AUTUMN IN ASCOLI
After so many years in the very moderate climate of southern California, we have returned to the experiences of our earlier lives when the year was punctuated by pronounced seasonal changes. In our last Blog posting, we remarked on the very hot summer we had experienced this year. We are now in Autumn.
Just now, the days are generally sunny and in the lower 60’s (F) and in the 40’s (F) at night. And then, there is the occasional rain. The change in the weather is also visually reinforced by the change of fashion seen on the street. With the equinox, there is a spontaneous, expected change in how one presents oneself. And just the other day when out doing morning errands, I saw in the higher elevations of the Apennine Mountains to the west of Ascoli, a reflection of a covering of light snow.
This Fall also involved a family loss. After a very prolonged history of serious health issues, Arlene’s sister was admitted into an Intensive Care Unit at a San Diego, California Hospital. She had been hospitalized before on multiple occasions but this time, the prognosis was less favorable. Given the short notice and other complexities, we determined to get Arlene to San Diego as fast as we could while I remained here in Ascoli.
The decision for Arlene to immediately go to San Diego was the correct one to have made. After a little over a week following Arlene’s arrival, her sister peacefully left this life with Arlene and her sister’s husband holding her hands. The passing of a close member of a family is never easy to process. Under the circumstances of a protracted and complex health history, the probability had been anticipated there was always a likelihood of her passing away sooner than might otherwise have been hoped for. In some respects, recognizing that probability was a means to try to be prepared for what seemed likely but still did not dull the sense of loss when it took place. The extended family is now dealing with the complex emotions of grief over the passing of someone loved while also having a sense that a prolonged experience with suffering and distress has been relieved.
After then spending a week in Florida with her ailing mother and step-dad to assist them in coming to terms with the passing away of one of her two children, Arlene has returned to Ascoli. Being the kind and caring person she is, she had spent a protracted and emotional time being a resource to others. I now have her back in Ascoli where I can attempt to be a resource to her as she processes what has happened.
Thinking more broadly on the process of our own lives is probably inevitable when someone close passes away. And as we have reflected often in the Blog, retirement seems to provide the opportunity to be free of some externally imposed distractions to allow more quiet reflection.
Apparently, from a personality standpoint, how we age is a very individual journey. Perhaps, it has a lot to do with how we choose to define ourselves; essentially, how we wish the external world to perceive us. I have a perception that an unanticipated benefit of making the change of environment in becoming Expatriates in Italy is that we are in a new context that has no reliance on the legacy symbols we had accrued around us to signify ‘what’ we once were. It seems I’m no longer defined in an occupational hierarchy with symbolic indicators of ‘what’ I was; such as the kind of office I occupied. Now, no longer do the cars we drove nor what kind of house we lived in, nor where it was situated, served to put us into ‘stereotypical boxes.’ Those of us with military experience also understand what symbols sitting on your shoulder had to say about ‘what’ you were. In our case, ‘moving on,’ may have been helped by actually ‘moving.’
Here in Ascoli, we have had the glorious experience of being accepted and have formed friendships solely based on ‘who’ we are right now; that is, do we seem to be the kind of people someone might want to know? In Ascoli, an interesting difference we noted early on was that previously in the U.S., on meeting someone new, the discussion almost invariably turned to, “And what do you do?” I suppose it is an easy conversation starter and gets someone talking about themselves but I have also come to wonder just how much it involved having data with which to categorize people into stereotypes. That kind of question rarely comes up in conversation with Italians.
This Blog has afforded us the opportunity to have conversations with a variety of people not previously known to us. It seems some people who have not yet retired have natural concerns about how retirement is going to affect their lives. It is evident, some people are very reluctant to venture out from the familiar. If they are still receiving adequate affirmation through making still valued vocational or larger community contributions, that is not something easily surrendered.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received suggested that at some point, your perceived occupational utility will probably diminish. As a result, an important question for your sense of self-worth is whether you want to leave the decision up to others as to when you might start on a new path for yourself, or whether you want to assume personal responsibility for that important decision. I chose the latter and have never regretted it. Of course, timing in life is complex but there is something to be said for taking as much control over your own destiny as you possibly can.
Life appears to involve an almost constant stream of changes. While change can be disruptive, change can also open new opportunities. Learning to live in the ‘here and now – in the moment’ is a goal that becomes more important as we mature. But there is also something to be said for improving skills to look ahead to anticipate future possibilities. Being to any extent prepositioned for some changes that seem predictable can soften some of the potential negative impacts of events. Attempting to be an active participant influencing unfolding events can improve the chances of a better outcome. Perhaps more than we realize, it can be possible to make your own luck.
One of the more promising ways of being prepositioned for retirement is to start moving toward simplifying some of life’s material structures and demands. Most of us have been overly active participants in a consumer dominated society. In a recent opinion piece by Roger Cohen in the New York Times, he recalled an observation made in a note written by Albert Einstein, then in retirement:
“A quiet and modest life brings more joy than pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.”
We feel we made a more gradual transition to where we are today than may be apparent on the surface. We have essentially done, what we have done, when we were ready to do it. Post occupational retirement, we continued to be active in a variety of other obligations that had to first run their course.
Some generous people have commented, “How brave we were to do what we have done.” We can’t quite relate to that observation simply because we tried to gradually embrace change as it occurred and then determined to do what seemed the optimal choice for us, when it felt it was time to act on it.
If there is anything we would say from the standpoint of some of the lessons learned, a few thoughts come to mind to facilitate the transition into retirement: (i) Try to embrace change and don’t fear it; (ii) Have faith in yourself; (iii) Don’t push yourself into doing something before you are ready and then don’t look back; (iv) Be more attentive to your instincts; (v) Explore the deeper value of simplifying your life and your material obligations – less, is often more; (vi) Accept that aging is an evolution that brings with it assets that can offset what seem like lost capacities; (vii) Old age is a privilege some people don’t achieve, so be grateful; and, (viii) Remember to be good to yourself – allowing yourself to be cherished by others, and returning that gift, is the very essence of a good life.
We can truly say, we have found wonderful satisfaction in what we are doing. Daily life is very fulfilling without a dominating sense of loss over ‘what used to be.’ Among the benefits that this stage of life seems to afford is to slow up enough to not take for granted the wonderful value of living in a committed relationship with someone very special. And doing that in a place that still holds wonder and stimulates curiosity doesn’t hurt. Nor does having an ever-widening circle of warm, Italian friends. Above all, it has taken a while to grasp the very significant benefits of simplifying life concentrating more on what is important.
Einstein was correct, there is a lot to be said for a “quiet and modest life” as one ages.