Thursday, July 14, 2011


Sitting on the screened-in back porch of my house makes me feel like a child sitting in a tree house. Situated one story above ground level, I can almost touch the leaves of the oak trees that embrace me on three sides. I am no longer a child. I am 65 years old and was lucky to find this house almost nine years ago. The house where I lived for 27 years prior to moving here was the home where I lived the hectic life of wife, mother of two sons, hard-working educator and active community citizen. After my divorce, I knew I had found the right house when I saw the back yard of this property. The abundance of trees in a natural wooded area that backed on my house gave me all the natural beauty and all the privacy that I needed. Unless a tree falls in a storm (as it did the first year I lived here) I have very little maintenance in the back of the house. Instead, I have a personal sanctuary for admiring the noble beauty of the tall stately oaks, tulip poplars and pine trees, a veritable nature preserve where squirrels chase each other in spirals around the trunks of the trees and birds sing to each other as they fly from branch to branch. The light in the trees changes as many times as there are hours in the day. Less than ½ mile from my porch are the Civil War battlefields that make this part of Virginia a celebrated and reverent reminder of the history of our country.

When I awoke this morning, I made myself a cup of tea and came out to sit on the porch with my Siamese cat Coco Chanel. The teak rocking chair in the outer corner of the porch is her favorite resting place. She is now 17 years old and doesn’t prance around like she used to do. Most of her time is spent sleeping but her ears still perk up at the sound of a bird or the sudden splashes of light as the rays of the morning sun move through the canopy of trees overhead. I am amazed at the change in temperature. Yesterday it was 98 degrees. After last night’s thunderstorm, this morning it is a brisk 68 degrees, forcing me to go back into the house to get a light wrap to cover my shoulders and bare arms.

For eight or nine months of the year, I make use of my humble perch in the woods. But the sweetest time is summer. In the distance I hear the steady humming of traffic from the nearby boulevard, as well as the slightly louder but not unpleasant sound of a lawn mower two houses away. The blowing of the train whistle reminds me that the larger world is passing through, making it easier for me to take off on unexpected adventures. It’s a peaceful way to spend the day, just close enough to hear the sounds of the town but secluded enough to feel protected and safe. Even the sound of the fire truck that I hear in the distance provides a sense of comfort despite the alarm it sounds. It reminds me that I am part of a community that is prepared for the emergencies that are part of everyday life.

I wonder how long I, like Coco Chanel, will be content to stay here and be enfolded in the security of my surroundings. I can already feel the pull of the hours passing. I have tasks to be accomplished today that will tear me from the peace and harmony which bless me this morning. Just as Coco moves from her perch on the rocking chair to join me on the soft cushions of my porch furniture, I feel the urge to reach out for the warmth and companionship of another. But I hesitate. I’m not sure if the presence of another being would add to or reduce the sense of peace that I feel. My Coco knows that she will get from me exactly what she needs—a stroke on the neck, a scratch on the back, and the warmth of a soft lap. If only we could count on that same sense of reassuring comfort and unconditional love from all those who touch our lives. Don’t we all yearn for companionship? But at what price?

Friday, January 7, 2011


My new year’s resolution this year is to be a better friend. There are advantages to living in one community for the majority of one’s adult life. One of these is the opportunity to develop friendships that span not only many years but also many aspects of our lives. In any community, there are hundreds of folks who make it a better place to live through every day large and small acts of friendship. For what is a community if not a place where people feel safe and welcome and valued? A friendship is a treasure that requires time, care, attention and nurturing. I can think of countless everyday actions that have strengthened the bonds that connect my friends with me, both when I was the recipient and when I was the giver.

Through participation in a variety of civic and social opportunities, it is easy to develop multiple circles of friends. For example, I have my church friends, my professional friends, my parenting friends, my service organization friends, my gym friends, my reading club friends, my good neighbor friends, my fellow martini-sipping friends and my all-around funny, free spirit friends. I have friends whom I admire intensely for their good and charitable works in the community and I have friends with home I can laugh my head off and not be embarrassed if my laughter is too loud. I have friends who astound me with their wit and those who inspire me by their insight and compassion. I have been greatly influenced by friends who have supported me in my times of trial and who have allowed me to share in their own times of crisis as well as celebrate in their times of joy. In fact, I like to think that the person who I am today is the sum total of all my relationships and encounters.

In addition to resolving to be a better friend, I think it is important to take the time to say thank you to friends who have been companions to me through so many phases of my life’s journey. For example, I have friends who have volunteered to pick me up at the train station or the airport; offered to pick up my mail while on a trip; come to my rescue and comforted me when my precious pet got loose in the neighborhood and went missing for 48 hours; understood when I had to bow out of a social engagement because I needed to care for an elderly parent; brought me hot soup when I was ill or sipped hot tea with me when I was grieving; helped me fix the leak in the bathroom sink; encouraged me to take risks and to follow my passions; walked with me; talked with me; shared my love of lectures, books, concerts, gardening, and classic films; sat with me when I had the blues and patiently waited until I came out of them, without judging or offering unsolicited advice; allowed me to share my deepest fears, joys, and confidences; invited me to join them in special activities that I otherwise might never get to experience; demonstrated their trust in me by asking for my help on a project or a problem; given me an honest opinion when I needed it; let me know tactfully and lovingly when my behavior was less than stellar.

Along with me, consider yourself truly blessed if you can say that you have similar friends in your life. Then ask yourself if you are the friend that your friends need. Are you serving as your friends’ sounding board, trusted companion, confidant, and cheer-leader? Are you the friend in the examples above? I know I have lots of room for improvement and I thank all my friends for forgiving my shortcomings. I’ll try harder this year.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My Reading Life: Time for the Pursuit of Personal Passions

When I think back upon my earliest years growing up in the small town of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, my most vivid memories are of walking with one of my sisters or my brother the three blocks to the town library. In the early fifties, parents could allow their children to walk unaccompanied without fear of abduction or another equally horrendous fear of parents today. I walked freely, carrying my borrowed treasures under my arm, taking in the happy sounds of the rippling brook that ran parallel to King Street, and looking forward to the new treasures I was sure to find in my beloved library.

The library in Shepherdstown was located literally in the center of the small town with a population of just about one thousand people. Located at the intersection of the main street, German Street, so named for the original German settlers, and King Street, the library was directly across from the entrance to the small college in town, and sat right in the middle of King Street, so that all traffic had to go around the library, creating a miniature traffic circle, with the library in the middle of the circle. In my child’s eyes, the library had to be the most important building in town; otherwise, why would it occupy this most central spot? Upon entering what looked like a two story house, I experienced the feeling of being welcomed into the living room of a kind, generous neighbor whose doors were always open and who was willing to share of her riches with all who entered.

This combined anticipation of adventure and discovery along with the very real sense of comfort and safety that I experienced inside the rooms of the library are the most likely source of my life-long love affair with reading. Books were my magic carpet. Through the avenues of hard-bound volumes of sheets of paper covered with words, sentences, poems and stories, I was able to venture beyond the borders of life as I knew it into the lives of people and places that inspired a great sense of curiosity and ambition that I may never have known otherwise.

I still own a copy of my all-time favorite children’s book, Madeline. The opening lines of the story, “In an old house in Paris, all covered with vines, lived twelve little girls, in two straight lines,” along with the picture of those twelve little beds in the orphanage in Paris are forever engraved on my mind. As I grew older, I was drawn to read biographies. I remember in particular a series of orange hard bound biographies of famous people such as Helen Keller, Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Jane Adams and Marie Curie that made me think that I too could make some great contribution to the world. Then, I discovered the Nancy Drew series, about the strong-willed teenager who allowed me to join her in the world of mystery and intrigue. As a middle schooler and high schooler, my tastes inevitably changed. Does any girl forget her first reading of Gone with the Wind? Or The Diary of Anne Frank? In high school, I remember being one of the few students in my class who was excited to get a new reading assignment in English class. How could reading the story of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter ever be considered as work, I wondered.

Now, four decades later, in my retirement, I am in the position of being able to partake in the sheer luxury of reading whatever and whenever I please. Whether it be sitting on the chaise lounge on my back porch in the summertime listening to the chirping of the birds or the humming of the neighbor’s lawn mower, or curled up in the folds of a warm comforter in winter, reading affords me the opportunity to do two things I love at the same time, i.e., to immerse myself in a great story and to spend quality time with my 17-year-old Siamese cat.. Miss Coco is always right there in my lap, sometimes sitting directly on the pages of my book, or otherwise obstructing the line of vision for reading, requiring frequent cuddling and gentle readjusting of the seating arrangement in order for me to get to the end of an episode or chapter.

In the past two years I have read dozens of books, mostly fiction. One of the many goals I set for myself in my retirement was to catch up on all the novels and movies that I had not had time to read or see while I was working full-time in a profession that demanded nearly as much time outside of the regular work-day as during the work-day. Why am I so passionate about my books? Is it the pure distraction and escapist pleasure derived from engaging with real or fictional characters who find themselves in any of a myriad of true to life conflicts or moral dilemmas which probe the depths of human nature? Or is it because the act of reading, and really engaging with a book, keeps the mind active, one of the most frequently cited secrets to fighting aging? It’s probably both, and then, the icing on the cake is the opportunity to follow up what some call a solitary pastime with a group of like-minded folks, in my book clubs, with lively discussions and sharing of reactions to the reading, therefore furthering the insights into the book and simultaneously, forging new friendships.

I realize that everyone is not as enamored of reading as I am, but most of us have a secret passion that had to be set aside during the thirty or more years of working to earn a living. What was your passion? Have you taken advantage of this phase of your life to pursue a long-repressed pursuit? Or have you ventured out into new areas of self-discovery that you didn’t even know existed since your retirement? In either case, isn’t it great to have lived long enough to pursue these self-indulgent pleasures or equally creative new opportunities for self-discovery?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Choices, choices!

It’s been longer than I’d like to admit since I wrote on my blog. We are all creatures of habit, and once we establish a habit or get out of a habit, it’s very hard to break a pattern, wouldn’t you agree?

In August, I went back to work part-time. I am teaching two sections of French at the local university. With the number of hours I am required to be on campus plus the number of hours I spend in preparation for class, I no longer have the luxury of long expanses of time in which to ruminate, cogitate, reflect and write on what it means to be a retiree. I miss that luxury, but I keep telling myself that this is only a brief return to the world of work, and that soon enough, I will be back to my preferred schedule which means lots of time to read and write and study the craft of writing.

The subject of this blog is retirement. For more and more of us, not only is the retirement age moving upward, but the desire and / or need to increase our monthly income is causing us to wonder if we shouldn’t work a few more years, add a few more dollars to our social security benefits and save a few more dollars for our inevitable retirement home expenses.

I was offered a position that I thought I could handle without too much stress. In fact, it has been a pleasure to return to the classroom. I get a real kick out of teaching French and of seeing the light bulb go on when a student experiences an “aha” moment, and of also seeing them find out what fun it is to express oneself in another language. Recently, the lesson focused on expressions of surprise or disappointment. I loved it when they wanted to keep repeating idiomatic expressions such as “chapeau!” or “mince!” Literally, “chapeau” means “hat” and “mince” means “thin.” This led us into a great discussion of word origins and colloquial language, one of the many hidden benefits and joys of language study.

Another anecdote about going back to work. I haven't been in the classroom for a few years and having easy access to instructional technology has been both fun and a challenge. My students laugh at me (lovingly, I think) when I accidentally use words like "typewriter" instead of "keyboard" or when I can't find the correct drop-down menu to change the size of the screen we are viewing. I tell them it's just another example of "life-long learning."

I am definitely getting rewards, both tangible and intangible, for this decision to go back to work, but I am also very aware of the things I am giving up-- one more example of how everything in life boils down to choices. Choosing to do one thing means you are choosing to not do something else. I take decisions and choices very seriously. When I was young, I just went where life led me, taking whatever opportunities popped up for me. In my adult life, I have probably been too serious about this issue of making choices. I want to live my life deliberately and to know that for every decision I make, I have good justification. The gifts of life and time are too precious to squander. I have friends who get annoyed at my seriousness of purpose. I even annoy myself sometimes.

In reality, life is a combination of choices and just plain old-fashioned luck—whether it be of the good or bad kind. No matter how hard we try to make good decisions, we can never fully see into the future and some of our best decisions can turn out to be our worst mistakes. But, we take these events and learn from them. Right?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

P. T.-- My New Favorite Place To Be: A Sign of Aging?

I am spending lots of time these days at the physical therapy office. I keep asking my therapist if my injuries are the result of wear and tear, i.e., aging, or if I injured myself in some way. He sort of squinches his eyes and starts talking real fast, partly avoiding the question and partly saying that it's a little of both. Although the majority of the patients in the PT office are "seniors," there are also a good number of young adults who are suffering sports injuries. Our bodies weren't meant to run at 100% for 100 years--at least that's what they tell me. The thought of developing a chronic condition which may limit my future activities is very troublesome to me. Is this just one more of the things we have to learn to accept as we age gracefully?

I'm in the throes of bone spurs and achilles tendonitis, caused by inadequate stretching of my calf muscles, aka, the gastrocnemius, before walking. My friends and I always stretch before walking but somewhere along the way I must have forgotten this one really important combination of muscle and tendon. The lack of proper stretching has caused the Achilles tendon to pull on my heel bone, gradually tearing away calcium deposits and developing a bone spur.

As I do my uniquely prescribed regimen of exercises for strenthening and stretching, I love to watch all the other clients there and guess what their injuries are. This is my third go-round in the experience of physical therapy. I have been diagnosed with frozen shoulder twice and a pinched sciatica nerve once. Those were back when I was much younger, say in my 50's. I have seen more ways to move the body and to manipulate joints and bones and muscles in all my visits to the PT office than I ever knew existed. Last week, when I saw a high school student athlete sliding back and forth on what looked like a very small ice-rink (in reality it was a very slick piece of some kind of synthetic fiber,) I prayed secretly that Scott would not say, "You're up next!" I'm sure I would have broken more bones, stretched more tendons, and torn more ligaments in the course of the exercise instead of healing any existing injuries.

At first, as a patient, you think to yourself, "oh my gosh, everyone must be looking at me. I must look so silly with my butt up in the air like this!" But after three or four visits, you realize that everyone is focusing on his / her own stretches and not paying much attention to you. Or else they are just as embarrassed as you are and they are avoiding eye contact! So far, I have found everyone--patients and therapists and therapists' assistants--to be extremely pleasant and helpful. What a world of knowledge they possess. I am in awe everytime I hear a new muscle or body tissue mentioned. Actually, I am in awe of the human body. Having an injury, no matter how small, causes one to develop new respect for the complexity of the body that we call our own.

The one part of the therapy session that is most pleasing (warning--true confessions ahead!) is when the therapist massages my ankle and calf. Even though it sometimes hurts, the pleasure of experiencing the sense of human touch is healing in itself. Plus, to speak quite frankly, I don't have much else going on in my life right now in the category of touching, so it's either from the therapist or my cat where I'm getting my strokes! (no pun intended)

Right now my goals are to be able to walk moderate distances pain-free in Arizona and at the Grand Canyon in September. Wish me luck! I may not be particularly athletic or smart, but I am determined!

Does anyone else have experience with bone spurs and achilles tendonitis? Tell me there is a light at the end of the tunnel!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Going Back to Work Redux

Newsflash! Breaking news! Margaret is considering going back to work!

Well, it’s only for six hours a week—but it’s teaching—and we all know that for every six hours of teaching, it is necessary to put in at least double the number of hours for preparation and grading of papers. Add in the mandatory office hours and we have roughly the equivalent of a half time job—20 hours a week, at the minimum.

Some of you may be thinking to yourself right now, didn’t she say in an earlier posting that she would never go back to the work environment? Isn’t this the lady who preaches ad nauseum about finding out what makes you really happy and then doing it? Is this the same person who says “indulge yourself, you’ve earned it!” In my posting in March on the topic of returning to work, written after a brief three-week assignment in the public schools, I wrote the following:

“ . . .I wouldn't trade my retirement for anything.”

I also wrote, “. . . if you are considering a return to the work environment, I encourage you to think long and hard about your long term goals and the pro’s and con’s of giving up what you now have as a retiree.”

I have not changed my mind about what I said then. I wouldn’t trade my retirement for anything. And I have carefully examined the pro's and con's of giving up the lovely wide-open schedule that I am now enjoying.

First, the con's. Throughout these first two years of my retirement, I have embraced the joys of being the master of my own schedule and the thrill of spending a day doing nothing more challenging than doing some writing or reading, watching a classic movie on TCM and mowing the grass, if that’s what I chose. If some of the time was wasted, I figured that I had earned the right to do so. Nothing has made me happier than being able to wear jeans / shorts and a tee-shirt every day of the week. With this decision to return to a part-time teaching job, I will now have a schedule to adhere to. I won't be free to attend every lecture of the Elder Study Program that I have joined at the university. I will have to be more deliberate in planning times to go to the Y to get in my work-outs or walks with my girlfriends. I have thanked God every day for this two year respite from the pressures and stress of my full-time job. But now, I'm ready to take on the obligations of a slightly more rigid schedule because of the benefits that I see accompanying it. And, right now, it's only for one semester. If I don't like it, I won't do it the second semester. It's not a life or death decision. I like to think of it more as an “experiment in living.” This time last year I would not have been ready to take on this commitment. But now, I’m ready.

My primary goal in retirement has been to practice the craft of writing. Along with my regular monthly activities such as reading clubs, church dinners for the homeless, and writing club, and my daily tasks such as gardening and exercise, the time required for teaching will definitely cut into my writing time. But in a paradoxical sort of way, it is possible that taking this time away from writing just might give me more of a sense of urgency and might make me apply myself a bit harder to my writing projects. I will explain this more later.

The positive reasons for accepting this challenge are varied. I always loved teaching French. What I didn’t love were the bureaucratic hassles and all the non-instructionally-oriented paper work associated with the job. As an adjunct in a university, I think those two areas should be minimal to non-existent.

In regard to my writing, how can this job be a positive? Truthfully, I have been disappointed in myself in the amount of writing that I have produced this year. In order to write well, one needs to spend time writing every day. Picture me and the computer and my imagination sitting together multiple hours every day. This is a rewarding but solitary way to spend a life. However, it is also true that writers need a rich variety of life experiences to provide ideas and inspiration for writing. This solitary vs. engaged lifestyle dilemma is one of the great contradictions of the writing vocation. Engagement is the juice which powers our writing--the energy source which fuels our production. This week, for example, I am super- charged and full of ideas for blog postings and for stories. I can’t help but wonder if it is because I just spent a very hectic two weeks helping to plan activities and entertain 60 French people who are visiting my town? Was it the break from writing that is giving me renewed energy?

And, of course, there is always the issue of money. On my retirement pension, I have plenty of money to meet my daily needs and obligations. However, if I want to have my twenty-year-old wing-back chairs re-upholstered (which I am doing this month) or buy new furniture for the screened-in back porch (which I did in June) or take a nice trip (which I hope to do in the near future)—all of these diversions require that I supplement my income.

Can life in the world of higher education be any harder or more frustrating than the world of public education K-12? I’ll let you know as the semester progresses how I feel about this decision.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

De-Cluttering: Saying good-bye to the old and HELLO to the new

Who among us hasn't read one of the hundreds of articles in the media about the importance of de-cluttering? In an age when everyone has accumulated too many possessions, it's the new trend to now get rid of those possessions. Ironic, isn't it?

My husband and I lived in one house for 21 of our 27 years of marriage. Prior to settling down in that house, we had an active life of traveling and studying. Our dream house (circa 1935) was roomy and, to compensate for the small closets, came complete with a huge attic and a large basement. My husband spent years installing shelving in almost every room of the house. At that time, we had no reason or need to think about de-cluttering. If we needed more storage space, he just built more shelves. Our attic was full of treasures including unique items of clothing that we had accumulated from our travels--the harem outfit tailor-made for me in Bangkok, Thailand; the jalaba that my husband bought when living in Lebanon; the lederhosen and dirndl kleid that we bought and wore to German festivals, both in the US and in Germany--just to name a few. I had wigs that were fashionable in the 60's and 70's. I had my prom dress; my wedding dress; my "going-away" dress; my first grown-up slinky black cocktail dress--you get the picture. We had hippie clothes; preppie clothes; and later we added baby clothes to our storage trunks. In addition to the clothing from all the phases of our lives, the book shelves in the attic were crammed with books covering every aspect of French and German language and literature, thanks to the years devoted to studying for Master's Degrees.

In the basement, wall-to-wall shelving was built into the tiny laundry room. On these shelves we stored a large collection of cookware, brassware, fondue pots, candlesticks, wine dispensers, dishes, cake platters, pie pans, cookie cutters, jello molds, Mason jars for canning, soup tureens, crock pots, rice cookers--all items that we had purchased or that had been handed down to us over the years as our parents had done their own de-cluttering. Don't even get me started on the work room and all my husband's tools. One of the funniest things anyone ever said to me was on the day of the "walk-through" when the new buyer of my house asked me, "Did your husband have a thing for shelving?" He had never seen so many built-in shelves in his life. Little did he know that he would be needing them as he and his wife and two young children began their life together. I just smiled and said nothing, letting him wait to discover for himself how families tend to accumulate "stuff" during our lives.

The best and most motivational time to de-clutter is when making a change of residence. The fewer belongings for the movers to move, the cheaper the move, right? I down-sized my residence in 2002. So, you're thinking, I got rid of most of those foreign items of clothing and those seldom-used pots and pans that were stored in the basement, right? Well, not exactly. I tried to sort through my possessions, but there were so many of them. And amidst my valiant attempt to give away books and clothing and kitchen ware, I found that there were things that I just couldn't bring myself to part with. These books and items of clothing represented important periods, even major turning-points, in my life. In a sense, they were part of me. To give them away was to take away part of who I am--or so I thought at the time.

Fortunately, the house I was moving to had a large unfinished basement, just the place for storage. All I needed were the shelves. And by then, I no longer had the great handy-man husband to build them. Even though I made my best efforts at sorting through my possessions, I still needed to purchase 8 units of read-made shelving at Lowe's (five shelves per unit) to line the walls of one half of my basement. I have lived in my house for seven years now and still have two moving boxes labeled Kitchenware that I have never opened. Is that pitiful or what?

Little by little, I am now going through my books, finding that I am ready to part with about half of the many editions of French masterpieces of literature that I read in graduate school as well as a good number of books I read in pursuit of my second Master's degree in education. I mean, do I really still need copies of School Law or Personnel Management? All of these give-away books have now been donated to the local library for their annual book sale. I have also managed to give a few of my nicer cocktail dresses to my daughter-in-law--but I'm still waiting for the right person and / or occasion to donate my dirndl.

Purging one's possessions is worthwhile not only for making a house a safer and neater place to live, it's also good for the soul. Divesting oneself of physical possessions leads to a higher level of "de-cluttering," i.e., a rethinking of priorities and how we want to spend our time, perhaps our most precious resource. De-cluttering is a symbolic way of moving on with our lives, and of saying "I still have lots of good things to happen to me and I am making space for the future." Michelle Singletary, financial columnist for the Washington Post wrote a review of the book by Gail Blanke, Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life. A brief overview of the books gives four basic rules to guide the reader in his/her "disengagement" process:

Rule One: If the item, memory, job or even person is weighing you down, get rid of it.

Rule Two: If the thing is not contributing something positive, let it go.

Rule Three: If it takes you a long time to decide whether something needs to be tossed, throw it out.

Rule Four: If you're afraid to throw out something, get rid of the fear.

If none of this sage advice from Gail Blanke helps you, just ask yourself "If I would die tomorrow, what would my children do with all that stuff that was so meaningful to me but that has no meaning to them?" They are eventually going to toss it or give it to Goodwill anyway. Why not help them out a little? Happy tossing!