Sunday, February 17, 2013

Retirement: The Next Phase

A former patient called me the other day to get a referral to a California therapist to help him through a crisis. And he asked how I was doing in retirement and with Arizona.

I gave him the name of an excellent psychologist who practices in Pasadena and answered his question about my new life with a quick "Oh, just fine..." which he heard immediately as less than enthusiastic.

And I realized that it would be impossible -- and probably not desirable -- to try to explain to this young man, in his twenties and struggling to establish himself in a career, that life in retirement is like life while working -- with its daily joys and challenges, the inevitable ups and downs. I told him that retirement was terrific but that it was a big life change. I told him that while I missed some aspects of my life in California, I was thoroughly enjoying life here in Arizona. And then I directed the conversation back to his immediate concerns.

After I hung up, I started thinking about life nearly three years into retirement,  remembering a conversation Bob and I had had just that morning about how retirement has ceased to be a dream and is now simply life. And, being real life, sometimes it's positive and sometimes not.

When we first moved here, we were living a dream: marveling at the miracle of not having to get up, commute through clogged freeways and go to work every day. We delighted in the gym and the friendly group of exercisers we came to know well. We luxuriated in long afternoons in the recreational pool making new friends and enjoying our neighbors. And, oh, the neighbors. After years of knowing few of our neighbors in California, we were thrilled to be friends with everyone on our street, sharing dinners, parties, outings, pet-sitting duties, long talks and the joy of connecting with new people in a new place.

Three years later, life feels a bit more familiar -- a good life somewhat short of a dream.

There are times when Bob misses being "The Pump God", a well-known expert in his hydraulic engineering field. There are times when I think wistfully about how I enjoyed seeing patients back in my practice in California. Yet neither of us really wants to go back to work at these pursuits. We're busy with other interests and goals now. And yet there are times when we look back with a wistfulness we never imagined would happen.

There are times when going to the gym just feels like a daily routine and spending an afternoon in the lovely recreational pool seems a drain on time that could be better spent. And, after an initial burst of uncharacteristically frequent social activity, we've regressed and settled into our more familiar introspective, introverted behavioral patterns.

I smile when I remember conversations we used to have in the pool during that magical summer of 2010 about the first people to move into our community, residents who had lived here for three years before we moved in. We agreed that they had major bad attitudes, weren't that friendly and  were curiously reserved about the joy of life in an active adult community.

Now we are them.

While there are some friends and neighbors we still enjoy greatly, reality has intruded on other neighborly relationships that have become less friendly, merely cordial, over time. Some neighbors have moved away already. Some have disappointed us...or have found us disappointing. So our neighborhood has ceased to be like an old television comedy -- with everyone dropping in and out of each others' homes -- and more like real life: distance with some, varying degrees of closeness with others.

While we still sometimes marvel at living in a resort community, the drawbacks we didn't anticipate when we bought our home nearly four years ago moderate our enthusiasm. We worry about the proposed copper mine that refuses to go away despite a series of resolutions passed by the town of Florence against in situ mining in a residential area. Some neighbors, initially charmed by our wide-open, rural location, now fret about our community's distance from shopping and movies and good restaurants, wondering if civilization will creep closer by the time they can no longer drive great distances.

In short, the retirement honeymoon is over.

In so many ways, it's like other phases of our lives after the thrill of novelty began to fade.

I remember a long-ago dinner party I enjoyed with six or seven journalism classmates about two years after graduation, when we were still quite new to our varied careers in the business. We were so enthusiastic, so idealistic, so excited about what we were doing and the directions our lives were taking. As the years went by, we still largely enjoyed what we did for a living, but reality had intruded: office politics, professional limitations, massive changes in the newspaper, magazine and book publishing industries. We all had our disappointments and battle scars to add to our work lore.

It's not so different with many marriages. Some people panic when the passion of their early love seems dimmed by the responsibilities of daily married life. I've seen clients in marriage counseling come close to giving up when they feared that love and passion were gone... when, in reality, their relationship was merely in transition, having one of those "distance then renewed closeness" phases that happen in long relationships.

It's not so different when some of the excitement fades from living one's retirement dream.

People have different reactions to this reality. Some put their homes up for sale and hope to live a dream anew elsewhere -- only to find, more often than not, that life elsewhere is pretty much the same. Some withdraw in disillusionment and disappointment. And some seek make the best of what is.

We're among the latter.

Realizing that constant happiness is an impossibility, even under the best of circumstances, we're making the choice to stay positive, to accept current reality and to make peace with what is.

A big factor in this is gratitude.  We are living with gratitude at having lived long enough and having the resources -- no thanks to recessions, bursting housing bubbles and decimated 401Ks -- to retire.

We keep warm memories of the past and good times in the present closest to our hearts. This means that Bob's memories of being a technical whiz at his workplace make him smile and give thanks for those moments in his life. It means that I look back with wonder and gratitude as I remember the patients who allowed me into their lives and the moments we shared together.

And we take joy in the best of the present -- a moment of clarity with a dear friend, wonder at the beauty of this new and very different place, the joy of being physically active and those wonderful days when nothing hurts.

We've come to understand that happiness comes most readily not from getting, but from giving, not from hedonistic pleasures but from doing what gives our lives meaning. This meaning can cover a wide area of daily life -- from tenderly cuddling an aging, arthritic pet to helping someone in need to  pursuing activities that make us excited to get up in the morning. And then there's the comfort and joy of sharing pain and hope and new experiences with each other.

Life is good.

Having a sense of well-being and contentment as this next phase of retirement unfolds comes from acceptance of what is, appreciation for what is positive and good in our lives and a growing sense of peace with what isn't. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My First Valentine

Valentine's Day was my least favorite holiday when I was growing up and watching, humiliated and heart-broken, as some of my grade school classmates got called up to the class Valentine box again and again while I sat disconsolately in my seat. If I were called up, it would be to get a tiny card given to me by another girl who -- like me -- wrote out Valentines for everyone in the class. I never got a Valentine from a boy --ever.

Once, in sixth grade, I bought a special Valentine card for Nicky Vianni, a cute and popular classmate on whom I had a very secret crush. I was too shy to sign my name, so merely signed it "Your Secret Admirer"  and dropped it in the class Valentine box when no one was looking. Nicky loved the card and was intrigued that he had a secret admirer. Who had dropped it in the box for him? My heart sank as he asked girl after girl if she had sent it. Finally, out of other options, he turned to me. Feeling my face turn a deep crimson, I admitted that I was his secret admirer. "You?" he said, trying without success to hide his disappointment. "Oh, well, thanks! It's a great card. Yes. Um. Well, thanks." And he hurried away.

But Valentine's Day wouldn't always be so bleak.

Ten years later, I held a Valentine in my hands that was heart-felt and from a guy. I was a senior in college. And there it was, in my dorm mailbox: my first Valentine! It was from the best possible person in my young life: my beloved friend Tim. The cover featured Juliet on a stage. Inside, it said "On my balcony, you're tops!"

I was thrilled. I stood there at the mailbox, just holding it, for a long time. Okay, so there were no sentiments of undying love, even though I dared to hope this was a sign that our friendship was evolving into something quite different. But even if it was simply a sweet declaration of friendship, I was delighted. It felt so wonderful to be remembered, to be thought of, to be loved as a friend (or maybe more) at long last on Valentine's Day!

And somehow, through all the romantic disappointment followed by renewed and joyous friendship that was to come, that card has stayed with me all these 46 years since, stashed securely in my memory and among treasured college mementos.


In the years since, I've received many Valentines from men who cared about and loved me. And such thoughtfulness has never ceased to delight me -- from my post-college dating days to the many Valentine's Days Bob and I have enjoyed together.

I have learned some important lessons along the way:

  • the value of love and affirmation from female friends: loving friendships with women, whether expressed by Valentines, sweet notes, emotional support or good talks are an invaluable part of the rich fabric of one's life
  • the value of treasuring a relationship for what it is rather than what one hopes it might be: whether it is appreciating the dear friend whose love has outlasted decades of romantic relationships or becoming newly aware of the blessings of one's marriage years after the honeymoon is history 
  • the value of letting those we love know how much they mean to us on a daily, rather than yearly, basis. Valentine's Day as we observe it, is, after all, a major commercial holiday, a day that consumers give the economy a boost with cards and chocolates and jewelry and dinners out. 

As time goes on, we come to realize that keeping a loving connection with another is much deeper and more meaningful than a Valentine's Day card -- or even chocolate.

We learn that love can mean saying you're sorry -- many, many times -- not only for the inevitable disappointments that daily life together can bring, but also for the pain that the world can inflict on a loved one. We learn that love is much more than romantic music and flowers. It can mean tending to a spouse who is unglamorously ill. It can mean finding sudden joy, together and by surprise, in unpromising circumstances. It can mean gratitude for a mature love that has weathered storms and challenges and moments of despair and still remains strong and enduring. And these lessons that the years bring are much sweeter than a pretty Valentine.

Yet, to this day, with all that I've learned and experienced in love, that first Valentine and the wonderful man who sent it, hold a special place in my heart.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Healing Times in Between

Many years ago, while interviewing psychotherapist Randi Gunther for a magazine article, I was struck by something she said about dealing with adversity -- and her words have stayed with me, through many dark moments, in the decades since.

She said that a vital life coping skill was "learning to laugh in the times in between your pain -- which makes you stronger for the next pain." And I have found that to be so. Laughing between the pain, experiencing joy in the midst of sorrow, a mini-summer in the middle of winter is incredibly life-enhacing.

I was reminded of this while visiting my dear friend Mary and her husband John at their beach condo north of L.A. this past week. Their lives revolve around a growing array of health challenges that John is facing and their days are far from easy. Yet there is love and joy in their home because they never lose sight of what they have shared and still share together and because they are so very good at finding small pleasures and laughing a lot between the challenges and the pain.

There are the joking, fun moments that John has with his remarkable care buddy Jesse, who, between the more ordinary caregiving duties, spends some time with John sitting on the condo's ocean view balcony, enjoying the sight and sound of the surf as well as some excellent cigars.

                                            John with Jesse enjoying their cigars

There are the moments of tenderness when Mary and John look at each other with love and reassurance that, as challenging as their life can be these days, life together is still very good.

                                  Mary and John during lunch in Santa Barbara          

And there are adventures together. This past Wednesday, Mary decided to drive north with all of us to celebrate Jesse's birthday at a secluded and wonderful restaurant on Hendry's Beach in Santa Barbara.

We sat outside and enjoyed seafood lunches while watching surfers, frolicking dogs and delighted small children splash in the chilly surf. We smiled when we saw the restaurant's shaded "Dog Parking Station" and made friends with a sweet Golden Retriever named Babaloo who was parked there. We toasted Jesse, laughed a lot and basked in the sunshine.

                                      Our table with a view of Hendry's beach

                                       Mary enjoying the sun and ocean air

               "Please! No singing waiters!" was Jesse's only birthday request      

     Savoring a sunny day at the beach with dear friends keeps me smiling 

                          Babaloo chills out at the restaurant's Dog Parking Post     

It was summer in February, a delightful respite from daily realities, a special time shared with very dear friends.

And our wonderful time together reminded me anew that laughing between the pain makes pain easier to bear and keeps joy and laughter in life, no matter how challenging our days.