Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Is your bucket half full, or half empty?

In my mind the calendar reads late October, with November lurking just a year or two ahead. (As if I have any say on such matters---for all I know it may be late December.) Yet whatever the date it is not too late to plan for my future. Fact is, there are some things I want from the time that remains? 
How about you? What do you want from the October of your life, and beyond? Is there someone out there who might make your future more complete? Are there things you would like to see and do for the first time? Or special places and people from years past you would like to revisit? The things is, no matter what your “want,” it’s okay to be “wanting” at our age.
Have you ever stopped to wonder where those “wants”---what you want and what you don’t want---come from? Though I can’t say for sure, I do know there are a couple constants in my life that emerged at a very early age. 
I don’t recall that I invited either of those particular interests into my life. Near as I can tell they simply arrived unsummoned and never left. For as long as I can remember they have helped shape my personal vision of the future I wanted for myself and my family. Can you relate to that? Have there been similar “constants” in your life?
From one end of my life to the other storytelling has been one of those motivators. I “published” my first story at eight.(To rave reviews from Mom and Dad.) I’ll bet some of you did that. Later, my periodic escapes from the real world---to play cowboy or create an English novel---provided opportunities to write. Finally, when retirement threatened to overwhelm me, it was storytelling that rescued me, providing the creative possibilities I was seeking---not in hopes of selling books---but to tell my stories the way I wanted to tell them, put them in print, and see them on my bookshelf.
The second of my youthful passions---what I call wanderlust---had its hold on me even before I created my first story. The big Rand-McNally World Atlas under the coffee table was favored browsing even before I could read the names on its multi-colored maps. I spent countless hours trying to imagine those many exotic places. Later, as the spoiled boss’ son in a family business, I had the time and means to scratch that wanderlust itch with extended family travels in the US, Mexico, and Europe.
But all that was long ago---in the mid-summer of our marriage adventure. What did those good times have to do with October and November? I think I know what it means to me. Chances are you too can relate to those possibilities.
Storytelling and wanderlust---if I had been aware enough to create a Bucket List when I retired they would have been near the top. They, along with Roma’s candidates, might have helped shape our so-called Golden Years, bringing a degree of order to what instead became an unstructured, sometimes rudderless time---full of suddenly free days we were not putting to the best use.
Truth to tell, until I was introduced to the concept by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman the term “bucket list” was not part of my vocabulary. Though I had spent my career (actually two careers) helping organizations plan for the future I had not approached our own future with the same diligence.
If you had asked me “pre-retirement” about the future I envisioned for the two of us my reply would have been simple enough. Retirement equals travel. The troublesome career constraints, the reasons for staying home, were about to be removed. Or so I thought. In fact they were about to be replaced by a new set of limitations.
First, extensive travel would be expensive, probably beyond our limited means. Second, after decades spent following me from place to place, my life-mate and partner was ready to settle down and stay in one place. To put it bluntly, we were not on the same page.
Predictably, I would later use an exaggerated example of those opposing retirement desires as the basis for a story. The following excerpt from Family Matters depicts Dan and Nell Padgett at the very beginning of their “bucket list conflict.”

“It’s time for us to start making some plans,” I explained, ever the methodical and organized one. “Can you believe it? For forty-three years we’ve been tied down to wherever I was working. It’s always felt like we were chained to that place, wherever it was. Now we can finally break loose. We don’t have to drag that anchor around anymore.”
“Dan Padgett, will you stop being so dramatic,” Nell said as she pushed her coffee aside. “What does that mean, ‘We don’t have to drag an anchor?’ I don’t understand.”
“It means we can finally get away from all this. We can sell the house and hit the road. You know, in a trailer or a motor home. Something like that. We can be footloose, with no need to worry about a schedule or timetable, with no mayor or city council to answer to. There’ll be no house tying us down to one place. We’ll finally be free. 
“Kathy is in California, doing her own thing. There’s no reason in the world for us to be stuck here in Tanner---not when there’s a whole world waiting for us out there. We can go where we want, do what we want, and see the places we’ve always wanted to see.”
“You mean for good? Leave our home? Leave Tanner, to live in a trailer?”
“Of course. Why not? We’ve sure as heck earned it, haven’t we?”
I was so startled by the suddenness of Nell’s response that I nearly dropped my wine glass. In a split second she was on her feet, hands on her hips, glaring across the table at me. “You’d better be kidding, mister. Because I’m not going anywhere for more than a week or two at a time. This is our home and I expect it to be our home for a long time to come. I’m sure as heck not going to live in some dinky trailer.”
“Come on, honey. It wouldn’t have to be ‘dinky’ at all. It could be as big as we wanted.”
“You’re not listening. I am not going anywhere.” She gathered some plates and started toward the kitchen, before turning to finish her thought. “Will you just listen to what you’re saying?
“I’ve followed you and that job of yours all over this state, from one town to another. And for all that time the one thing that kept me going was thinking about the time when we could finally settle down for good, where we could put down some roots. 
“The way it turned out that ‘home’ is right here in Tanner. And after all those years of bouncing around, you can bet this is exactly where I’m staying.” The next sounds I heard were dishes clanking in the sink.

Can you imagine how that difference of opinion might complicate the creation of a post-retirement bucket list? Sadly, in a more modest way, I found myself in that same space. It did not take long to realize that if I was truly set on becoming a full-time RVer I would be doing that alone. About then my innate intelligence (Or was it survival instinct?) kicked in. 
A month after my retirement Roma and I set off on our grand tour---a three month return to the UK, Ireland, and Europe, revisiting special places and old friends. Then, having scratched that itch one last time, at least on that scale, I filed my “wanderlust” notions on a back shelf and we settled down. In time I found my way back to storytelling and the two of us settled on a more age-appropriate, common-interest agenda.
In one form or another I’ll bet that happens to lots of folks. The future we imagine, one that fits our tastes and lifestyle, is a movable target. It changes over time. Think about it. Our most productive dreams are the ones we are able to make happen. To make October and November the best they can be, we need to create goals that we can realistically achieve. For the seventy-eight year old guy I have become to resurrect his teenage dreams, no matter how seductive they may be, would be courting failure.
It seems to me that a bucket list, or whatever you choose to call it, is an important part of October thriving. It helps create an understanding of what we want from our remaining years---while recognizing our October circumstances and limitations. Done properly it allows us, in at least a superficial way, to become active co-creators of our own future, rather than passive observers of whatever comes our way. Truth to tell, the dialogue leading to that common understanding is probably more important than the list itself.
In retirement, when the option of doing nothing is so close at hand, some of us need that motivation, that carrot on a stick, to help us thrive. How about you? Is there a carrot dangling in front of you? If so, is it one that excites you, that you are willing to work for? Put another way, is your bucket half full or half empty? 
So what say you? If you are one of those October types, has the transition been easy for you? Have you been able to avoid the nasty speed bumps that can empty your bucket? I’d really like to hear what you have to say. Just use the “Comments” option below. I was thinking about a prize for the first three Comments we receive. Unfortunately, that idea didn’t quite make my bucket list, I hope you’ll have your say anyway.

Friday, April 17, 2015

An October question -- is it that simple?

Hey, we’re October people (more or less.) We know from experience how complicated life can be. Even the most mundane existence is an constant stream of highs and lows. The exact mix of ingredients is a very individual thing, but from day one the life we live is an ever-changing blend of choices made (or not made) and actions taken (or not taken). 
As a storyteller I do my best to describe and illustrate the chain of actions and interactions, thoughts and choices that make up my story. My goal is simple enough. I want the reader to care about what happens to the characters I have set in motion. Fortunately, in the telling I have the luxury of focusing on particular elements of the story---truths or opinions I consider worth exploring in depth.
We know how hard our October years can be. Chances are November will bring additional trials. Each of my Tanner Chronicles stories deals with some form of that unsettling reality. In the course of ten books I have touched on a wide array of October challenges. Yet in every case my emphasis is not the dark side of late-life, but instead the affirming role that relationships play in helping us through those hard times.
I have made the point before. What I call “relational” stories are something very different than the “romance” novels you see on the super market shelves. Like you, I know a thing or two about romance. I’ve been there---and I’m glad for that. It was a special time of life, when hormones and inclination combined to make youthful romance perfectly appropriate.
But that was April. This is October, or perhaps November. A different sort of relationship is just as appropriate. For the last fifteen years Roma and I have visited our congregation’s shut-ins on a regular basis. We have called on dozens of special friends who were facing late-life alone. For some of them that was by choice---and the choice was certainly theirs to make. For others it just turned out that way. In either case there was no denying the sense that something important was missing.
Which brings me to a particular October truth I have explored more than once. If growing old can be a trial, then growing old together must be the most blessed of blessings. Facing October and beyond in the company of a caring and supportive life partner is the best way I know to deal with those intimidating circumstances. Of course, in the process each of them will struggle from time to time. That is an October given. But they will be struggling together.
There are probably a million ways to tell a story that emphasizes the virtue of “struggling together.” . Allow me to offer one of my own---from Long Way Home.
Elly Warren is a year removed from a life-changing relational disaster. She has experienced the pain of great loss up close and personal---leaving her determined to never let it happen again. Keeping the possibility of a new relationship at arms length has become a way of life. But now her best friend, Claudia Harris, is on the phone, asking her to consider that choice in a different light.


“It’s mostly a matter of being lonely,” Elly continued. “Day after day, it’s all the same. There’s nothing to look forward to. I go shopping every couple days. I do lunch at the club with the girls. But it doesn’t help. I honestly don’t know what do. It’s all so complicated.”
Claudia could tell her friend was struggling. Would she listen to another point of view? “You know, I’m not sure it’s all that complicated,” she suggested as she shifted the phone to her other ear. “In fact, I’m guessing it’s really quite simple.”
“What do you mean?” 
“It seems to me you have a choice to make. That’s what I mean. Just one choice, nothing more. That doesn’t sound so complicated does it?”
Elly was not sure how to respond. “What are you talking about? What choice is that?”
“Do you want to be alone---or not? That’s the question you have to answer---the choice you have to make” Was this going to work, Claudia asked herself. Would Elly even listen? “You’re seventy years old, aren’t you? And what little family you have is in California. Which means you’re basically on your own. Right?”
“I suppose so.”
“I’m sure there are fellows at the club who would be willing to help out. But you won’t let that happen, will you? I know that you think you have all the answers. But what if you’ve been asking the wrong questions?”
“For heaven sakes, Claudia. What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about reality---about the real world. Take a moment to imagine yourself ten years from now. Think about what you might be facing if you were eighty and all alone. How do you suppose you’d cope with whatever that future looks like? The thing is, you can decide right now whether you want that to be your 
future, You can decide if you want to be by yourself or with someone who can be there to help if you need it---someone who makes things better?” 
Claudia’s soft laugh might have sounded out of place, at least until she added, “We don’t like to think about that, do we?”
“You’re right,” Elly replied. Why was her friend going on about things no one wanted to think about---now or later?
“But that brings us right back to the one question you need to answer. Do you want to spend your future, whatever it turns out to be, by yourself or with a partner---someone who can help you---someone you can help?”
“Claudia. Don’t forget I had ‘someone’ before.” Elly countered, falling back on her well-tested defenses. “He turned out to be the problem, not the answer. Why would I want to go there again?”
“You’re getting sidetracked, Elly.” Claudia was pacing now, from one end of the patio to the other. “Just concentrate on that one question. Do you want a future by yourself? Or would you rather share it with someone?”
“But, I told ....”
“Elly. Listen to me.” Claudia’s emphatic interruption startled even herself. “Forget about ‘before.’ That’s ancient history. Just answer that one question---by yourself or with someone?”
“I just can’t believe it’s that simple, just one question.”
“It is simple. I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s not. But it is simple. Just ask yourself that one question. If you decide you want to go on alone, like you are now,  then there’s no need to worry about anything else. Because you’ve already decided. You’ve answered the question.” 
“It is much safer this way, you know. There’s less chance of getting hurt again.” Elly’s words carried a harsh, remembering edge that lasted until, “The thing is, it’s so lonely. I know there ought to be more.”
“Perhaps that’s your answer then. Maybe you’ve already made that choice.”
“But, how can I know for sure?”
“Elly.” Claudia was past caring if the neighbors heard her. “We’re not talking about a sewing machine or a new car. It doesn’t come with a guarantee. There is no extended warranty. It’s about taking a chance. If that sounds too scary, if it’s not worth the risk, then don’t do it.”
“But I can’t go on like this. It’s too lonely.”
“Then you have to step out and take a chance. You have to trust again, even if ‘trusting’ has hurt you before. You have to try.“


There you have it, my friend, another peek into the daunting world of October Bold, an interpretation of what I consider to be a late-life truth. It is about thriving in our 60s and 70s (and beyond), wringing all we can from late-life. It may involve taking a chance now and then, even when it’s scary. It may include trusting, even when you’re not sure you can do that again. And of course, there will be no guarantees---no matter what path we choose. 
In the end “thriving” is a matter of being willing to try. That is true on a relational level---whether you decide your way is to go on alone, or you hope to rely on a new relationship. It’s also true for just about any other October challenge you can think of---like telling stories and writing blogs, or some other late-life project that works for you.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Breathing Underwater -- an October possibility

I’ve said it before, more than once---not every October road is straight and smooth. And they do not always lead to happily-ever-after. There are potholes, speed bumps, and detours for us to negotiate. For instance---you’ve seen the stories on the tube and read them in the newspaper. (Our generation still does that.) The news is bad and the numbers are worse. A growing portion of our October population is not financially prepared for anything like the story-book retirement that advertisers tell us we deserve. For too many of us the future sounds a bit bleak---or perhaps a lot bleak.

Think of it this way. For the less fortunate of our October peers what lies in wait are possibilities they never expected or planned for. While the fortunate among us are riding off into the retirement sunset on the back of a smooth-riding pension pony, for too many others guaranteed pensions, real estate equities that always seemed to increase, and high-yielding 401Ks are last year’s dream, one that shows no sign of returning. At the same time the publicly-funded safety net of social services they hope will tide them over---food stamps, rental subsidies, health care---is strained as never before. We are told that even Social Security, the last resort for so many, is more vulnerable than ever.

I suppose it is human nature---looking ahead to judge our outcomes. We are continually measuring ourselves against our own expectations. Are we winning or losing? “Winning” is, of course, a powerful motivation. Conversely the realization that we might be “losing” is hard to accept. That is true at any age, but especially so in the late-life world of October.

Facing the harsh possibility of failure is hard enough. But what if you find yourself failing and the means to turn your situation around, to set things right, are out of reach? A sense of helplessness can bring the strongest person up short, regardless of their age. Sadly, October problems often produce a heightened sense of vulnerability. 

By then the anxious awareness of our failings comes face to face with a limiting reality---the time and energy required to start over are in retreat. Serious setbacks---be they health related, relational, financial, or psychological---may reinforce a perception of having lost control. What has worked in the past may no longer seem effective. How can we learn new skills and change course so late in the game?

In the end, of course, the test is how we deal with those disappointments---the October realization that our future will be something less, perhaps a lot less, than we had expected. On one hand we can step back, assess our situation, weigh the options, and create an action plan that includes the most promising ways to cope with our misfortune. Or.....at the other extreme we can simply give up---turning away, refusing to accept the fact of it. Finally, when we can no longer deny our sad fate, we may resort to outright escape, literally running away rather than face the hurtful truth.

Of course, for October couples the disappointment of falling short is a shared experience. Not surprisingly, when apparent failure scuttles long-held dreams of how their future ought to be it can produce unexpected strain on even the best of relationships. For some it is a burden not easily shed---a source of guilt that is bound to have its way. 

By now you might be asking what has led me to this dark side of October. As often happens I bumped into those relational concerns---of falling short---as I proofed and revised my latest story. After forty-six years of marriage the Camdens have encountered a late-life speed bump. Their problem is a financial one---an underwater mortgage coupled with a private pension that has vanished as fast as the company declared bankruptcy.

By then the question for them had become---how does a couple deal with that terrible reality when one of them is searching for a way to survive and the other wants only to run and hide from the truth? It’s a hard thing, being underwater. “Breathing underwater” is even harder. Yet that simple necessity was about to become the mantra by which their new lives would be lived. From that point on they would view life through a distressing “underwater” prism.

It is a circumstance that happens too often these days. Yet for some reason I was drawn to the Camden’s situation, and especially their opposing ways of coping with their new life. It seemed like a story that ought to be told. In the course of Breathing Underwater I follow them as they deal with their personal challenges until, in due course, the ultimate question becomes---if and when they are able to surface for a breath of fresh air will they still be together?