MY MISTER ROGERS NEIGHBORHOOD

I’m now living in a kind of neighborhood that I thought only existed on the Mister Rogers TV show. For instance, years ago, when I moved to Connecticut, I walked over to my immediate neighbor on the right to introduce myself. I guess she must have seen me come up her driveway, because she met me outside her back door, standing there with her arms crossed over her chest, prison matron-like. She barked, “What do you want?”

I backed up a step, put my hands up in surrender and stammered, “I…we just moved in and…I just…wanted to say hello.”

“Well, we didn’t have any trouble with the people who lived in your house, so I hope we don’t have any trouble with you.”

“Uhuh. Well, nice meeting you,” I said with probably a touch of sarcasm as I backed carefully onto the road. That was my only attempt to get to know my neighbors. I decided to wait for someone to come to me, but nobody brought an apple pie to my door. Though I lived there over 30 years, I never learned the names of the people nearby.

Then I moved to my little complex in Florida. As I was unpacking the car, a woman walked up the driveway. “Welcome to Pinebrook,” she said with a big smile. How nice. We chatted for a bit. She invited me over to her villa for tea where she gave me restaurant tips and explained how things worked with the board of directors, etc.

When I left in the late spring to go home to sell my house, she offered to look after my villa. She even collected my mail and called me if something looked important. I’d tell her to go ahead and open it, and she would fax it to me if necessary. Actually, she helped me out for two whole summers before I became a full-time resident. She refused any kind of payment.

The people in this honest-to-god neighborhood are kind and helpful and not at all gossipy or nosy. One day when I was in the pool, I told a woman that I was thinking of buying a bike even though I had not been on one in longer than most people on earth have been alive. “You can have mine!” she said brightly. “I don’t use it any more. I’m never going to ride again.”

“Really? Well, only if you let me pay for it!”

“No! Don’t be silly. Saves me the trouble of taking it to the thrift store.”

So, I took her bike. It was a little rusty, like me, but worked fine—like me. So, though scared to death at first, I began enjoying it and then loving it. I feel twelve years old as I ride up and down my little street. Second childhood has arrived, and it’s fun.

Yesterday, I was swimming alone in the pool. A man came up to the fence and asked, “Did you lose these?” He was holding up a sheet of postage stamps. “I found them here by the mail boxes.”

“No.” I stopped for a moment.

“See anyone else come by while you were swimming?”

“Yes,” I said. “Fran and Joan came by for their mail.” I know people now. I learned their dogs’ names first—like Gizmo, Adelaide, Tucker, Aspen. But I didn’t know this man who was a new owner. He introduced himself, “Hi. I’m Darren. My wife’s name is Cathy.”

“Oh, yes. Lovely woman!” I called out as I dogpaddled in place. “Met her at breakfast this morning!” She had sent out a group email, and six of us managed to roll out of bed to get to a restaurant by 7:30 am. We’re going to do it again next month (a little later, so a few more might show up.)  

He left to go see if one of the women I had mentioned had lost the stamps. I continued to swim marveling that he didn’t do a “finders/keepers” and take them. They were, after all, just lying on the sidewalk.

I swam on feeling utterly blessed to be living here. I thought about a few weeks before when some women put together a buffet for Fran’s visiting family and friends after the funeral of her husband who died suddenly.  I made some quiche and soup to take. It felt good to do something so, well, neighborly.

I got out of the pool, and as I was drying off, noticed my purse and remembered that I, too, had stopped at the mailboxes. Uh oh. I looked inside for the new stamps that I had bought.  When I couldn’t find them, I laughed, phoned Darren and left a message, “Well, if there is just one missing, they may be mine after all!”

Later, as I was making dinner, I heard a knock on the door. It was Cathy, bringing me the stamps. Mr. Rogers would have approved.

 Early this morning, while I was riding back and forth on my little street, I saw Peggy, the woman who had given me the bike, walking down the driveway in her nightgown to collect the newspaper (no need for shyness here. It is a cul-de-sac and we’re all friends). I stopped and thanked her again. She smiled. She has the kind of sweet face that takes a lifetime of goodness to mold. “So glad you’re enjoying it,” she said. We chatted a bit about how much we love living here.

I rode on singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…” and wished everyone lived in a Mister Rogers neighborhood too.

 

Me and Irma

September 11, 2017. 10 pm. The power is out. Ugly Irma is on her way. It’s too late to go to a shelter. They’re full. Nothing to do but wait. We sit in the dark talking by flashlight. Trudie and Jeff and I are at Marilyn’s house to ride out the storm: New to Florida and newly friends, none of us have ever been in a hurricane. We have stumbled our way through preparations and planning to this moment.

Each day since September 1 had become increasingly intense as Irma grew to a record-breaking monster in size and strength. A Category 5, four hundred miles wide with sustained winds at 185 miles per hour, she was predicted to flatten, rip out, and destroy Florida from the Gulf to the Atlantic. The newscasters declared her to be the worst storm ever to hit the state. We were about to be devastated.

From the beginning, I hadn’t a clue what to do—whether to go or stay. Undecided, I Googled How to Prepare for a Hurricane, copied the lists, and began taking action. I went to Publix to get the recommended 5 gallons of water per person. The atmosphere in the store was a kind of subdued hysteria, as if people were trying to control their panic. The shelves that normally held water were empty. But at the head of the aisle, a young employee was passing out gallons of water from great stacks as fast as he could. A woman piled her cart with so many my eyebrows raised. She saw me and hissed, “I have kids!” I took three gallons and decided not to buy a lot of food. I could survive on protein powder if need be. I waited in line behind a shopper who had so many canned goods, she could have fed an army. The check-out clerk was whizzing items passed the thing that beeped and smiled gently when she handed the buyer a long, long receipt.

Every day I went online to look at the NOAA Hurricane Center’s website to get their latest reports. I did not watch the Weather Channel. Personally, I think TV presenters just scare the hell out of us so we’ll keep watching. I didn’t want my growing anxiety to be pumped up by fear-inspiring newscasters. The factual information on my computer screen was scary enough as I watched wind speed go up and the graphic hurricane cone edge closer.

In my total inexperience, I had no real plan in place. The one thing I knew was that I didn’t want to go through this hurricane by myself. I considered several options: get in the car and drive up north, go to one of my friends’ houses in mid-Florida or the east coast, or simply stay here. A most surprising and generous offer to ride out the hurricane came from a lovely woman I had only previously spoken with for 15 minutes in CVS.  During that conversation, she invited me on a tour of Ringling College where she was in charge of programming. We had discussed the possibility of my teaching there. When we cancelled the next week due to Irma’s impending arrival, she invited me to shelter from the storm at her house with her, her husband, and a friend “you will like.” We would play charades. I was deeply moved by her generous offer and was seriously considering it.

Another Florida friend phoned to urge me to leave. She was frantically packing her car and leaving her rented house to drive up north. A psychic had told her she had to leave NOW!  As a homeowner, I wasn’t so ready to pack up and flee.

It seems as if life presents one opportunity after another to face up to terror. I have heard FEAR as an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. But, for me, it’s more like Future Events Appear Ruinous—like standing off stage opening night on Broadway, or listening for the doctor’s phone call, or staring at graphics of a big mother of an approaching hurricane. There were way too many days of that. Waiting was hard.

During that time, it helped to be active, but when I wasn’t—especially in the middle of the night—fearful thoughts about what was coming were almost impossible to resist. I did my best to be present with the sensations that were whirling around my body. It was a roller coaster in and out of shaky fear and calm. Given that dying in a massive hurricane was looking like a possibility, I rewrote my will, had it witnessed, and put other important papers in an in-case-I-die waterproof packet to wear around my neck if a storm surge swept me away. Hurricane Harvey’s disastrous floods in Texas were fresh in my mind. The instruction to residents to write their social security numbers with indelible ink on their arms haunted me.

On September 8 Irma’s cone moved west on the NOAA website. Now, it looked as if she was in a direct line right over my house at a whopping 155 miles per hour. By the time I thought it was a good idea to leave, it was a bad idea. A quarter of Florida’s inhabitants had jumped in their cars and were fleeing north. The highways were packed. Gas stations were running out of gas.

Marilyn,  who had only just bought a house and moved here three months ago, phoned me. Evidently, she had been watching the Weather Channel way too much and was in a clear panic. “Katherine! We’ve got to get out of here! I’ve found a guy who will fly us up to DC. It will cost us $15,000 each, but it’s worth it! Come on. Pack your bag and let’s go!”

I wasn’t going to give that kind of money to some greedy bastard. And what would I do in DC? Go up to the White House and ask them to put me up for a couple of nights? But I said, “Okay. First, let me come over and help you see if your hurricane shutters work.”  She had them, but had never tested them. “You’ll need to secure your house.”

When I got there, she grabbed me by the forearms. “Let’s go!  I’ll pay for you! Really! We have GOT TO GET OUT OF HERE!”

(to be continued)

The Long Hot Summer

In the middle of May I began to panic. The days were heating up in Florida. I envisioned sweltering, humid, insufferable, Equatorial months ahead. Oh My God. What am I going to do?!!! How am I going to get through the Long Hot Summer?  I’ll be trapped in my house by the heat like I was by the cold in the long winters in Connecticut!  

I did have air-conditioning, of course, but, the idea of having to stay indoors all during the heat of the day alarmed me. I get cabin fever easily. I need to be out in nature or with people.

“Expectation is the source of all unhappiness” I once heard and thought it was about anticipating wonderful things which can be a setup for disappointment. In this case, I think, it also applies to dread, because I didn’t need to be so fearful. It’s now mid-July and I’m not only dealing with the heat, but the whole summer thing is turning out to be just fine. What a surprise!

I adjusted. Maybe my Indiana farmer genes kicked in because I love waking up before dawn. I don’t even use an alarm. I have a cup of tea as the sun rises. Most mornings I hop on my bike for a ride in the shade and cool air. Back in for another cup of tea and then out for a swim before the sun gets too high. I’m usually done with exercise before 10 am. I feel invigorated and ready to write, do chores, or take care of business.

In the afternoons, I find that it’s easy to go from the air-conditioned car to air-conditioned store or museum or restaurant or wherever. It can be hot, but I’m not uncomfortable if I’m not actually spending time hanging out in the midday sun. In the evenings, it’s still possible to eat outside at restaurants—usually there’s a breeze or a fan. I assumed that when the snowbirds when back north that this area would feel empty. Not at all. Restaurants are full, theaters still put on shows. Lots is happening all the time. People even come here for vacations in the summer, which I found astounding. At sunset, there are many more people on the beach than during the winter. The colors are spectacular, turning the clouds leftover from the afternoon brief thunderstorms into brilliant pinks and reds with turquoise, purple and blue skies all around.

Everything about summer here is surprising me. I don’t want to say this too loudly, because I can hardly believe it myself, but I’m actually liking it. Who knew?

Silly me for worrying. I should have remembered my motto that formed the acronymic name of my home, The Villa BETICI—because so far, this summer has definitely been Better Even Than I Could Imagine.

A BIG QUESTION

question_markCan I, a 77 year-old single woman with almost no family, create a whole new life?

It’s a big question that has been coming up since my acting career faded away. Four years ago, after the death of my sister, I drove around the US in a camper van for three months trying to revive myself. It worked. During the trip I sometimes wondered, “Would I like to live here? Or here? Or here?” The answer was pretty much “Nope.” But it was a wonderful adventure.

Enlivened, I came home and rebooted my life without my former connection to my acting career in New York City. But each cold winter became more unbearable to me and more friends and family died. So last winter, I began seriously exploring warmer climes to relocate. I traveled around much of Florida and even went to Merida, Mexico. I felt like Goldilocks hopping in and out of beds. Nothing seemed right for me: The Keys were too low key for me, Miami and environs too big. So I turned to central Florida. The Villages seemed too much like an adult Disneyword, Mt. Dora, too small. I loved Winter Park, but it was, frankly, too expensive and I wanted to be closer to the beach. So, this December, having heard Sarasota had a lot of theater and culture, not to mention the beach, I decided to try it out. Within days, it felt right to me.

I did not know one person there. But one of the great lessons I learned in my trip around the US was: There are good people everywhere. And, indeed, through chance encounters at restaurants and even on the street, I am on my way to creating a circle of friends. One woman I met took me with her to feed the homeless on Christmas Day. I plan to do that again next year wherever I am. Two people I chatted up at a restaurant happen to be very connected in the theater. They have already introduced me to several people who are also active in theater in Sarasota. And talk about good people! Another woman, JoAnn, who I had met at the theater and for lunch days later, turned out to be a kind of angel. When I fled my rental because of a nutty, rather scary landlady, JoAnn gave me her house to stay in while she was in California! Such generosity I won’t ever forget. (The landlady, by the way, was the exception that proves the rule about good people everywhere.)

So today, when I ask, “Can I, a 77 year-old single woman with almost no family, create a whole new life?” It may take some courage and a little craziness, but my answer is a resounding YES, I CAN!  And I’m excited about the prospect!

This blog has to do with Commitment. As I say in my Creative Explosion workshops, “A really good commitment may look a little crazy.”