Few women that I know have planned as successful a retirement as Bethene. She leads a rich, full life, selecting new challenges and adventures every year. The significance of her journey, for me, is her ability to look within and to know herself so well. This is an excerpt from her interview for Fifty Over Fifty:
Q. So you finished this – this career and you reached retirement. And from the outside, it looks like suddenly but it probably isn’t if, I want to hear the story, you decide that you’re going to create a very different life for yourself.
Yes. The first part though was to recognize there were capabilities I had as an educator that I was going to call into play for my own life. And so for retirement, the first thing that I knew was I wanted to address those things that I hadn’t been able to do so far—including fitness. I got into a situation with a trainer and did that several times a week.
I started art classes in life drawing at the Montclair Art Museum. I took that class several times over. I hadn’t had any art classes throughout the whole of my life to that date. I’d gone to a lot of museums. I looked at a lot of art but I hadn’t done any and so I loved those courses. Also, I started going to the actor’s institute one day a week. This was the general structure I gave myself coming out of teaching and into retirement. I wanted some structure but also I wanted to leave big chunks of time for more spontaneous kinds of choice making and so on. The initial idea was to do those things that I hadn’t had a chance to do heretofore. A few years later, my husband and I divorced and I began living on my own for the first time.
Q. I remember you talking about how you helped him get situated into what was going to be the ideal life he deserved.
Right. Once again, I think of the educator coming to the fore. I had a real sense of the kind of setting/context in which he would flourish. I helped him find a place and set up his apartment. He began to flourish. Yes, indeed he has. That’s been a very, very happy kind of, development. And my own has been very like that, too. It’s just been flourishing. My first apartment on my own was in Jersey City. I rented a brownstone there for two and a half years and then it was going to be sold. I needed to think about some place to move. I recognized during the time I was in Jersey City, there were weeks where I was in New York City five times. And so I dared at that point to think about living here myself. When I started looking for places to live, I looked in Jersey City again but I also came into New York City. I like to say that I started out in Iowa and began moving East until finally there was only the Hudson left to cross. And I decided to cross that, too. I’m living here very happily.
Q. Great. Great. So you had a lot of structure around this plan. One of the things that I loved about the first time you talked about your retirement to me was that you had – It wasn’t “Oh, I’m retiring and that’s it.” So I’d like you to talk about how you structured this. I remember you telling me that you’re going to do a least – I think it was at least two new things a week and try different restaurants and study different things.
Oh, yes, I’ve always got ideas about that kind of thing. Yes. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron has been helpful as well. I’ve gone through it several times–on my own, in a mediated way with a leader and other seekers and then on my own again. Some of the tools that are recommended in that book are morning pages, which I think are great. I write them every day. And an ‘artist’s date; which entails going to some place different on your own at least once a week just to keep the creative juices going. In Walking in the World, Cameron adds walking to the tools that encourage creativity. I walk a lot. But, yes. I do like to have these specific ideas about intentions, I call them. I don’t have goals. I have intentions and then I like to be awake to the possibilities that show up. That’s a process which in itself keeps us alert, I think.
Q. There’s a couple of things that you’ve been sort of consistently working on, the flower arranging, the whole art of conversation and the salon. Could you talk about that up close?
Yes. Well, you see a part of these things grow out of saying “Yes.” I got into flower arranging because a friend called and said “There’s this weekend offering of Ikebana, would you like to go?” And I say, “Yes.” [Laughter] I’m so glad I did because all of these years later I am still practicing. I consider it to be my spiritual practice. Flower arranging for me is not just putting some flowers in a vase.
Q. There’s also discipline among other things involved in Ikebana. True?
Yes. Right. I studied first with a sensei who had been trained in Japan prior to the war. After my weekend intro, I was told that was the kind of teacher I should look for. It just so happened there was a woman in that weekend course who was studying with the sensei I eventually studied with. That woman and I are still practicing together and she was just here this week. We made our arrangements for the Holiday Season. We always start with meditation.
Each of us brings materials we share. Then we do the meditation and we make our arrangements. After we’ve completed our work and talked about them, we have tea — or lunch, depending on the time of day. It is a wonderful, wonderful practice. The principles of Ikebana are something that just radiate through my life. This year as I thought about Christmas and decorating, I thought “I really don’t want to do it the way I usually do it. I want it to be different.” One of the things I have done is to take away a lot. That is one of the principles in Ikebana.
I want to be Bethene when I grow up!