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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.

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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