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Don't let your life go south: the snowbirds who flew south for the winter are home now that the mercury has risen, except for the permanently transplanted. Sure, retirees deserve to relax in the sun after a lifetime of hard work, but Kevin Axe argues there's more value in staying put.

IN THE EARLY 16TH CENTURY, PONCE DE LEON ALLEGEDLY "discovered" the already inhabited land called Florida--while he was sailing around searching for a rejuvenating spring called the Fountain of Youth. He not only failed in his quest but died ingloriously from a fatal wound from an Indian arrow in 1521.

Nearly 500 years later, thousands of older Snow Belt Americans continue the search for youth-restoring fountains as they retire, pack up, don their sunglasses, and head south. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it succinctly: "My folks moved to Florida last year. They didn't want to. But they turned 65--and that's the rules."

Obviously, Florida and other Sun Belt states exert almost magnetic attraction for frost-fatigued older folks. Miami, for instance, has an average low temperature of 63 degrees in January and February, and an average high temperature of only 87 degrees in July and August. For oldsters suffering with severe arthritis or other physical ailments helped by warmer climes, south is the place to be--or go.

But for more healthy seekers of youthful fountains, there are really good reasons to stay put right where you are--yes, with the snow and ice and boots and gloves. There are more values in life than sun and warmth, and people who move just for the weather might want to think hard about what they're leaving behind. They also might consider what our faith teaches us as to what retirement should really be about.

What is this move south attempting to accomplish? Will it provide a better place to play? Golf, tennis, boating, fishing--of course. But with whom and how often? Make new friends--of course. But by and large they're your age or older, and you'll end up saying goodbye to many of them at their funerals not all that long after you've met them. You won't have much time to become "lifelong friends." Is the weather everything you'd hoped for? Of course, except for the occasional hurricane. But who's around to share it with?

It's also great to have a nice warm place for your grown kids and grandkids to visit in the cold months if they're still back north, but veteran southern elders can vouch for the reality that it's rough to be an absentee grandparent the rest of the year. And, of course, the grandkids have to schedule longer visits during summer vacations--the hottest time of the year in the Sun Belt. Then, too, there are those mighty nice Christmas car trips for you over the snowy mountains to visit the grandkids or the mobbed airports and holiday traffic jams.

Distance makes extended family life much, much harder, regardless of who lives north or south, east or west.

BUT I'M NOT JUST TALKING FAMILY IN THE PHOTO-ALBUM sense. Naturally, there's the group of good friends who seem like family, or closer. Then there's this other larger family we almost forget we're a part of until we wake up some morning and say, "Where did everybody go?" This other family of friends and acquaintances we will also leave behind, friends we've subconsciously pigeonholed and almost taken for granted--people we may talk with only once or twice a year but now may never see or talk to again.

Can we live without them? Yes. Is it easy? No. They occupy the edges of the fabric of our lives. They're fringe people, if you will, people with whom we exchange grace notes and words that frame the "who" of who we really are. But these occasional friends have become an integral part of us after 40 or 50 years of periodic "how are you's." Godspeed, indeed! "Y'all come down and see us sometime, hear?"

Then there's the family we call church. Those of us fortunate enough to have put together three score or more years on this earth, and more or less in the same location, can begin to see an evolution in our faith lives. We live among the three "F's"--family, friends, and faith. As the years pass, the three F's become integrated in a fashion that pleads for continued bonding and unity, not sudden departure.

Furthermore, for those of us who may have had little time to reach out to those in need before retirement, we now may be able to give back to so many of our friends and neighbors who helped us along the way. Maybe we could volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen or visit the homebound or terminally ill of our parish or community.

It's much easier to help when you already know who needs help in your area than to have to ask around in new surroundings. If we are the church, retirement challenges us to reach out, not just indulge ourselves in self-centered pursuits. If we stay in the area, we are already helpers in place.

I recently stood misty-eyed as I watched my first grandchild, Sean, become a Christian--baptized during the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass. Sean's parents live an hour away from us. The reception after the Baptism in his parents' modest home somehow or other accommodated 69 people in a four-hour period--a multi-colored dreamcoat of warmth that weaved stronger ties of shared faith and love among old friends and spread it to those meeting for the first time.

Back home, the mantle above the fireplace in our ancestral living room is full of greeting cards to the new grandparents from relatives, family friends, and faith friends. These are not folks just going through the motions: They are marking this passage in our lives with an intimate and supportive knowledge of the years and tears that made it happen.

When Sean was born, we quickly put up a crib in our home, and the welcome gesture has already been used repeatedly. We're here; we're on call, says the crib: "Come on over and feel free to stay over." Not just for talk, meals, and games, but for the faith-growth moments now and to come, the "children sacraments," and, God-willing, graduations and beyond.

And when a sleeping Sean is carried along to his grandparents' church, when he and his parents stay over on a weekend, our faith friends come buzzing around after Mass to welcome him with delight. Is this doing anything for him? You bet, though it may take him a few years to realize it. Is it doing anything for the new grandma and grandpa? You bet, and all the years that led up to it are now made more worthwhile and wondrous. "Smile, Sean. These are holy people cooing at you. And they're going to help make you holy."

FOR THE "HEAD" PART OF OUR FAITH, THE DOCTRINE AND DIScipline, we don't need to mix it up locally like this with faith friends. We're told how to bow and stand and hold our hands, and we either comply or we don't. We're told what the teachers are teaching, and we either accept it or not. We can do that anywhere.

But for the "heart" part of faith, the family part--when the teen grandson flakes out on drugs or booze, or alternatively wins a parish award for weekend service in a homeless shelter--we want to literally embrace faith friends who have known us every step of the way, people we've laughed with for decades and cried with for hours. Through it all, we've prayed--week in and week out, and daily when things get dicey--with these people who are a part of us and we of them.

Now, if you are retirees fortunate enough to have something left of a 401k, you may be able to arrange the best of both worlds. Be a homebody for most of the year to continue the years of faith-friend love and support, then become a glorious snowbird during the coldest months of winter and travel to the warmer climates. (This works especially well if your kids pre-empted the whole issue by moving south and leaving you back up north. Go sponge on them for a few weeks.)

But even if for a couple months, you'll miss your frostbitten friends. Stay put: You can figure out how to keep yourself and your friendships warm and glowing even during the coldest months. That's what fireplaces and logs are for--plotting strategies about how to get from one snowstorm to the next.

Best of all, we're right here when we need to be--on a moment's notice. Just pick up the phone. Want someone to pray with? Just pick up the phone. They took you to the ER? Pick up the phone. We're here, close by, with one another and for one another until we cross the River Jordan--holding hands with lifelong friends as we gather at that river.

My wife, Jacquie, and I carved our decision in stone last spring when we bought adjoining gravesites and a headstone in a cemetery within walking distance of our home. We've decided to continue to bloom where we're planted and, in God's good time, to be planted where we've bloomed.
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Title Annotation:sounding board
Author:Axe, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Aug 1, 2004
Words:1498
Previous Article:There Are Nights.
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