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Moving Down the Ocean Hon

“I had the career my fourteen-year-old self always wanted,” said Pete Kerzel, 62. Pete had a long career as a journalist and spent the last 12 years as the managing editor for MASNsports.com, covering the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals.

Welcome to Ocean City! Pete gets the key to his condo.

He was paid to watch baseball games and go down to spring training. He was there the night Cal Ripken Jr. beat the streak and met many of his childhood heroes, including Brooks Robinson. “How many people get to live their dream?“ Pete said.

When Pete began to think of retirement, he still loved his job, but he began to notice a change. “The written word is being minimized,” he said.  “And I’m a written word guy.”

He added, “I could see what was coming down the pike. They didn’t want to hire more writers.”  He saw a shift away from writing and more toward videos, social media and TikTok.

In addition, the demands of the job began to wear on him. Pete was always on call in case someone signed a contract or a team made a trade or some other story. “I would have to bring my computer with me when I went out to dinner with friends,” Pete said. “It just wasn’t as much fun anymore.”

The real turning point came when Pete met with Chip Herring, his Ameriprise financial advisor, in the Spring of 2020, almost a year after the death of his mother. His advisor said, “Just so you know, you can retire now.” Pete said he remembers thinking “What?!” He was surprised that at the age of 60, spending a lifetime in a profession known for lower salaries, that he was able to retire.

Where to retire was easy. Ocean City, Md., had always held a special place in Pete’s heart. Being in OC evokes memories of spending time “down the ocean” with his parents and friends. “I’ve been coming to Ocean City since I’ve been six years old,” Pete said

He started looking for property in August 2020. At that point, he saw it as a place he would be able to use when he wasn’t working and eventually retire to. By the time he bought in December 2020, he knew that he would be moving there sooner than he thought.

Pete knew exactly what he was looking for and how much he wanted to spend.  He said he and his real estate agent, Terry Miler, looked at 40 or 50 condos. He bought right as the market was beginning to tick up with people relocating due to COVID.

He began living down there part-time while he working remotely due to COVID. As he began living in Ocean City for weeks at a time, it became increasingly difficult for him to drive back home over the Bay Bridge to the Western Shore. “Then, when I would reverse that and come to the beach, I would think everything felt right again.”

World Series 2019 with Mark Zuckerman and Byron Kerr in Nationals Park.

In October 2021, Pete spoke to his supervisor to let him know he would be leaving the following April. When he told his boss he was ready to retire, his boss  said. “I’m so happy for you.” He knew the toll the 80-hour weeks were taking on Pete.

“The timing was right. I got out on my terms when I wanted to,” Pete said.

On April 20,, 2022 Pete moved to Ocean City, got himself settled, and was able to finish out the month virtually before retiring on April 30, 2022.

Upon retiring, Pete received some advice from a friend. “Don’t do anything for six months.” Pete took that advice to heart. His six months was up the Thursday after we spoke.

Life Down the Ocean

But Pete didn’t exactly spend all his time sitting in his condo reading, although he did that, too. He began writing for the Delmarva Shorebirds game program. “I put the ‘free’ in freelance, “ Pete said – and he couldn’t be happier. He’s already looking forward to next season.

2022 Delmarva Shorebirds game with Bob Stine.

He also did two important things that any senior who retires to OC should do: get a pass to Assateague Island National Seashore and get a OC bus pass.

The lifetime senior pass to Assateague Island costs $85. With that pass, Pete can go to the Island to watch the ponies or just enjoy the beach whenever he wants. He can also take a friend for free.

The senior bus pass gives free bus rides to people over 60 and free tram rides before 4 p.m. After 4 p.m., Pete gets a dollar off tram rides “They aren’t making any money on me,” he said.

Pete loves to ride the tram. ”The smell of the caramel popcorn or the sound of a kid squealing in the arcade because he won a prize can take me back 50 years.”

Pete also thinks of his friend, Barry Diffendal, when he rides the tram. Barry passed away suddenly in 2012 after only one year in retirement. Barry and Pete often joked about retiring to OC and Barry would say, “You drive the tram and I’ll be the conductor in the back.”

Transitioning into Retirement

Pete said it took a good 6 to 8 weeks for him to get used to being retired. “It was a huge thing to get used to. I can go shopping when I want to go shopping. I don’t have to wedge it in,” he said.

“I hadn’t had a normal day in years,” Pete said. In his previous life, he had an erratic sleep schedule as he was required to work whenever the teams were playing. If there was a West Coast game, Pete would often have to stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. after the game finished so he could  edit online stories.

Now, his time is his own and he is enjoying shopping when he wants, reading by the pool (during the summer time) and walking along the beach and boardwalk. He is also able to watch baseball for the sheer enjoyment of it and can turn off a game if it gets boring or goes into a rain delay.

Socializing with Friends

The other thing that Pete is enjoying is being able to spend time with his friends, “I got a two-bedroom condo so friends could come for a visit,” he said.

Some of his friends even live in OC either full-time or part-time.

Two his friends moved down there a year before he did. “They were a great resource,” he said. Not only does he spend time with them, but they have also introduced him to their friends.

One thing Pete enjoys is going with his friends, Greg and Cindy Cannizaro, to the Elks Club on Thursday nights for the fried chicken finner. Pete said it’s a great deal at just $12.

“Also, I can buy a round drinks for the table for just $6,” he added.

For Pete, retirement has been about seizing opportunities.

He said he loves being available for last minute events. Whether it’s seeing John Fogarty in Selbyville or watching the air show practice from a pontoon boat, Pete is ready for fun.

He is one of the few year-rounders in his community. This winter will be his full winter in OC. “I predict at some time this winter I’m going to bored out of my gourd,” he said.  However, there are many things to do even off season and Pete knows many people there.

“I forgot that it was possible to be spontaneous,” Pete said. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve been in an position where I can choose when to do things and it’s been fun.”

Tourist Season

For some people the tourist season from May to September/October could be a deterrent from moving down to OC, but Pete takes it all in stride.

“I love the water. I love the salt air,” Pete said. “So, you have to punt June, July and August for April, May, September and October. Sure, the summer months can be crazy, but it’s really fun to see the town so energized.”

There about 7,500 to 8,000 year-round residents in Ocean City. In the summer time, the population swells.

A beautiful sunset at Pete’s condo.

He said, “I enjoyed this spring watching the town gear up and get ready for the invasion of the summer people. It was a kick.”

Of course, he has had to make some concessions during tourist season, like doing his grocery shopping during the week. “You don’t want to go to the grocery store Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday.”

Also, there are also some restaurants that he doesn’t go to during season because there just too many people in town and the prices are higher.

But he said OC has changed a lot over the years. “’It’s more of a year-round thing now,” Of course, some places do close, but others offer dinner specials and happy hours to get customers in the door. His favorite pizza place, Pino’s, is closed for the season, but he waits in patient anticipation for it to reopen in May.

Luckily, Happy Jack Pancake House, which Pete calls his second home, is year-round, though only on the weekends in the offseason.

Making Finances Work

Pete was able to retire early because he made savings a priority. He’ll have a small pension from MedStar Health, where he worked in public/media relations for almost a decade, but he’s contributed to 401k plans through other employers and socked away money in his Ameriprise accounts.

When his mother passed away in 2019, he took the proceeds from the sale of his mother’s house plus some other inheritance, and put it into an annuity. He will tap that when he turns 65. For now, he is paying himself a salary out of his savings and will be collecting social security and his pension. This allows him to live the way he wants to live.

He gets his medical insurance through the Affordable Care Act. He said that the insurance is good, but the bureaucracy has been frustrating at times.

Final Words of Advice

“I don’t miss 80-hour weeks. I don’t miss waiting for my expense check,” Pete said. “That stuff, let somebody else do it. I’m so happy to not be dealing with it now.”

For Pete, retirement is a new beginning. “I look at this chapter as a blank slate,” he said.

He remembers a few days after he moved down and settled in thinking, “What do I do now?”

Then he said, a little apparition appeared over his head and said, “You can do whatever you want.”

What Pete wants to do is carve out time for himself and just appreciate his time in Ocean City. His condo backs up to a bayfront marsh and one of his favorite things to do is sit on his screened deck and watch the wildlife including herons, otters and foxes.

“I get these incredible sunsets and it’s as though someone painted the sky,” Pete said.

He is not sure what he is going to do now that his six months are up. He might volunteer or get a part-time job. He is leaving the door open to new opportunities.

Before he moved to he said, “I thought: What’s the worst thing that could happen? If I don’t like it here, I can move back to Baltimore, But I don’t think that’s going to happen. This is home now.”

If you know someone who you would think would make a good subject for my blog, email me at karensparis15@gmail.com.

Becoming a Pickleball Person

It’s time to hit the courts for Pickleball. Are you game?

Alright, admit it. You knew at some point I would do a blog about pickleball. As I told my husband “All the cool kids are doing it!”

Although apparently it’s not just the cool kids over 50. Did you know there was now a professional Pickle Ball League? No kidding! Some of the biggest names in sports are buying professional pickleball teams. Tom Brady and Kim Clijsters (tennis) both own teams.

With all the hubbub, I had to find out what it was all about.

I have never been very sports-oriented. I was a cheerleader in high school and a personal trainer in my 40s, but I have never really played sports, so I decided to take lessons.

My husband, always supportive, agreed to take them with me. He is an athlete, but more as a runner and cyclist, so I felt we were pretty even.

We decided to take lessons at the Dancel YMCA in Howard County. I know there are many places to play and take lessons, but I was already a member so it seemed like a good choice.

If you’re not familiar with pickleball it is a cross between tennis and ping pong. It can be played on a tennis court, but there are different lines and boundaries. Our lines are purple. Not sure if they are purple everywhere, but wouldn’t you think they’d be green.

The racquets are a lot like ping pong paddles except a little longer and narrower.

For me the real difference is the balls. The balls are fluorescent and are just like the whiffle balls we grew up with. You would think they wouldn’t bounce very well, but they do. They also hurt when you get hit with them.

At the Y, the instructor loaned us racquets. I took the one with a dragon on it. I thought I could channel the fire of the dragon into my hit.

We also received a basket of big whiffle balls. They were the only types of balls I could ever hit with a bat, so I was already familiar with them.

It seems as though it would be the perfect “couple” sport. There are usually two people on a team and they work in tandem to prevent the other team from scoring. However, we heard that sometimes it’s not a great idea for couples to be on the same team. It can cause arguments. I think it might cause more issues if they were on opposing teams. We’re not there yet.

Our pickleball coach said the first rule was to “stay out of the kitchen.” Hey, that worked for me. They told me that the first day of Weight Watchers too.

The kitchen is the front court essentially and you aren’t supposed to hang out there. You can put one foot in, but then you taken one foot out. You put one foot in, but no shaking it all about like the Hokey-Pokey.

When you are up by the kitchen, you are dinking. (I really couldn’t make this stuff up.) Dinking is when you hit the ball softly over the net. Even the professionals dink. All pickleball players dink at some point.

Dinking did not really seem to be in my nature. I was more a slamming and lobbing kind of player, which has its place in pickleball.

Once we were done dinking, we rallied and volleyed. That means we ran around the court trying to hit the ball. Finally, we were ready to play a game, but not until lesson two.

Even before our lesson was over, the gym started to fill with pickleball players. The began lining up on the beach behind the courts. Apparently, you get in line and when you get to the head of the line it’s your turn to play.

Score keeping is pretty easy. You score on your serve. Just like tennis, the ball has to land in a specific section in order to be considered good. Unlike tennis, you serve underhand. There are none of those fabulous shots of a player arching back to hit the ball like there are in tennis. It’s more like a softball pitch.

Each player gets to serve before the serve is returned to the other team. Easy peasy. Not.

You only play to 11 unless a lot of people are waiting to play then it’s 9. And there are always a lot of people waiting to playing.

I had a great revelation after my first lesson. Pickleball really is fun and despite it’s silly name, it’s a serious workout. My heart rate got up and the next day muscles I hadn’t heard from in years were speaking my name.

During our second lesson, I got a sage piece of advice. “Don’t keep extra balls in your pocket. If you fall down and land on them, they hurt.” How did she know I fall down a lot? I think it’s more likely they would serve as a cushion when, not if, I fall.

During my third lessons, we had newbies on the court. You know, the ones who hadn’t had two whole lessons like I had. I was patient with them.

After my third lesson, I decided to take the plunge a buy a racquet. In the past, I had bought equipment that I had never touched again and later sold at yard sales for a tenth of the price. I don’t think that’s going to happen with my pickleball paddles.

I don’t think a professional pickleball career is in my future. I mean I am retired. I don’t want to have to start traveling the country to play in tournaments, but I do have my eye on a prize.

At the YMCA they have tournaments and I am already visualizing myself winning the grand prize. — A jar of pickles.

I love to tell people’s stories. If you know someone over 50 who has made a major life change, send me an email karensparis15@gmail.com. I would love to interview them.

Opening the Door to Many Possibilities

Ed Johnson is making the most of his retirement by opening up to many opportunities.

For Ed Johnson, 79 and a half, retirement has never been about relaxing and taking it easy. It’s been all about helping others. In fact, his wife of 56 years, Pat, even calls him “Saint Edward.”

But Ed was helping people long before he retired. He spent his career in education as a teacher and principal. Then in 1995, at the age of 52, Ed decided to retire after 30 years of service.

His father had died at the age of 52 of heart disease and Ed wasn’t quite sure how much time he had. “I didn’t have any plans after 52 and I thought I might not be around to make any plans,” Ed said.

But that quickly changed.

He took a part-time job at the University of Maryland College Park working with student teachers as a field-based instructor. Working 2 to 3 days a week gave him more time to pursue his many interests and spend more time with his family.

“It was like opening a door to many possibilities,” Ed said.

He stayed there for another 20 years and was proud to have the opportunity to mentor so many teachers. The last 10 years he worked with masters-level students. “Working with them was a breeze,” said Ed.

Then, at the age of 72, he retired, retired. “My supervisor asked me, “why are you retiring, don’t you like teachers or the principals or something?'” Ed said. “I said, no they’re great. I just need a change.”

That change was to do more of what he was already doing.

His Passion for Patapsco Park

Ed has always had an interest in nature and the environment. Twenty-five years ago, after his initial retirement, he began working as a volunteer at Patapsco Valley State Park. He would help clear trails and do general work in the park. “I wanted to follow up with my interest in environmental education,” Ed said.

He then became a volunteer ranger for 16 years “As a volunteer ranger, you wear a uniform and are the eyes and ears of the park rangers,” he said. His work included monitoring various areas of the park, staffing the entrance areas and conducting history walks.

He recently went back to being a volunteer. “I still do a lot of what I was doing as a volunteer ranger — monitoring area of the park, doing history walks, art programs. whatever needs to be done,” Ed said.

COVID created even more of a need for Ed’s time. “The park used to average a million visitors a year, ” Ed said, “but during COVID they averaged 2.6 million visitors a year. It was crowded in there.”

On Saturdays, Ed sets up a table in the Orange Grove section of the park near the Swinging Bridge. He brings a large binder with pictures and fun facts to teach kids and adults about the history of the park. “I like to show the kids, particularly the girls, how they would have had to dress if they were here in 1911,” Ed said.

In fact, Ed had become such as expert on the history of the park that he was asked to collaborate with Betsy McMillion to write a book about the park’s history.

After 3 and a half years of research, the book was published by Arcadia Publishing in the Spring of 2019. “Images of America: Patapsco Valley State Park” recounts the history of Patapsco from the 1600s to present day. All of the money from the sale of the book goes to support the Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park who support the maintenance of the park. He and Betsy don’t make any money from the sale of the book.

Ed and co-author Betsy McMillion

Ed recounts a story about when the book was first released. He and his co-author had a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Ellicott City. He said, “They called to say that they had 60 copies and asked if that would be enough,” Ed said. “There had been a great deal of publicity and I thought they should order more.” That day Barnes & Noble had 105 copies on hand and sold 104. The book is still on sale at Barnes & Noble as well as through other vendors.

“People are fascinated with many aspects of the park including the Swinging Bridge and floods. They know a little bit about (Tropical Storm) Agnes in 1972,” Ed said. He also talks about the firsts of the park including the B&O railroad, the Thomas Viaduct and the first female ranger in Maryland who worked at Patapsco.

For those interested he is also doing a history powerpoint with the Arbutus library on October 8th at 2 p.m. He has done similar talks at libraries and senior centers throughout the area.

Exploring His Creativity Through Painting

But working at the park is not the only activity that keeps Ed busy. He is also an accomplished artist who has won numerous awards. However, Ed got into painting accidentally in 1976.

“The elementary school where I was principal had a large Hispanic population. I decided to brush up on his Spanish,” Ed said. He went to sign up for a night course, but found that it had been cancelled. He needed to do something besides work so he started taking a night school art class taught by a local high school teacher, Keith Lauer. “That’s when I got started with painting,” Ed said.

Ed found he had a real talent for painting and continued taking courses through other local studios.

Once he was retired, he was able to spend more time painting and even began teaching. “I replicated his (Keith Lauer’s) style when I started with a class at our senior center,” Ed said. Each class started with a 15 minute lecture on composition or color. “Each week you would get a little bit more information and after a while you would learn a lot,” Ed said.

He began teaching a class at his local senior center which then morphed into an art group that still meets every Friday. He has also taught classes at the local men’s shelter to give the men an outlet for their feelings. “Some of them aren’t that interested, but others are,” Ed said.

Ed also combines his volunteer activities at the park with his love of art. He sets up painting sessions at the park where he provides all the supplies. The sessions are for people 8-years-old and older.

As part of this activity, Ed provides a folder with 200 nature-related pictures that people can choose from to paint. All the pictures are for 16×20 canvasses. There is a grid on the picture and the canvas so students can replicate the shape of the animal and be pretty accurate. Because of COVID, Ed was not able to have sessions with the public this year, but he was able to have a class with a group of seniors who do a lot with the park.

Personally, Ed has painted numerous painting through the years. Many of his paintings are of nature, birds, flowers and people. These painting have been displayed in art exhibits and have won many awards throughout the state of Maryland.

Serving Through Mission Trips

Ed has another passion project besides painting and working in the park. Since 2004, he has gone to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota for 15 times (except when the trip was cancelled due to COVID). He was able to go back again this year in June.

Ed and a small group of volunteers from Catonsville United Methodist Church began going to the reservation to make repairs on homes and help in any way they could. Before COVID, they also had a food program preparing over 250 hot breakfasts and hot lunches for those in need. Now, most of the work centers around making repairs around the reservation. This year they spent their time at the reservation building a handicap ramp.

Ed working on the Rosebud Reservation

Ed has many stories about the amazing people he met on the reservation including Lakota chef Seth Larvie who created tasty meals for the residents. Ed also developed a long-term friendship with Roy Spotted War Bonnet. Ed was looking forward to seeing his friend on this trip, but found out that he had passed away during the pandemic.

Ed has been struck by the difficult lives of the people on the reservation and feels it’s important to spend both his time and money making their lives better. He recently recorded his stories about his experiences and the people he met during his trips in a personal memoir.

The Best Part of Retirement

For Ed, one of the greatest pleasures retirement brought him has been time with his family. His granddaughter was born the year he retired and he was able to take care of her one day a week. As she grew, he took her to her riding lessons and she became an accomplished equestrian.

Ed and his wife Pat

He was also able to spend more time with his two sons. He and his son Adam took a canoe trip on the Potomac from Point of Rocks, MD. His other son enjoyed playing baseball and Ed was able to attend the games.

And he and Pat made a point to travel. They traveled quite a bit including throughout the United States, Europe and Canada. He also went with a group to the Galapagos Islands.

His Advice to Others

What Ed likes most about retirement is the flexibility. “I was working in a job where I was in the school at 7 a.m. and didn’t leave until 5:30 or so,” Ed said. “I couldn’t take off to run errands. I had no flexibility.” When he retired all that changed. “So when I retired I had flexibility to pursue hobbies like painting and the outdoor stuff and I had time to do things with my family.”

But Ed knows everyone is not ready to retire at 52. “Retire when you’re ready. You know better than anyone else when the time is right,” Ed said. However, he warns, “Don’t retire to nothing. Retire to something you are really interested in.”

He recommends working as a volunteer. “You can help somebody and you can make a difference.” He also says it’s a great way to try things and see what you enjoy.

“Certain things will work out. Certain things won’t So then, you move on and try something different. Look for new opportunities and try them out,” Ed said.

However, he warns that it’s important to not be too structured. He was able to take care of unexpected opportunities such as writing the book and going to the reservation because he kept his schedule flexible.

This summer Ed has had to spend time doing something he is not used to doing — sitting down. He came home from the reservation with a bad cough and then had a leg injury and shoulder surgery. Now, he is happy to be getting back to his regular busy schedule.

He and Pat are going to the gym together five mornings a week at 6 a.m. and they also volunteer to serve lunch to the community on Wednesdays at Catonsville United Methodist Church.

For Ed, retirement has opened up a world of opportunities that he never would have time for if he was still working full-time. He said he never regrets making the decision to retire.

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

Birds of a Feather

Kelly and Mike Strzelecki think that retirement is for the birds. Find out how they are enjoying their passion for nature after retirement.

Mike (59) and Kelly (58) Strzelecki retired from the federal government on March 31, 2021. It was the culmination of a plan that began more than 30 years ago when they met on the MARC train commuting to Washington D.C.

Mike worked for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Kelly worked for the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. By working for the federal government, they knew could retire with a pension and health insurance when they turned 56 years old and had 30 years of service. So, they decided to leave when they were both eligible.

Mike and Kelly had long been outside enthusiasts, but the long commute between Baltimore and Washington made it challenging to find time to pursue all their varied interests. “In D.C., I think retirement is more dictated by the commute than the job. People get tired of the commute,” Mike said.

In addition to the commute, Mike had personal experience about missed opportunities in retirement. His father passed away when he was 56. “My dad had big plans in retirement and then he passed away and he couldn’t do them,” Mike said. “We thought, we can’t do that.”

With their plan in place, Mike and Kelly knew they could retire early and spend even more time doing what they love—being out in nature.

“Every morning I get up a pack a backpack,” Mike said. What’s in the backpack depends on the plans for the day. Plans might include a simple walk, a hike, kayaking or fly-fishing. They have also recently taken up disc golf, which they play at McKeldin Park as well as other local areas.

However, their favorite outside activity is birding.

Birding is different from birdwatching in the “birders” actually go out looking for specific birds. They do their research and observe the bird’s behaviors and migratory patterns. “It’s about immersing yourself in the lifestyle of the bird,” Mike said.

“There’s more intention to it than birdwatching,” Kelly said.

Extensive travelers, many of their trips revolve around birding. Their next trip is to Bombay Hook in Delaware. “It’s a good birding spot,” Mike said. There are all different types of raptors, hawks and eagles, avocets and shorebirds.

Closer to home, Patapsco State Park, Mike and Kelly found a nest with two baby owls. They were able to find the nest because of their familiarity with bird calls.  “We could hear the babies crying for their mom,” Kelly said.

Being retired, Mike and Kelly were able to visit the site and record the owls’ progression every day over the course of 10 days. “Part of the beauty of retirement is the owl thing. It gives us time during the week when no one is around to actually observed them,” Mike said. “We can take our time to focus on things,” Mike said. “If we were still working, we never would have been able to do that,” Mike said.

As part of their passion for birding, Mike has started taking pictures. He purchased a new camera, NIKON Cool Pic, as part of his retirement gift. He takes close up, detailed shots of the birds they see. He captured pictures of the baby owls as well as pictures of puffins they saw during their recent trip to Iceland.

Enjoying Everyday Life

Mike and Kelly are enjoying their new lifestyle. “Every day I got up at 4:40. Not getting up at 4:40 is heavenly,” Mike said. Although for Mike, sleeping in is 6:30 or 7:00 a.m.

Kelly also loves sleeping in, but wakes up about 9:00 a.m. now that she’s retired. They enjoy leisurely time in the morning and have even trained their dog Trek to go get the newspaper so they can relax.

“You have time to enjoy things rather than just trying to fit them in,” Mike said. “I’m getting back to doing things I had a passion for, but I haven’t had the time for.” For Mike that includes fly-fishing and writing.

For Kelly, formerly an agricultural economist, she has picked up an additional hobby of raising monarch butterflies.

Kelly has been raising butterflies with mixed success. “You raise them by finding them as caterpillars and putting them in box with fresh milkweed,” Kelly said. It can be particularly challenging because you have to keep changing the milkweed in the box. She said that although she has had some success, she is afraid some of the milkweed had become contaminated with pesticides causing some of her monarchs to die. Still, she is enjoying the process and has even convinced some of her friends to raise their own monarchs.

“In October, 10s of thousands of monarch butterflies congregate in Cape May, New Jersey and then they migrate en mass,” Mike said. Mike and Kelly have a trip planned to watch the migration.   

Kelly has also been busy in moving her mother from New Mexico to a local Senior Living Community. She said she isn’t sure how she would have handled the move if she had been working full-time.

Kelly is also involved with volunteer work through the Catonsville Women’s Giving Circle and says she plans to get involved with other groups and pursue additional volunteer opportunities.

Putting Their Financial House in Order

Before retiring, Mike and Kelly made sure they had finances in place. In addition to ensuring that they were both eligible to receive a pension, they paid off their mortgage and put their two children through college. “We’d done the major financial things, so we thought we should be ok,” Kelly said.

They had also spent their married life putting money away in investments and watching their spending. “We’ve lived a very modest lifestyle,” Mike said.

He told a story about an experiment people do with children, where they tell children they can have one marshmallow now, but if they wait, they can have two marshmallows. “We are two marshmallow people, “Mike said.

He added they have deferred some of their enjoyment so they can have more fun now. “It’s the life decisions you make along the way,” Mike said.

Advice to Others

“The transition to retirement is going to be harder for someone who is defined by their job,” Mike said. He was not defined by his job, but he knows others who are. His advice is that if you’re thinking about retiring, start getting involved with activities and other social groups before you retire.

Kelly’s advice, “Start young and make a plan. That makes it possible. Otherwise, you’re just playing catch up the whole time.” They have already given their children this same advice.

Future Plans

For now, Mike and Kelly are looking forward to enjoying the Fall and Winter months.

“It’s so nice that the kids have gone back to school so we don’t have to share the park with them,” Kelly says with a laugh. “Now it’s ours again.”

January through March is a great time to go birding and they spend more time doing that as other options such as kayaking are less available.

They also have so trips planned. They are headed to the Outer Banks, the Finger Lakes and even New York. Plus, they have birding trips planned as well.

“We call our house base camp. Living here is so convenient. We’re 3-hours from cities, beaches mountains that we can do as a day trip,” Mike said.

Kelly and Mike love having time to slow down and spend time doing things together even if it’s as simple as having a cup of tea or reading a book.

”I love getting back to things I have a passion for, but didn’t have time for. A lot of people have a lot of things they could enjoy in retirement, if they could just relax and slow down,” Mike said.

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

The Big Clean Out

Starting the big clean up has been a challenge. Who knew getting rid of 25 years of stuff wouldn’t be easy?

One of my goals in retirement has been to start the big clean out. That’s what everyone says you need to do when you retire.

Of course, I could have started during all those months in isolation during the pandemic, but instead my husband and I built shelves during that time so although there was not less stuff, at least it looked as though there was less stuff.

But as the philosopher says, “The longest journey begins with a single step.” Or something along those lines. So, I started the big clean out with a few little clean outs. At this point, the basement is still a little too much for me to tackle.

I decided to start with a few junk drawers. It was interesting to see how many drawers had been designated as junk drawers. And what had been designated as junk.

The greatest revelation has been how many pairs of scissors we own – 10. What is most surprising is that when we need them, we can never find them. Maybe that’s how we ended up with so many. I don’t know what the perfect number of scissors is, but I’m going to going to say that it is less than 10.

We also seem to have a need to measure things. (Keep it clean people.) We have multiple rulers, tape measures and large tape measurers for measuring rooms. I don’t have the final count, but it’s definitely in the double digits.

But we have no yard sticks. Do people even use yardsticks anymore? Since I think most people only used them to spank their children, they probably don’t sell them anymore. Let me know if you own one.

The tool boxes (yes plural) have been a revelation as well! Four hammers, screwdrivers and wrenches that I’m afraid to count and two levels. And of course, we saved every allen wrench from every piece of IKEA furniture that we have purchased during our 36 years of marriage. I may have to take up welding and create some sort of allen wrench monument to use them all.

I am very confused by finding so much stuff in my house. I have always considered myself organized and when my staff took me out to celebrate my retirement, they commented, multiple times, on my propensity to clean and organize. So, what happened? How did all these things get into my house and what do I do with them now that they are here?

If I were able to throw them out, I would have, but it seems so wasteful. Is there a place to donate these things?

I feel as though I am failing retirement 101 and I haven’t even gotten to the hard part. Calgon take me away!

Starting the Next Phase

I am currently working on my closet and have to restrain myself from throwing away all my work clothes. I really think I should keep a few just in case.

Another problem with my closet is finding things that are no longer “useful” but hold such great memories. For example, I heard bell bottom jeans are making a comeback and I’m sure after a few weeks on Weight Watchers I will fit into them again. Right?

I’m not making head away.

I think cleaning out my husband’s closet would help me clean out my closet. He doesn’t agree.

So far, I have emptied one tub. I guess I shouldn’t mention I emptied it by taking books out of it and putting them back on the bookshelf.  Still, it felt good to see an empty tub.

Maybe an electronic cleanup of our computers would be easier.

I hope to have an update in October that I have successfully completed Stage 1 of the big clean out. At this point, I am gathering these items in my daughter’s old room until I figure out what to do next. Pretty soon, I’m going to need another room since my husband has prohibited anything else going in the basement.

All advice appreciated!

If you have any ideas for my blog, please email me at ksparis15@gmail.com

Managing the Move to Myrtle Beach

Carol used her project management skills to plan the perfect retirement for herself and her husband Mike.

“Retirement is the best decision I ever made!” said Carol Opalski Hewitt.

In April of this year, Carol retired from her job as a Project Manager at T. Rowe Price and she and her husband Mike Hewitt moved down to the Del Webb community in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Carol was only 59 and four months when she retired from T. Rowe Price but she knew it was the perfect time to leave. In March, she finished up 2 ½ year project.  “I knew it was my swan song. I just couldn’t continue work 60 hours a week anymore,” Carol said. 

But Carol and Mike had been thinking about retirement for a while. Seven years ago, while vacationing in Myrtle Beach, they decided that it was the perfect place for their forever home. It had everything they wanted. Sun. Beaches. The ocean. Warm weather. Low taxes. Close proximity to an airport.

Since Carol’s children and mother still live in Baltimore, it was important that there was a quick and convenient way for them to get back home.  Super convenient, economical flights from Myrtle Beach to Baltimore made it the perfect location.

About three years ago, it was time to figure out how to make early retirement possible. Mike had left the workforce in 2001 to take care of their children, so many of the decisions were based on Carol’s income.

They met with a financial adviser at T. Rowe Price who helped guide them through the planning process. “The homework came back to me. How much do we need to retire?” Carol said. Carol emphasizes need rather than want. They needed to consider insurance, health insurance, long-term care insurance and other necessities. But they also considered their wants such as travel, new furniture, a golf cart and other entertainment. The fun stuff. Luckily, Carol and Mike were on the same page when it came to retirement goals.

“You work all your life. You want to enjoy your quality of life while you can,” Carol said.

Finding the Right Community

Then they had to decide where in Myrtle Beach they wanted to live. They looked at three different communities long before they were going to retire. In addition to Del Webb, they considered Waterford Plantation and Berkshire Forest. But ultimately, they decided on Del Webb because it was an active over 55 adult community. “You can be as busy as you want to,” Carol said.

At Del Webb, there are two different builders you can chose from to construct your home. Carol and Mike were able to choose from five different models. “From down payment to settlement was six months,” Carol said. The community has an active calendar of events, pool, concerts and many different groups and activities.

Since moving there, Carol, always an avid tennis player, has taken up pickle ball and plays 5 mornings a week. Her days are now busier than they when she was working.

They have developed a group of about 12 couples who they spend time with going to concerts, hanging out at the pool and going to dinner together.

In addition, Carol does volunteer work like helping out at community concerts.

When her sister said she was worried about Carol staying busy, her response was, “Don’t worry, I am.”

Getting Ready for the Move

After deciding where they were going to move, it was time to make a plan. “Plan the work and work the plan,” Carol said.

As a project manager, Carol backed into her dates. She knew when they were moving and then decided when each step needed to happen.

The first step was to start to cleaning out. It took about eight months. “We were fairly aggressive,” Carol said.

“You need to decide what do you will need in your new life.” Things like her china and vintage martini glasses were some of the things that weren’t going to make the move.

Instead, they sold or donated many of the items. “Catonsville Marketplace and Catonsville Yard Sale are great,” Carol said.

Her advice. “Down size. Down size. Down size.”

In addition, Carol and Mike have two children and their stuff was in their house. Their daughter had already moved out and bought a house, but didn’t take everything with her. Carol and Mike drove her things over to her house and left them there!

Their son was still unsure as to whether or not to make the move with them, but after deciding to stay in Baltimore, he moved out in about three days and took all of his stuff with him. Phase one completed.

Selling Their Home

Next, they needed to sell their home. Because of the hot real estate market earlier this year, Carol and Mike decided put their house on the market on December 26th  and sell it themselves.  It sold within 4 days. Then they negotiated with the buyers so that they could stay in the house until they were ready to move to South Carolina.  “I put the plan in motion and everything fell in line,” Carol said.

Before listing the house, Carol researched other listings and picked and chose key words to get their listing noticed.

They made the decision to not make a lot of upgrades or repaint their home because the next buyer would probably want to make their own design decision. It worked out for them.

Selling their house quickly and for a good profit was key to their retirement plan. “It helped that our house had appreciated so much,” Carol said.

Deciding What to Move

Next, they decided on what they wanted to move. Even though Carol was committed to getting rid of the clutter, there were some things that she decided were worth moving. “It’s important to look at things with a different eye,” Carol said. For example, they decided to move their brown bedroom furniture.

However, once they moved down south, Carol used her newly acquired chalk painting skills to paint it grey and white so it looks beachier. In fact, she has become so good at chalk painting that she has been helping some her friends with their projects as well.

Life In South Carolina

“The best part about being retired is doing what I want to do, when I want to do it,” Carol said.

She doesn’t miss routine of work because she has a new routine. She is on the pickle ball court bright and early at 8 a.m. 5 days a week.

In addition, each week, they review the calendar of events and decide what they are going to do. Of course, errands still need to be done. Wednesday is food shopping day because seniors get 5 percent off. “I take Mike with me because I’m not a senior yet,” Carol said.

They’ve had no problem adjusting to spending more time together. “I think COVID helped with the transition,” Carol said. But they are not spending that much additional time together. Mike doesn’t play pickle ball, instead he walks the dog. At the pool, she hangs out with the girls and he hangs out with the guys.

Carol said she likes having friends around who are of similar age and similar interests. The only bad part about their new friends is that many of them are Steelers fans. Go Ravens!

Finances and Paperwork

Even now that they are retired, Carol and Mike still consider expenses and do paperwork.

“Your expenses will be higher your first few months after retirement,” Carol said. For them, they wanted to buy new things for the house and try new restaurants. However, after a few months of being retired, she sees those expenses are starting to normalize.

Except health insurance. Health insurance is their biggest expense.

At this point Carol is on COBRA and will stay on that for the next 18 months. “It’s very expensive because our son is still on our plan,” Carol said. After the 18 months, she will have to go on the open market or pick up the insurance through T. Rowe. Still, they knew health insurance would continue to be a big expense and they planned for it.

The one down side to retirement so far has been paperwork. Carol has been inundated with paperwork. The biggest challenge was working with the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration to get their car registrations changed.

But there is also quite a bit of insurance paperwork. It’s not only the paperwork that is a challenge, it’s also finding new doctors. “It’s difficult to find doctors down here that are accepting new patients,” Carol said. Right now, she and Mike are flying back to Baltimore for their doctor’s appointments while they wait to get doctor’s appointments booked out in the future in South Carolina.

But with round trip ticket to Baltimore under a $100, it’s working for now. However, Carol doesn’t want to go back to Baltimore too often. “There’s so much going on here, I don’t want to miss anything,” she said.

Final Advice

Carol and Mike are loving their new life in South Carolina. They are meeting new people, starting new hobbies and keeping busy. Still, sometimes Carol likes some down time.

“This morning I was getting ready to head out to pickle ball at 8 when it starts raining and the texts start flying. ‘Are we going? Are we not going?’” The decision was no pickle ball that day. “So, it was nice to have a second cup of coffee and get some things done around the house,” Carol said. Retirement is everything they thought it would be…and more.

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

Costco Through A Retiree’s Eyes

Embracing my retirement, I decided to take a trip to Costco with my husband Scott. Little did I know the adventure that awaited.

I must confess that I have been to Costco before. In February 2020, my husband, Scott, and I decided it was time to join a warehouse store. It turned out to be perfect timing. While others were experiencing a toilet paper shortage, we had bought so much on our first trip that we were even had a few extra rolls to share with our less fortunate neighbors when the pandemic hit.

Since then, I have only been to Costco a handful of times. When my husband retired, he took on the responsibility of grocery shopping. But now that I too am retired, I decided it was time to join him.

I could tell that we had different approaches right from the start. Scott said he wanted to start with a $1.59 hot dog from the concession stand so that he wouldn’t be tempted to over shop. I thought it sounded like a reasonable strategy, but I really don’t like hot dogs.

So, I went to grab a cart. Scott said we did that after the hot dog. I already had the cart in my hands and said. “That’s ok, I’ll get it.” The problem occur when I realized that the cart and I were on one side of the registers and the hot dogs were on the other side.

Scott gave me an “I told you so” look. I smiled and suggested that he get his hot dog and I browse since I hadn’t been there in such a long time. The look he gave me then could best be described as slightly fearful, but the hot dog was calling his name.

So, I wandered. For those who have never been to a Costco, it is truly an amazing place. Of course, I had seen the TVs before as I entered, but there were also mattresses, dining room tables, kayaks, lighting…really anything you can think of. I was mesmerized.

Next was the bakery, meats, cheeses and the first sample station. There was a young (well maybe not young), pleasant (well not unpleasant) woman giving out samples of tortellini. At Weight Watchers, they tell you to stay away from samples like this because the calories add up. But I truly felt I needed to indulge in order to actually embrace the entire experience. The tortellini was creamy and delicious.

Suddenly, my husband was next to me. I guess the hot dog needed some company, because he was also gnashing on some tortellini.

Then he looked at my cart. Apparently, on my journey through the store several items had jumped into the cart of their own volition. “I’ll go find the things that are actually on our list,” he said and picked up another tortellini.

I was somewhat surprised he trusted me to continue on my own. Instead of continuing to shop, I decided to follow the lead of a spry 70-year-old who was moving from tasting station to tasting station gathering his lunch. I could have done without the kombucha. It was like a fruit vinegar, but overall it was yummy and I wondered why my husband needed a hot dog with all this other yummy food around.

I caught up with my husband in the snack section. He had his phone out calling me. Apparently, he thought I was lost. I knew where I was. I was sampling cashews.

The best part about being retired is going to Costco during the week when no one else is around. Check out took no time at all.

But being retired, I had to hit the restrooms before we left. When I came out, my husband said he also needed to use the restroom. So I found a place to sit down and I waited.

“Is your membership on automatic renewal?” I heard someone say. I looked up and she. was talking to me. “Is your membership on automatic renewal?” she asked again.

“I’m not sure,” I said.

She took my receipt and said, “I can tell by your receipt.”

I wasn’t sure what this was all about being as unfamiliar as I am with the inner workings of Costco.

“Yes, it is,” she declared. “You get a free case of water.”

“Really,” I said. She put a sticker on it and motioned for me to pick up the 40 bottle case. Luckily, I workout.

Just then, my husband came running towards me. “What’s this? We don’t need any water,” he said. I felt like grandma being talked out of signing up for a timeshare.

The woman turned to him. “It’s free.”

“It’s free,” I said joyfully.

He still didn’t seem convinced, but I think the whole experience of having me along was more than he could handle and he just wanted to go home.

But I’m not sure why people think they save money going to Costco, I was surprised at how high our bill was.

Still, I got free water, free lunch and racked up a few thousand steps on my Fitbit. It was a win-win for me.

Since that trip, my Costco card seems to have disappeared and there have been no other invitations forthcoming to join him. Still, I think another trip is in my future. I hear that’s where all the cool retirees hang out.

If you have an idea for a blog subject, please 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.

Checking in With A Few Friends

I’ve met so many interesting people while writing my blog. I just wanted to catch up with a few of them. Here’s a quick update.

When I first started my blog, I spent a great deal of time coaxing and cajoling my friends to be part of my “project”. Now that I have published over 18 blogs, I thought it was a great time to check in with some of my earlier blog participants. I’m happy to say, they are doing great!

A New Start After Walmart

You might remember that Bert decided that staying home during the pandemic was not working for him. He was spending too much time in his basement eating and drinking too much and wasting a lot of time. After a year at Walmart, Bert decided it was time to move on and started a Human Service Counseling Certificate Program at CCBC last fall. With this certificate from the state, Bert can work as a drug and alcohol counselor.

Being over 60, Bert was able to take advantage of the free tuition at CCBC. “I only pay about $200 a class,” Bert said.

So far, Bert has completed 15 credits which allows him to work as a drug and alcohol counselor trainee and is enrolled during the summer session. He proudly states that he has 4.0 GPA.

Through CCBC, he was able to get an interview at Hope’s Horizon in Parkville. After the interview, he was hired on the spot and will be working there part-time while continuing to go to school.

Hope’s Horizon is a treatment facility offering rehab and intensive outpatient therapy. He will be working with groups of men, approximately 80-100 men in all. He will be responsible for creating treatment programs and mediating group sessions. “I’m excited to get started,” Bert said. “Three years ago, I couldn’t imagine being here.”

Now, Bert feels he is on the right track and is looking forward to finishing up his certificate program in about 2 years.

To read Bert’s post: A New Start After Walmart.

To find out more about his program: Human Services Counseling

Staying Positive While Facing Changes

When Janet Streit entered her supervisor’s office in March 2022, she was told she was being let go. Although it was somewhat unexpected, Janet faced this setback with the same positive attitude she faced everything. After determining she would be ok financially, she started on a plan for her new life.

Janet knew that her new life would include helping others live their best life. During the pandemic, she accomplished her goal of losing 70 pounds with Weight Watchers and wanted to help others.

After being retired for a few months, Janet put in her application to become a coach leading meetings.  Now, she’s happy to announce, she got the job and is ready to help others on their weight loss journey with her amazing talent to take any recipe and make it “points friendly”.

Janet also shared during her blog post that she wanted to take a trip to the Adirondacks with her brother. Well, as you can see by the pictures, she made it. Being 70 pounds less, Janet is finding it easier to walk and hike the trails, but at the end of the day, it’s still exhausting.

To read Janet’s blog

A Picture Perfect Retirement

Geoff and his daughter in Alaska

Geoff Prior was one of my very first blogs.  After a long career in IT, Geoff decided to take to the open road and started traveling around the United States in his van. While traveling, he started taking pictures. His pictures have now won awards and he is getting better every day using his natural talent with new equipment and new techniques.

This summer Geoff wanted to cross something off his bucket list. He is driving to Alaska from Maryland. Along the way, he has had company. His daughter has been his companion for part of the trip. They have been exploring Alaska together since June 17th.

Geoff’s pictures are amazing and his eye for capturing the perfect moment gets better and better. If you want to see more of his pictures go to GRPImagery.com

To read Geoff’s blog, go to: Picture Perfect Retirement

If you know someone that would make a great subject for my blog, please 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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