“We’re going to miss you. You may not be aware, but you’ve been an asset to your neighbors, and the neighborhood,” a fellow former teacher, neighbor and parent to former student, Cole, told me the other day. He’s 23 now. An assistant superintendent at a local golf club. Schooled at the University of Hawaii as an agriculture major, his first job out of college and he makes $73,000 a year. Amazing, right? He’s doing well. His family’s doing well. I remember Cole’s pregnant mom jogging to the beach, then strolling him down the hill, and sitting across from her at parent-teacher conferences. Now “our” boy’s a gainfully employed man!
But me, an asset?
What a compliment, no, the ultimate compliment! Because that’s the only thing I have ever really wanted: To leave the world, and its inhabitants, better than I found it. Or as the song from “Wicked”, “For Good”, goes:
Just look at me
And just look at you
You can do all I couldn’t do, Glinda
So now it’s up to you
For both of us
Now it’s up to you
I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But
Because I knew you
I have been changed for good
It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend
Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But
Because I knew you
Because I knew you
I have been changed for good
And just to clear the air
I ask forgiveness
For the things I’ve done you blame me for
But then, I guess we know there’s blame to share
And none of it seems to matter anymore
Like a comet pulled from orbit (like a ship blown from its mooring)
As it passes a sun (by a wind off the sea)
Like a stream that meets a boulder (like a seed dropped by a bird)
Halfway through the wood (in the wood)
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
I do believe I have been changed for the better
And because I knew you
Because I knew you
Because I knew you
I have been changed
I love this song so much. (Katie, how much? SOOOO much) I took my grandsons, Jack and Bronson, to see their first Broadway show a few weeks ago. It was a choice between “The Lion King” or “Wicked”. Tough decision, but I decided the three of us NEEDED to see my fave musical of all times: Naturally, I was in tears throughout the entire performance. Looking at my cheering, engaged grandsons, I felt immensely blessed by this closed-circle moment. Incredible. Emotional, on par with this version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZ0pXUb5jVU
Like Elphaba and Glinda from “Wicked”, without being totally aware or conscience of it, I seemed to have made a positive difference to my neighborhood community by simply loving this old house. Over the almost 30 years, Angel Cove Cottage by the Sea has been my heartbeat: I cut and pasted, covered up, uncovered, and cherished this little patch of a project to the best of my financial and otherwise ability. I did it for me, for my family, and all the people who drove and walked past this sweet little engine that could. Turns out, our home was a lighthouse, a beacon of love and light, a place where people could walk past and smile and feel their own creative magic stir. Ours was a place of imagination, promise, that I only now that I’m moving, am learning about.
Truth is, I always hoped this would happen, that Angel Cove would inspire hope. But I wasn’t sure the magic of a garden, of an old farmhouse-exterior, could crack the veneer of condo’ed, Zoomed-out, Covid-ized neighbors. But now that I’ve sold almost everything and the movers will vanish the Leaning Tower of Pisa Memories on Monday—now, now—every single day, I talk to a half dozen neighbors, some of whom I have never met before, who stop their cars, wave, and tell me, “Thank you.”
It is immensely gratifying. Because I know we saved her from the bulldozer all those decades ago—and decades to come—because we had the City declare her a historic treasure. All that work, all that love, seems to have made a difference to others, to strangers, who needed a lift, who needed to re-direct their thoughts, if just for a moment.
These days, bear with me, I’m into lessons and the Grand Meaning of Moments aka The Patchwork Quilt of Life. So here goes Ms. Barker’s Chalkboard Life Lessons:
First, follow your gut. No matter what anyone else says, create a beautiful, unique environment that represents you, not some Netflix designer show. “Perfection” is boring. Your vision is way more interesting than some clone postcard/TV series.
Two: Don’t wait. Now, at the eleventh hour, I realize that I didn’t need a poofed-up, stain-free couch or matching dishes or Iron Chef-inspired food to invite people over. I could have always worn my 20-year-old dressing gown. Who cares? This is one of my biggest regrets is that I waited, that I set up ridiculous expectations. And now that I’m leaving, I’ve met these loving, caring neighbors who could have been my best friends, but I was “too afraid” to welcome them into my little imperfect world.
I limited my life because I felt limited.
More lessons are sure to follow as Angel Cove becomes more echo-y. But this never-ending moving process is, apparently, just what I needed. I needed time to shed, time to grieve, time to box-up and toss and put in pile and clean and reflect.
Next week, as I wait-out the close of escrow, I have been gifted Time to walk down to the Pier, listen to music, swim in the sea, finish that Sue Monk Kidd novel I started months ago, and bathe in the solitude of gratitude and peace.
Soon, I will no longer be a home owner. I will be a visitor. A thinker. A listener. An explorer.
Turns out, all this the stuff littering the dining room was more than just stuff. It was clay.
It’s been hard for me to write. It’s been hard for me to talk. It’s been hard for me to breathe. It’s been hard for me to put one foot in front of the other, knowing that everything is about to change; accepting, crying, laughing, my actions inspiring various family members to be unhappy/annoyed/righteously pissed off at me because—EVERYTHING is about to change.
I’ve known every day I needed to write, needed to cry on the page—NEEDED TO EXPRESS MYSELF AND FIGURE THINGS OUT.
It’s been a whirlwind. A tornado. A cataclysmic, seismic, Earth-rumbling last few months.
The Move is happening.
It’s not happening. The buyer dropped her offer. I countered. She found issues. OF COURSE!!! I live in a 100+ year-old house that’s been patched up with mortar and love and love and love and crossed-fingers for the entire almost 30 years I’ve owned her. She’s a mess, like her mom. But she is lovable and wonderful and my grandkids accept her, and me, and don’t dwell on our mutual flaws. To my little ragamuffins, Angel Cove Cottage by the Sea and her potbellied, floppy-chinned, grey-haired Grandma/Mama are perfect. Our little home by the Pier has provided a refuge where we can paint and grow and plant and spill and drip and dribble and be bare-footed and pajama-ed throughout the day. Here, we can build forts and paint rocks and drink wine and refill the imperfectly-engineered pond again and again because, that’s what we do.
Here, in this land of dirt and four-legged family member hair, and dog and cat ashes, and egrets and fish and spiders and mosquitos and fire pit cabernet nights (and mornings and afternoons), we can be our imperfect selves.
Angel Cove Cottage by the Sea and her sister, rentable, partner-in-crime, Moonstone Cottage by the Sea is our perfect, imperfect abode:
This beautiful, paint-chipped, termite-gnawed home has been my place, my vision, a sanctuary I have forever seen as beautiful and hopeful, a creative, open-canvas refuge that my carpenter dad tried to sway me away from “a money pit” and toward a more modern dwelling. He wanted me to knock it down and build three on a lot and make a profit.
But I couldn’t. I felt Angel’s soul. I listened to her secrets. I understood her story.
Here was a place I could grow and imagine.
Why then, you might ask, would I sell a home that I obviously love?
The question has been torturing me for a very long time.
Frankly, it has to do with money. With responsibilities I can’t afford as a single, retired woman. It has to do with a sense of duty and not being able to be an adequate caregiver to a home that needs a healthy checking account to keep her afloat, to launch her into the next generation. I don’t happen to have a bunch of cash to do all the fixing and day-to-day caretaking. Nor do I have the enthusiasm to do all the daily upkeep. She’s a lotto handle: the continual raking, sweeping, dusting, watering, wiping down, putting away, cutting back, repairing, painting, plumbing—all by myself. Every single dollar goes into house upkeep and management. And I have concluded that I’d really rather use my money to go on adventures.
I’m a 66-year-old cliché.
My kids don’t understand me. One suggested I needed a Zoom “What’s Wrong with Mom?” intervention.
I totally get it. I’m shocked. I’m actually having earthquake aftershocks. I cry all the time. But I put one foot in front of another, like a Zombie. I feel, but I don’t want to feel. I love, but I know it’s time to say goodbye.
Here’s the map of my decision: I have been responsible since I was 19, married the wrong guy, got pregnant, got pregnant again, got divorced and waded through this land of single parenthood with the help and strength of my parents, sister, and cousin. I tried—always—to do the “right thing” and make the best out of a bad situation. But it was hard and I often screwed up as a juvenile parent of babies. Still, my babies were my priority. They before me.
When Ryan was 13, I married Bruce, who provided stability and love. We both did our best. But it wasn’t enough and more than a decade ago we divorced.
My point? God only knows. This is how my brain has been of late. Fragments between tears, between reaching out to God, looking at sunsets, listening to the backyard pond, watching squawking, nesting crows, knowing I’m making the right decision, doubting that I am.
This day, I knew in my heart, would eventually come.
My Realtor contacted me: Looks like the deal is back on: The buyer wants the house—warts and all. Escrow is going forth.
I suppose in some folks’ eyes, I should have continued to labor and toil, and die in the house, like I thought I would.
Perhaps I should have lived small so my children and grandchildren could have, eventually, lived big.
I suppose that’s what better people than I would have done; sacrifice until the day I died and be the Noble One honorably cloaked in a legacy of self-sacrifice, the one everyone at my funeral had high praise for.
No, I gotta be the selfish shmuck who called it a day, got out before the cookie crumbled, went on an extended vacation. Had no specific plans.
I’m baffling. I baffle my family. I baffle myself.
These days of packing, of stripping the walls, of selling most of my material possessions in a matter of days, is excruciating, informative, and ultimately liberating. I have nothing to water, nothing to dust, nothing to resurrect memories. The Next Door Neighbors are happy to take all the stuff off my hands at bargain basement prices. And, I am happy to release them. Quickly. Before I feel the pain. Gone. As of today, almost everything.
The only thing I have left are kitchen items, boxes of already-sorted memories, the grandkids’ toys, Mom and Dad’s grandfather clock and the hope chest. Time and hope.
Photos of a lost me. Scrapbook moments. Letters. Wishes. Dreams and experiences diverted. Dust. Cracked yellow news clips. Toss? Keep? Does anyone care?
My things now belong to someone else.
And in a few weeks, Angel Cove Cottage will share her life with a single parent, someone who, like me, only a few decades my junior; a woman who sees beauty where others see problems. A new owner who feels optimism and has the financial means to bring this fine home to a new level of comfort and modernization.
Part of my emotional tsunami has to do with exactly this: My time, this part of my life, this passage, is over. Angel Cove deserves youth, enthusiasm, physicality, ms.-fix-it-knowhow, and, of course, the mighty funds to bring her up to speed. While I still have the love, I lack in the other areas. It’s just a single person’s reality: a person’s retired income doesn’t stretch very far.
I’ve known this day was coming. I could have postponed it another few years, but it was a’coming. With my sister and cousin moving, with my fortunate (as of now, good health–touch wood–), it seemed like all roads were pointing to, “Don’t let fear dictate your life. Or sentimentality. Or opposing voices. Or the what-ifs.” Just do it.
I am going to miss her. Deeply. Forever. And ever. I will miss the ghosts. I will miss the future parties. I will miss the backyard breakfasts and Wine Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesdays around the camp fire. I will miss my gazebo and bagels, cream cheese and the Sunday Los Angeles Times. I will miss the projects. I will miss the potential.
But I can tell you, I have loved this sweet home probably more than any other homeowner who has ever lived here. I have given her everything. And now it is time to let go.
Today is my 66th birthday. In 14 years, I might be dead. Gruesome, I know. But my dad, 14 years hence my current age, had open heart surgery at 80 and my mom, she died in her 60s–my age, I believe. So, there you have it. Reality.
I decided on this day of my 66th birthday, as I gaze at the sea from the Central Coast cliffside and drink Eberle 2019 Tempranillo grown by Claudia Woodland, the grower I met at an impromptu winetasting on my way to a 10-day camping sojourn, that today would be the day I start writing my book. It’s a story about the twists and turns of an unexpected, yet expected, life of a grandma, a mother, a cousin, a sister, a retired teacher, a former journalist, an ex-spouse who decided to sell her house and start over.
Today, the 66th day of my birth in Lawndale, California, a young couple put an offer on the house, the house I have loved and lived in for almost 30 years. This beautiful California Craftsman that I have adored, believed in, supported and nurtured for a bunch of chapters my life, well, someone else now sees themselves in, sees their future in; without me, the master storyteller, the craftsmith, the caretaker. My home without me and my children and grandchildren. Without my hopes. Without my future. Without the story I thought I’m charge of, The Story, the one I anticipated was going to be told. Without. Without.
The worries. The financial burdens.
Without the future I anticipated.
Today, on my 66th birthday, a new family will fall in love with my house, with the past, with their future.
And I will launch mine.
A new beginning.
If I am blessed to live 14 more summers. !4 more healthy years. What will I do? Where will I live? How will I feel? What will I say about what I did, what I accomplished 14 years from today?
This story is about what I accomplished. What I learned. My regrets. My sacrifices. My successes. My risks. And my lessons. It isn’t a fairytale. I’m not proud of some of the experiences I will share. But let me promise you, it will be real, it will be gritty, it will be the ride of your life, via me, and you better hold on to your seat. It’s about to get real.
I have 14 summers, maybe more, if I’m lucky.
It didn’t exactly work out the way I thought it would. The young couple who fell in love with my house backed out. The stock market crash made them nervous, they said, so they decided to keep their money in the bank. Probably a wise decision.
It was strange though. I met the “interested buyer” today. She was walking by, on the phone, and took the “seashells” (Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”) out of her ears. She wanted to chat, like an investigative reporter. I immediately knew she was the potential buyer from the description my Realtor provided; lives up the street, obsessed with the garden, would need to sell her house first, wondered how she’d keep up the house, the garden. She asked, “Are you going to lower the price?”
No. Some of the money from the sale will go to help a family friend who is sick. I need to have enough money to live on, I told her.
She asked if I’d ever rent the house? “I might.” But I won’t. Too much hassle. I am at a point of my life I just don’t want to be responsible. Don’t need the complaints, the aggravation.
100% she was the woman who was supposed to submit an offer this weekend. And I blew the deal. I acknowledged the steep, old staircase is a problem, and listed the various projects around the house that need to be done, that aren’t a big deal to me, but probably an issue for others. I said that the new owner would probably want to expand the house and add square footage. I confessed to her how hard it was for me to sell, that I loved Angel Cove Cottage by the Sea. She is a loved house and I saved her from being scrapped by developers, I explained. An R3 lot is enticing to those who wish to squish three tall condos on a lot.
My sister called right after our encounter: “What! Never—ever–talk to a buyer.”
Times are different, I guess. I can’t be chatty. Not supposed to be forthcoming. Play the game. And because I didn’t, maybe now that’s the reason the house won’t sell. Fool!
I had finally just wrapped my head around change and now, maybe I won’t. I jumped and the parachute I thought would appear didn’t. Fortunately, I have a soft landing. I am still in my 105-year-old cottage by the sea with all her aching bones and paint bubbles and cracks in the ceiling and slopping floors. Character, that’s what they call it, and she surely does have it. Indeed, it’s a lot to keep up for me. Expensive too on a retired teacher’s salary. But I was really looking forward to–and ready–for a change, to travel and re-set my life. It may happen. I figure I’ll keep her on the market until the first week in June and if no one is interesting in buying her, then I’ll tighten the financial belt for the summer and wait-it-out until the prices spike again in about five years. Then I’ll be 71. 71 years old.
She could sell. There’s still time before the next interest rate hike. But I am prepared to accept being in a holding pattern for a while.
It might be for the best. My ex-husband is pretty sick: He needs support and I’m it; I’m all he has. I’m ready to run, and his life is about to get really, really serious.
How can I be so selfish?
I long to flee; I want to experience what my life might have been like had I said, “No,” instead of, “Yes,” back when I was a teenager and ridiculously naïve. Looking back, what could I have said or done to young JanZ to improve her decision-making skills?
“Believe in yourself,” I would have whispered.
“Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”
I am in the most unusual moment in my life: I’m ready to graduate, but it might not happen. Not yet. So I have to, as author Michael Singer says, instead of latching on to the difficulties, having them attach to my soul, I have to let all that’s going on around me, “pass through me.” I am working on it.
ONE WEEK LATER…
I am in tears. I am having stress headaches. I have two offers on the house. Lower than asking price. Still…
It’s what I wished for, what I’ve been dreaming of, and now that it might be real I am filled with an overwhelming sensation of disappointing my children, breaking their hearts. It’s an unbearable feeling, knowing that those I love most don’t understand what I am doing, fear that I am making a horrible mistake, one I can never take back.
I have so much love for my little beach cottage. She is an almost living, human, part of my family. I never imagined selling her.
But I believe it’s time to let go, time to move on, time to explore what’s out there, fulfill the dreams that have lingered in my head, and in my journal.
A few minutes ago I called my Realtor and told him, through tears, that I had made a decision:
Let’s counter the counter offer.
Later today, I’ll likely know the answer.
Perhaps I’ll feel like eating again. Perhaps, I’ll sleep. Maybe I won’t feel like throwing up all the time.
I jumped, I mean really jumped, and now I wait to see how the Universe will unfold.
I know my life’s “torment” is terribly inconsequential compared to real problems. But this is a big moment for me.
Last night, as I struggled to sleep, I asked God for a sign. I didn’t dream the answer, nor did I hear any harps and choirs. I didn’t even get a call back from the plumber I was expecting to show up 30 minutes ago. Instead, I got my answer from my two adult kids: They gave me their blessings.
“It will all work out, Mom,” my daughter said. “I may not agree with your decision, but you’re an adult and you need to do what’s best for you. I will always love you.”
“It might be for the best,” my son reassured.
Turns out, jumping isn’t what I thought it would be: It’s much scarier.
See, all along, I thought all this worry, frustration, and doubts were about selling property. Not so much. It was about trust, me, standing on the top of what felt like the world’s tallest diving board, legs shaking, hyperventilating, and trusting that nudge, that gust of wind–my children--who gave me permission to fly.
It is, without debate, a glorious Sunday before Memorial Day. Low 70s, slight breeze, monarchs dancing in the misty currents, absence of sirens from the Hermosa Beach Fiesta festivities, skywriting planes overhead, two impending offers on my house, another showing later this afternoon, and a glass of Brecon Last Sandwich wine on the tray before me. Yes, life IZ good.
I have every reason to be abundantly grateful. I’m healthy. My family’s healthy. Bruce is recovering from his left foot and ankle amputation. He’s positive, forward-thinking. He knows, as our friend Julie reminds us, it’s one day at a time. God is with us, and you, and everyone.
Yet. And yet. And yet.
Those Texas families. Those children. Those teachers. And everyone who has suffered loss. It is Memorial Day Weekend 2022 and it’s hard to feel happy, it’s hard to complain, when you know there are so many people suffering, shouldering the wrenching immobility of grief. Those precious, bruised families are in my constant prayers and thoughts: Lord, be with them every second of every day; let them know they are not alone.
COVID’s re-emergence. The impending Recession. Politics. (Ugh) Mental illness. Gun violence. Ukraine. China.
And my beautiful house on the market. No, it hasn’t sold. As I said, I have two offers, but both are far below asking price. Looks like I missed the multiple offers over-asking-price wave.
Sell for less than I expected/needed?
Rent her out for a few years?
Chill and do nothing?
Enjoy? Count my blessings?
I am in such conflict that I can’t sleep.
I want to do “the right” thing.
Sell with enough money in my pocket to start my next chapter seemed right a few weeks ago.
But now? With the prices dropping?
It is all pretty overwhelming. I don’t want to make a mistake. I don’t want to have regrets. I don’t want to be stupid.
The Real Estate World has changed in the last month. Big time. I guess, in the scheme of things, it’s all relative. Sell high, buy low. As long as I buy low it’s OK. But the deal is I’m not so sure I want to buy, want the owner headache. As I’ve written about before, I long for freedom, an abandonment of responsibilities.
But as I sit here in my backyard, enjoy my glass of wine, watch Monet nap on the chair, and think about all the suffering and hardship, I realize how very silly and selfish my concerns are.
I can live big. I can live small. I don’t need to be here with the butterflies and the hummingbirds and the drone of yard-blowers and buzzing jets. I could be in a tent along a stream. I could be in the small bedroom in my sister and cousin’s new/old 1960s home in Lunada Bay. I could enjoy being here for the rest of my life.
But I dream of being somewhere else.
What’s this all about?
Hope. And trust. And adventure. And freedom. And taking chances. And being still. And listening—and trusting—that voice inside me telling me that it’s OK to feel everything at the same time; the good and the bad, the maybe’s and maybe not’s, the you understand and don’t understand my decisions, the it’s time to rest and take a nap and it’s time to go outside and brush the leaves that never stop falling.
I’m wondering, is everyone feeling such conflicting thoughts these days?
Excuse the lack of maybe-it-strangely-makes-weird-sense transition, but…
Bruce needs a walker now. He’s s getting the hang of scooting to the side of the bed, lifting himself up and hopping to the bathroom. He smiles. He’s feeling God’s love, feeling the support of friends and family from afar.
The IRS took back his 2021 tax refund check–the one he sweetly gifted to me and I kept as a loving souvenir–because he made $155 more last year at his minimum wage job than he was required to. That bit of extra $$ triggered the IRS software to collect back taxes he owed from 10 years ago. Pretty sucky, right?
But he is looking forward, looking ahead to the day, months from now, he gets his prosthetic leg and can walk along the Esplanade. But today, he returns to Sunnyside Rehab, a place where he’s endeared staff members, especially Tammy, the physical therapist who has taken a’ liking to him. Bruce tells me she lives in her sister’s converted garage in Harbor City. She’s older, has physical issues herself, but works hard with patients, like Bruce, to heal.
They are all around. On the weathervane atop Angel Cove Cottage by the Sea, my lovely, on-the-market home. At Trader Joe’s, where I witnessed a cashier gift a bouquet of flowers to a red-eyed child who’s pup just went missing. And you. My reader-angels who will find a way today, tomorrow, and the weeks to come, to bring reassurance and hope to the worried and broken-hearted.
Thank you for being you, for lifting me and others up, for being, as Maya Angelou said, the rainbow in someone else’s clouds.You bring light and hope to the world. Know you are dearly loved and cherished.
Just saying, RV generators are the enemy of quietude-seekers
I’ve had some brilliant, peaceful, coastal windy camping days. All of my neighbors have been kind, quiet and respectful. The woman to my right, Clarita, lives in San Luis Obispo and is on a fixed income; she saves up her gas dollars—walks instead of drives–so she can afford an occasional four-day escape. The woman on my left is also camping solo in her well-used Subaru Outback. Very quiet. Very minimalistic compared to Clarita who has pink flamingos and spinning flowers and full-on, four-course barbecue dinners for herself. She calls herself “old and cranky” and follows the beat of her own drummer. “I do what’s right for me,” she kinda snaps, explaining why she refused my help as she tried to put up her tent on a particularly breezy afternoon. Me, I’m a combination of both neighbors with checkered tablecloths, my peace flag that I drape wherever I camp, my twinkle lights, yummy tofu and kale curry and rice that provided three leftover meals, and my cool electric bike, last year’s birthday gift from my kiddos. Unfortunately, the quiet neighbor quietly left early in the morning and The King Kong of Generator Annoyance moved in. The couple, about my age, are griping and yelling at each other and I am sooooooo glad I am in my Zen Zone of Solitude.
It’s been an interesting trip so far, not because of the things I’m doing. I’m doing very little camping in my VW European camper along the Central Coast. But because I’m settling into what it’s like to really be alone. I have my dog, Monet, and the strangers I meet and talk to. I have my books, my music, my art, my journal—my thoughts. A lot of thoughts.
Is selling the house the right thing?
Is being a vagabond traveler for a year—-smart?
Am I leaving my family in the dust?
Am a schmuck for not swooping in and caring for Bruce?
Will being alone turn me into a hermit crab?
Will I become grouchy?
Will I become a drug addict?
Will I get healthier minus the stress?
Will I meet a soulmate?
(Do soulmates even exist?)
Will the stocks crash?
Multiply these questions by a million wondering thoughts and this is how solo-clearing-the-deck has impacted me.
And my conclusion? It’s OK and it’s OK.
Because when you’re busy, when you’re responsible, when you’re paddling in survival mode, you just don’t have time to ask questions. Not really. You just need to get through the day, and the next, until it’s your vacation and you’re camping next to King Kong Generator Guy or in Maui next to the sloppy Spring Break Crew from the Team Mobile Conference and you get ticked off because “this is my time” to kick back and relax and “Why are they being so selfish? I JUST NEED A BREAK!”
And that, I say in a giddy, almost dreamlike floating state, is what’s so great about being retired and vacationing alone: every single day is a vacation and that’s why I want to sell the house: I don’t want to be responsible for cleaning and brushing up and repairing and being house-broke. I want to see what’s out there. It could all be terrible. I could be making the biggest financial mistake of my life. “Once you move, you can’t go back. I hope you’re doing the right thing,” cautions my well-intended son. But when I close my eyes and shut out Mr. Generator, shift my focus, toss the fear into the burning embers—and breathe—I feel centered; I feel led.
It’s all an experiment, when you think about it. No one knows for sure about anything. Not whether this is the peak of the real estate market, not if your job is secure, not if you’ll stay healthy or get sick. We are all just doing our best and sinking into some kind of peaceful acceptance, while still planning, while still hoping, that life IZ good and getting better.
In a couple of days, I will turn 66. That sounds pretty old, even to me. But when I look at the lifeline on my right palm, something I’ve taken solace in since I was in high school, I think I have time for some adventures that I wish I could share with my homies, my entire family, because that’s how I am—if I’m having a good time I want you to as well.
But, it’s not to be. People are busy, working, fixing up their new/old fixer-uppers.
And I am left with my traveling dog, and my blog pals. I hope you can hear me. I hope you can see what I see. I hope you can feel the ocean breeze and feel the veil canopy of Spring and allow yourself to be drenched in the chorus of birds that are right there, wherever you are, serenading you, luring you into the swampy, hazy forest. The generator, it’s still there, pulsating away like a rabid dog, but so are the blue skies and 72 degree temps and that lovely bottle of Halter Ranch “Synthesis” and my grandson and big-hearted son who will be joining me in a few hours for my birthday weekend. Oh, and my cousin, my bestie, who will be making the drive here by herself—a first! What a person does for love.
Together, we’ll break bread, break open a few bottles of Paso wines and break the silence with screams of grandson joy, love and and a ton of fort-building. Happy weekend everyone. May each of you saturate yourself with the people, and the place, that brings you happiness.
Sometimes, a lot of times, no, most days, I don’t want to write. I know it may sound strange since I’ve known I was a writer since the 3rd grade and Miss Maxine Way at Beryl Heights Elementary School pronounced in her Southern drawl, “Janet, you have a way with words.” But it’s true. I would rather clean the house, watch ridiculous YouTube videos than sit down in front of computer screen, or even my beloved paper journal, and write.
It’s not because writing is a chore, although sometimes it might feel like it. It’s because writing is bleeding.
But writing is also discovering and tinkering and growing into a more introspective, soulfully connected person.
Writing at its most profound, most potential level, is about rolling up your sleeves and getting down-and-dirty naked with The Truth. Fluff is cool and mostly where I start, where I’m comfortable, but it’s not the big fish I’m trying to catch and release. From what I have encountered after 59 years of journaling—-whew!—-is that the best stuff creeps up on you toward the end of your session, that you have to put pen to paper, fingers to the keyboard, for about 30 minutes or more several times a week, so that you hard-wire the absolutely true, almost magical experience of the revelation of IMPORTANT STUFF. When you are done writing, you step back and say, “Wow, where was that hiding?” To me, and other writers I admire, this is why we write even though it can be hard to start, even though we can think of every excuse in the world not to start, even though we’re scared of what we may or may not discover.
I am camping at my favorite spot along the Central Coast. I’ve been camping here for 30 years. For the first leg of my journey I’m solo exploring, with the exception of my cattle dog traveling partner, Miss Monet. I talk to myself outloud, play with paints, go for hikes, eat healthy foods, listen to music, sing really loud and off-key, talk to strangers, read and read and read, but ever-looming in my stash of creative distractions is my journal. My job. My purpose. My key. My connection to my deepest self, the one that is pretty and young, ugly, old, distortive, imaginative, playful, angry, sad, confused, hopeful, confident, cranky and loathsome. I am every character in every Disney movie. I am the soundtrack and the animation. I am Cruella and Snow White. I am 2022 inflation and Canada’s universal medical care. I am the President of the United States and I’m his basement custodian. Journaling reveals the whole kit and caboodle of my foibles and strengths and sieves out the icky and productive compost in my noble attempt to be my best self.
So here it goes:
I am scared.
I put my beloved house on the market two days ago. I set a high bar regarding the dollar amount I need to walk away with: After taxes, commissions, etc., it makes no sense to sell unless I have ample money to build a new life. Better I rent it out for a few years. But somehow, someway, I need to get the footloose and fancyfree travel bug out of my system.
I have been hemming and hawing about whether I should or shouldn’t sell for years now. It’s not that I don’t love my home. It’s a treasure, the site of so many, many memories that scroll through my mind like the rewind button on an old video machine. I love what I’ve done, what I could afford to do, what I had the limited skills to accomplish, but I’ve reached a phase of my life that I don’t want to be responsible any more. I don’t want house-caretaking to take up my days. I want to live an adventure. Like I am right now as potential buyers make appointments to thumbs up or thumbs down the “prized beach property”. I realize, given my lack of financial resources, I’ve done as much as I can to Angel Cove Cottage. I don’t have the funds to push her to the next level. Fixi the staircase. Remodel The Cave. Tear out the firepit and rethink the backyard corral that was never built to my satisfaction. Without a second income, such renovations aren’t possible.
But frankly, even if I had the money, I realize it’s time for a change. Time to do something new to keep myself fresh. I need to be a bit scared, I need to not play it safe all the time.
So now that I’ve written it down and shared it, it’s real. It’s happening. Or not. Either way, I’m good. Because at least I took a chance. At least I stopped contemplating an idea that’s been swimming in my head for a long time. I stepped into a new beginning.
“14 Summers”. That’s the title of the book I’m about to start writing.
If I have the good fortune of living to 80, that means I have 14 summers left. 14 is my grandson Jack in four years. Bronson in six. Millie in 12. Hudson in 13.5. How would a woman—me–use her time if she didn’t have to waste?
It occurred to me this morning about 3 a.m., that we’re all out at sea, cruising to places we think we want to go to, or the opposite, getting stuck miles from shore. We wait. The skies rumble as the waves engorge and we think we’re going to die, and some of us do, but most of us don’t, and then it gets calm again and the heavens open and the rainbow appears and we know we are safe and good things will happen.
It occurred to me at 4:45 a.m., weeks before my 66th birthday, almost a year after retiring from 20 years in the classroom, that I’m an old motor boat, sputtering and stalling; I may capsize. But I probably won’t. But I might.
It occurred to me at 6:30 a.m. as my roomies—The Two Amigos–stirred, and my former teaching colleagues poured coffee in preparation for igniting the Future of America, and my ex husband, Bruce, breathed in-harmony with the comatose patient lying next to him at the rehab facility, that best-laid plans are like sailing in the wind with your eyes closed: You hope for the best, prepare for the worst, but in the end, none of us are really in control; there are mightier forces at play.
It occurred to me at 6:55 a.m. that we’re all actors participating in a real-life drama. We wake up, do what we do, think what we think, get shoved around by the do-this and do-that’s of our respective careers and life circumstances, and we are basically held together by duct tape and string; that we all are, in fact, vulnerable to the elements and opportunistic, rat-toothed, mean-spirited humans (fill-in-the-blank). At any moment, who are we kidding, we could unravel. So we stay busy, stay important, stay goal-oriented.
But step off the boat, we might drown.
At 7:15 a.m. I wonder, what keeps a person steadfast, purposeful, in control even under the most dire circumstances?
It occurred to me after my first cup of coffee, that we think we have it all together, but we don’t know for certain until we’re tested. Not small tests, like the jolts of a malfunctioning electrical system, but actually capsizing and being thrown overboard with your left leg wrapped around an anchor chain.
As I step outside and scan the horizon, I lust for certainties; a steady, mapped-out course. I long for conformation, desperate to be drenched in the spiritual, church-choir affirmation that assures me I’m headed in the right direction.“Give me a sign,” I pray.
I got one from a man chained to a wheelchair, a 72-year-old former photojournalist whosefoot and ankle are about to be amputated, whose entire life turned topsy-turvy a couple of months ago, who’s learned to be more open and sensitive as he cherishes simple pleasures like a cup of instant coffee at bedside and an hour visit from his ex-wife.
Bruce. The guy I divorced. The man I have fretted over, journaled about, screamed, cried, hugged, hoped for, counseled with, and in the end, loved and could never fully let go of as a friend, gave me one of the most valuable gifts I ever received; a book, “Nowhere for Very Long”, the story of a woman who was determined to change her life by chucking it all and going on the ultimate van road trip. Inside, he inscribed, “Dear Janet, I hope this book will inspire you to the great adventure surely ahead of you. As the jacket note states, ‘…from lost to found to lost again…this time on purpose.’ Love, Bruce.”
“There’s more,” he said. “I made a bookmark.” He was beaming. Tucked in the center of the book was a tiny fabric sunflower taped to piece of scrapaper, scrawled with jagged words he penned: “Live your dream. Have an adventure.” On the same page, was a check for $2,000, the IRS refund money he desperately needed, but insisted on giving it to me. “I mean it, I’ve thought about this a lot; I want you to have it.”
It is impossible to explain the profound impact of Bruce’s magnanimous gesture. Overwhelmed, in tears, Bruce’s blessing for me to go forth and follow my dreams even during his darkest hours is something I will never, ever forget. In his bleakest moment, Bruce placed someone else’s life above his own.
It occurred to me at 7:45 a.m. as the ladies showered and prepared for work and Monet climbed back into bed, that that feature film we’re all starring in, has tender, close-up moments like the one I just described. Angels who keep us afloat, keep us steady, keep us dog-paddling in the foggy swells when we’re uncertain where we’re headed or if we’ll even make it.
No one knows the affect–both positive and negative–one’s actions can have on another soul. An unsolicited Starbuck’s, a surprise car wash, even a homemade bookmark, have the power to positively change the course of a person’s day, maybe even life.
It occurred to me as I watched the sun rise above the silk oak tree and imagined our daughter teaching her energetic fourth-graders, Bronson eating his four fried eggs, his papa driving to work, Jack wrestling with his new puppy, and my nieces and nephews, brother and sister-in-law all starting their days, that today might be a good day to go sailing.
It might get bumpy.
The wind might steer me off course.
But maybe, just maybe, it won’t.
Bruce and I chat about many things during our almost daily visits at Sunnyside Rehab Center, from family members he wishes he could help, to regrets about decisions he’s made in the past. But he’s learning, as am I, to accept life as it unfolds. Which makes me think of the last line of a Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken”, I memorized in third grade: And that made all the difference. It seems appropriate to end today’s blog with Frost’s advise:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Since last we left, B’s medical troubles have continued to decline, I still dig my new love, Led Zeppelin, and the theme of CHANGE hurricanes like a News at 11 Accuweather forecast.
Tail end of March, beginning of April, lucky girl me got to journey to Maui with my tribe for a week–I seriously dream of living there–and now I am presently in New York rounding out Spring Break as I re-connect for an extended week with the babies and East Coast tribe. Got to visit a colonial heritage farm in Conn., watched my daughter run a 10K in Central Park, walked around the village of Forest Hills, played in local parks, ate mostly healthy foods, visited my favorite French bakery for a latte and baguette three times, and stocked up on Pinot Noirs and a bottle of French, overly sweet bubbly. I could get used to my vagabond life, and I am making plans to be a full-time traveler and nester-where-I-most-feel-at-peace person.
I’ve carried angst for so long, but now, everything in my being is telling me to get off the train and enjoy life. Let it go, as my granddaughter sings, travel light. Several of my former colleagues who chose to step off the merry-go-round have been touting this philosophy for years. I know they’re right, but something keeps holding me back.
Today at the playground, I met two women; one a grandma who is five years older than me, and a daughter in her 30s whose mom recently and unexpectedly died. Both women spoke of regrets.
Catherine, the older, German grandma, shared her story as we entertained our pre-nap grand babies: “I shouldn’t be talking to a stranger, but I need to.” She told me about her sick husband’s terrible, neglectful medical treatment, feeling trapped, having no time because she’s constantly caring for others. She says other than her daughter, she has no one else to talk to. “My husband secluded me, maybe because we were new to America, Germans in New York City.”
She tries to confide her stress to her children, one a doctor, the other an accountant,
“but they don’t understand.” They’re busy, raising their own children. building a life away from Mom and Dad. . “They say they will help, but they do nothing, nothing. I am on my own.”
She longs to travel again, go back to Germany to visit her aging sister. But she can’t; she has to care for her husband who had a heart attack four years ago, and her young grandson whom she watches three days a week.”It never ends,” she said, gritting her teeth.
“If it ever comes to it,” Catherine said, throwing her hands in the sky, “I’ll take drugs. I am serious. I don’t want anyone taking care of me.”
I wonder if other people in the park think she’s yelling or mad. She moves in close, then moves back, raises her voice and gestures passionately.
“I have things I want to do, but I don’t see it happening.”
I tell her I understand. Life can be hard.
“You never think illness will happen,” she continued. “My husband can’t go anywhere except doctors’ appointments. And me, I need my hip replaced but I don’t have time to do it because everyone needs me.”
She kept looking at her phone for the time. “I have to take my husband back to the hospital. I was there for nine hours last night.” I get it, I really do. The stress of a stressed-out medical system is incredibly frustrating and wrong to average people like Catherine’s husband and B. Because of poor medical care early in the infection to his foot, now it has to be amputated.
The frustration to the patient, and those who care for them, is overwhelming and terrifying.
“I think I’m going to sell my house,” I told her.
“Do it,” she said, “while you can.
“To hell with leaving your kids money. It’s your life. You worked hard. You deserve happiness.”
Her little grandson was crying and it was time to walk back home for his lunch and nap. “I’ll send you positive thoughts and prayers,” I offered as she strolled out the playground.
I continue swinging Millie, who was snacking and apparently eavesdropping, as too was the mommy of 2-year-old Daniel. “I couldn’t help but think about my mother,” she said, her eyes swelling with tears. She died last month of septic and pneumonia. “She wanted to travel, but she never made the time.”
She lived in Georgia with her sick husband; she never felt she could get away, even to visit her New York grandchildren and daughter. “We were so close. I am still in shock,” she said, wiping away tears. “I cry every day. So does my father.”
I listened to her story, how her mother placed her family’s needs above her own, even refusing to go the doctor after a persistent cough wouldn’t go away. She ended up with a raging infection that was too aggressive to treat. After four days in the hospital, she passed. “I was on the plane with my son and husband. I never got to say goodbye.”
I glanced at Millie and noticed her staring at the grieving woman’s face.
On our way home, I explained to Millie that the lady was sad and missed her mommy. Millie could relate. She shook her head and sweetly said, “Miss Mommy.” I assured her that her Mommy would be home after work and that Daniel’s mommy would be OK. “OK?” she repeated.
Astounded by the empathy of a 2-year-old and the gushing vulnerability of two strangers, I am reminded once again of the preciousness of life, of time, and the importance of living life with a sense of purpose and assuredness, adventure and joy. Being eager, being excited about what’s around the corner, is the key. My dad knew it. He always had something to look forward to: “Where there’s life, there’s hope,” he used to say.
Being stuck, being overly aware of where the closest CVS and Costco are located might not be the ticket to self and spiritual growth. Gotta shake things up, keep it fluid, keep the limbs ready to pounce, say “Yes” to opportunities, especially when it comes out of no where, which turns out, is really somewhere, like the swollen maple leaves flying in the skyscraper sky on our way back from the 10K.
In a few weeks, I am going to jump out of a parachute, take a chance on The Great Next. It will feel like Frisbeeing my RUHS Seahawk mortarboard into the sky, and not fretting–-I mean it—about where it will land. It is, after all, made out of cheap fabric and cardboard. Disposable, compostable.
A long time ago, in the days when people wrote letters and there was no such thing as texting and Instagramming, my girlfriend, Julie, and I would write each other. I addressed the letters to Dearheart and placed the time, date and mood of the day on the upper left corner. I wanted a chance to live in a Monet pixelated landscape. I wanted to feel a connection to environment, what was going on in my world as a mum, new homeowner, frustrated spouse and struggling writer. I don’t know why, but I thought that by sharing my truth it would somehow bring us closer, because truth is what I craved from her and everyone in my life.
Truth is a difficult thing, I’ve discovered.
Peeling back the layers and figuring out what’s really there, the why’s, the motivations, the Real Deal. Tough stuff.
I used to tell my 8th grade English language arts students, just last year as a matter of fact when I was in the virtual classroom because my first COVID vaccine was still “brewing”, that to understand why the protagonist and antagonist does what he/she/it does, you have to find The Source, like the source of a river. And even when you trace the pathway back to its beginnings, there are other why’s and how’s and when’s. But with enough patience, persistence, discovery and, yes, sometimes pain, it is possible to hike to that mountaintop of origins.
A long time ago, there was a rock group called Led Zeppelin. Boys and girls, they were a big deal back when I was growing up. (Flashback to my classroom where I discovered, to my dismay, students didn’t know about 1970s and earlier iconic billboards like Zeppelin, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and cherished novels like ‘My Side of the Mountain’.) Anyway, when I was your age I was more into pop music like Elton John and Cat Stevens. Zeppelin was kind of a “guy’s band” because of all the heavy guitar riffs. Still, when I was invited to a Zeppelin concert at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles by one of my guy friends, I said. “Yes,” and rocked my head and jumped up and down like all of the other drunk and stoned fans. It was a scene, a place to be, that I frankly remember little about thanks to Boon’s Farm Strawberry Hill Wine and multiple trips to the bathroom.
But recently, on my way to and from the nursing home to visit Bruce, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to Zeppelin. I’ve submerged myself in interviews, live concerts, music I like/love and tunes I don’t need to listen to again. And I have become a huge fan, as in, if I see a T-shirt with the band’s name on it at Target, I’m buying it.
Why? Because when I was busy with my life, studying for tests, cheerleading, boy-friending, arguing with my siblings, feeling misunderstood by my mother, I completely missed out on Zeppelin’s brilliance as musical and lyrical story-tellers. Set in the context of the time, Zeppelin was doing something different musically from their peers and I think that’s what turned off my pop music-tuned ears. At the time, I couldn’t get past the screeching and screaming that, now with 50 decades under my expanded belt, I fortunately understand in an entirely new way.
Which is pretty awesome, right?
I, you, can take something once discounted because of a lack of perspective, open-mindedness–whatever–and sit down and listen and connect with it in an entirely new way. We can love something or someone we once denied, even distained.
As painful as this recent passage of time has been for me, I realize that I’m realizing.
I’m getting to the core, the Source.
Dearheart, as the squirrels unearth Fall’s treasures and the crows frantically strip twigs off my backyard Silk Oak Tree in preparation for a new beginning, so do I. The Truth will set me, and you, free.