An Apprentice Bird Watcher

turtle doveI’m a late-blooming bird watcher. In the past, I only noticed large birds I could easily identify: ostriches, turkeys, eagles — penguins, too, if I’d ever seen one.

I chuckled at folks who glued binoculars to their heads and whispered worshipfully to one another about any bird they encountered.

My idea of bird watching was driving down the road, crunching Cheetos, singing along to Creedance Clearwater Revival, and pointing out big things with wings.

Then the years passed, and flower gardening caught my fancy, increasing my yard time and making me aware of the birds that fussed around the feeders my husband maintained: birds familiar from my childhood like sparrows, turtledoves, and finches. Cheerful souls, these regulars at Joel’s Diner enjoyed any food offered and didn’t sulk when he ran out of food or forgot to open.

purple finchSoon I began to notice different birds that occasionally dropped by for visit or snack. Joel, more advanced in ornithology, labeled them for me: chickadees, siskins, downy woodpeckers, cedar waxwings. When I sighted my first goldfinch, I excitedly announced that I’d seen a canary in our aspen tree. Joel looked at me askance.

My interest grew. I started watching for newcomers, consulting bird books, and distinguishing calls. I even ignored my husband’s dismay at my difficulties with binoculars — “Janet, turn them around. You’re looking through the wrong end,” — and practiced until I could focus in and locate birds faster than I could say two-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

Before long, I was peering through binoculars and providing detailed descriptions to anyone who would listen: “It’s blue on top, sort of a dirty white underneath. It has white and black on its wings, and on its tail too. Oh, it has one of those crest things. You know, it looks a lot like a blue jay.…..I think it is a blue jay!” I was hooked.

chickadeeOther than the amazing hummingbirds that like the bee balm and honeysuckle we plant for them, orioles and grosbeaks are the flashiest birds to spend extended time with us. I feel bad about the name grosbeaks have to carry around—I know how I’d feel if I’d gone though life being called Shortnose.

Several months ago, I read a passage that captured how I feel watching birds. The author, whose name I’ve forgotten, said that looking at birds takes away our sadness, puts things in perspective, and returns us to nature.

I intend to keep practicing my new passion until I’m a full-fledged bird watcher. With time and commitment, someday, perhaps, I’ll be able to casually tell others, “Yup, I’m a birder.”

 

He Was Joyous

Ernie on the riverWhenever Ernie laughed, he did so with his entire body, a knee-slapping, unrestrained, booming cackle that invited others to join the every-minute-of-every-day party he hosted for anybody who wandered by.

But eating corn on the cob made Ernie more philosophical: the more gnawed cobs, the more profound his utterances. During a six-cob session, he said the best thing about being old was no longer worrying about the expectations of others, but doing what he wanted. Furthermore, when he did so, people usually expressed amazement and appreciation.

Since his favorite activities were drinking beer and singing scandalous songs he learned in the Navy, I could believe people expressed amazement.

“I’m easier on myself now I’m old and retired,” he continued “I’m finally free to do things because I want to, not because I’m proving something to myself or others. At 68, I’m 200 pounds of blue-toned steel, and I can pee into the wind if I want.”

At the time, caught up in a whirlwind of goal achievement, I chuckled, but missed both Ernie’s point and the model he provided. He wasn’t offering toileting advice. Instead, his words and actions were saying that as you grow older and retire, you can laugh, create fun, and be kind to yourself. You can relax into the rhythm of the life you now have with no need to maintain your past self; and, if you take the time to look for delight and humor when young, they’ll be easier to find when you’re old.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had only a few years left to benefit from Ernie’s fun and wisdom. Too soon, I sat in a drab hospital room as he drifted in and out of sleep, watching his gnarled hands crawl the bed covers and listening to the shudders of his breath. I knew the day was fast approaching when I would join his family to drop flowers into his beloved Yuba River, which flowed through the Sierra Nevada Mountains as deeply and surely as his friendship and happy spirit flowed through our lives.

In memory of Ernie and to remind myself how to live well in retirement, each year I choose a summer day to eat corn on the cob and sing his favorite navy song—the one about Columbus and the cabin boy.

Have some thoughtsI
related to today’s post?
Please leave a comment below.

See to Your Siblings

“Be kind to your brothers and sisters,“ Mr. Spainhower advised my high school English class. “If you’re good to them, they’ll be part of your life for more years than your parents, spouses, or children.”

When younger—engaged in teasing, tattling, and fisticuffs with my six siblings—I would have scorned such an idea. Who’d want to be stuck with that throng of thugs forever?

I remember sluggishly pushing our vacuum down the hall and glaring at Carolyn, who ironed in the kitchen, popping nary a bead of sweat. She sneered back at me, took a sip of lemonade, turned up the radio, and sang along: “How much is that doggie in the window—arf! arf!”

Seemed more like a party than work to me.

Pushing the belching machine into the living room, I aimed for Barbara, who sat on the floor pairing freshly laundered socks. Concentrating on her task, she didn’t look up, increasing the chances I could inflict serious injury. But when Mom entered the room, I veered off course and listened as she collected Barbara’s work and praised her, “Look at the good job you’ve done; you’re getting to be a big help.”

What was I? An incompetent orphan on loan from the poor house?

No, I was an unhappy teenager concentrating on my grievances rather than the love, friendship, and fun I derived from my siblings.

Hundreds of miles now separate us, but we continue to talk on the telephone, visit one another, and get together every summer. Recently, I showed a friend a picture taken of us at one of our reunions. As I named each sibling, I thought about how she must see us: wrinkled, gray, stooped, balding, sagging, adorned with hearing aids and glasses, wearing comfortable shoes and roomy clothes.

siblings2

Boys, L to R: Bob, JL, Lawrence, Blaine
Girls, L to R: Barbara, Carolyn, Janet

When I look at the photo, however, I remember us as we were when young: energy-filled, happy, and best friends. I see brothers and sisters who know me completely and love me still; siblings who have been kind to each other and have remained part of each other’s lives.

Sometimes in dreams I return to the childhood homes I shared with my brothers and sisters. We’re gathered in the kitchen: I feel the presence of our parents; I hear laughter; and I relax into the sense of belonging I feel when with my family.

Cherish your brothers and sisters.

Have some thoughts
about maintaining relationships with siblings?
Let me know.

Recap of Comments on A Reluctant Author
Janice confided she has long dreamed of doing her own artwork and now that she is, she feels wonderful and scared at the same time. I know the feeling.

Dawna wrote, “I put my talents/hobbies on the back burner to sit behind a keyboard each day, and every key I press tells me that I could be doing something more.” Dawna is talented, and I believe she will find her way to that something.

Mary plans to forward Aunt Beulah’s advice to someone who’s boldly stepped into a new position and is questioning her ability. I hope the recipient finds my words helpful.

 

A Reluctant Author

I put my sudoku puzzle aside, reached for more popcorn, and remembered something I read long ago in a self-help book. Its title and author were hidden in the cloud of nonsense that fogs my mind, but an idea from it still lingered: not writing the book inside of you is more stressful than writing it.

“Well, Unknown Person, easy for you to say: obviously, you have more free time in your day than I do,” I thought—as I settled down for a nap. “Besides, I already write newspaper columns. That’s quite enough, thank you.”

I had written a weekly human-interest column for the local paper for three years. I hadn’t become rich and famous, but I liked running into folks who enjoyed my work. I sometimes thought about compiling a book from past columns and unpublished pieces, but worried it would be too much like fruitcake: a blend of ingredients tasty by themselves, but a bit much when mixed together.

woman typingStill, the book I carried inside me persisted. A year ago, listening to its quiet, insistent voice, I knew I would compile a book—and why.

I wanted, once again, to feel the nervous, anxious excitement I experience when I attempt something new, something I don’t know how to do, something that scares me, something that kick-starts my creativity.

I believe our talents and abilities unleash our creativity and the act of creating fulfills us, frees our minds to explore new possibilities for those things we’re passionate about: painting, gardening, music, carpentry, photography, cooking. And sometimes, when we set our creativity free, we accomplish things we’d thought impossible.

So, I began a book, and stuck with it, even when my mind rebelled, screamed, “Whose bright idea was this?” and sent me scampering to the kitchen for a pint of ice cream, a brownie, and all the brownie crumbs I could pinch together.

Please believe this reluctant author: at any age, you can stretch an ability or talent beyond your comfort level, and when you do, the eventual achievement will make you smile.

You can read more about the achievement that makes me smile by clicking on “About my book” in the main menu across the top of this page.

Have some thoughts
about talents or abilities that spark your creativity?
I’d like to hear.

A Recap of Comments about Some Lesser Joys
Lori’s thankful list included the first sip of a perfectly brewed cup of tea on a cold winter morning; Dawna mentioned reading glasses and a warm shower on a cool day. Janice is grateful for her new refrigerator and her husband’s bread-making ability. Sue appreciates red wine, dark chocolate, and a deep conversation with any one under the age of nine. Jacke solved Aunt Beulah’s sheet-folding dilemma by suggesting the use of one fitted sheet which you launder and put back on the bed until it wears out. No folding! Ingenious!

Aunt Beulah’s Recommendations for Living Well

and some who modeled them for me

1. Nurture your body and mind
A California girl strode into my classroom and introduced herself as the teacher next door. Blonde and athletic, Barbara became my best friend and reacted with disbelief when she learned I didn’t exercise. “Not even speed walking? You don’t own a bike?” Within a year, I purchased running shoes and drove to an abandoned railroad grade outside of town. Knowing from Barbara that cardio conditioning requires continuous movement, I decided to run 30 minutes. New to pacing, I sprinted up the grade, then lurched up the grade, then vomited on the grade. But I didn’t quit.


2. Indulge in laughter and small pleasures

Mr. Hall, the janitor at my elementary school, carried laughter and peppermints in the pockets of his bib overalls to share with students in need. Every day, he sprinkled sunshine among us; as a result, most of my class decided to be janitors when we grew up — so we could have as much fun as he did.

3. Cherish your loved ones and friends
As I explained in my first post, when Aunt Beulah hugged me tight and listened, she did more than stifle my sobs: she demonstrated her love for me in an understated way that bound me to her forever. And she never mentioned the mess I made of her apron front with my blubbering.

4. Do some good
My oldest brother played free-spirited games he created with his much younger siblings, and we adored him. That’s why we sat in the car and sobbed as he walked toward the exhaust-spewing bus that would start him on his long journey of service to his country in Korea, then to the many students he taught, followed by his more recent service to his church in China, Laos and South Africa. Now 80, he serves the dying as a hospice chaplain, and my experience tells me that he serves them with understanding and generosity.

5, Utilize your talents and skills
When I called my mother of 78 on a Sunday afternoon, we talked about the speech she had given in church that morning; and she described her latest project: a chest she refinished and painted with graceful red poppies. She planned to take  it on Monday to the artist’s co-op where she sold her crafts. A few days after our conversation, she died. I sat in my living room, surrounded by cherished items she made for me, and wept.

Parents at Hoover Dam

My parents in front of the dam Dad helped build.

6. Develop financial fitness
My dad worked in the depths of the Hoover Dam, the gold mines of California, and the iron-ore tunnels of Utah. At 35, fearing miner’s lung, he went to work at an iron mill in the fiery heat of a blast furnace. When laid-off or on strike, he took any job he could to prevent “going on the dole,” which he considered more demeaning than bucking bales in another man’s field or cleaning coops at a neighbor’s chicken farm. And always, he saved, avoided debt, and made double house payments whenever possible. Every time I buy something I want, rather than need, I sense him shaking his head in dismay.

Have some thoughts
about your role models for aging well?
I’d be interested.
Please comment.

Recap of last week’s comments
Janice wrote that retirement should be about pursuing any dreams you put on hold when younger; Jeannie wishes she had abandoned her dream of being taller by wearing 4-5 inch heels that eventually did her harm. Kathleen senses retirement looming, but admits she’s a grasshopper. Sue fretted about pursuing too many interests too briefly, even as she understood that her varied interests helped her teach well. Dawna was flooded by memories of her loved ones and thinks she should start planning now in order to age well.

As I read your comments, I appreciated the spirit and personality evident in each response. Thank you.

Old Age Is Not An Option

I know, I know, you find Aunt Beulah’s blog slightly amusing, but basically non-relevant. You’ll never be old, at least not old-old, and retirement is a concept as vague to you as Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Right.

Like many of you, my job consumed me. My life was career-centered and goal-oriented: another degree to earn, position to seek, skill to develop. I entertained the illusion that I would teach happily and well until I died a painless death, clutching my red pen, my head slowly sinking onto a pile of beautifully written student essays.

As a 1st-year teacher assuming eternal youth

As a 1st-year teacher assuming eternal youth

My classroom would be sealed and a placard hung: “Mrs. Janet Bohart Sheridan taught here; so use your quiet voices and spit out your gum.”

Now, six years into retirement, wondering when my skin began to resemble crepe paper, I’m glad I came to my senses in time to prepare financially and mentally for old age—a journey detailed in future posts.

When my father retired after forty-five years of blue-collar work in mines and steel plants, he tried to rearrange Mom’s cupboards, took up weaving hats for a miserable month, and mailed his offspring articles touting the consumption of large quantities of raw garlic.

Now there was a man ill equipped for retirement.

Fortunately, he rediscovered his enjoyment of reading, particularly Matt Helm novels. He started walking to the supermarket, post office, and bank rather than driving, and expanded his gardening repertoire—growing giant cabbages and purple potatoes. He also began driving his truck into the mountains to cut and haul firewood, which he split during the winter for all the “old folks” in town.

He was happy.

Take it from my dad and me: you will age as surely as your favorite team will eventually lose; and the more you think about what you want in retirement and take steps toward it now, the easier you’ll find the transition.

Have some thoughts
about retirement—
whether it’s forever away,
growing closer,
or your current status?
Leave a comment and make my day!

A Recap of Your Comments on Last Tuesday’s Blog
Evidently, sciatica hit a nerve. Deb expressed interest in easing her aches and pains by stretching, and thought rum and coke would enhance her efforts; Shelley noted that her posture, as she typed, was ramrod straight.

Mary remembered acting like me in high school: wearing flat shoes and slouching a bit so she wouldn’t be taller than the boys she liked. Fortunately, she self-corrected sooner.

Kathleen briefly contemplated giving up Diet Coke to improve her aging, but dropped the idea because without it she’d be even meaner.

Lucy and Noelle chose to ignore the suggested response and instead made connections between Aunt Beulah’s term “half-baked” and Colorado’s recent pot legislation. Jewels connected it to Jimmy Buffett. Ladies, ladies, ladies.

I hope to hear from more of you. Your comments are the reason I get up at 5:30AM to publish my posts—well, full disclosure: the smell of brewed coffee might get me out of bed even more than your responses.

You’re Never Too Young to Age Well

Our parents did their best to mold us into worthwhile adults: “Sit square in your chair.” “Quit mumbling.” “Deliberately burping at the dinner table is not funny.”

Teachers were equally rigorous: “Use your inside voice.” “Tell Mrs. Murphy thanks.” “Stop eating the paste.”

But despite their combined vigilance, by the time we were old enough to legally sit in a bar, most of us still resembled unformed lumps of dough, not knowing if we wanted to be pretzels, cinnamon rolls, or sesame seed bread.

Even in our forties, buying houses and molding our own children, we were only half-baked; and we still had plenty of time to determine the habits, attitudes, and abilities we would take into old age.

I spent too much time practicing to be a pretzel—literally. Mom badgered me to quit slouching around the house. In high school, I slumped to match the height of my handsome, but shorter, boyfriend. As an adult, my aerobics instructor admonished her middle-aged, weary students to suck our abs in, tuck our butts under, pull our shoulders back, and stand proud — all while leaping about to the soundtrack from Flashdance.

Then at age 68, sciatica drove me to a physical therapist. Mincing no words, he said my problem was sloppy posture, and he was the man to fix it. The promise of relief from constant pain motivated me. I committed to doing his prescribed stretches daily, and in a few weeks began to see results.

Stretching away my sciatica

Stretching away my sciatica and practicing for old age

Yes, you can teach new tricks to an old slouch. I only wish I’d reaped the benefits of improved posture forty years ago, rather than two.

When young, I told my mother that a neighbor seemed like a mean old man. She replied, “I think he may be, and, if so, he was probably a mean young man. Every day of your life, you’re practicing for your old age.”

Have some thoughts

about quirks, habits, or slight imperfections you’d like to reshape before you’re completely baked?
I’d be interested. Please comment below.

What You Had to Say about Aunt Beulah:
Thank you for your interest in my blog and your supportive comments; you made my day. Below is a quick recap of those who responded to the story of Aunt Beulah.

1500 Days, an insightful blog about financial preparedness, agreed that flossing makes a difference—as does “quitting Mountain Dew.” One respondent believes we all have an Aunt Beulah, and hers was Juna Mae, a lady who “danced like no one was looking.” Another discussed the funny and frustrating communication issues aging spouses encounter when they lose their hearing. My sister, Barbara, hopes her home is like her memories of our aunt’s home: “a little crazy, no one leaves hungry, and always something of interest.”

By email, a reader remembered her first car, named Beulah, which she treasured for its comfortable size, safety, and trustworthiness—traits that described my Aunt Beulah as well; another said he believes living well as we age has a lot to do with how much we sacrifice for, or share, with others when young.

Wow! Wonderful insights and stories. Thank you.

To Read the Complete Comments of Others: Click on the gray, shadowed, apostrophe-like symbol on the right hand side of the post’s title. The comments will magically appear below the post along with a response box if you’d like to add to the conversation.

Who is Aunt Beulah?

Aunt Beulah BodyMy Great-aunt Beulah gardened in her husband’s galoshes, talked too loud, laughed too hard, cussed a bit, and one day held me gently against her ample girth until I quit crying. An unhappy teenager, I was spending the night with her after going to a party with friends I’d left behind when my family moved to a nearby town. “It’s not the same anymore,” I sobbed. “I feel like I don’t belong either place.”

She said nothing, just held on and listened.

“Beulah’s a bit rough around the edges,” I overheard a hoity-toity second cousin remark at a family reunion. I knew better. Aunt Beulah was soft, quiet, and kind when it mattered.

So I took the name of an aunt I loved to represent all the adults in my life who provided a model of aging well, even as they struggled with difficulties and demons of their own: the good men and women who consistently nudged me toward maturity while I avoided chores, succumbed to peer pressure, and fell in love with ne’er-do-wells.

Watching the important adults in my life, I learned that to age well we must live well: cherish our friends and loved ones, nurture our bodies and minds, utilize our talents and skills, do some good in the world, develop financial fitness, and indulge in laughter and small pleasures.

For me, growing old with a modicum of grace was a journey filled with potholes; but as I bounced around from year to year, I learned a few things: flossing makes a difference; arguments with the IRS can be won; and we should try to live well no matter where we are in the arc of life.

Have some thoughts
about living well in order to age well?
I’d be interested