Reflections, Retirement

Lasts, and the road ahead

In August I publicly announced that I would be retiring at the end of June, 2018 when my current contract with my employer comes to an end.  Ten months is a long notice period, and June still feels like a very long way away, but as autumn slides into winter I can feel the time getting shorter and the “lasts” mounting up.

I’ve had my last performance evaluation, and experienced my last audit.  I just got back from what is probably my last professional conference, or at least the last that I will attend as a working professional.   I’ve been through  my last election cycle for my publicly elected governing board, and my last of a variety of recurring programs and activities. I am now replying to invitations to many work-related holiday parties and events that have become traditions over the past 14 years knowing they too will be my last.

Each of these lasts marks another step on the journey to a future that I have planned for, and dreamed, of for many years, so they are in that sense happy occasions.  But these lasts are also associated with people who I have come to know well and care about deeply but  may rarely (if ever) see once I retire, so each is also bittersweet.

I have many plans for the next phase of my life’s journey and long lists of projects I want to complete, trips I want to take, activities I want to explore, and books I want to read. After many years where my social life was inextricably intertwined with my work and professional live, I have successfully created a life outside of work, with friends who are not tied to my profession or my job.  I have worked hard to make sure our finances are in order, and am confident that we can sustain our lifestyle even when the inevitable economic downturns come.  In short,  as much as I think I can be, I am ready.

At the same time, I am acutely aware that there is much that I do not know about the road ahead…from “little” things like the specifics of how our days will unfold without the structure of my job, to how our relationship will fare with so much togetherness, to the big uncertainties about Don’s health (and mine!) and how the aging process will affect our lives.  I would be lying if I said that I was not more than a little anxious about these things.

A few weeks ago one of my favorite blogs, Rob Firchau’s The Hammock Papers, had a poem by David Whyte that I keep reading and re-reading –

The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way
to your future now but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water, going where shadows go,
no way to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let you pass
except to call an end to the way you had come,
to take out each frayed letter you brought
and light their illumined corners, and to read
them as they drifted through the western light;
to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that;
to promise what you needed to promise all along,
and to abandon the shoes that had brought you here
right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up
but because now, you would find a different way to tread,
and because, through it all, part of you could still walk on,
no matter how, over the waves.

David Whyte

At this time of “sorting this and leaving that” I am finding that David Whyte’s beautiful words are a great comfort…
Letting Go, Reflections, travel

Keeping the “Greek Magic” alive

We got back from Greece on Friday evening after a 3:30 am wake up call, nearly 24 hours of travel from door to door, and a Zurich airport adventure tracking down a carry on bag we accidentally left on the plane from Athens.  We did get the bag back, but it took 5,000 steps, four trips through passport control, and a $50 fee to do it!  Jet lag has us waking up in the wee small hours of the morning, but other than that it has been a pretty smooth transition back to the reality of our daily lives.

It was a great trip and a wonderful experience.  We saw beautiful places, enjoyed delicious food, and had a nice mix of group tours and time on our own, and of activities and down time.  Most importantly we reconnected and rekindled the loving relationship that had gotten buried in the stress and anxiety of all of the challenges and changes in our lives.  Don’s physical and cognitive symptoms even noticeably improved while we were away.

We’ve been talking about how we can keep this “Greek magic” alive now that we are home.

Managing stress is certainly one important factor, as was having the time and space to really talk, but I also think that I can take some of the credit for managing my own expectations and reactions.  When Don puts something away in the wrong place, or misplaces something, or asks the same question five times in the space of 30 minutes I’ve been working hard on just taking a deep breath and letting it go rather than correcting him, or nagging him, or getting exasperated.  It takes just seconds to move something to the right spot, or two answer a question, and usually the thing that is misplaced is just as easily replaced if we really can’t find it.

I’ve also been working on receiving his love when he demonstrates it in the ways that are natural and meaningful for him.  Instead of expecting him to show me love in the way I would do it and getting upset when he doesn’t, I try to remember that just because he doesn’t always show love in the ways that I want (like giving me gifts) doesn’t make it any less heartfelt.

The result is that he is less anxious,  I am less on edge, and we both feel more loved and more loving.

All of this was relatively easy for me when we were in the vacation bubble, but the trick will be keeping it up when I am stressed out by work, too many commitments, and not enough alone time or down time – especially as we head into the crazy holiday season.

This morning during my jog I listened to one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite artists – Between Heaven and Here by Kris Kristofferson and realized that it could have been written for me.  It has some great lines that go to the heart of the changes I need to sustain if I want our Greek magic to continue – I think half my battle to stop “wasting my feelings on something that so little matters” and the other half is remembering that “Maybe the secret is making believe when it matters.”  I’m going to listen to the song daily to remind me what I need to do…

Enjoy!

 

 

 

Reflections, travel

Greek Magic

We are 2/3 of the way through our Greek vacation, and despite my intent to post every couple of days there has not been time.

We were surprisingly unjetlagged in the wee small hours of Wednesday morning despite travelling more than 20 hours thanks in no small part to the nearly lie flat business class seats that we were able to get with points.  No such luck on the way home, though  – we’ll be back to our usual economy class.

We walked about 10 miles on Wednesday seeing the sites of Athens, did a two day tour to Delphi and the Meteora monasteries, came back to Athens for another day of sightseeing, and are now relaxing at the end of our 2nd day on Mykonos.  Tomorrow we head off for a couple of days on Santorini and then start the long trek home via another night in Athens.

Don has been a trouper, walking all over the uneven stones and climbing endless stairs despite achilles tendinitis and the challenges of an ever-shortening gait and blurred vision in one eye that affects his depth perception.  (The shortened gait is one of a constellation of symptoms that we will be seeing a neurologist about, but that is a story for another time.)

In between we’ve had some of the most honest conversations we’ve had in years, including one about his age and health issues and how they might affect future travel,  seen incredible sites and scenery, eaten amazing food in some very romantic locations, and just enjoyed the time together.

Now we need to figure out how to bring some of the magic back to our ordinary lives as we face the stresses and challenges ahead.

Gratitude, Reflections, travel

Gliding into vacation

Don and I are getting ready to head off on a long-awaited trip to Greece this afternoon, celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary and his 75th birthday.  After 30 years of marriage we know that the lead-up to a big trip can be a bit rocky as my obsession with checklists and detailed plans kicks into high gear and his anxieties flare up, but we have (mostly) learned to manage,  Once we are on our way our better selves (usually) reappear and we thrive on the adventure of seeing new places and the relief of being away from our day-to-day routines, responsibilities, and stresses.

This time the lead up to our trip has been different, and much more pleasant.  My sister and her husband arrived from Canada on Friday evening.  They’ll be using our home as their vacation home for most of the time that we are away, and we’ve enjoyed spending time with them this “overlap weekend.”

For the first time that I can remember I am heading off on a big trip almost totally relaxed.  Usually our guest room is packing central and the bed is covered with suitcases and clothes until right before departure, but this time I had to get everything packed up before our visitors arrived so I could stash the closed up bags in our home office.  While I did do a little bit of shifting things from bag to bag over the past couple of days, having everything pretty much packed and ready to go meant I could really relax in the lead up to the trip.

And a relaxing few days it has been!

Friday night we tried out a new, very good Mexican restaurant after picking my sister and brother-in-law up from the airport.  Saturday afternoon my sister and I enjoyed a spa day and massages at a local day spa thanks to the gift cards I had been accumulating for many months, while my brother-in-law and Don checked out a classic car show and then had massages at the franchise place where we are members.  Then we walked down to the ocean and saw an amazing sunset before a nice dinner at home.

Yesterday morning, and again this morning, it was beach time.  We live only 3 1/2 blocks from the ocean and we walk the dog along the Esplanade above the beach every weekday morning and once or twice a week in the evening for sunset, but we don’t get down to the beach itself anywhere near as often as I would like.  I am a water baby, and being in the ocean truly washes all of my cares away.

The past couple of days have been spectacular beach days.  The air is a warm, and the water is a cool but refreshing 67 degrees.  Mornings are my favorite time at the beach because the winds are calm, with no wind chop on the ocean and little of the accompanying kelp and murkiness.  There has also been no surf, so the water was crystal clear.

Swimming is my go to exercise – I love the feel of the water, the way my body stretches as I move, and the opportunity to let my mind wander without distractions.  I swim laps in the pool at our gym several times a week, but my true joy is swimming in the ocean.

So it was a real blessing to be able to swim out to the buoy both of the last two mornings, clearing my head and getting my heart pumping.  Both days I saw plenty of fish, and this morning I also saw a school of about two dozen stingrays gliding along beside me – just awesome!

So I head off for our trip relaxed and refreshed…and thinking that I need to plan a “glide path” like this before every trip.

 

Aging, Letting Go, Reflections

Learning to let go of control

I am a planner and a list-maker.

I set goals (annual, monthly, and daily), and have created spreadsheets with detailed retirement plans and budgets based on multiple scenarios, and multi-year home maintenance and improvement plans.  Each month I create a master meal plan, which is refined into a weekly plan as the month unfolds.

I also use a web-based tool (ToodleDo) for my master “to do” list.  It synchronizes my master list across all of my computers and devices, allows me to forward emails to it for conversion into tasks,  allows me to create recurring tasks of varying frequencies, and averages between 90 and 100 items at any point in time.

This master to do list is supplemented by a multitude of other lists, among them weekly shopping lists, a daily task list at work, a pre-trip planning checklist that I store on my computer and update each time I travel, a holiday gift list to track what I’ve bought and spent on Christmas gifts each year, and a daily “honey do” list for Don.

The Notes app on my iPad and iPhone contain lists of meal and menu ideas, and of books I want to read and movies/tv shows I want to watch.

My “bullet journal” has lists of books I’ve read and movies I’ve watched, blog post ideas, projects I want to complete, activities I want to pursue in retirement, places I want to visit, my “bucket list,” and a “habit tracker” where I record progress on fitness and other goals.

I sometimes half-joke that my devotion to plans and lists is a sickness, and according to this article there may be some truth to that!

I get great pleasure out of seeing goals achieved, plans executed, and items checked off a list, and the more stressful, chaotic, and busy my life and the world get the more I cling to my plans and lists – almost as if they are a security blanket.

Don, on the other hand is (as our therapist has noted!), a live in the moment, go with the flow kind of guy.  He is certainly capable of making a plan when pushed to do so, but he does need to be pushed and he does find it a struggle.  He’s made various attempts at mastering to do lists over the years, from carrying a small notebook that he labelled “Don’s Brain” to apps on his phone, but hasn’t been able to stick with any of them.

More than not being able to stick with them, he actually seems to think that if he needs to rely on lists and reminders there is something wrong with him.  Since he retired, and in light of his short-term memory issues, I create a weekly schedule and daily “honey do” lists that we leave on the counter that serves as the central hub of our house.  He has been really good about reviewing them every day, doing what they say, and checking things off as they are completed and has even come to rely on them…but when he tells others about this reliance it’s almost as if this is something to be ashamed of.

One consequence of this fundamental difference in our make ups is that over the years (as you can see above)  I have assumed pretty much all of the “planning” duties from financial and retirement planning to vacation planning to smaller things like making dinner reservations.  Mostly I’m fine with this because it also feeds my need for control, but I also feel the weight of responsibility and it gets very tiring sometimes.

Not surprisingly, this has been a source of tension throughout our marriage.

Given his stage of life and his cognitive challenges, and the insights I am gaining from therapy, I am realizing that any hope I might have had that he would take on some of the planning work is both unrealistic and unfair to him.

I’m also realizing the extent to which all of my planning and lists are really a manifestation of my need for control, and that this could be a real problem as we ride the waves of change that aging and health/cognitive issues are bringing to our shore.

If I am going to survive the coming months and years, I need to learn how to loosen up on the reins.  If I don’t I can see that I will make life miserable for myself, and for Don too.  I need to find the balance between planning and preparing for the future and making sure that everything that is essential to the smooth functioning of our lives gets taken care of, and going with the flow of what is happening in the moment even when it is something different from what I planned for.

Wish me luck….I suspect that this might be one of the biggest challenges the future holds for me.

 

 

 

Gratitude, Reflections, Therapy

Expectations…again

William Shakespeare wrote that “Expectation is the root of all heartache” – a lesson that I just can’t seem to learn.

Just two short weeks ago I wrote about expectations and gratitude, citing Ray Wylie Hubbard’s statement that “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.”

Yesterday Don and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary, and I managed to keep my expectations way higher than my gratitude, making for a miserable day for both of us.

Following our therapist’s advice we’ve been working on understanding and acting on one another’s “love languages” based on The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.  An overly simplified explanation is that people differ in how we express and receive love, and that these differences can be broadly categorized into five “love languages”.   If someone expresses love to us in a way that does not align with our love language we might not even interpret the behavior as loving, leading to misunderstandings, confusion, and heartache.

My primary love language is “receiving gifts.”  To quote from the Five Love Languages website “If you speak this language, the perfect gift or gesture shows that you are known, you are cared for, and you are prized above whatever was sacrificed to bring the gift to you. A missed birthday, anniversary, or a hasty, thoughtless gift would be disastrous – so would the absence of everyday gestures. Gifts are visual representations of love and are treasured greatly.”

Don’s primary love languages are “acts of service” (which is pretty much what it sounds like – having someone do things that ease their burden of responsibilities) and “words of affirmation.  According to the website “If this is your love language, unsolicited compliments mean the world to you. Hearing the words, “I love you,” are important – hearing the reasons behind that love sends your spirits skyward. Insults can leave you shattered and are not easily forgotten. Kind, encouraging, and positive words are truly life-giving.”

The challenge for us comes with the understanding that, while “acts of service” are pretty important to me, “words of affirmation” is way down my list of preferences, while for Don “receiving gifts” is at the bottom of his list.  I have to make a conscious effort to remember to affirm him and his actions to reinforce that I love him, while he really struggles (and has throughout our marriage) with gift giving which has been the source of much tension and meltdowns throughout our marriage.

It doesn’t help that  because of childhood experiences with words that were never backed by action or real demonstrations of love, for me “words of affirmation” ring false and usually trigger anger and a profound sense of loss.  And I have my own theories about childhood traumas that make giving gifts so very hard for him…

We’d actually read The Five Love Languages a few years ago on our own and didn’t really follow through on applying the concepts, but have been making an effort to put the ideas into practice over the past couple of weeks as our therapist suggested in the hopes that we could move past the hurt and start to show each other the love we each feel in ways that are meaningful to the other person.

Which brings us to yesterday, our 30th wedding anniversary…

I’m not going to go into all of the gory details (we do have a personal life after all!) but suffice it to say that I had put some effort into picking out a card that really expressed my love in his “words of affirmation” love language, and included a small gift because that is my preferred way of expressing love.

I had left him a reminder about my preferred love language on his daily “honey do” list, and while I wasn’t expecting anything extravagant I was expecting a gift of some kind.  What I got was a “card” that he had printed on the computer with a single line of text saying he loved me.

I tried to say thank you but my disappointment was obvious, and when he noticed and realized that he had hurt me I dissolved into tears that turned into sobs.  He really can’t cope when I get upset, so he panics and shuts down…and that is what happened.  What I wanted was for him to try to make it right – to go out and buy a gift or take some other action that would let me know that he understood why I was hurt.  What I got was  verbal apologies and hand-wringing…but no action.

This was a huge trigger and the longer it went on the more hurt and upset I got, and the more upset I got the less capable he became of taking action…all because of my expectations that Don didn’t, and probably wasn’t able to, meet.

This is not a new dance for us…

Fortunately, we had scheduled an appointment for our therapist for yesterday afternoon, figuring our anniversary was as good a time as any to work on our relationship.  As we talked about what was happening I learned that Don had set out to buy me a gift, but got so anxious about finding just the right thing that he panicked and never made it out of the car.  While this gave me some empathy, it didn’t actually relieve the hurt and it meant a lot to me that our therapist acknowledged that feeling hurt was not an unreasonable response.  She also gave Don some ideas about managing his anxiety, and about gift giving…although between his emotional state and his mild cognitive impairment I don’t think he retained much of this.

After our session she (bless her) took her own time to go with Don to buy a gift for me while I went home.

The gift helped assuage some of the hurt, but unfortunately while I was home walking the dog I again built up expectations that this would be a turning point and that he would truly understand why I need him to “speak my love language” even though it is hard and not natural for him and even though his cognitive issues make it even harder.

We headed off to watch the sunset and have dinner, but I could not let go of those expectations and kept pressing him (drilling him, really) about my love language and what he could do to meet my needs and expectations.  Let’s just say the evening was full of tension and less than a success…again due to unrealistic expectations on my part.

I still wasn’t able to let go of these expectations this morning so I left for work on a sour note, but he actually came to my office and brought me a little gift, which went a long way towards making me feel heard, appreciated, and loved.  The fact remains, however,  that my expectations may have been understandable, but they were also unrealistic given our history (and our individual histories), how early we are on our therapy journey, and Don’s cognitive issues….and the result, as Shakespeare so wisely predicted all those centuries ago, was heartache.

As we move forward I am realizing that, fair or not, my ability to manage my expectations and my reactions to how those expectations are met is going to determine whether I/we are miserable or are able to navigate this journey through the next phases of our life with some semblance of grace.

The path ahead lies in finding ways to help Don give me the love I need in the way I crave it (and when he can’t, finding healthy ways to give it to myself), in giving him the love he deserves in his love languages, in making the investment in therapy even though it gives me budget anxiety, in carving out time to swim, meditate, and reflect, in staying connected with friends and maybe even being more honest with them about what is going on in our lives and, most of all, in keeping my gratitude higher than my expectations.  Given my personality I think it will be a pretty steep climb, but I’m lacing up my hiking boots and hoping I am ready to take it on.

 

 

Aging, Reflections

Perspectives

We returned Tuesday evening from a short trip to Vancouver Island for our niece’s wedding.  The outdoor wedding was lovely if a bit chilly, we really like our new nephew-in-law, and we got to spend quality time with family, including extended family members that we rarely see…all in one of the world’s most beautiful places.

For me the trip was also a bit of a wake up call, starting with my airplane reading on the flight from LA to Seattle – a book called Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade.  Our therapist recommended that we revisit the ideas in a book called The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, which  has really helped me understand some long-standing dynamics in our relationship, so I was excited to see a book that applies the love languages concept to relationships where one person suffers from cognitive impairment.

I was glad I read Keeping Love Alive, and am sure I will go back and re-read it more than once, but it was also a sobering look at the reality we face if Don’s currently mild cognitive impairment progresses.  It contains some beautiful stories about couples facing this challenge, and more than once I had to turn away from Don to hide the tears streaming down my cheeks.  I read the entire book in one gulp on the 2 1/2 hour plane trip, and by the time I finished I was both scared and hopeful about what the future might hold.  Scared because I had an insight of this future from the perspectives of what the book calls  “care partners” (as opposed to care givers), and hopeful because I could see how love persists even in this most difficult and challenging situation.

With all of this fresh in my mind I was given another dose of reality and another perspective when, without them saying a word, it became obvious that family members were seeing more of a decline in Don’s abilities than I have been seeing.  Nobody said anything directly, but there were veiled comments to me, and a solicitousness towards Don and towards me that was a new, even from family members that we had spent time with just last Christmas.

I am with Don every day, and I think that in that circumstance you adjust incrementally to incremental changes and don’t have a good sense of the cumulative effect where someone who only sees a person once in a while can see the changes much more clearly.  I had a similar experience when we visited our family in New Jersey in June and our niece commented on how much I now do for Don  – which is true, but something that has happened gradually and over a long period of time with the result that I have not really been aware of how much of the burden of managing our daily lives I have come to shoulder.  From this perspective, I think the “decline” our family sees when they are with Don only once or twice a year is accurate because they have a different benchmark than I do.

At the same time, because I am with Don every day I think I also see more of what he is still capable of  – things that people who only see him once or twice a year do not see – and it is a lot.  He is still a capable driver, participates in and enjoys his exercise classes at the gym, socializes with our friends, does all of the daily housecleaning and most of the laundry, cleans up after our meals, gets dinner started many evenings, participates in social media, programs the DVR to record his hockey games, remembers to take his medications….pretty much everything that goes into normal living.

I also think that he is “better” at home with our daily routines and familiar surroundings, and without the stress and drama that being with family brings…especially family that is as loud, opinionated, and intense as mine can be.  Even people with no cognitive or other issues who didn’t grow up in that environment get that “deer in the headlights” look when our family gets going, and Don’s hearing impairment doesn’t help the situation.

The end of our trip was marked by the Route 91 mass shooting.  One of my key staff members was at the concert and narrowly escaped with her life, bringing this tragedy very close to home.  She is safe, but the whole situation reminded me that to a large extent life is a crap shoot.  It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself because your partner is demonstrating the frailty of aging when you see so many beautiful lives cut short, and so many people wounded both physically and emotionally, by a random act of violence.

The reality of Don’s condition is probably somewhere between what our family seemed to see and what I experience every day – it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that we are both still here, still loving each other even after 30 years of marriage, and still able to enjoy doing many things together.

It’s all a matter of perspective.