As I’m looking out my office window and viewing a bright, sunny Monday morning I find myself once again marveling at my current situation. So much has happened in the past five years, some positive and some negative, but all of it sure looks – at least in retrospect – as a large-scale ‘plan’. Yesterday late afternoon while killing a bit of time awaiting my substitution at KTNA for the evening announcements, weather and classifieds at 18:00 followed by the “We’re Not All There” music show at 19:00 I happened to watch a bit of one of my absolutely favorite movies of all time – “The Matrix”. I watched the portion in which Neo visits the Oracle and there’s the brief discussion regarding how he doesn’t believe in all that ‘fate crap’; for whatever reason this started me thinking about my own feelings regarding the concept of ‘fate’. I probably am closer to the beliefs exhibited by Neo as I do believe strongly in free will and also firmly believe we ‘beings of light’ can affect our own lives in an infinity of ways. With this said such feelings would seem to run counter to the perception I mentioned earlier regarding where I currently am being the result of a ‘plan’. And this apparent incongruity interests me for a number of reasons.
In hindsight an amazing amount of things had to work out just the way they did for me to find my way to my current exciting and pleasing life in rural south central Alaska; and they had to occur in the sequence they did as well. Without question I had ‘control’ over many of these aspects but there’s no denying some appear to be based upon random chance. Looking back it was very important I was available to assist my parents through their last years; this was very much so regarding Mom. I was able to be there for them because the job market in IT collapsed in 2006 just as my contract with the state of Ohio ran out and was not renewed. I looked for work for another 18 months without success before electing to start a SEPP and basically retire. This allowed me the freedom to briefly move in with my folks in 2008 and be able to sell my house in West Chester (OH) and move into my folk’s house as a caretaker in late 2009 after Dad had passed and Mom had moved into an assisted living facility. These were circumstances I felt I had no real control over; I’d always imagined I’d work until at least 62 years of age if not longer but out-sourcing and moving jobs off shore prevented this from occurring. At first I was isolated and miserable but I came to realize I needed to take steps to change this situation; I started by adding my ‘little’ angel Anana (my 124 pound female Alaskan Malamute) to my life.
While visiting Mom multiple times a week at the Northville Sunrise I began to take an interest in volunteering and thankfully the manager of the Reminiscence Neighborhood – the portion of the facility for memory impaired residents – was more than willing to bring me on as a volunteer. In hindsight I didn’t expect to find I loved volunteering so or enjoyed working with elderly dementia residents so much. This was something I would have never tried had Mom not been a resident at the facility and therefore I visited multiple times a week and started watching the care-givers and their interactions with the residents. Because of this I’ll always look at learning the joys of volunteering to be Mom’s last and probably best gift to me. I loved the way the staff had lots of fun with the residents but never, ever at their expense. I decided to try volunteering after much urging from my sister and especially after spending so much time talking with Jewel – her name says it all – who is the Reminiscence Coordinator. To my shock I found I did have a ‘way’ with the residents and I really found immense satisfaction in working with them. I went on to work more and more at the facility often putting in more than 40 hours a month but truly loving the work and for the first time in my working experience discovering true job satisfaction. But I also came to understand I was really ‘stretching’ myself with respect to my comfort zone and what I believed I could do. This realization became more important as I learned that keeping one’s mind challenged as one ages is a proven way to help forestall the onset of dementia; given Mom died of the wicked Alzheimer’s I am almost assuredly more at risk than others my age with no history of such issues within their families. I feel I could not know how much I would enjoy volunteering with the elderly but once I learned of the fun I pursued it recognizing ‘stretching’ in this fashion was very good for me and was also assisting the wonderful folks at the Sunrise of Northville facility. Talk about a ‘win-win’..!!
Without question my decision to leave my ‘second family’ at the facility and retire to Alaska was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever faced yet it was one created by me. I could’ve remained in SE Michigan volunteering at the facility but I was also concerned that I was becoming ‘comfortably numb’ in that role. Yes, it remained challenging and I did enjoy it but I was also restless. And I could not ignore hearing so many of the residents talk about their regrets that they never followed a dream or took a chance when younger; this was very common and it helped galvanize me into making the choice to move to Alaska. These were things I had control over; I felt my own impending stagnation and I knew if I didn’t move to live my dream of retiring to Alaska soon it would never happen. And some day I could well be a very elderly male regretting my failure to take that chance and upset my existence to a huge degree by moving to rural south central Alaska. I couldn’t imagine allowing this to happen and hence was willing to do whatever it took to live my dream even though in so doing I was abandoning a marvelous situation.
I never thought of moving to Talkeetna as stretching myself; it was a dream to retire to Alaska and I was just fulfilling said dream. But here and now as I reflect upon this massive event – fully 15 months in the making – it was probably one of the largest stretches I’ve ever made! I lived my entire life in urban circumstances mainly in the northern Midwest yet here I was planning to move into a rural setting and in Alaska to boot!! Yep, I’d say that is indeed quite a stretch especially as I was doing this solo with just my two dogs. Sure, previously I’d moved to new places where I knew no one but these were all in the lower 48 and in urban settings. In addition they were for jobs and hence I did know folks at my place of business. But with the move up here I was moving my entire household with the assistance of one friend 4,243 miles to a rural setting on the outskirts of an Alaskan town of just 700 people in which I knew no one. Without question it was truly a leap of faith as well as one helluva stretch but it was also the fulfillment of a 16 year dream. As it stands now I couldn’t be happier with my decision; I’m settling in, learning the rural Alaskan lifestyle, meeting new people, making friends and – surprise, surprise – continuing to look for new challenges. Given the latter it should be no surprise that volunteering has shown me a new stretch in live, on-air broadcasting for Talkeetna’s local NPR station (KTNA). I started with newscasts and have now branched out to a music show and doing regular substituting on other newscasts and shows. I had no experience with anything like on-air broadcasting; the closest thing would have been doing some teaching of company classes at field sites involving Microsoft operating systems and applications. As an aside I undertook this challenge as a bit of a stretch because I had a huge fear of speaking in front of people reinforced by being a real stutterer as a child to the point I required years of speech therapy. To my surprise I did well at being an instructor but even this was nothing like broadcasting live to a small town over the air waves. While I’m still learning and do make some true ‘beginner’s’ mistakes I find I really enjoy the work. Once again, if someone had told me five years ago I’d enjoy live on-air radio broadcast work I’d have asked them to share whatever they were smoking as it would’ve seemed that far out to me! And my hunger for more challenges seems to grow the more I undertake such stretches; I will begin volunteering at a local food pantry that serves over 130 needy families in the Upper Susitna Valley. With fifteen years in food manufacturing and a BS in Food Science I’d like to think I can assist them and just knowing the work I do will be helping needy families is a real plus for me.
So how much of this is is of my own ‘doing’ and how much is mere chance and coincidence..? From my current perspective I’d say 70/30. But I must admit that at least a sizable portion appears to be out of my control. If, in 2006, I’d found another job then I’d probably still be working and wouldn’t have discovered the joy of volunteering, my ability to work so well with the elderly, wouldn’t have even dreamed of doing live radio and would most likely be only dreaming about moving to Alaska when I retire. Such a simple thing; almost a binary decision set – find a job or not – yet it had huge and far reaching ramifications many of which I’ve most likely not yet discovered. And I did try hard across 2006 to locate employment; my contract ran out in early February and I took a few months off believing I could locate a suitable IT job fairly easily as it had always been that way. I started pursuing possibilities and sent out over 125 resumes across 2006 and into early 2007 with no luck; in addition I went to numerous local job fairs and even some outside the IT realm job interviews. But I couldn’t find work; at the time I was dejected, disappointed and largely worried about paying my mortgage. If, in late 2006, someone had told me this was all part of a sequence of events which would culminate with me living my dream of an Alaskan retirement I’d have been completely unable to envision how this could happen. But to my credit I did remain receptive to the idea although after the economic collapse in ’08 and ’09 I’d all but given up on this dream.
And here is the first of two key learnings I want to share with everyone: do not allow yourself to restrict your ‘stretching’ by imposing self-generated boundaries on what you believe you are capable of doing or what you might – or might not – enjoy!! In this sense many of us are our own worst enemies; I know for certain I surely fit into this mold. Do not be afraid to try something completely new and something you’ve never even really seriously considered. I’d bet many folks will fail when doing so but I’d also bet the successes will far outshine any failures! And you just might find a new career or passion. And secondly: never, ever give up on your dreams no matter how lofty or seemingly out of reach!! Without question in ’09 and ’10 I was sure I would never retire to Alaska because of the financial beating I’d taken in the economic downturn; I’d even formulated a plan ‘B’ which involved moving to the western UP (that’s ‘Upper Peninsula’ for non-Midwesterners) because it was rural and at least had cold winters with lots of snow. Yet with the assistance of my wonderful financial adviser I was able to keep my dream alive, rebuild it from the ashes of the recent recession and actually make it a reality. If you can embrace these two concepts and truly live them the sky is indeed the limit for what you can attain; I am living proof of this reality!