.Everything but the gun and the smoke in the distance seemed normal.Yet nothing was normal.It wasn’t going to be the weekend I or anyone in the nation anticipated.
As we heard about destruction and people running in the streets, I never did go into Washington, DC.The riots were quelled by Sunday when Rick and my sister-in-law to be went to church there.Deemed too dangerous for me, I stayed behind with Dianne.Upon their return, they reported soldiers lining the streets to keep the peace.I wished I’d seen that.
Back at school on Monday, I handed my excuse to my homeroom teacher.He looked at it, then at me.“What did you see?”Nothing I told him.There were riots.Without a hint of sarcasm in his voice, he said, “I guess that was educational.”He looked so serious.It was a serious time with more to come.
February has been a month of new experiences. Martin and I spent last week at John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC where we took an art class in enameling. As artists this was a departure from our usual drawing, painting, carving — more living on the edge.
Taking Highway 11, also known as Cherokee Scenic Highway, across Upstate South Carolina, we meandered into the twisty back roads of North Carolina sometimes wondering if our GPS was really working. Highway 11 dumped us onto Whitewater Falls Road and so on and so on until signs of civilization markedly diminished.
I carried with me a copy of Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. As we snaked through the winding turns past dilapidated homes littered with rusted skeletal remains of cars and whatnot, I felt like I had entered the Appalachia described in Vance’s book. Martin and I wondered out loud how the inhabitants made a living. We encountered little traffic, and that which we did seemed to not care about speed limits or centerlines. Finally, after almost 3 hours on the road, out of seemingly nowhere, the school rose before us on a sparsely wooded hilltop. This was our home for the next several days.
Welcome to our room
JCC Folk School is an experience in itself. The accommodations consist of several homes spread across the rolling terrain within the Nantahala National Forest below the Smoky Mountains. Most likely describing the burning off of morning fog, Nantahala is Cherokee for “land of the noonday sun”.
The guest quarters along with assorted art studios, a dining hall, gift shop (of course), JCC history building and rustic offices for staff make up the campus. The main building also includes several rooms for evening events such as trivia games, square dancing and fiddle playing as well as the daily “morning song” of story telling and singing. Everything is very regimented with defined mealtimes announced by the ringing of a bell at the dining hall. There is not only six hours of studio time with instruction during the day, but many instructors also open their studio for evening work as well.
The houses are retrofitted into hotel type sleeping quarters. However, as we were told at Sunday afternoon orientation, this is not the Holiday Inn. There is no room service, in-room coffee pot or housekeeping to tidy up your room and make your bed every day. There are no phones, TVs or blow dryers and ironing boards. Wi-fi is weak and cell phone service is spotty. We were advised to drive a little further up the hill to a local church graveyard if we absolutely needed to make a call. There is a bin in every room with ‘towel exchange’ written on it. Towel exchange occurs on Wednesday. Oh, and there are no keys to the rooms. That’s right…no keys! You can lock your door with a dead bolt once inside. Valuables can be placed in a safe at the office. Talk about living on the edge, stepping outside your comfort zone; I found unlocked doors a little creepy.
Sunday night we were introduced to our instructor, Charity Hall (CharityHall.com), a guest teacher of enormous talent. Her equally talented assistant, Paul Roche is an artist-in-residence. We also received an overview of the studio along with a sampling of Charity’s work — beautiful pieces of art. Ovens that would be heated in the morning to 1500 degrees lined one wall. Jars of powdered colored glass filled plastic tubs. Each student had a kit we inventoried. A couple of the seven students had previous experience, but most were novices like Martin and me.
Martin paints a switch plate after enameling
An exercise in frustration for me, our first full day I sought only to keep up with understanding the process for enameling a piece of copper. Forget the artistry! I was overwhelmed. There were so many steps and they varied depending on the piece you chose to create — hammering, burnishing, wet stoning, filing, using saws and a drill. My more scientific husband was able to take the annealing, melting, pickling and various substances all in stride. The safety precautions alone set me back as I cautiously used the ever-clicking ovens and set timers for only two minutes to melt the glass into enamel. Fifteen hundred degrees is glowing hot!
Following dinner at 6 many students returned to the studio. A mentally exhausted me went back to our room to enjoy a glass of wine (no alcohol is allowed anywhere on campus but the rooms), take a shower, read a few pages of Hillbilly Elegy before tucking myself into bed at 8 p.m.
Next morning Martin walked to the main building to fetch coffee in our brought-from-home mugs. We sat with the blinds open enjoying the scenery of the notoriously foggy mountains and sipping hot coffee before heading to the dining hall for breakfast. As a gardener I much appreciated the five minute walk through the daffodil speckled woods each morning. Emerging at the main campus we were greeted with dusky purple, pink and green hellebores and tiny crocus among the periwinkle.
Kathy’s enameled fall leaves
After a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, fresh fruit and biscuits, we wandered down another path to the studio, me feeling more like I could grasp the intricacies of enameling, Martin ready for a larger project. By the end of this day, I was still living on my personal edge but approaching a certain comfort with the process as I produced some amazing pieces of art. Along with my comfort came confidence. Exhilarating!
While we, as human beings often shy away from any experience making us feel uneasy, with practice and patience (not one of my strong points) comes comfort. Stretching our abilities is the only way to continue stretching our minds and emotions at any age. Good stress creates a great life. Yes, February was a month of new experiences, of feeling overwhelmed at times and definitely uncomfortable. But, it was also a month for adventure and growth. As I look at what I accomplished this month, I don’t feel retired; I feel reawakened. And I look forward to more living on the edge.
After announcing last week that I was only posting once a month, some of you wrote to suggest I re-post older blogs and others talked about searching my archives. I thought you had a good idea (thank you) and decided to re-post older blogs. This post originally appeared February 28, 2013.
I receive a monthly e-newsletter from an organization called care.com. Care provides all kinds of services…babysitting, tutors, pet sitters, senior care, housekeeping and more. I originally signed up with them for pet sitting for when we are away on our jaunts. Until recently I didn’t pay much attention to any of the other topics. But, a couple of days ago I received their newsletter including an article titled, “A Checklist for Aging in Place”. Thinking we intend to age in place as opposed to a retirement or assisted living community, I thought this is a must read for me. But, when the author started talking about walkers, wheel chairs, tripping hazards and the inability to drive a car, I immediately jumped to, “Wow, this isn’t me! At least not yet. I’m not a senior.”
Granted, when we built our house 12 years ago, we built it with the idea of aging in place. With an eye to the far, far away future and the help of our builder, we came up with an open floor plan one story with wide hallways, a huge walk-in shower with bench, and very few steps to the outside areas. According to a 20 year study by the US Census Bureau, 90% of baby boomers are planning, just as we have, to age in place.
But, back to the article. It made me realize there is a huge expanse of years involved when we talk about seniors. My point here is there are so many different stages a person can go through during a fifty year expanse of time that the term senior cannot possibly be all encompassing. In fact, the dictionaries I checked all define seniors as being elderly, on a pension and over either 60 or 65 years of age. Elderly is further defined by Merriam-Webster as “rather old” with synonyms like aged, geriatric, unyoung, ancient, over-the-hill (really!). As someone who goes out on my property and cuts down dead trees with a chainsaw, I do not consider myself elderly! Further, I know people in their seventies and eighties who I wouldn’t look upon as elderly. And, I doubt they view themselves as elderly.
Before age 50 I always thought of seniors as 17 or 18 year olds in their last year of high school. Then, when I reached 50 and saw how many times in our societal order of things, age 50 is referred to as being “senior” I thought this is too young an age to be considered a senior. Ditto for age 55. Now that I’m 64 and hitting my stride I question the entire use of the terms senior and elderly just as I do retiree and retirement.
As Bob Dylan, who just won the Nobel Prize in Literature at age 75, once crooned, the times, folks, they are a changin’. According to the last census, it’s estimated by 2017 there will be more 65 year olds in the US than kids under 5. And, by mid-century there will be approximately 600,000 centenarians. So, if you become a senior at 50 and live to be 100, that’s your second half of life! Instead of seniors, retirees, elderly, this age group should be called “second lifers”. Or, maybe we shouldn’t be defined at all.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Tell me, what do you think a senior is?