By Kelsey Maddox
Since the 1950s, retirement planning has primarily focused on financial preparation for the senior years. But how do we fill our days when we no longer have to commute to work? Who will we be when we’re no longer defined by our career, or our families, who are now raised and no longer require our nurturing?
These questions sent me on a quest to ask seven individuals, each in their seventies, what gets them out of bed each day. Where do they find purpose and meaning in their lives today? Who are they now? And the responses from these seven individuals in Sonoma Valley are interesting and compelling.
If you’ve visited Sonoma Market more than once, you’ve met Joyce Parson, 77, who generously greets guests at the front of the store and serves samples of new food items.
Joyce has lived in Sonoma since early childhood. She knows every local inhabitant and newcomer within days of their arrival. Joyce came to her current role in the community in a very interesting way.
Nearly 13 years ago Joyce lost her daughter to cancer, who left behind a husband and a young son. In her daughter’s absence Joyce began to care for her grandson and help fill the void after the loss of his mother. Each time she brought her grandson to Sonoma Market she saw that he was always excited to see “the food lady.” At the time Joyce was personally struggling with how she would return to an active life and find new meaning while dealing with her own deep grief. One day she noticed that the food lady was no longer at the store and she asked about her absence. She learned that the position was vacant. Sonoma Market had the great wisdom to hire Joyce to become the next “food lady.” And today, Joyce is the person who another generation of children and adults look for as they enter the market.
Joyce found her purpose in her seventies as someone who literally serves others. She loves meeting lifetime friends from the community and visitors to Sonoma from near and far. She interacts with everyone who stops at her counter. Observing Joyce at work –from her unlikely tiny office of the sampling counter—you’ll see her reaching out to others who are struggling with life issues. With her sincere ability to listen, she has become a good friend for many in need. She is quick to share a spontaneous hug. Joyce shared that “caregiving is who I am and what I want to do. This desire comes from a higher power and a personal need to serve others. It is who I am today.”
Clearly, Joyce is dispensing more than mere samples of food. She is fully present for others and sharing from the heart. Our community is the beneficiary of her kindness and goodwill. And Sonoma continues its long love affair with the food lady.
After 30 years as a distinguished professor of economics at Washington State University, John Donnelly, 79, and his wife decided to return to her native California to be near their aging parents. The small, slightly rural character of Sonoma, which reminded them of their Washington State community, was part of the attraction.
John, like many retirees, didn’t know what his post-career life would look like. He trusted that how he filled his days and how he found new interests and purpose would unfold organically. And so it did.
Today John is deeply engaged with the beauty of the natural world and sustaining it for future generations. He sees his current role as both an advocate and educator for its preservation. His interests are focused locally, regionally, and globally to preserve the planet from environmental destruction. He is alarmed by what he knows and observes of the threats. John readily admits that he is perplexed that every grandparent who loves their grandchildren and future generations isn’t fighting for environmental protection on their behalf.
John’s instincts led him to become involved with the Overlook Trail’s creation and development. For a number of years John acted as a volunteer docent and guide for hikes through the area. This activity led to his involvement in the Land Paths of Sonoma County; for a number of years he served as the head of the Earth Care Committee of the Sonoma Congregational Church. This committee has been recognized nationally for its creation of a sustainable solar plan for the church but more importantly, as a model advocacy group for the environment. John has also been instrumental in forming the Sonoma Climate Coalition for education and community awareness of environmental needs and solutions.
John sees his life – and all life – as interdependent. He knows that mankind’s survival requires clean air, water, and natural order. His dedication to the natural world and to future generations has become his daily purpose, his passion, and his reason for getting out of bed.
Teresa Suarez, 77, was born in Bolivia. Her first employment was as a schoolteacher. At the age of twenty-four she was offered an opportunity to immigrate to the United States as an au pair for a Maryland family. Eventually Teresa joined her sister in Seattle, Washington, and worked for Fireman’s Fund. In 1970 Fireman’s offered her a position in their San Francisco office, which was how she arrived in the Bay Area.
Teresa’s desire to work more closely with people through direct care led to her formal training to become a nurse practitioner. On completion of her training she was immediately employed in the physical therapy department of California Pacific Medical Center where she remained for thirty-four years. She met a friend at Little Switzerland in Sonoma, and purchased her friend’s house, making Sonoma her home.
At retirement, her time and energy were no longer focused on her career and rigorous daily commute, Teresa used her newfound freedom to broaden her personal interests. Teresa awakes each morning with gratitude for another day. She shares that “if I am here, then I must do something to help others. After all, there must be a reason that I woke up.”
For a number of years now Teresa has been an active volunteer at Quarry Hill Botanical Garden. She also donates her time as an interpreter for Family Readiness, an immigration agency in Sonoma County. She is an active member of the Democratic Party, and more recently, she helped establish a social group for seniors called Nueva Esperanza (New Hope) San Leo.
While these various interests keep Teresa engaged with life, she personally defines her purpose in her seventies as one of healing fear in both herself and others. She defines fear as either a self-limitation or a form of separation from others. To Teresa, returning to one’s heart is the noblest purpose and calling. It is why she awakes in gratitude and daily welcomes the opportunity to serve the world in which she lives.
Some individuals live their lives each day searching for purpose and meaning. This is how Jim Shere, 79, lives his.
Jim’s early interests included writing plays and poetry while attending Santa Rosa Junior College. It was during this time that a friend, African American child movie star, Allen Hoskins, imparted words of wisdom to Jim that were a guiding principle throughout his life. Hoskins shared that “you’ve got to find out what’s important to you, what matters most, what you can’t betray, no matter what might happen. That’s what you must follow, wherever it takes you.”
Jim has followed Hoskin’s advice ever since. That principle led Jim to Berkeley and the counterculture figures of the 1960s, political activism, and finally into academia. Jim participated in the anti-war and anti-segregation sit-ins and remembers seeing “Reagan’s angry gesture of a raging rigid finger” pointed at the assembled student protestors. After the Berkley years Jim chose to take his desire for change and the betterment of the world directly to others. He became a psychotherapist, which has been his vocation since 1976. Today Jim continues a private therapy practice in Glen Ellen serving Sonoma County.
Jim’s interests include being the de facto town historian for Glen Ellen. He was a founding member of the Glen Ellen Forum, which is a local non-profit organization to give local residents a civic voice in development concerns and community support for its citizenry. Recently Glen Ellen honored Jim’s many contributions as a community leader by choosing him as the town’s Grand Marshal for its annual Glen Ellen Village Fair parade.
Jim sees his aging today as a metaphor similar to that of fine wine. He acknowledges each passing year as an increase in life’s complexity. From all appearances it would seem that Jim has achieved and now lives his vintage.
Kathy King, 71, the Executive Director of Sonoma Overnight Shelter (SOS) and The Haven, is a proud fourth generation San Franciscan from a strong Irish Catholic family. She was raised across the street from the parish where her family life intertwined with service to the broader community. Serving others has been Kathy’s lifelong pursuit since those formative years.
While living in the East Bay in the 1960s Kathy turned her anti-war activism into a position with Western Solidarity, working in eight western states. As its community organizer Kathy helped to build a political movement opposing the MX missile, whose research and construction was then underway by the Federal Government. She became the Executive Director of the Agape Foundation Fund for Nonviolent Social Change, founded by anti-war and anti-violence organizers including Joan Baez, Daniel Ellsberg, and others. As its local director she helped raise funds and establish grants for other national organizations committed to peace and justice issues. For many years, Kathy worked for Catholic Charities at both San Francisco and Oakland in a variety of capacities, always focused on serving others.
Now in her early seventies, Kathy sees no slowing down in her position. As the lack of affordable housing and economic disparity in Sonoma impacts the most vulnerable among us, Kathy continues to pour her time, energy, and heart in serving the needs of those who struggle with life’s most basic requirements. She appreciates that no two days are ever the same, admitting that some days are better than others.
Kathy says that her work “feeds my soul. I want to help people as much as I can, and help them to help themselves.” Clearly, Kathy continues to find personal meaning and purpose as much today as she has throughout her life by demonstrating compassion for others. Her gifts directly contribute to a better life in Sonoma Valley.
Virginia Bertelsen, 75, had a distinguished career as a buyer for department stores. She worked for high-end stores Marshall Fields, I. Magnin, and Gump’s. Along the way she cleverly created personal sabbaticals to pursue personal interests. On one occasion she arranged to study French cooking for six months in Paris. On another leave, her abiding interest in spirituality manifested an opportunity to spend six months in Jerusalem studying biblical history and culture: she was the only layperson in a scholarly group.
With retirement approaching Virginia chose Sonoma as her home knowing that our small community and environment would suit her personal needs and new lifestyle. As she transitioned from her career she discovered new freedom to pursue spiritual interests. She discovered Richard Power’s teaching on Eco Spirituality and immediately embraced his concept of shifting from “what I want to do to what do I want to be.”
In responding to this idea, Virginia found a new purpose. She discovered herself drawn to an environmental group at the Sonoma Congregational Church called Earth Care that models action and spirituality. This focus led to her participation in Our Children’s Trust, a legal movement representing 21 children who are suing the federal government for harming the environment and their futures. The children’s ages range from six to nineteen. Virginia shares how the determination and eloquence of these young voices give her hope for saving the planet. Today she is a dedicated advocate for youth. She supports Our Children’s Trust with her presence and assistance through the lengthy process of the Federal court system.
Virginia speaks of being “grounded in stillness and the fullness of serving others.” Supporting youth and their future in the environmental movement gives her enormous pleasure and purpose. She readily admits to being called as “a voice where there is injustice.” Virginia lives an inspired life today for the benefit of the planet as well as future generations.
Kate Murphy, 70, was born and raised in the Midwest. Both parents were in academia and taught Kate to seek knowledge and answers whenever the unknown was presented. Her mother was an accomplished artist who encouraged her daughter’s pursuit of the arts while her father, she suggests, might have preferred her seeking a degree in medicine.
She attended the University of Arizona and earned her Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. At this time she opened her first ceramic studio. Her inquisitive mind led Kate to a Masters of Business Administration degree in international and East Asian business. She became proficient in Mandarin to further her career goals.
A series of marketing jobs led to Outdoor Magazine, followed by a pursuit in creating eco fibers. The potter who created her own glazes was now following her interest in chemistry to create high tech, outdoor fabrics for the United States government. She is often asked how she became qualified for such a career. “I married the boss,” she laughs.
After years of living and working in New York it became obvious to the Murphys that they should be living in Sonoma full time and visiting New York for business on a part time basis. In 1989 they purchased their home in the Valley, where he opened his business office and Kate created her dream ceramics studio.
In the years that followed Kate has been active with the Community Center as a board director, an on-going instructor, and a volunteer. She’s also an active supporter of the Sonoma Art Museum. Her passion for ceramics has never waned. Even while working full time in her business career she continued to manage a ceramic studio for herself and others on weekends.
Kate shares that her morning walk informs her inspiration and creativity for the day ahead. While she is focused on ceramic instruction at the Community Center, she still has a bucket list item she wants to fulfill: to create a body of highly designed ceramics for an art gallery that will represent her. There is no doubt that Kate will fulfill this goal and accomplish it with great success as she has all of her endeavors. Kate’s passion in her seventh decade is her art and her art continues to be her life focus each day.
These seven seniors are deeply engaged in their lives and their communities. Their age is not a reflection of who they are, nor do they give the idea of aging much time or attention. Each has transitioned from a previous career to finding personal expression where they find meaning and purpose today. How he or she demonstrates these qualities is as personal as each individual.
What they have in common is a desire to serve others, to find personal meaning, to make a difference in the world where they exist and to express some creative aspect of self. They have transitioned to expressing more of themselves through their emotional nature and not simply their intellect. Each of them wants to feel value and purpose in their lives today.
They are engaged in expanding life. They are living with the wisdom that presents itself in its depth of retrospection as well as the narrowing of time. A life well lived in the seventh decade appears to be a gift of the past with insight into living for today. Ultimately, it appears that the best wisdom and life purpose comes from knowing the heart, expressing it, and never giving up the dream.