Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Rainforest Reveries

As I look back wistfully to that special week, it seems a very long time ago. But it  has been only a month and a half since we were there.

It was a long-time dream, a trip two years in the planning: we would go to Hilo, Hawaii to visit my dear friend Jeanne Nishida Yagi and her husband Jimmy Yagi. And, while there, we decided, just this once, to rent a home nearby. It was a beautiful cabin on a ridge, in the middle of an island rainforest, with huge waterfalls at the back of the property.

I had seen the house years ago in Architectural Digest. It was built as a vacation retreat by a gay architect from San Francisco who died before having a chance to enjoy it. A local businessman bought it and keeps it as a vacation rental and special event venue called The Falls at Reed's Island. It is booked months, years in advance. (While we were there, the owner told us that he had just had to tell someone trying to reserve Christmas week 2015 that is was already booked.) We saved considerable money by making our reservations two years ago. And all the time since, we had been anticipating, dreaming of our stay there.

We could never have imagined, even looking at the beautiful pictures on the website, just how wonderful it would be: the steady and comforting sounds of water -- the falls, the river, the rain -- throughout the house and the living sounds of the rainforest -- birds by day, singing frogs by night. There were the mists and rainbows and lush tropical vegetation, flowers growing wild.

Bob meditating in the back yard of The Falls

View from the kitchen window

With the soothing sights and sounds, my thoughts settled into reverie...    

I thought about the joy of new experiences -- being in a place so new, so different, so unfamiliar, yet comforting and the wonder of beauty all around us, so vivid, from every window. Every glimpse outside was a delight and a revelation.

I thought about how we so often take for granted and stop seeing the beauty most familiar to us so quickly.... and wondered what delights I might be overlooking at home. I made a vow to reconnect with the unique beauty awaiting us at home  -- the startling clarity of a desert sky at night, the smell of the desert after a monsoon rain, the colors of blooming palo verde in the spring and the sweet, unexpected smell of citrus blossoms in the air.

I thought with love and a bit of worry about our ailing cat Gus -- how he would love the smells and sounds of the rainforest, how he blessed our lives every day, how I wanted to soothe and comfort him all the remaining days of his life, never realizing that we would have only a week together between our return and his death. But there in the rainforest, I felt a loving connection to Gus as I was surrounded by forces of nature and quietly accepted the fact that sooner rather than later, we would lose this beloved animal but treasure having known him forever.

I thought that, for all the beauty of this wondrous place, the greatest joy of this trip was spending time with my friend Jeanne and her family.

I thought about the meaning of long friendships in our lives. Jeanne and I have been friends since our early days of college. At that time, we were united in being geographically unusual: she, a native of Hilo, Hawaii and I hailing from Los Angeles, were among the few warm weather natives traveling to Northwestern's campus north of Chicago. A year ahead of Jeanne, I was matched with her as a Big Sister to ease her transition on campus. We clicked and have been dear friends since.

We braved the Great Storm of '67 together -- venturing out for ice cream with the conditions still near white-out, spending a Christmas together later that year in my graduate student apartment complete with Christmas tree and cookies Jeanne baked and a holiday dinner we cooked together. There were letters and phone calls and visits in our early career years, particularly after Jeanne returned to Hawaii after working for the Peace Corps in Saipan and Washington, D.C.  We battled weight gains and celebrated periods of svelteness and mourned the loss of several dear friends together. She was at my side in 1977 when I married Bob and I was delighted when she married Jimmy in 1980.

It was -- and is -- a marriage made in heaven. She is an avid basketball fan, he a well-regarded basketball coach with an international reputation. His first wife Carol, a dear friend of Jeanne's, died of cancer in the late Seventies and Jeanne and Jimmy fell in love while sharing their grief and loving memories of Carol. They spent their honeymoon at a basketball camp in Colorado. This is a partnership that was meant to be. "We make a great team," Jimmy said smiling fondly at his wife during our visit.

                                                  Jeanne and Jimmy Yagi

They have both had health challenges in the past year, but have come through with the support of a loving extended family and each other.

                                Sunday brunch with Jeanne (center) and family

It was wonderful to see the love and humor and generosity of spirit abound -- even more beautiful, more soothing, than the sights and sounds of the rainforest.

                                    We decided to make visits a new tradition.

"Please make this a tradition at least once a year," Jeanne said quietly before we left and again in an email. "It doesn't have to cost you any more than airfare. Stay with us next time. Use our second car."

The important thing, we agreed, was having time, more time together, time to talk, time to enjoy the friendship that first blossomed in our teens and that has thrived into our golden years.

Waterfalls are gorgeous, but nothing is more glorious than joy and love in the eyes of a dear friend.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Retirement's Moments of Quiet Desperation

There was a time when the dream of retirement fired imaginations: with visions of a better life, a happier life, in a resort setting or simply relaxing in a long-time home, lingering over coffee, no alarm clocks, no demanding bosses, no office politics -- just a sort of endless, delicious summer where one's life would be one's own.

For some, retirement is this dream fulfilled.

For others, there are moments of quiet desperation, despite lovely settings and abundant leisure time.

There are those who find that their money is disappearing much faster than they ever imagined and that they may need to go back to work at an age when employers are less welcoming and physical limitations may preclude most work possibilities.

There are those who are increasingly distressed by diminished physical capabilities, by the aches and pains and limitations of age.

There are those who find time hanging heavy. They don't know what to do with themselves -- and may regret leaving the work force.

There are those who feel trapped in a marriage that worked, somehow, before retirement because the couple didn't spend much time together. I've seen such desperation in the couple who hunker down at the local McDonald's or Starbucks: he on his cellphone, she clipping coupons for hours on end without any interaction with each other. There was a couple in a doctor's waiting room, she on oxygen, he looking distant and grim and they were sniping at each other. There are couples, too, who readily admit that they are sick of each other but can't afford to divorce, unable to live on divided assets.

All of these issues take on more urgency because of the serial losses of aging and letting go and, at the same time, because of a sense of limited time and resources. The window of opportunity for new beginnings is closing and the choice, for many, seems to be between striking out in a late-life change or accepting what is, however unsatisfactory that may feel.

Some of these moments of quiet desperation are, at least in part, the result of planning based on fantasy:  that there would be enough money somehow, that happiness would come with freedom, that less than perfect relationships would transform in a new setting or lifestyle.

And these moments of desperation come when the fantasies fail to blossom into reality -- and when reality shows some harsh truths: that one's body isn't what it used to be and one is unlikely to morph from coach potato to super-athlete with a little more gym time; that the money required to maintain your working lifestyle is not enough and you're faced with a choice of changing your expectations or going back to work; that negative relationships and relationship patterns are unlikely to change without hard work from both of you -- or some hard choices; that focusing solely on self and pleasure isn't the key to nirvana.

Adjusting to the gap between expectations and reality, making your life in retirement work for you may take some major changes on your part. Even changes that feel small can make a big difference.

Some steps that could make a positive difference:

Want what you have.  Instead of dreaming of the unattainable or looking back with longing on a former lifestyle fueled by two good incomes, take a look with gratitude at what you have now: a roof over your head, healthy food, the freedom to create life anew, the love of friends and family and treasured pets. Life can feel wonderful when you live with gratitude for what you have.

Find beauty where you are.  Maybe you dreamed of retiring to a seaside cottage or a cool urban condo and found both out of your reach. So you're living in the same old house in the same old suburb or in a modest condo, apartment or mobile home. Or perhaps you're living in a nice new retirement home in a strange new place -- maybe simply a new town in a different state or maybe in a manufactured oasis in the middle of a desert. Adjusting to what is and looking around with new eyes, you can begin to appreciate the comfort of your long-time home and familiar surroundings. You can take a deep breath and vow to discover all the positives in your new home town -- even if you've relocated to a place that suddenly feels desolate. If you let yourself, you can find beauty in the uniqueness of a desert environment or a busy urban area or the singular charm of a smaller town. When you open your heart to what is, disappointments can turn to joy.

To improve your relationship, try acting and reacting in different ways.  You don't get positive change by repeating those same old behaviors over and over. So try something new.

Do thoughtful things for each other instead of staying locked into gender roles.  A friend of mine told me recently that her across the street neighbor, who has severely arthritic hands, had called her during the dinner hour and asked her come lift a cooking pot filled with water and pasta to the sink for draining and rinsing. The woman's husband was sitting in a lounger not 10 feet from the stove. But he felt that anything to do with cooking and kitchen duty was women's work.

Look at nagging in a new way. If the nagging is about your health and less than ideal lifestyle habits, instead of bristling, try seeing the love and caring behind the grousing.

Have a serious, loving talk and enlist each other's help in overcoming bad habits -- like snapping at each other or tuning each other out or cutting each other off conversationally during social events. Agree on a subtle signal that says "Please stop!" at the first sign of irritation triggers or excessive and pointless criticism. This isn't a matter of convincing your spouse to act in a more civil manner. Monitor your own behavior, note what needs to change and see if your relationship doesn't improve.

Change your focus to making life better for others. We all have aches, pains, limitations and disappointments as we enter the later decades of life. But these seem less onerous if we shift our focus to others: perhaps peers less fortunate than we are, perhaps to younger family members who could use a helping hand, loving guidance and affirmation, perhaps to strangers in need -- people who are homeless, those in hospitals, children needing extra help in the classroom, animals in need of rescuing or fostering. There is so much that needs to be done to make life easier for those around us. We're limited only by our willingness to get involved. With volunteer work, a small business or an expanded hobby, with a desire to help others, we can help ourselves as well.

There are, of course, some moments of quiet desperation that are triggered by tragic turns in our lives and aren't so easily solved simply with attitude adjustments or small changes. But for many of the disappointments and moments of disillusionment that come as we settle into retirement, it's important to remember that happiness in retirement isn't automatic because wherever you go, there you are. Your emotional baggage and habits and behavior patterns follow you wherever you go. So take a look around ....and open your eyes, your heart and your mind... and see what a difference you can make in your own life and the lives of those around you.