Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Setting Schedules and Learning Portuguese

Point Lobos State Park, California
Hello blog readers.  I’ve not posted any blogs in the past couple of months.  I took a break – as any fellow retirees know that is one of the amazing privileges of being retired.  You can take a break, change your schedule or shift priorities at will.  It doesn’t have to be a vacation or due to illness.  It can be for any reason.  My break was the result of many things: moving from Brazil back to Seattle, celebrating the holidays, making long-overdue visits to family and friends in California, completing other writing projects and planning some changes for our small urban garden.  Now I’m back blogging.  I won’t talk about my garden changes today but I’m sure I will in future blogs – suffice it to say that one of my ambitions for 2015 is to become a better gardener! 
My husband and I returned from Brazil with way too many suitcases and packing boxes in mid-December.  Our time in Brazil during 2014 was perhaps my most memorable visit ever to my adopted country.  Before I explain why this visit was so fulfilling, I want to reflect for a minute on my blog, Mango Coffee and Me.  What about its content?  What about its future?  Not that you are worried but I plan to continue posting on Mango Coffee and Me.  As a writer, blogging helps me understand and document this new and interesting phase of life, share its upsides and downsides, my feelings, my travels and the occasional poem and recipe.   I started blogging in the fall of 2013.  I was recently retired and I was excited that my writing might no longer be confined to short poems tapped into my iPhone Notes on the commuter bus going home.  Not that I didn’t or don’t like those poems.  I do.  Here’s one I like:

Memories of Rio

I remember
The beach at Ipanema,
While the 255 express bus
Cruises across four traffic lanes.
I sit high on the transom
Wishing I was still in Rio;
Wishing the sun was burning my back
And I was lying prone
On the white, mica-rich sand.

I wrote that short poem in 2006.  I was sitting on the Number 255 bus going to work one morning.  We had just returned from an all too short vacation in Rio.  The nostalgic sentiment seems like a lifetime ago.  In 2014 I lived in Rio for six weeks and bicycled to Ipanema a couple of times a week.  I lay on the beach and let the fine-grained sand run through my fingers.  It was a privilege and much better than sitting on the express bus dreaming of distant sun and sand.

When I first retired, I looked forward to having more time to exercise, to cook, and to live in, rather than just vacation in Brazil.  I was excited by the prospect of learning, perhaps becoming fluent in Portuguese.  Knowing another language has always been on my bucket list.  I wanted to write about the transition to retirement, how I felt about not having the day-to-day pressures and schedule constraints that my work life – much as I enjoyed it – brought.  For more than 40 years, I’d worked full time.  Excepting a couple of years after our second child was born and we lived in Brazil for my husband’s work several months each year, I was a working mother when the kids were in childcare and pre-school.  I worked K through 12 and I was still working when they went off to college.  Except during vacations and weekends (which don’t really count) I never had the experience of creating my own schedule.  My days off were about vacation or being sick.  That is quite different than being fully in charge of one’s daily schedule.  I don’t mean to say that I had no role in my work schedule.  Only that its priorities were appropriately set outside of me.  When weekends or vacations happened, schedules were planned to maximize family and experiences – let’s visit grandma; let’s visit Idaho or France or Whistler; let’s go camping…the experiential approach took planning of course but it was vacation for heaven’s sake…not "real life".  That was my past schedule – largely set by externalities.  When I retired my children were long since independent adults; my parents and in-laws had all died – I’d already lived through the sandwich generation.  It was over.  My husband was still working and we do not have grandchildren (yet).  I felt an awesome freedom and anticipated a new ability to manage my time.  I wanted to document that experience.  I am a child of the sixties after all.  I want to know and understand the inevitable process of aging.  I want to manage that process through healthy diet, exercise and activity.  

In my first blog I called my “still-to-be-realized” process aging gracefully!  I think many of us early baby boomers thought we might be in charge of aging or, better still, invulnerable.  I guess we were a bit spoiled.  At least we were out there in the neighborhood playing tag with all the other kids.  And I see a lot of us out on our bikes or at the gym.  That’s good.  Exercise may not help us age gracefully but it definitely keeps us independent and it's a lot of fun.

Now that I’ve been retired for almost two years I have a little more perspective on time and schedule.  For perhaps the first time in my adult life I find myself enjoying being able to just be at home in my house.  I’ve organized a home office in one of my children’s former bedrooms.  It is a room of my own where I can write or daydream.  But I've also discovered it is surprisingly easy to let time drift away in retirement.  On the flip side, I've found it is just as easy to get so scheduled with commitments that no time remains for personal priorities.  I am slowly teaching myself how to be in charge by consciously choosing what I most want to do and scheduling my days accordingly.  That may seem obvious but for someone who spent a great deal of her life being there for others, as a caregiver to children and aging parents and as a manager at work, it’s not.  After a lifetime of being there for others, I find I have to be very conscious about scheduling time for the things that are important to me.

Before I blog off I want to explain the unexpected and most rewarding experience I had living in Brazil in 2014.  During our first two times living there, I spent endless hours studying Portuguese.  I was lucky to have a wonderful professor.  But learning a foreign language as an adult requires a lot of solo discipline.  I sat at my kitchen table memorizing irregular verbs; I walked to the supermarket reciting declensions; I socialized awkwardly and often felt exhausted by the mental effort required to understand what my friends were saying.  This past 3-month visit I decided I would just say NO!  No more lessons.  No more vocabulary lists.  I decided I might have to give up my bucket list goal of Portuguese fluency.  Well guess what?  It didn’t work like that.  It turns out, after a couple of weeks this past fall, I found I was talking in Portuguese.  Who knew?  Maybe my kitchen table sessions worked although I honestly still don’t understand the conditional.  What happened to me is what happens when you live abroad and actively seek out another language.  At some point you start to figure it out.  I am not talented in languages and I don’t by any stretch of imagination think I am now fluent.  What happened is that I found myself able to communicate in Portuguese.  And communication is what language is all about.  Suddenly I noticed I could joke with the cashier at the supermarket; ask the bus driver what stop got me closest to my destination; chat with my neighbor; go to the doctor and explain my symptoms and understand what I needed to do to get better.  And it was fun to be able to talk.

My husband has a great expression about learning a language.  He says you need a certain amount of kilometerage – that’s like mileage only in countries that use the metric system.  What he means and what I experienced is the phenomenon of learning another language through exposure.  It has to include discipline, memorization and practice.  But there is reward in putting in the time.  If you had told me that increased language skills would come to me, someone who has a terrible ear and no natural language facility I would have said, based on months of effort, no way.  But it happened.  As a result, my life in Brazil is all that much more enjoyable.  It will be fun to return in a couple of months.  Meanwhile I'll be writing and working on my garden.
What I hope my garden looks like next spring…the Seattle Flower and Garden Show!

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