Saturday, December 8, 2012

Casting a Wide Net Yields a Bountiful Life

She always looks up!

The humming birds were buzzing around the bird feeder, while she filled it with water and food.  In a quiet voice, she informed me that they carried the spirits of her dead siblings and parents.  She was the only one still alive and they liked to visit.  Not a superstitious type, she said “My mother used to say to me hummingbirds were our relatives.”  From that time on, when I sit in my backyard hot tub and the hummingbirds fly around and I think of my departed family members.

Committed to a full life, this older lady defines involvement and creative expression.  Her typical day is:  check the stock market, go to water color or exercise class, garden in her yard, play bridge in the evening, and then 'stream' a movie.  Keeping this schedule day in, day out would be daunting for someone half her age.   But she doesn’t stop, and barely takes time for the occasional nap.  ‘Why would I stop?  If I did, I may as well die’ she says.   

One day I asked her about the meaning of life.  She responded, "Look around.  What do you see?  Plants, animals, nature.  That is what it is about."  No concepts, no theories of the hereafter, and no god, just the simple expression of life with all of its abundance.  In her garden, last year’s roses and tomatoes are long gone.  Like her career in public education, that was then and she moved on. 'Let the dead bury the dead.'

Born and raised in a small New England town, this skinny, big brown eyed, dark haired daughter of Italian immigrants had an overarching dream—live life in all its fullness.   Never one for sitting still, as a small child she would follow her older brothers where ever they went--wanting to explore the world.   That inclination stayed with her in moving to California with her Navy officer later civil engineer husband, living in Europe for a couple years in the Sixties, traveling to foreign lands nearly every summer vacation, and even more often in ‘retirement.’  

Intensity in acrylic by Belinda Z. Klarin
At 62 she retired from a career in teaching elementary school, but not from life.  Immediately she began taking art classes ranging from abstract painting, to sculpture, to watercolors.  Befuddling her instructors with her wild creativity, she would turn a simply ceramic pot into phantasmagoria of shapes out of the Lord of the Rings.  Once a skill is learned, it is on to a new one.  It didn’t matter if she was 65 or 75 or even 85.  Learning and exploring is the gold of life for her.  She transformed herself just as she did the back yard of her house from basic grass and concrete into a verdant collection of native and drought tolerant plants.

Not confined to travel, gardening, and art, her smorgasbord of interests includes mental stimulation as well.  About a year ago, she began to learn chess along with her other recent interests in Sudoku and RummyKube.  I don’t know what happened to chess, but I suspect it got lost in her re-surging popularity as a contract bridge player.  That takes about three to four nights per week--there is only so much time.

She also found an outlet for her teaching skills by volunteering at the local library.  Once per week she assists adults improve their reading and writing skills.  In that role she often becomes a surrogate mother offering gentle counsel along with correcting grammar.  

a few of the many water colors
When I look at this woman in her mid eighties, I see the young girl who wanted to experience the world and life. Not limited by her ethnicity, small town upbringing, poverty, or discrimination, she seized opportunities.  Always busy, she took college classes at night while raising three children.  But it is in her 'retirement' years that she has really shined.

Never one for fancy things: for her life is for living, not possessions.  Recently, she found some old family photos in a back closet.  They had been sent to her when her last brother died and she hadn’t looked at them.  We leafed through the mixed collection of wedding, army, and school photos and she named relatives captured in moments forty, sixty, one hundred years ago.  A mystery was solved.  I got a clue to what fuels her relentless zeal for living.  It is an unbreakable family bond:  A rock solid foundation that remains and sustains through all of the travels, classes, friends, and hobbies.   

Although she left her hometown to live her life 3,000 miles distant, she never left her family and she was not limited by her family.  Their love and support seems to have inspired her wide ranging interests and creative expressions.  She starts each day with the expectation to live fully orbed.  Her guiding principles are not planned, not studied, not counseled but they are authentic; be curious,  learn new skills, give back to society, be close to nature, and remember the past but live in the present.

Belinda Zompa Klarin and the writer
She is not without struggles or faults but she is real.  My mother is my greatest teacher about this stage of my life.  Satisfaction and fulfillment in older age calls for freedom, courage, and curiosity.  It is not easily come by,  successful aging is not common.  But Belinda Zompa Klarin is an exemplar of forging authentic, maximum living after 'retirement.'   More than reinventing, she casts a wide net on the sea of life and makes the most of whatever she catches.