Tag Archives: reinvention

What I Want to Be When I Grow Up By Rhonda G., grade 47

(Given that I’ve been taking some course or other every year since I left high school, I guess I can keep counting, eh?)

So, I’ve found my calling at age 52. (I’ve always been a late bloomer—hence the name of this blog.) Part of my mission here was to figure out how to spend the next phase of my life after the blessing of early retirement. And I sort of expected an Oprah-worthy moment when I finally realized what I was put on this earth to do—you know, velvet curtains parting, a dazzling spotlight, a snazzy make-over, a sparkly dress worn over three pair of Spanx. But no, the revelation came without fanfare: I’m a writer. Duh.

I’ve been a book nut since I was a wee tot, and I thank my parents for cultivating that passion by stocking our bookshelves so well. Does anyone remember those Time-Life series, with the great photos? The Emergence of Man, Foods of the World, The Old West, The Explorers, The Oceans. And we had Nancy Drew, an illustrated children’s Bible, Doctor Seuss, Peanuts

And I’ve always been a storyteller, whiling away the hours inventing stories when I should’ve been doing chores or attending to homework, or sleeping.  How could I sleep when my heroine was in the middle of chasing down miscreants and saving Gotham city alongside Batman? OK, my early work was pretty derivative; nowadays it’d be called fan fiction. But the point was that I was always spinning stories in my head.

Now that I’m retired from teaching, my writing hobby has become my full-time occupation. Since November, my nose has been buried in my keyboard, and I’ve got the extra eight pounds to prove it. (Next post: The Writer’s Diet. Step one: get out of the chair.)

I’ve finally finished editing my first novel and have launched it into the great, wide world in search of a literary agent. I even have a pretty box ready to collect all the rejection letters. Meanwhile, novel number two quivers in its folder, ready to be shaped into a firm, tight narrative—which  takes as much time as shaping up a flabby body, and just as much sweat and tears. I’ve also attended my first writers’ conference and have even printed up my first set of business cards identifying me as a writer. Have I been paid one cent for my writing? No, but I shall be.

I love writing fiction like beavers like building dams, like army ants love devouring grasshoppers, like Vikings love pillaging villages. I love creating characters and then watching their whole world materialize around them. I love combining people I’ve met into a new character who has this one’s panache, that one’s colorful idioms, and that other one’s tendency to embellish the truth. I’ll admit it—I do love doling out comeuppance to dastardly evildoers. And how much fun is it to play matchmaker and watch a couple fall in love!

But here’s what makes me think I’ve found my true calling: I even enjoy the revising, the editing, the tightening and polishing. You’d think that after revising an entire novel five or six times, I’d get a little tense, a little downhearted when someone suggests that I take another look at this or that issue—but I don’t! It’s not a setback so much as a learning opportunity, and I’m learning so much from the feedback of my beta readers (folks on whom I inflict my novel-in-progress) and my critique groups.

It’s interesting how very much I’m learning from other writers who are much younger than me. And why not? Any avid reader who informs herself about the writer’s craft and who has a keen eye for detail, a keen ear for words, has much to teach me. This is an interesting twist, as I’m used to being in the teacher role. But hey—one of my avowed goals here is to resist ageism and provide a good example of a mature woman who’s living her life (joy)fully. So there you go—write on.

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.

 

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.”

Sigh.

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?

Culture Shock?

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. ~Anatole France

I’ve been back in the US for two months now, after having lived in Germany for over 28 years. People have been asking me, “So, are you experiencing culture shock?” The answer’s not as easy as I’d anticipated. Yes, there are things that I miss about Germany and about living in Europe, but I’ve been too busy settling into my new home and new life to focus much on that. I’ve read that expats who return to the US often go through a period of mourning. Wow – mourning. Will readjusting to live in the US really be that difficult? For the time being, I’m trying to focus more on what I enjoy about this new situation than on what I miss about “home.”

Here are some things I love about living in Tacoma:

  • The weather. Really – it’s hardly rained at all! I know that I can expect some serious dampness in the coming months, but summers up here are warm and lovely. Right now I’m sitting in the back yard, listening to the patter of the lawn sprinkler and enjoying the late-summer warmth. And back “home” in Bitburg, my loved ones are starting their school year in the high 50s. Blech.
  • The huge, mature trees. They’re everywhere, soaring over even the dumpiest neighborhoods. I’m sitting under a tall ornamental cherry tree, and over my shoulder is a magnificent magnolia. The evening air is still, but when the wind blows, the tall firs down the street wave hello. And there’s a mimosa tree across the way – I thought they only grew in hot climates. Living in the Pacific Northwest is like living in a green, well-planted park.
  • The parks! Tacoma has several, and we’ve only begun to explore them. Today we walked along the Puget Sound in Point Defiance Park. The Tacomans (Tacomites? Tacomians? Tacomazoids?) of the 1800s and early 1900s gifted us with some lovely green spaces in which to relax. Thank you!
  • The sea. OK – it’s the Puget Sound, but it’s salt water, and it smells like the sea. This will be the first winter since my childhood that I’ll be able to visit the sea; that was always a summertime treat, living in landlocked Germany. The sea speaks to me, and I can visit her every day if I wish.
  • Friendly, helpful people. Now, I’m not going to start in on German standoffishness. Most German people I met were at least pleasant, and many were salt-of-the-earth, warm-hearted, generous people. But there’s a certain correctness, a certain distance in everyday dealings with German strangers and acquaintances. Sometimes I like that, such as when waiters are not overly chummy and intrusive. (For goodness sake, let us eat a few bites before asking, “How are we doing? Anything else I can get you guys?”) On the other hand, I find most people here to be relaxed, friendly and helpful in a way that’s very welcoming. And even though I value learning other languages, it’s a relief not to have to constantly think about how to phrase what I want to say. It’s so relaxing to be a native speaker.
  • It’s fun to work out at the Y!M!C!A! Oh my gosh, I love this place! The Morgan Family Y in Tacoma is a huge facility with great equipment, a big pool, a plethora of fun exercise classes, and the members are so diverse – everyone from little tiny kiddos to very elderly people can be found working out and playing at the Y. This is what fitness should be about – it’s a welcoming place for the whole community. And now that we’re retired, we’re working out pretty regularly.
  • Sixth Avenue, Proctor Ave, and the theater district in Tacoma – all full of funky, quirky little shops, cafes, nightclubs, restaurants. The walkability of these areas and the attractive old buildings give these parts of town a “European” vibe, so we can get a bit of the feeling of “home.”

On the other hand, there are some strange foreign ways here that puzzle me. For instance:

  • My fellow Americans, your wardrobe choices are often perplexing. I’m all for freedom of expression, but do y’all look in the mirror from time to time? For example, what’s with the knit caps, young people? The weather’s been in the 80s most days, and yet I keep seeing young people wearing warm knit hats. Today I saw a young woman at the beach, standing in the water, wearing a bikini and a knit hat. ????
  • No umbrellas? We’ve only had a few rainy days, but the other day when I entered a coffee shop I looked around in vain for a place to put my dripping umbrella. You see, in Germany, where it rains a great deal, every café, restaurant and office has an umbrella stand right inside the front door. That way you don’t dribble all over the floor. But a few natives have already informed me that “We don’t use umbrellas around here.” Well, y’all go right ahead and get wet if that makes you happy, but I’m going to carry an umbrella. I don’t obey silly rules.
  • Wow, groceries are expensive! I’m learning how to shop all over again, and I’m afraid it’s going to involve a lot of driving back and forth across town. This place offers a decent price on fish; that place way over there has affordable produce, and Trader Joe’s has all sorts of culinary treats – but it’s way over on the other side of town. Grocery shopping takes strategy around here!
  • Speaking of prices, how do they get away with charging so much for very ordinary restaurant meals? Just sayin’ – as the young people in floppy caps (and bikinis) say.
  • It’s spelled Puyallup, but it’s pronounced “Pew-allup.” How come? Either spell it like it sounds, or say it like it’s spelled! But I’m looking forward to going to the state fair there next month.
  • Noisy people. In Germany, anständige Leute (respectable people) do not yell in restaurants. But here? With your tasty lunch you get a free side of – pandemonium! We went to a “nice” pub-style restaurant the other day, and the people at the next table over, well-dressed middle-aged people, were shrieking and hollering at each other! And the general noise level was what I’d expect to encounter at a football stadium, right after the home team scores a winning touchdown. Hush, people! Use your inside voices! I feel my German sensibilities bristling when I can’t tune out those loud voices. And don’t tell me to just ignore them, dear reader – their noisiness is inappropriate for the setting and occasion, and it’s inconsiderate.

I must admit that I already miss that German sense of Ordnung, a sense of order and occasion that makes daily life a bit less chaotic. Intellectually, I respect people’s freedom to express themselves, but at the gut level, my inner German is having a hard time with some of my fellow Americans.

Well then, I guess there is some culture shock at work here after all.