Tag Archives: inspiration

In search of Je ne sais quoi


Nancy, France, spring 2014

Nancy, France, spring 2014

I’m on a French kick. Lately, I’ve been muttering to myself in French – perhaps because my efforts at learning Spanish are kicking up the French-language debris that lines the foreign-language portion of my brain. And I’ve been looking in my closet and dreaming of simple, elegant, chic ensembles. I yearn for a smaller, well-organized wardrobe based on classic, good-quality pieces like a tailored jacket, a cashmere sweater, a crisp white blouse, ankle-length jeans, ballerina flats, and the all-important LBD. Of course, I’ve seen few Tacomans who dress like that, but so what? Isn’t retirement all about going my own way and discovering my own preferences? I already own enough scarves to bedeck a city block of Parisiennes, and a genuine beret Basque. The classic, slim silhouette of a French femme d’un certain age – that’s what I need to feel bien dans ma peau – at ease, confident, and full of joie de vivre. (See? What did I tell you? French phrases littering the place like autumn leaves.)

This yearning for all things French is largely due to homesickness – not only for Europe, but for who I once was – Madame S., prof de français. Even after I changed jobs and ceased teaching French, I continued to live near France (in western Germany) and travelled there frequently. I’ve been sorting through some photos this week, which is a much more time-consuming process on the computer than it used to be when we just printed up our snapshots and put them into an album – or into a shoe box with the promise that one day we’d put them into an album. In any case, I keep running across shots of the Loire valley, of châteaux I’ve visited there, of my daughter and me in Paris during her senior year of high school, of a long-ago me shepherding students through Paris, or Strasbourg, or Verdun, or even Hagenau, a cute little town in Lorraine that was an easy day’s outing from our school in northern Bavaria. And I found dozens of photos of my mom, daughter, husband and me in Colmar, one of the most beautiful towns in Alsace – crisscrossed with canals, the half-timbered houses with drunkenly-sloped tiled roofs, and windows bedecked with explosions of geraniums – so lovely, so comfortable, so far away.

Colmar, summer of 2012.

Colmar, summer of 2012.

But part of this French kick is also a reaction against the sloppy aesthetic of so many women my age. OK – at the family literacy program where I’ve been volunteering, some of the instructors dress up for work in proper dresses or nice slacks and blouses. Aha – my use of the word “proper” is a clue – my inner snob is pushing back against the laissez-faire approach to personal grooming that reigns here in my new home. I yearn to find a sidewalk café where I can sip espresso and read or write or contemplate deep, philosophical questions while watching interesting people stroll by. I want to be called Madame by a black and white-clad waiter with a cool attitude – instead of being chirped at by a cheerleader type: “Hi there! How are you today? Are you having a fantastic day? What can I get started for you? An Americano? Perfect!”

No honey, it’s not perfect. Perfect would be a place where I could sit comfortably and the waitress would come to me, take my order in modulated tones, and not insist on chirping at me until the coffee is ready. I loathe, despise and abominate chirpiness. And I’m not a cranky pants most of the time – really, I’m not. I find people fascinating – all sorts of people, but I just want a peaceful pause in my day to sip my caffeine and read a bit, or perhaps just stare out the window and watch the passers-by, as they do in France. Sigh.

Loire Valley, Spring 2014

Loire Valley, Spring 2014

A few days ago, I was in a restaurant with my husband. At the next table were a gaggle of women about my age – 50s, some perhaps in their 40s. They were drinking wine and laughing –well, braying and cackling – very loudly. Perhaps they were having a girls’ night out, having a few (loud!) laughs after work. But I got the strong feeling that they were all single – perhaps divorced? They were all well-groomed and dressed in work outfits – expensive-looking, snug pants with dressy blouses. Each one had obviously colored, streaked and styled hair – rather stiff, and plenty of makeup. Each one looked a bit anxious, checking out the room – for possible dates? For the impression she was making? Even though they were having (loud!) fun, they didn’t look at ease, confident, comfortable. They were a bit on edge, checking out the room for the impression they were making.

There’s a sexiness to the French woman that comes from being comfortable, from a firm sense of who she is. She knows herself, and dresses to please; a Frenchwoman always aims to seduire (to charm, to please) – not just men, but all the people with whom she comes into contact. But she has a basic confidence that this table of attractive-but-trying-too-hard American women obviously lacked. And that confidence is sexy.  Even – or especially – older French women, les femmes d’un certain âge, project this sexy, effortless (or seemingly so) confidence, and that’s what I’m aiming for – even here in my new home. Vive l’esprit français – even in Tacoma!

Shopping in the Galeries LaFayette, Paris, 2011.

Shopping in the Galeries LaFayette, Paris, 2011.

Here’s a list of books that I’ve enjoyed on French style and the French lifestyle, just in case you’re feeling a bit Frenchie yourself:

  • Parisian Chic: A Style Guide by Ines de la Fressange, with Sophie Gachet. Such lovely photos! A quick read for a rainy day, with excellent recommendations for a simple, classy French wardrobe, styling tricks, grooming advice, and pages of Ines’s tips for your next visit to Paris – good fodder for daydreaming.
  • Chic and Slim; Chic and Slim Encore; Chic and Slim Techniques by Anne Barone. Thess slim volumes by a Texan show how French techniques can be applied to the U.S. lifestyle with splendid results. Oh, and she has another book out: Chic and Slim Toujours, which contains advice for aging gracefully à la française. I must buy this! Check out her blog at annebarone.com.
  • French Style by Veronique Vienne. Another slim volume with lovely vintage photos and philosophical inspiration.
  • All of Mireille Guiliano’s books: French Women Don’t Get Fat; French Women for All Seasons; and I’m currently reading French Women Don’t Get Facelifts. Her voice is delightful, and her advice practical and oh-so-applicable. Guiliano lives part-time in the U.S., so she knows the cultural and practical barriers to applying French techniques and attitudes here.
  • Fatale: How French Women Do It by Eduth Kunz. Her chapter “Of a Certain Age” is particularly inspiring.
  • French Women Don’t Sleep Alone, by Jamie Cat Callan. Erica Jong called this book “Adorable!” – and so do I. She analyzes that supreme confidence – not arrogance, just self-knowledge and self-acceptance – that makes French women so alluring.
  • All You Need to Be Impossibly French, by Helena Frith Powell, an Englishwoman who makes very perspicacious comparisons between the attitudes and practices of her countrywomen and les françaises. Sharp, funny, realistic.
  • French Toast, by Harriet Welty Rochefort. An American marries into a French family and learns volumes about the puzzling, wise, mysterious ways of the French. Very funny, full of illustrative anecdotes.
  • Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl, by Debra Ollivier. A well-rounded look at the attitudes and lifestyle of French women, with many fascinating historical vignettes.

And of course, this list doesn’t even begin to touch on the many French cookbooks that have inspired me, nor on the many delightful works of fiction about U.S. or English women who made the transplant to l’hexagone. Hmm – perhaps my next novel should be about a middle-aged woman in the U.S. who decides to polish up her lackluster lifestyle by living like a Frenchwoman? That could be très amusant.


Inspiration Abounds

Diane Nash

Since retiring from my teaching job in Germany and returning to the US, I’ve had the good fortune to meet many older women who inspire me with their achievements in the arts, in fitness, and in community activism. I don’t have to look far to find role models for my retirement years. But recently, I had the privilege of meeting a lady who truly inspired not only me, but an auditorium full of students.

Last week, at Tacoma Community College, we were honored with a visit from a pioneer of the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Diane Nash, then a student at Fisk University in Nashville, was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a leader of sit-ins that resulted in the desegregation of Nashville lunch counters, a leader of the Freedom Riders movement and of the Selma Voting Rights Movement campaign. She was arrested many, many times, spent time in solitary confinement and, like Henry David Thoreau, refused to post bail when arrested for breaking unjust laws. She is now a gracious, soft-spoken lady of 74, and she spoke to the students of TCC about her experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and how the principles that inspired her then can be used by young people today. I was struck by her gentle sincerity, and I did my best to scribble down the many gems of wisdom that she shared with the gathered students.

Ms. Nash explained how she and her fellow student activists used “agapic energy,” a term taken from the Greek word agape, meaning a love of humankind. She prefers this term to “nonviolence” simply because nonviolence is a negative term, signifying the lack of something, whereas agapic energy refers to applying the power produced by a love of humankind – very positive indeed. Her goal during her struggles for civil rights was to wage war using energy produced by love instead of energy produced by violence. According to Ms. Nash, Mohandas Gandhi developed a technique for thousands of people to focus their combined love energy on their opponents, and she and her fellow activists applied this same technique to achieve desegregation in the South. Ms. Nash explained to us that agapic energy helps teach or heal the opponent. This first principle of agapic energy particularly struck me: “People are never the enemy. Unjust systems, attitudes and actions are the enemy, but people are not. The proper attitude toward an opponent is, ’We love and respect you as a person, but we won’t tolerate what you’re doing.’” Wow – I don’t believe that many partisan politicians share Ms. Nash’s views, but imagine what our government could achieve if those partisans focused agapic energy on educating and healing their opponents.

According to Ms. Nash, “Oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed. The only person you can change is yourself. And when you change yourself, the world has to fit up against a new you. Very often we give away our power and waste a lot of energy trying to change other people.” So simple, so true. Dear reader, will you permit me a personal example? Thanks for your indulgence: I could not change a family member who was bent on making me feel as lowly as possible, and the effort exhausted me. But when I instead focused on changing myself, well, my life became a lot better. I’ll bet you have a story like that as well. So – Amen, Ms. Nash, and thank you for your elegant simplicity.

Alas, my notes became pretty garbled, since I hadn’t thought to bring along a notebook. Here are some of the legible bits from the tangle of notes I took on the front cover of the Weekly Volcano (newsletter of hipster happenings in Seattle):

“History’s most important function is to cope with the present and the future.” We educators are encouraged by our – er – leaders in the field to make the subject matter relevant to the students. Brava, Ms. Nash.

“Voting is important, but it is not enough.” “If we had waited for elected officials to desegregate lunch counters, 50 years later, we’d still be waiting. “

“The most critical question is, ‘What can I do?’ For anything to work, you must do it.” Ms. Nash reminded the students that, although Dr. King was an outstanding spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement, it was not his movement – it was a people’s movement. Any campaign for social change must be a people’s movement.

“Freedom is not something you get, and then you’ve got it; it’s a constant struggle.” Does that ring true, ladies?

And finally, her parting remarks: “I’d like you to know that, although we hadn’t met you [referring to the students in the audience], we loved you. Future generations are looking to you to do the same for them.” What an inspiring challenge! Here’s to the students of TCC, and to their fellow students across the country. May we find inspiration in the words of this great lady, and may we direct agapic energy toward building a better future for ourselves, and for future generations.

Looping Back

It’s funny how one thing leads to another. Recently, my laptop died – something had gone wrong with a start-up program and, lacking a CD drive, the machine had to be sent back to the manufacturer for re-installation of the faulty program. Alas, this meant that many files and programs were wiped away, cast into oblivion. The “customer service” person I spoke to in some faraway foreign land read to me from her script:

“Before sending in the computer, Ma’am, we recommend that you back up all files.”

“Well,” I replied, “I can’t start the bloody computer, so how could I possibly back up my files?”

“Oh, well – nevertheless, we recommend that you do that. It’s what we recommend.”


Anyway, one of the lost programs was Microsoft Word; since my computer runs Windows 8, I have no choice but to pay about a hundred bucks every year just to write and to save what I’ve written, assuming that I continue to use Word. One hundred smackers! Well, it turns out that there are other options. After much grumbling about corporate greed, I downloaded OpenOffice. Allow me to sing their praises for a moment – huzzah for OpenOffice! A free word-processing program that can open Word files that would otherwise be denied to me by the Microsoft gatekeepers – what a lovely gift!

Anyway, realizing that I’d been foolish and lazy about securing backup copies of my writing, I set about recovering many bits of a novel in progress, some of which I’d written out longhand in various journals throughout the last five years.

I’m a great believer in the therapeutic value of keeping a journal. The kind of grumbling, grousing, musing, imagining and navel-gazing that goes on in my journal would bore the most loving and patient listener. But I’ve had so many “Ah-ha!”moments while reflecting in writing, especially during difficult times. People pay a therapist good money for the kind of insight that we can get from writing out our thoughts, dreams and troubles, with no audience in mind but ourselves. Patterns emerge, vital questions arise, and we can try out answer after answer until one finally rings true.

And I truly believe that there’s a power in declaring one’s intentions, in detail and in writing – “putting it out there in the universe” so that our heart’s desires can begin to manifest in our lives. Yes, it sounds a bit woo-woo, but in my experience, writing about my goals is a big step toward achieving them. For example, during the last, unhappy years of my previous marriage, I wrote in detail about the kind of life I wanted and the partner I wanted to share it with. Et voilà! I now have the freedom I longed for, the time I need, and the most wonderful partner to share this new life with. Is there some cause and effect at work here? Well, knowing what I want and where I’m headed certainly helps.

But I digress. In order to piece together the missing bits of this novel in progress, I looked back into my old journals, going back to the last few years of the aforementioned unhappy marriage. I skimmed through three volumes of determined declarations, tearful regrets, and then reread the joyful beginning of my current relationship with my now-husband. Wow! Even more than photos ever could, the words scrawled in hurried, careless cursive on those pages took me right back to my sunny backyard in Germany, to hotel rooms and waiting rooms and train compartments where I planned a better future. Reading those pages, I relived those painful endings and joyful beginnings. A lot of what I wrote was repetitious, and a lot was bluster, a way of propping myself up with firm declarations at a time when my life was resting on a wobbly foundation. It did me good to revisit that not-so-long-ago version of myself. I wish I’d been a better journal-keeper back in my 20s and 30s, but my 40s and 50s (so far) are well documented.

An important part of this journey of reinvention, of crafting a new life after retirement, is remembering who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do – long ago, and recently. There are threads running throughout the narrative of my life, and reading through those old journals reveals the strongest, brightest threads (dance, the joy of movement, the importance of creative self-expression, the love of reading), as well as the tangled threads that have tripped me up again and again (impatience, being judgmental, procrastination).

How about you? Do you keep a journal? Has recording your life’s journey helped you? Do you ever revisit those pages you wrote long ago?

The Wheel Turns

Autumn announces her arrival in the trees and in the kitchen.

Autumn announces her arrival in the trees and in the kitchen.

I’ll bet you’ve had a moment like this.

We don’t feel the wheel turning – it’s a wheel after all, and its movement is smooth, subtle, rolling us from season to season with no clear borders between them. And yet the wheel of the year turns, and today it turns us toward autumn. Oh, we’ve been noticing the beginnings of autumn color in the trees for a few days now, but it’s been so hot, the skies so clear, that no one’s been thinking of autumn. We’ve been wearing our summer outfits, sitting outside, soaking up the gift of late-summer warmth and sunshine like a bunch of contented lizards.

But today I knew without knowing that the wheel had turned. The proof appeared in my kitchen. A few days ago, a friend had given me a bag of green apples from her backyard tree – much too sour to eat out of hand, but perfect for pie. And today, those apples called to me – gleaming like citrines in their bowl in the pantry. Low and behold, there was a frozen pie crust in the freezer – and now there’s apple pie in the oven.

And my magnificent fiancé looked up from his computer screen to remark that somehow soup sounded better for dinner than the grilled salmon we’d been planning. Well, my sweetie makes the best grilled salmon in five counties – or whatever the German equivalent would be. He’s always in the mood for – yes, that too, but I was going to say salmon. And he was right – it is the perfect day for soup: high overcast, light drizzle, and a certain rich, warm tone to the late-summer light. The big linden tree outside my kitchen window is still green, and at 7:30 P.M. it’s still light enough outside to read, but something is whispering “autumn.”

For me, autumn is heralded by cravings for soups, squashes, apple pies and plum tarts, and lots of walks in the crisp, cool weather. My lizard brain knows that I’d better stock up on outdoor time while I can, because winter will be knocking on the windowpane all too soon. And winter announces herself with the urge to bake cookies and rich, cheesy casseroles. Spring is heralded by cravings for fresh green things. Summer rides in on the sudden urge to grill – veggie kebabs, chicken, fish – anything cooked outdoors suddenly seems like an excellent idea.

It’s not that I don’t notice the outward signs of the change of seasons; they’re pretty hard to ignore. Every spring, I scan the sky for the swallows’ arrival, and my heart leaps a little – OK, a lot – when I see the first sky-borne acrobat performing her aerial swoops and swirls. And it’s pretty hard to miss the piles of autumn leaves that suddenly rustle under our feet. It’s a thrill and an honor to glimpse a big V of geese crying high above as they make their way south, or north again. You can’t help but notice the first time that frost glazes the windshield of your car. And, no matter how old I get, the first snow of the year is always remarkable.

But mine is mainly an indoor existence. And so my primitive lizard brain reminds me of the change of seasons – she smacks her little lizard lips and ponders a new menu. And I see no reason not to indulge her.

I hope you enjoy your soup this autumn.



In Search of Inspiration

The other day, an old friend asked me why I was writing a blog. Hmm. I started this blog because I aspire to be a published writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. Alas, I don’t do well without some kind of deadline, and the act of announcing my blog to friends and family motivates me to add to it regularly. Then my friend asked what my blog was about. I’m interested in so many topics, and it’s been a struggle to pin that down the main focus for this blog – but here goes:

  1. Fitting the good life into this busy life. As I mentioned in the “about me” bit of this blog, I have a demanding, full-time job, as most of us do, and I find it a real challenge to fit in creative self-expression, exercise, fun times with friends, alone time for contemplation and writing, travel – in other words, all the good stuff – given my limited time, money, and energy. But I refuse to be just a working drudge who spends her evenings vegging in front of the TV. Time is all we have, and I want to go to bed each night having done something that was personally satisfying – beyond doing my best at work.
  2. Doing this age well. I’m currently 51, and am determined to make the most of this decade. Sure, age is just a number, time is a man-made construct, blah blah blah, but this mature, post-childrearing age is new to me, and it presents opportunities that I want to fully explore.

 That said, I’m always looking for role models – women around this age or older who are meeting the above two goals. So, what does it mean to “do 50 well”? The women this age whom I admire and to whose example I aspire are:

  • Fit. Yes, our skin will be looser in our fifties, but there’s no reason why the muscles beneath can’t be firm and fit.
  • Slim – not skinny, but reasonably slim. This depends upon height and build, of course; I feel happy and attractive around a size ten. Getting and staying there is not easy, but it can be done.
  • Well-groomed and comfortable in their own skin. They do not hide their mature beauty behind layers of makeup and stiffly-styled hair, but they adorn themselves in a way that enhances their best features.
  • They behave like ladies in public. No yelling except in cases of extreme provocation, no braying laughter, no squawking, no cursing (see above re: extreme provocation). They are polite. They are kind and respectful to the people they meet throughout the day. They do not behave or dress ostentatiously. They have some class.
  • They dress with flair, be it snazzy, artistic, classic, or modern – but never schlumpy or slutty.
  • They have something interesting to say. They are not walking clichés.
  • They do something interesting and worthwhile with their time – not just shopping, television and gossip.
  • They are interested in the world around them. They think for themselves.
  • They are open to new experiences, but not swept up by fads and trends.

 Your list might be quite different, but if I meet these goals during my fifties, I will consider it a decade well spent.

 In July, I embarked on a month-long visit to the U.S., with stops in the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, Oregon, Tacoma, Washington, and Pacific Beach, near San Diego. From the moment I set foot in Frankfurt Airport, my point of departure, until the moment I settled gratefully back into our car for the drive back home, I looked for these role models: women who look good, show some style, are full of spunk and seem to be enjoying life – the kind of woman I aspire to be. Of course, it’s not possible to tell whether a passing stranger or a brief acquaintance meets all of the above criteria, but I did look everywhere for inspiration. I saw a few admirably fit 50-somethings, some slim and well-dressed ones, some artistic and intriguing ones, and a lot of schlumpy, overweight women who appeared to be doing their mommy and grandma thing on automatic pilot. Please don’t misunderstand me: taking care of children is incredibly important – not just for the children involved, but for all of us. But if that becomes your whole focus, to the point where you neglect maintaining any identity of your own other than generic mommy/grandma person, and when you neglect taking care of yourself, well – that’s a waste of your God-given individuality and a poor example for your female offspring.

 What did I learn from this trip? In my own lovely sister I saw an example of grace and generosity, and I admired again her feminine style and attention to little details. I also admired my old friend’s frankness, intelligence and poise, my aunt’s spiffy style, my mother’s strength and polish, my future sister-in-law’s colorful wardrobe and playful sexiness – so I do have some wonderful role models for female maturity. And from the many mature ladies in Mom’s neighborhood, I learned about the polish that a bit of good jewelry adds to an ordinary outfit. My outdoorsy sisters in the Northwest reminded me of the power of exercise to improve one’s posture, appearance and energy. (I didn’t learn much about well-lived maturity in Pacific Beach, since that area attracts such a young crowd, but it was amusing watching the young girls try to figure out their own style.) And when I returned to Europe, I admired the polish and chic style of some of my German Schwestern, with their tailored, feminine outfits, well-coifed hair and good posture. Our European sisters have a lot to teach us Yanks about how to be a mature woman with style.

 My studies continue…