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Living Her Best Life

Tara Ebersole has been making the most of her retirement. She believes learning and growing is the key to growing older gracefully.

If you look up Renaissance Women in a dictionary, Tara Ebersole’s picture should be there. She had a successful career as a biology professor and STEM director at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). She is also a musician, artist, wife, mother and grandmother, and is now adding author to her resume.

One of the reasons that Tara is so active is she realizes just how lucky she is to be here. At the age of 47, Tara was exercising on her mini-trampoline when she felt extreme pain in her head. “If you had told me I had been shot in the head, I would have believed it,” Tara said. “The pain was so severe that I collapsed.”

Her 11-year-old son found her and with the help of his sisters, called 911. Tara was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with a ruptured aneurism. At first, the doctors couldn’t find the location of the bleed. She remembered the doctor telling her, “We can make you comfortable, but we can’t guarantee you’re going to wake up in the morning.

But she did wake up the next day and made it through a slow and difficult recovery.  “I came out with the idea that I had to prove that my brain is ok,” Tara said.

Life After Her Illness

She approached life with a renewed enthusiasm. In addition to continuing her role teaching at CCBC, she began working on her PhD and added the duties of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) director to her already busy schedule.

As part of her STEM work, she started a non-profit to increase the number of women and minorities in STEM. The non-profit was so successful that after five years, she disbanded it. Together with a team from BCPS, multiple professors and local colleges, the number of minorities in CCBC STEM classes increased by 50 percent and the number of women by 50 percent. This was all while continuing in her role as wife to Eric and mother to her three children.

It was during this time that she and her sister also began to discuss creating a children’s book series, Little Honey’s Little Adventures. Her sister, Rachel Louise Eisenhauer would write the adventures, based on their own childhood adventures, and Tara would illustrate them.

Although Tara had started in college as an arts major, she had not created much art work in a very long time. In addition, Tara was classically trained in oils and her art was very realistic, she knew that wasn’t the right style for the series.

But Tara was up for the challenge. She refreshed her skills and began creating watercolor illustrations based on her sister’s writing. They now have a series of eight books which they sell through their website and at craft fairs. “It has been an amazing joy,” Tara said of working on this series with her sister.

Retirement from CCBC

In 2016, at the age of 61, Tara retired from her position at the CCBC after 35 years.  “I was just ready for a change,” she said. But Tara was not content to relax in retirement. Instead, she took on the role as the Chair of the Baltimore County Democratic Party. Tara said she has always believed in public service and wanted to help facilitate change and make a difference. It became a full-time job. Her husband Eric Ebersole is also very involved in politics and serves in the Maryland House of Delegates.

Tara worked as the Chair for four years while still continuing to collaborate with her sister on the “Little Honey’s Little Adventure series.” She also continued with her other passion, music. Tara has played the drums in a number of bands through the years and is currently with Blues State, a band that plays at local events about six times a year.

Those who have seen Tara play know that she has a unique technique, she plays barefoot. “It’s easier for me to feel the rhythm of the music if I’m barefoot,” she explained.

However, Tara knew she was doing too much. After a minor car accident on the way to a gig, Tara realized that something had to give. She was working 40 hours a week as the Chair and practicing with the band every other week. “I was over the top with stress,” Tara said. Needing a change, she left her role as the Chair and took a hiatus from the band.

During this time, two things happened, COVID and grandchildren. Being quarantined at home, Tara learned the benefits of a slower lifestyle. She was meditating and taking the time in the morning to relax and have a cup of tea.

She also began helping take care of her grandchildren. When her daughters went back to work, they weren’t comfortable putting the kids in daycare, so Tara stepped in.

In 2021, with life beginning to return to normal, Tara started thinking about what she wanted to do next. She had learned the value of leading a less stressful life and wanted to continue her meditation and practicing yoga twice a week.

“I feel like I have just retired this year,” Tara said. “I’m beginning to find things that I want to do. It took me six years to realize this is my time. I have time to focus on me a little more”

Beginning a New Chapter

Tara had always thought about writing her own novel. She wanted to try her hand at adult fiction. Previously, all of Tara’s writing had been academic articles and her dissertation. That writing relied on fact, no emotion and no adjectives.

So, she began the process by taking an online writing class through CCBC and began reading books on writing. Her class, which she highly recommends, introduced her to an online community and helped inspire her to begin writing.

“Now it’s my turn to do some writing. I’m loving the process,” Tara said. Tara already knew the subject she wanted to tackle, corporal punishment. She had worked in the East Tennessee school system when she was first out of college where paddling was allowed. “I had some paddling stories to begin with and at no point did any of the paddling stories lead to better discipline,” Tara said. Although the book is fiction, she draws from some of her own experiences at that time. She says that writing the book has been cathartic as she deals with her role administering corporal punishment in the school system.

The working title of the book is, “A Broken Bit of Spirit.” Her goal is to bring a social issue to the discussion level. Corporal punishment is still allowed in 19 states. “I want readers to end the book thinking,” Tara said.

Tara has also started teaching classes for the CCBC SAIL (Senior Adventures in Learning) program. Tara started a class called Drums Alive. It is a program that uses large exercise balls and drumming techniques as a fitness class for people over 60. “I think that teaching drums to Seniors is the best thing for them because it is so low impact and yet it’s aerobic and it’s fun,” Tara said.

But Tara is only going to teach two sections of the class. At 67, she has learned the importance of life balance. “This is a brand new me and I’m experimenting,” Tara said.

Her Role Model

Tara was fortunate to have a role model for growing older gracefully. Her brother’s mother-in-law, Dominque, lives in Paris. At 92, she was still teaching gymnastics to seniors two days a week. “The seniors she taught became her friends. It really improved her social life,” Tara said. Dominque just retired at 94.

Tara said Dominque helped her realize how important it is to maintain and develop relationships as we age. That’s another reason Tara wants to teach the drumming classes, to make new social connections. “Interaction keeps you young. Exercise keeps you young. Independence keeps you young. Creativity keeps you young,” Tara said.

Growing Older

“Aging is a process we are not prepared for,” Tara said. “There’s a lot of loss along the way and there’s not a lot of preparation.”

“In fourth or fifth grade, we see a film to prepare us for becoming women. There’s not even a film to prepare us for getting older,” Tara said. Creating a class to help people with the aging process is next on her agenda.

“It’s a tough transition,” Tara said. She thinks there should be a greater acknowledgement about how difficult it can be. “It’s a massive transition in status from the phone beeping non-stop to that not happening anymore.” 

“It’s not easy to make the transition and that’s ok.”

Life Is Great

Her advice to retirees, “The key to aging is just to continue to grow.”

Tara and her husband Eric

Although she is dealing with some health issues including thyroid issues and metabolic syndrome, she has been able to control these issues through diet, exercise and medication. “My health is better today than it was in 2016,” Tara said.

She takes time every day to de-stress and meditate and appreciate her life. “Whenever I go into my yoga position of gratitude, I am always thankful for my family. We have four wonderful grandchildren and three wonderful children.”

Tara’s favorite part of the day? “One of my very favorite things about being retired is that I can get up and fix myself a cup of tea, sit in a chair and drink it as slowly as I want to. I never grow tired of that.”

For more information about the Little Honey Adventure series, go to: https://www.littlehoneyslittleadventures.com/

If you know someone who you think would make a great subject for my blog, email me at ksparis15@gmail.com.

I’m Retired! What’s Next?

Now that I am officially retired, it’s time to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.

My husband and I started talking about my retirement over two years ago. He left his job and we began to envision what the rest of our lives would look like. Now, we have the freedom to find out.

I never thought I would feel comfortable with the word retirement. Retirement bring about images of water aerobics and 5:00 dinners. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not me. So I decided to embrace the word and give it a refreshed image. I’m in marketing, we’re all about re-imagining.

Two years ago, my husband and I started to prepare for my retirement and the next phase of our lives.

The first thing we did was sell my little Volkswagon Beetle convertible. I had it for over seven years and I loved it, but it was not a car we could travel around the country in. I was surprised how many people were sad when I sold my car. I admit, it was a hoot to drive, but an SUV was more practical. So, we bought a Mazda CX-5 and paid it off before I left.

The added benefit was that since it looks like every other car on the road, I had to learn my license plate.

Then we made sure to max out my 401K contributions. Sure the car payments and 401K contributions significantly cut down our monthly cash flow, but it was worth it. We knew it would help us create the life we wanted in the future.

I started noticing what other people were doing in retirement. That’s when I started my blog. I wanted to find out the path people took and why they made the decisions they made.

I’ve been so much fun telling people’s stories. Each one is so unique and each one helps me to put a piece in my own retirement puzzle. I’m not even sure what the end picture will be.

When people ask me what I was going to do in retirement, I say I going to drink lemonade and read books in the backyard. And I am. But I am also looking at all the opportunities available to me.

For example, I have been creating videos for people and businesses. These have been fun projects. I not only love helping people celebrate special events, but I also love the creative process of combining video, pictures and music.

I also have a podcasting gig. More about that later.

And finally, I am doing all the projects that I have been thinking about doing for years. My husband is already threatening to take away my coffee if I don’t settle down.

And I’m sure I will. It’s strange to think that I don’t have to fit everything I want to do into a weekend or an occasional day off. That I don’t have to sit in traffic worrying that I will be late to work or a meeting. I have time.

The most important thing I have learned from all my interviewees is that to have a successful retirement you have to find your passion. I’m working on that too.

For now, I will continue to find people who are working on their next chapter whether it be through love, work, moving or volunteering. I hope you will continue to join me.

As always, if you know someone who would make a good subject for me blog, email me at ksparis15@gmail.com.

Traveling Solo in Italy: A Personal Journey

Donna found herself through her solo travels. Find our more about her journey.

Donna Keel Armer considers herself a late bloomer. She enrolled as a college freshman at 33, took her first solo trip to Italy at 67 and published her first book, Solo in Salento: A Memoir, at 75. “I had to make up for lost time,” she said during our recent interview.

Donna Keel Armer

Donna grew up in a traditional family where the one goal in life was to marry and have children. “I made a mess of that,” she said.

Her first marriage at 19 was a disaster, and she was divorced within two years. “I had such a sense of failure, yet I still retained the antiquated notion of marriage as my only option.”

The second marriage to a much older man, who was an alcoholic, turned abusive. But with one divorce under her belt, she felt compelled to make it work.

“I hung in that dreadful environment for eleven years,” Donna said. “I was raised in a fundamentalist household, divorce was not an option, and I now had two strikes against me. My family wasn’t exactly understanding.”

After her second divorce, she changed her focus and entered college as a thirty-three year old freshman with a double major in Psychology and Social Sciences. “I thought maybe I could sort myself out with a degree in Psychology, but it took a lot more work than a degree to do that.”

After graduating, Donna went to work first in the insurance industry and then the airline industry and rose through the ranks to become a Senior Director. At the same time, she began to repair her personal life and decided third time’s a charm when she met and  married Ray. They will celebrate forty years in 2023. “He’s just a gem and we have so much in common.”

Donna and Ray in Murano, Italy May 2022.

After retiring from corporate America, Ray and Donna opened a restaurant and catering service. “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done,” Donna said. But she loved the business, particularly the catering part. “I loved the intimate nature of catering and the pleasure it gave me to create celebratory events for people  Even catering a funeral offered us a chance to take care of people so they didn’t have to worry.” Donna said. “It was rewarding.”

Not only did catering feed Donna’s passion for food and cooking, but she also learned a lot about herself. “One of the unexpected ministries we encountered came about when the first big hurricane hit the East Coast. Because we were on the evacuation route, we housed and fed people who were fleeing the storm. There were many unique experiences like this that helped me as a person. It taught me to listen to other people’s stories and be compassionate.”

In 2006, after 10 years, Donna and Ray sold the business and moved closer to family. But after leaving home when she was nineteen, Donna didn’t experience the relationship with her family that she had hoped for. In fact, issues from the past surfaced which created more pain and angst and much of the personal repair work she’d completed, fell into disrepair.

During this time, Donna made progress in one area of her life. She had wanted to pursue writing since she was seven but allowed the influence of others to direct her life’s choices. At sixty, she began to write articles for local magazines.

Making the Decision to Travel Solo

In 2012, Donna again felt that sense of desperation about her life. She knew that she truly hadn’t put aside much of her previous garbage and she had taken on more. She told Ray she wanted to to go away alone and sort through the bits and pieces of her life that were unraveling. “He was very understanding,” Donna said. “We have always been respectful of one another’s choices.”

Donna choose a small town in the region of Puglia in Italy for her solo trip. She and Ray had visited the town in 2010 and Donna had been drawn to the ancient walled village and the warrior woman overlooking the harbor.

Statute of warrior woman guarding the harbor.

Ray’s only request was they spend time together in Italy. And he wanted to check out the apartment she’d rented before he left her on her own. They flew over together to visit friends in Umbria. Then they drove Puglia. “He said he wanted to be able to picture in his mind where I was and that I was safe,” Donna said. “That’s what I love about him.”

When Ray left, Donna had mixed emotions. “As I watched him drive away I was sobbing.” But the sun was shining and the children were playing in piazza. She grabbed a gelato and headed to her new home for the next five weeks. “I put that key in the door and thought yeah. I felt so empowered,” Donna said.

This was the beginning of major healing for Donna. “Just as I learned to create a work of art from broken pieces in a week-long mosaics class I took, I began to put the fragments of my fractured life into a whole,” Donna said. This trip was the impetuous for her book, Solo in Salento: A Memoir. “In this tiny village full of mystery, martyrs, and music, I found my voice,” Donna said.

Mosaic Donna created during her class.

Life After Italy

She returned to the United States feeling renewed. But it was a crash-landing as shortly after her return, her sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Donna assumed the role of caretaker until her sister’s death eight months later.

After her sister’s death, Donna and Ray moved to the small town of Beaufort, South Carolina. “Beaufort is a haven for writers and artists. I blossomed as a writer, and I found a niche for myself when I began to volunteer at the Pat Conroy Literary Center,” she said.

She also joined a writing group. “That’s where I met my writing mentor,” Donna said. Each member is required to share something they had written for critique. Donna presented an essay called “The Last Supper.” (Now chapter 45 in her book.) It was about the last meal she had during her solo journey to Otranto. “That trip changed my life, and I needed to share that story of healing.”

The group told her that she needed to write her whole story about her solo trip. Prior to that Donna hadn’t considered writing a book, but encouraged by the group, she began to write her memoir.

A Personal Memoir

Although her book details the beauty of Italy, generosity of the Italian people, and delicious cuisine, it is more than a travel guide. It is about one woman’s journey to find her voice. She talks about her life, her marriages, and how traveling alone gave her the gift of healing.

“I took time to recycle my own trash and to piece the fragmented parts of my life together,” Donna said. Both mosaics and recycling trash figure metaphorically in the memoir.

“Prior to my trip, I’d always done things that I thought other people imagined I should be doing. I learned I didn’t have to do that. I could be whomever I wanted to be. Now I’m a writer. It’s a dream come true,” Donna said. “I hope it’s an inspiration to others. It’s important to sweep away the parts of your life that incumber you and to seek a joyful way of living your life fully and completely.”

When the book was published, Donna was surprised to hear from many woman who had also been married numerous times. They shared their stories of shame and pain and thanked her for the possibility of taking a different path.”

In September at age 77, Donna is marking a new milestone. Her book is being translated into Italian. Un’Americana in Salento and her Italian book launch is scheduled for September 3, 2022 in the village of Otranto.

Donna and her husband Ray continue to travel. This year they spent a month in Italy and a month in Slovenia. She had planned to celebrate a solo trip for her 75th birthday, but then COVID hit. However, when her book is launched in September, she will be going solo. “It’s such a freeing experience. I wish everyone had the opportunity,” Donna said.

Advice About Traveling Alone

Donna knows that some women are reluctant to travel alone. Although she had traveled alone in her corporate career, her personal solo traveling is very different. She is always aware of her safety no matter where she is. “I just think it’s smart to be prepared. Before I go, I research the location of the police station and the hospital. I always have emergency numbers in my purse as well as the number for the American Embassy,” Donna said.

She’s also learned it’s important to strike up a friendship with a local person. This gesture establishes a link with someone who can help her with the language or other problems that might arise.

“I think you have to have a brave heart to travel alone. But I think just living you have to have a brave heart,” Donna said.

Food and Wine

You can’t talk about Italy without talking about food. “I’m partial to the Southern part of Italy because I prefer tomato sauces over cream sauces. And the seafood on the Adriatic is superb.”

Donna not only enjoys eating in Italy, but she loves cooking as well. “Everywhere I go I ask a local person to teach me how to make a local dish,” Donna said.

Arancini

Last time she learned to make arancini, a rice ball stuffed with a meat ragú, green peas and mozzarella cheese, rolled in egg and bread crumbs and then fried. “They are so delicious with the gooey cheese melting in your mouth when you take a bite.”

She now wants to learn to make a tiramisu she had in Sicily. Donna described her favorite as a unique round-shaped cake shell. “When you cut into it, a thick chocolate sauce, thick caramel sauce and thick pastry cream oozed out. I’m a real sweet lover,” Donna said.

“But then, there’s hardly anything in the food category that I don’t love,” Donna laughed.

And the wine! Donna and her husband are mostly red wine drinkers. “The reds in the Southern region are so gorgeous and intense. There is a really distinct flavor to the grape that has almost a raisiny after taste. They’re delicious.”

Finding Time to Heal

Donna knows that her solo trip to Otranto helped make her the person she is today. “You don’t have to go to Italy to start the process. Start small. Carve out the time for yourself to be alone with your thoughts,” Donna said. “Learn to like yourself as a person. It’s so critical. In Italian they use the word essere which means to be. Americans are such busy people, always doing instead of being. Learn to be.”

What’s next for Donna? She’s writing a mystery series that is currently in the submission process. The series features Cat Gabbiano a Lowcountry caterer who embarks on a trip to Italy when her best friend goes missing from a small town in Puglia. Donna continues to submit travel essays and writes a travel blog when she’s on the road.

Find out more about Donna Keel Armer and her book Solo in Salento: A memoir or you can follow her on Facebook.

If you know someone who would make a good subject for my blog, email me at ksparis15@gmail.com.

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