Inspiration

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Lately I have been thinking a lot about inspiration as I consider the retirement years ahead.   The word “inspire” comes from a Latin root that means “to breathe or blow into” and so it translates as “the act of filling someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.”

(For the purpose of this writing, I am only thinking about the positive, creative ways that people are inspired, not the malignant rhetoric that inspires hate-fueled destruction.)

It’s not every day that we feel the breath of some force or spirit filling us with the urge to do or feel something, but since retirement, I have found that finding and encountering inspiration has become a vital part of my life in a way that it hasn’t since I was in high school.

Back then, I copied down (in green ink!) quotations, poetry, and song lyrics in spiral-bound notebooks that I called my “poetry books”.   They include poetry by Edith St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, e e cummings, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, to name but a few; song lyrics by the Moody Blues, Carole King (the “Adele” of my teenage years), Bernie Taupin, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and others, and quotes from a variety of sources.   There is a scattering of my own poetry as well as that of friends and even the occasional boyfriend.

Whether it was “My candle burns at both ends” or “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.  What is essential is invisible to the eye”, I drew comfort and inspiration from lyricists, poets, philosophers, and my friends.  Often it wasn’t about being pushed towards a creative act but being blown towards understanding and coping with the agony and the ecstasy of teenage life.

These poetry books became diaries, signaling through the words of others what was inspiring me at that specific point in time.

I turn a page and realize this is when my brother and I visited my grandparents’ home for the last time before they sold it….

Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.

another page and verses on friendship appear, reinforcing my growing need for the lifelines of genuine girlfriends…

I’ve saved some sunlight if you should ever need a place away from darkness.

yet another page and the joy of first love illuminates my delirious free fall…

We need no words, we are complete.

followed by the heartache when that love was over…

I only know that summer sang in me/a little while that in me sings no more.

and then, after a soul-nourishing weekend with best friends…

A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.

Nowadays I find inspiration wherever I can.   I no longer fill spiral-bound notebooks but keep digital files on my phone and on my laptop of poems, quotes, and lyrics that blow through and breathe their magic to me.

I think the world needs a boatload of inspiration these days, especially for those under the age of 30, whom I find are desperately searching for meaning in their lives, and whose hearts are wide and receptive to enormous bursts blowing into their souls.  I pray that the right kind of breezes blow their way.

As I contemplate and envision this last third of my life, I want to be open to the winds of inspiration, whether they blow as gentle breezes or turbulent gales.   I have the luxury of figuring things out as I go, but there is still the temptation to make plans and set goals (those work habits die hard).  So, as I continue my journey towards living a meaningful life in retirement, I find inspiration in these lines…

…Allow your heart to beat, allow yourself to be loved, allow fate to take its course.   There are lovely days on this earth.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh

 To live is the rarest thing in the world.  Most people exist, that’s all.   Oscar Wilde

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A Famous Man

My Dad died many years ago and I wrote this poem a few months after he died.  I haven’t looked at it in many years, but this year it spoke to me again.  Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

“A famous man is one whose children love him.”

I

You left this earth

while I was sleeping

thousands of miles away

in one of your favorite cities,

Munich, the heart of Bavaria.

It took 24 hours for them

to track me down

before the call came.

They told me

your heart had exploded.

They tried for an hour

to bring you back

but you were gone

as I slept across the ocean

dreaming of Rhineland castles,

fairy tale villages,

and BMWs.

I had often wondered

how I might react

to such a loss.

I had studied the TV faces

of victims many times,

the mother of a mangled child,

the wife of a terrorist’s target,

the son of a doomed traveler,

but nothing had prepared me

for this —

your death.

II

It took me 24 hours

to get home.

I waited in airports

as they searched

for signs of terrorism

on those about to board.

They did not find

any terror on me.

Those eternal hours

of traveling alone;

I had to keep the loss,

the madness, inside me.

I was so afraid that if I let them,

my insides would come spilling out:

organs, blood, bone, and heart,

that heart made from yours.

And so I sat, buckled into

my window seat,

quietly choking back any emotion,

searching the clouds

for some sign of you.

I could not

find you.

III

When I finally arrived home

I let the monstrous madness out.

I fell, as if still from a great height,

into my mother’s arms.

I was the last to arrive.

The survivors had all converged

together yet apart

for grief is such a private thing.

In the days that followed

I looked for you everywhere,

on the living room rug

next to the fireplace

where you’d drink your beer,

in a porch chair

reading the paper

with donut in hand,

at your bathroom sink

surrounded by your toiletries,

those meaningless things

that now seemed so dear

for they were now proof

that you had

once existed.

IV

You would have been touched

(and humbled in your gentle way)

by those who came

to your funeral.

They came by the hundreds.

Your tiny church

looked sure to burst

from that shuttering,

sobbing, mob.

The minister, your friend,

reminded us of the butterfly,

that glorious symbol

of resurrection,

and found it difficult

to continue.

I sat, wearing a dress

I had bought for Europe,

a dress I did not buy for

your funeral.

V

In a metal box

you kept them all:

my letters,

homemade Valentines,

and cards – how I loved

to send you cards!

In my memory box

I’ve kept remembrances too:

your love of those

silly portulaca flowers

that you planted everywhere

and that as a child

I tried to pull out

(“They’re ugly,” I’d claim,

“No, they’re colorful and

very hardy,” you’d say),

our afternoon exploring

Manhattan’s art museums

lunching only on soft pretzels,

the many nights we talked

past midnight about

parenthood

(“You never know your mistakes

until after you’ve made them”),

religion

(“You have to live it”),

and the value of work

(“Everyone has to have

a reason for getting up”).

I often thought you corny

as daughters often do,

but you taught me

which little voice inside

to listen to,

and now you are the one

to teach me

about death.

It is a lesson

I do not want

to learn.

VI

After the funeral

we came home, spent.

I looked up, and saw

the brightest, biggest

butterfly, dancing over

a pot of your portulacas!

I stared, and smiled,

for you had somehow arranged

its visit.

You lived!  Somewhere

on the other side.

You got a message back.

That butterfly said,

“Grieve not, for

I will always be near.”

Life, death, and now

resurrection;

you had come back

to finish the lesson.

Death now seemed

a safer place,

as natural and

as miraculous

as birth.

VII

Time has passed and

you are still with me.

I see you everywhere:

in the star-like reflections

of sun upon water,

in the full moon as it rises

from the ocean,

in the clouds that

roll across the sky like waves,

the waves I once painted

for you,

the waves you once photographed

for me.

The sadness still comes,

but the despair is gone –

gone on the wings of a butterfly.

It was Father’s Day

when last we spoke,

and though I won’t be

buying any cards this June,

I will this year and next,

for as long as this heart holds,

say Happy Father’s Day

to you,

who will always be,

my father.

Dad and Me

Croatia? Yes, Please!

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Our first group photo in Saint Mark’s Square, Zagreb.

Croatia?  Where is that and why would I want to go there?   This was my attitude a few months ago when my sister-in-law Sara suggested I accompany her on a Roads Scholar tour.  I had already planned a bucket list trip to Santa Fe this summer, and I wasn’t eager to travel to a place that I wasn’t even sure I could find on a map.  But after researching the itinerary, viewing many photos on Google, and encouragement from my husband, I was IN.

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The funicular.

We met our fellow Roads Scholar travelers (just 20 of us plus our guide Dejan) in vibrant and cosmopolitan Zagreb, the capital of the country, its largest city (of 4 million who live in Croatia, over a million live in Zagreb), and one of the few places that we visited not located on the coast.  The Croatians like to describe that the country is in the shape of a croissant, and Zagreb is on the top right curve of the pastry.  We quickly discovered the funicular which took us up to the old town, where we were treated to a panoramic view of the city.  We also found one of the treasures of the old town, Saint Mark’s church, with its colorful, tiled roof featuring the crests of Croatia and Zagreb.

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Zagreb from the top of the funicular.

The next day we met our extremely capable bus driver Zoran who drove us west to the Istrian Peninsula where we got our first look at the Adriatic Sea and where we spent two days in Opatia, a seaside resort once favored by the Austrian-Hungarians.  There was a lovely promenade along the water from our hotel to the center of town, and I swear Opatia has more hotels than Atlantic City.  Across from our hotel was a famous chocolate shop, where many of us dropped a few kunas on hot chocolates that were thick like pudding and had to be eaten with a spoon.

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The seaside promenade of Opatia

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The hot chocolates eaten with a spoon.

From Opatia we made a day trip to Rovinc and Porec.  Rovinc was once an island but now connected to the rest of the peninsula; its Venetian influence was quite apparent from the moment we stepped off the bus.  Its patron saint is Saint Euphemia, a female Christian martyr whose statue sits atop her church’s steeple which was modeled after the Saint Mark’s steeple in Venice; in many ways, Rovinc was a mini-me of Venice.

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The lovely Venetian town of Rovinc

Porec’s claim to fame is the Euphrasian Basilica, loaded with the gilded mosaics seen in Byzantine churches.  The mosaics, both on the outside and inside the church, were definitely worth the visit to the town.

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One of the many mosaics in the basilica of Porec.

On our way to the Plitvice Lakes National Park the next day we encountered snow on the ground!  This is no more normal than snow would be in May in New Jersey; there is no disagreement here about what is causing all this weird weather – climate change.

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Snow in May – not normal!

I would have to be a more talented writer to adequately describe Plitvice Lakes.  Sixteen lakes cascade into each other, creating dozens of waterfalls over limestone rocks.  Can one ever have too many waterfalls?  You view the waterfalls and lakes from scenic overlooks, from walking on a network of boardwalks (many dangerously narrow), and from hiking through the woods for miles.   Thankfully the park is a protected UNESCO World Heritage site because it is a treasure and one of the wonders of the world.   Photos of Plitvice Lakes had convinced me when I did my research that I needed to visit Croatia.  The park did not disappoint!

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Look closely and you can see people walking on the walkways – waterfalls everywhere!

One of the places that completely exceeded expectations was the city of Split, Croatia’s third largest city; it was truly a revelation.  Split is a coastal town where the Roman emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace.  Unlike many other ancient sites, his palace is not in ruins, but is woven into the city, separated only by its original walls and gates.  People live in apartments that have been built in the palace, work in shops and restaurants, and scenes from Game of Thrones have been filmed here.  After Diocletian died, Christians took over the town, removed his tomb (no one knows what they did with his body), and replaced it with the sarcophagus and relics of Saint Dominus, one of the many Christians whose murder was ordered by Diocletian.  Everyone loved this delicious bit of irony and karma.

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One of the gates of Diocletian’s palace – restaurants, shops, and apartments within.

One of the gates leads out to a lovely promenade along the harbor, and the first night we were there, there was a huge festival in honor of Saint Dominus; we were treated to live music and fireworks. Our hotel was just steps away from the palace and our home base for three days, so we had lots of forays into the palace and surrounding city.

One of the highlights of our stay in Split was hiking up to a café bar on the side of a mountain that offered a panorama view of the city, nestled between the harbor on one side and the Dalmatian mountains on the other.  Much of Croatia lies between the mountains and the sea, and I think Croatia won the lottery when it came to carving up the former Yugoslavia because it kept most of its original territory along the Adriatic coastline.

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View of Split – the palace lies along the harbor – you can see one of its towers on the right.

From Split we visited Trogir, a medieval town built on an island and another World Heritage site, and the art museum of Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia’s most famous scuptor, whose statues are everywhere in Croatia (and here in the States as well).

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One of the shops in Trogir.

In order to visit Mostar, we had to cross into Bosnia-Herzegovina, which involved two border crossings.  Mostar is known for its bridges, and I had seen photos of its most famous bridge, so I was excited when we finally arrived.  The bridge was bombed during the 1990s but completely rebuilt as it had been, using the same limestone from local quarries.  The Mostar bridge was lovely, but the crowds of people made it impossible to really appreciate it as you crossed over it.

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The famous bridge of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Mostar was once part of the Ottoman Empire, so the town has a Turkish feel to it,with streets lined with markets and a mosque calling people to prayer. Our local guide spoke about the horror of the war as a girl of 12; she and her mother went door to door during the night asking for any bit of food that people were willing to share, and her brother was sent to a concentration camp for many months.  She has no hatred towards any ethnic group (there are many in the countries that now make up the former Yugoslavia) and she hopes all can continue to live in peace.

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The view of the Mostar bridge from our restaurant with the mosque’s minaret behind it.

Finally, we arrived at Dubrovnik, which may be the best known of Croatia’s cities.  It is quite a tourist attraction and a lot of that has to do with the fact that Game of Thrones has filmed the King’s Landing scenes within its old city walls.   Our local guide Lydia grew up within the walls and her insider perspective provided us with a unique and rare insight into the city’s history and its people as we toured the city with her.

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Dubrovnik from the highway above the city.

The people who inhabited Dubrovnik were skillful traders and negotiators, and avoided war with both the Venetians and the Turks, remaining an independent city-state for over 450 years.   Even when Napoleon entered the city as its conqueror, it is widely believed that the city leaders reached an accord with him so that it wasn’t an actual conquest.

Despite the crowds, it was one of my favorite places; when some of us expressed interest in taking a boat ride around the city, Dejan arranged it despite the fact that it was technically his afternoon off.  Sara and I also climbed and walked the 1.2 mile length of the walls, which offered spectacular views from every direction.

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One of the magnificent views from the walls of Dubrovnik.

Our last two days were spent south of Dubrovnik, in the Konavle Region, where we visited an old olive oil press and farm, and later a local vineyard and winery for dinner.  We also visited two old mills, the seaside town of Cavtat, and enjoyed a wonderful farewell dinner at a farm with traditional dancers and singers.

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Sara enjoying the flavored grappa at one of the water mills.

The patriarch of the farm and our dinner host was 86 years old, quite proud of his home and especially his garden, which looked like the Garden of Eden.  It was therefore quite hard to imagine that during the 1990s war, the farm was bombed with napalm and his home had to be almost completely rebuilt.  It was a sobering reminder of this country’s recent troubled past.

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The farmhouse and garden where we enjoyed our farewell dinner in Cilipi.

I have been on travel company tours and loved them all, but I must say I was very impressed with Roads Scholar.  I loved the small group, the fact that all but two meals were included, the emphasis on learning, and the pace and organization of our travel; we never stayed in a hotel for less than two nights.

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Our fearless fashionista leader, Dejan, who wore the soccer shirt and orange glitter hat so we would see him in the Dubrovnik crowds.

I have to thank our lovely fellow travelers for being considerate, fun, and engaging; sitting next to anyone on the bus or at a meal always involved lively conversation.  Zoran, our bus driver, took us down country roads that didn’t seem wide enough to fit a motorbike much less a motorcoach, yet I always felt safe in his hands.  Dejan, our tour director, couldn’t do enough for us; he was caring, knowledgeable, fun-loving, and always eager to share a story or a laugh.  And finally, I have to thank Sara because I would not experienced this extraordinary country and people without her invitation.

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Girls night out in Split.

What will I remember about Croatia?  The paintings in the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art.  The liquid lace of the magical Plitvice waterfalls.  The marmalade-stuffed croissants at every breakfast.  The singing of the crowd in Split as the fireworks exploded across the night sky.  The labyrinths of narrow streets in Rovinc, Split, and Dubrovnik.  The panoramic views from atop the Dubrovnik walls and the café bar in Split.  The twinkle in Dejan’s eye as he shared a bit of irony or humor.  The evening Dubrovnik Chamber Trio concert whose musicians were all women.  The tiny pink rosebuds in our gin & tonics.  The camaraderie of our merry little band of travelers and our laughter and engaging conversations. The resilience of the Croatian people who have transformed their country after socialism and war into a unique, beautiful, and incredible tourist destination.

Now I know where Croatia is and why a person would want to visit it.  Go if you can.

I am so glad that I did!

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Our last group photo in the farmhouse in Cilipi.

 

Resolutions/Absolutions

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Sunrise and morning fog from the veranda of the Mount Washington Hotel.

As we all look back at 2018, I think the first thing that we should do is absolve ourselves from any 2018 resolutions that went neglected or abandoned.   What is the point of beating ourselves up?   As Carlos Castaneda wrote, “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong.   The amount of work is the same.”

Last January I had the audacity for the first time in many years to write down my new year’s resolutions:  clean clutter, read more books, create more, save more money.   Notice that in my non-accountant, right-brained way, I didn’t set any quantifiable goals for these, with “more” being a highly subjective quantifier.   So here is my highly subjective scoring for how I kept these resolutions:

Clean Clutter:  C-

Read More Books:   A-

Create More:  B+

Save More Money:  F

Can I offer excuses for resolutions not kept?  Hell, yes!  Saving more money is the easiest.  It’s nearly impossible to save money in a year when your daughter gets married unless you are either a hermit or a miser.

There was some success with clutter – a person can now walk through our basement without having to wade through a flotsam of boxes, discarded small appliances, outdoor furniture, and an island of misfit toys.  But our attic is quite literally another story.

The act of creation for me this year expanded beyond what I thought would involve just writing.   I certainly could score myself high if it meant creating moments to remember.  My trip to Greece, Grace’s shower and wedding, our service week in Dunlow, West Virginia, and countless visits with dear friends at holidays and throughout the year enabled me to keep that resolution in spectacular fashion.   I did mostly keep up with my monthly blog posts and I have done some writing for my non-profits, but big writing projects remain works in progress, so that’s one mark against me.   However, 2018 gave me the chance to create bridal shower centerpieces, non-profit videos, and Shutterfly photo books, so all in all I would claim that resolution was more than kept, just not the way that I originally intended to do so.

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A magical evening in Santorini.

As for reading more, I read sixteen books in 2018 and though I didn’t track my reading in 2017, I know that was significantly more.   The books that I read, from nonfiction like Hillbilly Elegy and The Hidden Life of Trees, to fiction like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine to Circe, reminded me again and again of the power of writing to transform your day, your year, your life.

Reading that takes you to a unique place and time or a totally author-created fantasy world has the power to teach and inform and inspire.  One of my favorite authors is Anne Lamott and her book Small Great Things was the first book I read in 2017.  I love her writing, especially this:

This is what grace looks like – amazed gratitude and relief at my plain old gorgeous life.

Remembering to be grateful every day for “my plain old gorgeous life” is a resolution I intend to keep in 2019.

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The gang in “my plain old gorgeous life”.

 

 

M.O.B.

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If you are lucky or blessed enough, you get to be awarded the title “Mother of the Bride” (or M.O.B. for short) for at least one day during your life.  It means that you are not only the mother of a bride, but the mother of a daughter, one of God’s greatest gifts.  Being a M.O.B. is a singular honor and not without its moments of terror, exhilaration, worry, joy, exhaustion, delight, disbelief, and magic.

My daughter Grace recently married the love of her life and looking back on that day, I have to say it still seems a bit surreal to me, because it was a perfect day and exceeded all our expectations.  You plan and work for more than a year to make it the best day ever, not only for the bride and groom, but for your guests, and making sure that 100 family members and friends are happy, well-fed, and enjoying themselves makes for a certain level of stress.   However, significant quantities of alcohol and an amazing resort staff who fulfill every guest’s needs does help you feel blissfully less tense; so does seeing your daughter so happy.

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The emotional kaleidoscope that spins through my mind as I recall the moments of the day inspires a rainbow of gratitude for me – grateful for my loving family, grateful for the extensive network of authentic friends who made the effort to travel to the wilds of New Hampshire, and grateful that my husband and I had the financial resources to help give Grace and Matt the wedding of their dreams.

A friend of mine who has held the M.O.B. title told me that the best part of being a M.O.B. is realizing that it is not just a celebration of the bride and groom, but a celebration of your life.  You made this happen, she told me, with the choices you have made and the friendships you have nurtured.  I had never thought of a wedding in this way, but she is right – all that is good in our lives was there for me to witness and hold and love at the wedding.

Grace and Matt asked me and Matt’s Mom, Peggy, to give reflections during the ceremony.  My reflection follows.   Better than anything else, it sums up how being a M.O.B. has affected me and how it communicates how much the heart can hold.

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On behalf of Bill and myself, I would like to thank you all for traveling near and mostly far to share in the joy and magic of this special day and special place.  It truly means the world to us that you are here and we can’t thank you enough.

Now, I would like to address Matt and Grace directly.  

Matt, I knew that you were a keeper when, during Grace’s second hospital stay for her kidney, you absolutely refused to leave her side, not in the ER, not in the Recovery room, not even in her hospital room when I kindly suggested that you go home and get some rest. You also insisted that I sleep on the couch while you slept on a chair next to her bed.   And whenever Grace needed something, you would leap up faster than I could and attend to Grace, even if it meant running down the hall to get her ice water or wiping her chin or mouth because, well, we know why she needed that.   I knew then that you were going to be there for Grace, for better and for worse, no matter what.  I also knew that I was going to love your Mom because she raised you to be a fine gentleman and a wonderfully caring human being.  Way to go, Peggy!

Grace, as you know, your Dad and I got married 35 years ago this past May.  At my wedding my Dad told one of my friends that he didn’t know if his pride in me exceeded his love or if his love exceeded his pride.  That is certainly how I am feeling about you today.  You have made us proud in so many ways, whether earning a scholarship to Bentley or a promotion at Sunlife, whether driving us fearlessly all over Ireland on the other side of the road, whether giving up a week of your life to spend it in West Virginia with me and 50 crazy teenagers trying to answer people’s prayers, or just by being an authentic friend to so many here.

As for love, we have a very short time here on this third rock from the sun, and none of us escapes hardship and pain and loss.   The only thing that makes the tough times bearable is love.  The love of family, the love of friends, the love of a parent for a child, and the love of husband and wife.  I am sure that there are as many definitions of love as there are stars in the sky, but my definition of love has always been a simple one – love is putting someone else’s needs above your own.   I have witnessed this countless times with you both.  You are so supportive of each other, and so generous and thoughtful in how you respond to each other’s needs that I have no doubt that your love is an everlasting one, and that no matter what happens to you in life, you will live happily ever after.

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Being the English Major nerd that I am, I wanted to find a fitting poem or lyric to end my reflection.  I consulted the great lyricists of our time:  Lennon and McCartney, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Lin Manuel-Miranda, Snoop Dog….

I finally chose lyrics from a Phil Collins song, “You’ll Be in My Heart”.  I chose these lyrics because, for me, they express, in a very powerful yet simple way, not only the enduring love of mother and child, but of husband and wife, the love that I feel for you both, and that I know you feel for each other, a love that means someone will always have your back, that they will be in your heart forever.

And so, I will end as the song ends, “Just look over your shoulder, I’ll be there always.”

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Time Flies

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The bad news is time flies.

The good news is you are the pilot.

Michael Altshuler

When I retired, I was sure that time would slow down.   My life was no longer a series of fires to be put out, round-the-clock appointments to be kept, harried customers to be appeased.

Boy, was I wrong!   Time seems to be moving at a clip that makes supersonic travel appear glacier-like.  OK, so I am still working part-time on some projects for my former company, and I am on the board of three non-profits, and my daughter is getting married in less than a month, so yes, you could argue that I have no one but myself to blame that my days are not always my own.

However, on days when I don’t have a board meeting or lunch date or appointment, I do find that I need to add structure to my day, even if it isn’t much.   I vacillate between wanting to complete a “To Do” list versus just winging it.   There is much to be said for spontaneity and just going with the flow, but the task-oriented genes in my brain crave satisfaction as well.

I remember a time long ago when I first started in college publishing – sales reps used to have most of the summers off.   We were still officially working but it was a best-kept secret that since colleges were mostly closed for the summer, sales reps were not expected to make sales calls or do much of anything beyond answering an occasional phone call.   This was long before email, so we didn’t even have to check that daily.  I remember during those summers that I found myself having to impose a structure to my days, or they would sail by and I would find that I was wasting a lot of time.

So now I find myself thinking back to those days and comparing them to my current life style where my days are no longer regimented around a 9-5 plus work day.    I don’t have to finish tasks by end of day – or even by week’s end.  Yes, I still have responsibilities to the organizations where I volunteer, and to my family, but nothing compared to when I was working full-time.

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Grace then, and now, soon to be a married lady

Yet, I find that time is still flying by.   My daughter is 28 and the wedding that we have been planning for a year is now weeks away.  My son, who just yesterday was sitting in his Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, is turning 30 this year and just got back from a two-week cruise around the British Isles with his girlfriend.   It’s been 45 years since I graduated from high school, 41 since college graduation, 37 years since I started my sales career, 35 years since I got married, 22 years since we bought our home.

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Walt in his Cozy Coupe, many years ago.

My best friend, who is my age, recently presented me with this thought – we have lived two-thirds of our lives!  So that means we only have a third left?  How terrifying!

But then again, old age is a privilege denied to many.   I certainly don’t feel old, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have whatever time is left to continue to be the pilot of my life.   Time to be the woman who makes her own pesto and bread, time to read more than two books a year, time to have quality time with multiple friends and family on a regular basis, time to create and learn and exercise and appreciate a sunset.

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I have turned into that woman who has time to make bread.

I would have missed so much in the past year and a half if I had still been working.

When my best friend made the remark about our having lived two-thirds of our lives, I asked her, “Why are you telling me this?”  Her simple, wistful and questioning response, “Didn’t it go fast?”

Yes, it has and I suppose it will continue to do so.   I guess the challenge for all of us is, whether in retirement or not, to make whatever time we have count.  And making it count can mean whatever you want it to mean – making a difference, making memories, making a life.

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Salut!

 

 

Unpack your Heart

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Roland with our squad on our finished porch.

Those of you who have been faithfully following my blog for the past year know that I am very involved with a non-profit called The Center for Faith Justice.  The Center runs a week-long service trip in Dunlow, West Virginia, which lies about as far southwest in the state as you can go before hitting Kentucky.  For the second year in a row I made the arduous 9-hour trip to Dunlow, along with 50 teenagers and 7 of my fellow adult volunteer advisors.  Adapting to driving a Suburban van was easier than I thought, and thankfully all seven vans made it safely to Dunlow.

I have to say this was the best week that I have ever spent on a service trip.   The student volunteers had come from the same two schools, Mount St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s, Metuchen, as last year, but there was something very special about this group of teenagers – something hard to quantify.  Most of them didn’t know each other prior to the week, so there was an openness about them, but that didn’t explain the authenticity, playfulness, and kindness that made me so glad that I was a member of this merry little band.

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All hands on deck as the stair frame got lifted onto the base

The teens were divided into seven service groups, each with a project or set of projects to accomplish by week’s end.  My service group was comprised of four boys and three girls, and our task was to build a porch (really a deck but they call it a porch in Dunlow) onto the front of a trailer owned by a woman named Wilma.  Wilma is mother to an autistic and blind adult son who is confined to a wheelchair, and the expression “salt of the earth” applies to Wilma in spades.

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Wilma with Hunter and her niece.

Coached by our able crew chief, Roland, my squad immediately launched into the work of  building the porch frame, digging 18 inch post holes (horrible work), and generally following his instructions as we learned how to construct the porch.  Other than using the power saw to cut the boards and posts, my squad did everything, and with Roland teaching them, they quickly learned how to measure, use a level, and most of all, operate a power drill.

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The Charlie’s Angels of drilling (Annie, Abbey, and Gaby)

For some reason that I might never understand, my team of seven bonded with me in a way that no other group had done before, and an instant family was born.   Maybe it was my treating them all to ice cream at the end of the first day, or maybe it was just their personalities, but the affection was strong and mutual from day one.

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CJ and Riley were determined to get the 18″ post holes dug – horrible work!

My job was making sure that everyone was kept busy, that everyone listened and carried out Roland’s instructions safely.  If there was a task that only required two people at a time, I rotated the volunteers in and out, so that everyone got a chance to work on a part of the structure and thus take ownership of the entire porch.   The girls were just as eager as the boys, and soon the porch took shape, first base, then decking, then railing, and finally stairs.

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Girl power

Wilma had come out the first day to introduce herself, and quickly became a favorite of the group, along with Roland, whom the kids decided was a “god” and Dexter and Shadow, the two dogs who had the run of the place.   Wilma’s two nieces visited and Rachel, her elder niece, helps Wilma care for her son Chris two days a week.  Rachel’s toddler son Hunter became a source of entertainment for our gang, and he proudly wore a pair of Thomas the Tank Engine underpants over his diaper that by divine intervention, I had happened to purchase in his size in Target before leaving NJ.

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Hunter with his mom Rachel and a lollipop that Darryl gave him

Wilma eventually wheeled Chris out to meet us and told us that he really liked 80s music.  We had a Bluetooth speaker, so we started playing 80s songs, and the moment he heard the theme from the movie Ghostbusters, Chris broke out into a huge smile.   It made our day!

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Wilma’s son Chris on hearing the theme from “Ghostbusters”.

Speaking of music, on our trips back and forth each day to Wilma’s home, we would sing all kinds of songs – some I knew, like the Spice Girls and Bruno Mars, and some I didn’t, but the music increased the bond among us.  Who could be miserable when singing Spice Girls on the top of your lungs?

We would eat our bag lunches on a picnic table under a tented awning that Wilma had set up for us, which afforded us some much needed shade since whenever we were actively working, we were in bright sun and the temperature was over 90.   One day Wilma came out with fried zucchini, vegetable pizza, and zucchini bread, all made with produce from her garden.   It was so sweet of her and indicative of the generous people you encounter in Dunlow, people who may not have much, but share what they do have.

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Vegetable pizza and zucchini bread made by Wilma for us from her garden vegetables.

There was only one day that we didn’t go to Wilma’s and that was the day of the monthly Food Pantry.  Bill and Addie Likens have been running this Food Pantry for 15 years and it just seems to get bigger every year.   Addie spends days driving around collecting donations of food and clothing, and our volunteers all spent time helping to sort, categorize, and box the donations.

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The girls and Darryl sorting cans for the Food Pantry

The morning of the Food Pantry, we helped Addie make a pulled pork sandwich lunch for 150-200 people.   Then at 1 pm the Food Pantry began and it was all hands on deck.   Everyone had their assigned location and task, and 150 boxes of staples, meat, produce, even laundry detergent was handed out and loaded into the good people of West Virginia’s cars by our teens.   This was my third Food Pantry and despite the number of volunteers and families we served, it went amazingly well; I never had to search for volunteers to carry boxes out to the cars – the teens were always right there to pitch in and carry.

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Playing with one of the young girls at the Food Pantry

We really want our teenagers to encounter the folks they are helping and the Food Pantry is a great chance for them to interact, chat, and meet the locals.   There were babies and children, and our teens loved playing with them, but they also spoke with adults, and some heard really terrible stories.  They witnessed an abusive husband and father, and they heard the tale of a 13-year mother who tried to kill her infant by feeding her Xanax in her bottle.   But thankfully the majority of interactions were friendly and warm, and it was obvious that we were appreciated and even loved by the locals.

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Will with one of our Food Pantry teams

On Friday, we finished the porch, having put together the final piece – the stairs.   Our porch was solid construction, looked great, and Wilma loved it.   We all signed our names underneath the deck.  In addition to impressing Wilma, Roland told me that he loved that our teens didn’t have to be told something twice and that he was very pleased to see how hard they had worked all week.

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The finished porch with Shadow and Dexter in the shade under it

One of the goals of our organization is to try to instill in the teens that this is not just about a single week of service.   We want them to realize that when they are helping others, they are answering prayers, that God is using them to do His work on earth.  We challenge them that if they like how this week makes them feel, that they figure out how they can continue to do God’s work next week, next month, next year – for the rest of their lives.   They don’t have to join the Peace Corps or become social workers; they can make service an integral part of their lives in a variety of ways, and we have them share ideas about what they will try to do moving forward.

My fellow advisors, including Grace, could not have been more fun, hard-working, and as genuine as any of the teenagers.   They were ideal role models for our teens, and we had so many laughs that my sides still hurt just thinking about them.

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Grace and Tracey leading a group on our woodland hike

When the week was over, I have to say that, along with my squad, I got a bit emotional.   Not only did they work hard, but they were so much fun to be around.  As we gathered together for a final photo, we formed a huddle, and I tried to tell them that I hoped that they would never forget that they had special gifts that I knew they would all share with the world, but the words got caught in my throat.   When they realized that I was getting choked up, they all teared up, and the hugging went on and on.

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Saying goodbye to Annie

So, to CJ, Riley, Darryl, RJ, Annie, Abbey, Gaby, and to all their fellow teens who shared our week in Dunlow:  Please know that I could never have asked for a more amazing group of people to spend a week in service to others.   You will always remain in my heart and I know you are all destined to do great things with your lives.   Thanks for inspiring me to be a better person, and until we meet again, always remember our week in Dunlow and unpack your heart whenever and wherever you can.

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Our Dunlow squad – Darryl, Annie, Abbey, Gaby, RJ, Riley, and CJ

To learn more about The Center for Faith Justice, visit http://www.faithjustice.org/

 

 

It’s Greek to Me

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Mykonos at sunset

Two years ago, a dear friend of mine proposed visiting Greece together.   Last summer we met, created a list of the places that we wanted to see, and booked a Globus land/sea tour that would get us to our wish list of must-see Greek locations.

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The Temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens

On May 14th we arrived in Athens and began our adventure in Greek culture, history, mythology, language, and customs.   Along with 43 other fellow travelers and guided by an incredible Tour Director named Lida and an intrepid bus driver named Yannis, we toured Athens, Corinth, Mycenae, Epidaurus, Nauplia, Olympia, Delphi, Meteora, and Thermopylae.   Then we boarded the cruise ship Celestyal Olympia at the Piraeus port and visited Mykonos, Kusadasi (Turkey), Ephesus, Patmos, Rhodes, Crete, and finally Santorini.   An extremely capable and caring Globus onboard host Christiana managed our excursions off the ship and got us back to Athens for our flights back home.  All of this in the space of two weeks!

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The view from the top of what is believed to be Agamemnon’s fortress in Mycenae

There are pros and cons to traveling overseas these days – certainly the threat of terrorism, and the security measures associated with it, make flying a chore to be endured.  I have never mastered the art of traveling light, so dragging my stuff through airports and trying to get my suitcase to weigh less than the allotted 50 pounds was a constant concern.   Seeing so much in a short span of time – the old “if this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium” tour – required getting up before dawn every day and going almost non-stop until late at night.  And just about every Greek site required a significant cardio climb up steep cliffs.

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The windmills of Mykonos

However, the pros certainly outweigh the cons when it comes to Greece, a worthwhile and wonderful place to visit.   When you live in a country like the United States that has only existed for a few hundred years, it is mind-blowing to discover places where someone built a palace with 1400 rooms and plumbing 4000 years ago!  That’s 2000 years before the time of Christ.

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Sallie and her gal Athena

When I was in high school, we read Edith Hamilton’s MYTHOLOGY, and my best friend Kate and I just soaked up the mythology of the Greeks.   We loved the stories, and to hear them again and visit the temples that the Greeks built to Athena and Zeus and Apollo was just surreal to me.   Our tour director Lida (she is named for Lida, who was visited by Zeus disguised as a swan and who bore him a child, Helen of Troy) shared not only the history and architecture, but the language of the Greeks.  Gymnasium, from the Greek gymnos which means naked, the place where Olympic athletes worked out and competed naked.  Cemetery, from the Greek koimētḗrion, which means a sleeping place.  Even the ever-present cypress trees mean eternal life to the Greeks and the olive tree is a gift from Athena herself.

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The view from the top of Mt.Parnassus looking down at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

But it was the places themselves that kidnapped me, that captivated both soul and mind as we encountered them.   The Acropolis of Athens and it’s jaw-dropping views and Temple of Athena.  The original Olympic stadium now green and serene watched over by a Temple of Hera.   The Temple of Apollo at Delphi where thousands came to hear the predictions of the Oracle.  The monasteries of Meteora which perch atop limestone cliffs like nesting eagles.

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The monastery of the Holy Trinity at Meteora

And then the islands – Mykonos with its windmills and golden sunsets.  Ephesus – an entire outdoor museum of a city on the coast of Turkey.   Patmos, where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation while exiled in a cave.   Rhodes, with its own acropolis at Lindos and its remarkedly intact medieval fortress built by the Knights of St. John while fighting the Crusades.  Crete with its Palace of Knossos, the center of the Minoan civilization.  And finally, the jewel of them all, Santorini, with its white-washed towns draping the shoulders of volcanic cliffs like pearl necklaces.

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The town of Oia on Santorini

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Returning to our ship on the caldera with the town of Fira in Santorini

My friend Sallie and I had the pleasure of sharing these magical places with delightful fellow travelers – Americans as well as Canadians, Australians, and one New Zealander.   You form a unique bond; for a very short time, you eat, sleep, and share all the same spaces with total strangers, and the opportunity is always there to engage and learn.   We had a Penn State sophomore, an egg farmer, two pharmaceutical reps, a retired nurse, and a Catholic priest, just to name a few.   All of them were considerate and kind fellow travelers, and the trip would not have been the same without them.

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Our merry band of fellow travelers in Meteora

In addition to our friends on the tour, the Greek people were wonderful hosts.   Each morning began with a Kalimera (good morning), and we couldn’t say efharisto (thank you) enough.  The food was delicious and both Greek and American cuisine was available at every meal.   Many of our hotels had balconies with views and we even had a view of the Acropolis for our last night in Athens.

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The view from our balcony at the Hotel Europa in Olympia

I don’t know if a return trip to Greece is in the cards for me, but I do know that I won’t ever forget its magnetic charm, its stunning beauty, and its incredible people.   Adio, Greece and efharisto for everything.

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Sallie and I toasting our evening in Santorini (me with Vin Santo)

 

Wonder Women

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“Oh I don’t know what you’ve been told
But this gal right here’s gonna rule the world
Yeah, that is where I’m gonna be because I wanna be
No, I don’t wanna sit still, look pretty
You get off on your 9 to 5
Dream of picket fences and trophy wives
But no, I’m never gonna be because I don’t wanna be
No, I don’t wanna sit still, look pretty.”
Song by Daya

The lyrics to this song won’t win any awards but I love the message behind them.  I first heard the song while watching Pitch Perfect 3, and it perfectly captures the Bellas’ sassy charm, irreverent humor, and girl power.  But more than that, it reminds me of the women that I know; none of us, young or old, are sitting around waiting for Prince Charming to come and rescue us.   We have become the heroines of our own stories, and we own them, from preface to happily ever after ending.

I am inspired almost every day by remarkable women, women who come in every shape, size, color, and age.

There are the women of Impact 100 Garden State, a national organization with local chapters, who decided that they wanted to give back to the communities that had given so much to them.  They do this by running an entirely volunteer organization that this year will be awarding $300,000 to three local charities.   Over the course of five years our Impact100 chapter has raised over $1 million, and every dollar goes to grant recipients like Oasis, a haven for women and children in Paterson, that has created programs designed to feed, clothe, and educate, to break the cycle of poverty.  Or Project Self-Sufficiency, helping families who live in poor, rural areas who are isolated from social services, schools, and supermarkets.  They will be using their grant money from Impact100 to purchase an RV to take a full range of social services “on the road”.  Or Roots & Wings, an organization that serves aged-out foster children.  These are just 3 of the many non-profits that have won grants from our Impact 100 Garden State.

There are the women of FISH, who have been running a food and children’s clothing pantry out of basements for more than 30 years.   They serve a local population that social services can’t often help, bringing food right to client’s doors.   A woman’s abusive boyfriend steals her rent and FISH helps her pay it.  A man with throat cancer restricted to a liquid diet and FISH delivers a weekly supply of Ensure (and he survives!).   A hotline is manned seven days a week by volunteers, and the women who deliver food and clothing on a daily basis are truly my heroines – they have devoted themselves to lifting others up.

There are the women of my sorority who, upon hearing that the current sisterhood was about to be kicked off campus for behavior violations, created an alumnae association that forged a partnership with the college administration and current sisters to instigate cultural change and get things back on track.   It took three years but thanks to this partnership, it looks like the college-imposed sanctions will be lifted this May.

There are the women of the Center for Faith Justice, an organization that takes a quote from the New Testament, “faith without works is dead” and tries to teach young adults that to be Christian means to be called to a life of service and commitment to those in need.  Despite the lack of support from the institutional Church, they forge ahead and try to inspire, one mind and heart at a time.  Their programs serve the needs of the disadvantaged in Trenton, Philadelphia, and Appalachia, and what they do takes a huge village to successfully plan, administer, and execute.  The Center is not exclusively women, but women are the power behind the mission.

These women have hearts of gold, brains of titanium, and nerves of steel.  They see a problem, devote a tremendous amount of brain power to figuring out a solution, and then work hard in executing and sustaining organizations whose impact is immeasurable.  They are all Wonder Women.

And these are just the women that I know personally in these small local operations.  Think of the women who are making a difference every day – in the #MeToo movement, the teacher’s strikes, the Women’s Marches, the list goes on and on.   I look at my daughter’s generation and I see women who never doubt for a second that they can make the world a better place.

Everywhere that I look I see women becoming active citizens who aren’t content with sitting around and looking pretty.  It gives me hope!  Thank God!

 

 

 

 

Reflections on a “Seme” Retirement

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It’s been just a year since I turned in my company car and laptop for lowered blood pressure and seven-day weekends.

My former job used to be fun, exciting, rewarding and all the things that make it worth getting up in the morning.  However, a few years ago it stopped being fun and became 24/7 stress.  Kissing that good-bye has been exhilarating, amazing, crazy, surprising, healthy, wonderful, and liberating.

What I miss:

Certain colleagues and customers

Sales bonuses

Not having to pay for gas (company car)

Visiting certain charming, idyllic campuses

The caliber of people I met daily

Learning cool technologies

Any sales meeting we’ve ever had in Arizona

What I don’t miss:

Certain colleagues and customers

Sales goals

My company car (a big perk, but for the 1st time ever I am driving the car of my choice )

The NJ Turnpike

The 6 am alarm ringing

The system being down

Any sales meeting we’ve ever had in Texas (sorry Texas friends!)

People wonder what I do with my life, if I am bored, and many tell me that they can’t imagine their lives without their employment.  I have not been bored a nanosecond and I have found that my days fill up with all sorts of things – some planned, some not planned.

Serendipity rather than a paycheck now manages my schedule.

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I find I have more time for old friends and for making new friends, time to cook and bake bread, time to exercise and go to the movies, time to read a book and do counted cross-stitch, time to volunteer, time to clean out closets and basements, time to travel, time to write and create, time to drink more wine, time to be thoughtful and kind.   I have realized that most days are spent doing what I want to do, not what must be done.  I notice more sunsets, remember more birthdays, read more books, do more puzzles, walk more steps, and generally spend time with people and things in places that make me happy.

I am more preoccupied with filling my soul rather than filling my calendar.

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I do have a confession to make.   Three months after I retired, I was approached by a Marketing colleague from my former company about working part-time on some projects just for a few months.   That “temporary” gig is still ongoing, so some could argue that I am not really retired.  However, retirement is as much a state of mind as a state of employment, and this part-time consulting is at my own pace, during the hours that I choose, stress-free, and it’s work I enjoy doing.  Plus, it’s additional income and we are hosting a wedding this year.

So, I can joke about my “seme” retirement, but for those of you who have faithfully been following me for the last year, I am sure you can see that “seme” retirement agrees with me and that I agree with it.  I am so grateful that we have the savings so that I could retire, and I encourage all of you to save as much as you can so that you can experience this wonderful passage of life when that time is right for you.

It’s a passage of possibility, and I am still imagining what those possibilities will be for me.

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