Thursday, September 29, 2011

Meghan Collins --- As both Student and Teacher, the World is her Classroom!

When I think about Meghan Collins, I think of a woman who is endlessly intellectually curious and has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I also think of someone who although very artistic, poetic and philosophical, is nonetheless very grounded in the real world. As she shares a few of her passions and some of her life story with us, you’ll see why I hope to grow up and be just like her someday (okay, maybe I’ll skip the “growing up” part!). Pour a cup of your favorite tea or other beverage, and please enjoy the thoughts and journey of the very lovely and most remarkable Meghan Collins.

Meghan Collins on the road of life!

Meghan, I first met you and your husband, Jack, many years ago just before I opened my own firm. At that point I guess I’d call you newlyweds! Tell me a bit about how you and Jack met and what it was like to combine families to his, mine and ours!

You’re right. Jack and I had only recently been married when we came to you on the recommendation of John Templeton. I was 48 and Jack was 57. It was a second marriage for both of us. He was a widower, and I was divorced. We met at Diablo Keys, the just-opened apartment complex in Walnut Creek, where he had recently moved, and where I was working as a recreation director. I had three children, two grown and on their own, and one a senior in high school. Jack had two grown children, but had a tragic loss when his older son, a Navy Seal, was killed in Vietnam. It was such a blessing that our combined children liked one another and were happy to see us happy. (I’m sure it was easier for us than for some, since we did not have to bring up a whole batch of teenagers in the same house.) Betsy, my younger daughter, went to Brazil with us when Jack was transferred there and finished high school in Sao Paulo. She was an angel about the huge change, taking it all as an adventure, and quickly learning Portuguese.

Meghan and Jack celebrate their wedding day.

I didn’t know you before you met Jack. Tell me about life before then, and also if you don’t mind, we’d love to hear about your childhood family and home life. I know your Dad was quite an accomplished man in the investment business many years ago. I think you learned a lot from him, Meghan --- you always ask such astute questions and have always been a very active participant in your financial life!

I was born in New Orleans, but spent most of my childhood in Manhattan with my mother, stepfather, and half brother. My stepfather was a Wall Street stockbroker, and had his own firm before the Depression fell. He remained on Wall Street and prospered once again after WWII. Adhering to his New England ethics, the well-being of his customers was his passionate preoccupation. I wonder what he would make of the Wall Street of today. I actually do not understand the stock market very well and don’t think anyone can unless one makes a serious vocation of it—that is why I know I need Ballou Plum to advise me! I came to California in 1951 with my first husband when I was 21, and hollered “Hallelujah!” I knew right away this was the place I belonged. We bought a house in Pleasant Hill and reared our three children there.

You are both a life-long learner and a life-long educator. Are those values that were instilled in you by your own family as a child? Or skills you developed later?

From my parents, I derived a work ethic (Dad) and a sense of the importance of family ties (Mother.) For the rest, I think I was just born into this life to be a student. If there could be a career of going to school, that would be my choice of profession.

 Meghan, age three, New Orleans.

I’m sure that I have lost track of all that you have accomplished, Meghan, so I hope you’ll fill in the blanks, here! I think one of your more unique talents has been as a harpist. When did you learn the harp? Tell us about your performances not only as a harpist, but as an author as well as your time teaching these skills. And I know you’ve switched instruments, so tell us about your newfound “love,” the penny whistle!

To be kind, we can say I have had many vocations. To be critical, we could call me a rolling stone. I always wanted to be a writer, and have done so intermittently. I have had two children’s books published, both out of print now: a historical novel for young adults about Denmark in the Middle Ages, titled Maiden Crown. The other was an original fairy tale with lovely illustrations by a Canadian artist, titled The Willow Maiden. That won a Commonwealth Club award for best juvenile fiction by a California author the year it came out.

What people do as work has always interested me and I wrote a column for some years for the Contra Costa Times called “Meeting People,” about people with unusual occupations. Later, I wrote a garden column called “Down to Earth” that appeared in the Benicia Herald and other newspapers. But to backpedal a bit, I was a dancer for many years. I am a late bloomer in everything I do and did not begin to dance until I was an adult. I studied and performed ballet and later modern dance. I loved dance better than any other occupation, and only stopped in my late forties because of injured Achilles tendons. I kept on with folk dancing until a few years ago.

The harp is another late bloomer activity. I did storytelling in schools for nine years, and one day I heard someone playing a so-called Celtic or folk harp and telling stories. “How nifty” I thought. I didn’t ask anyone, “Will this be hard?” but just went out and bought a folk harp! I started this when I was 63 and I am 85 now. I took lessons for years. A number of people have told me they long to learn a musical instrument as adults, and it can be done, but if and only if you will practice every day. Last October I fell down and broke my wrist and couldn’t play my harp for a long time, so I took up the penny whistle just to keep my fingers mobile. Just recently, I am able to play the harp again, so now I do both because I can’t bear to give up either!

Until I met you I honestly had never heard the phrase Master Gardener. I remember that you actually had a gardening advice column in the paper, and that you and Jack went through a lot of rigorous study to become “Master Gardeners.” Tell us about the program --- what is a Master Gardener? Was this strictly a volunteer or a paid position? What were some of the more unusual requests you helped resolve during your tenure? If others are interested in participating in this program, what would you suggest?

Jack and I were both Master Gardeners, a volunteer program run by county agricultural departments, which are obliged to help homeowners as well as farmers and ranchers, but whose paid staff is limited. We were given substantial training for six or more weeks by experts in pests, soils, plants, etc. Then we had weekly duty staffing the office telephones to help people with home garden problems, and also annually we staffed a booth at the county fair to answer questions. To volunteer, just call your county agriculture department to find out when the next training will happen. All Bay Area counties have the program and it is gratifying work.

Okay, I’m going to fast forward here a number of years. Sadly, Jack passed away and as a fairly young widow, you created a life for yourself to last for many future years. Of all your many interests, did you end up leaving some behind and then developing others? How did that evolve for you?

I have concentrated most on the harp, and have enjoyed playing as a volunteer for patients at hospitals, for many years at the Martinez Veterans’ Rehab. I had to stop when I broke my wrist, but may go back when my playing is back to normal. 

 Meghan and friend Gemma at the Folk Harp Society picnic.

One thing I think many readers are going to be extremely interested in is what you decided to do about your housing situation. I remember when you came in and told me you were selling your beautiful home in Benicia and moving to a lovely apartment in El Cerrito --- as a renter --- and how your family thought you had lost your marbles! But when I ran all the numbers, turns out you were absolutely right. That move gave you much less overhead, less work, and lots of freedom to travel. Walk us through your thinking behind that bold move and how that’s worked out for you. How did you convince your family that it was a great idea?

The main change for me was when I sold our house in 2005 and moved from Benicia to Richmond Annex. I did not do this right away after Jack died, but waited until I felt my thoughts were balanced and that I would have no regrets about leaving our lovely place with a view of the Straits. This is the most important point. If we are going to pull up stakes, it is vital to be certain that such a change will actually benefit our lives.

My reasons were several: I suspected that the housing bubble could not last, also I wanted to downsize so that the children would not have to deal with a whole household when I was gone, and I wanted as well to live closer to them. It was difficult for them to visit me in Benicia, and in fact, I see much more of them and my granddaughter since I have moved. Plus, I thought about the problems they would have to manage from a distance to see that I got extra care, if I should need it later on. If I were going to make this move, I thought I should do it while I still had the physical energy for it, and also the psychological energy to construct a new life.

The choice of Richmond Annex came about because I had a little dog at the time that I could not abandon, (she has since died) and I had trouble finding a landlord who would accept a dog. The apartment I rented has a full back yard all to myself, that I could see becoming a lovely garden, which it has. My children were indeed “underjoyed” about all this because they were uneasy about the Richmond address. Once they saw that it is a safe neighborhood and convenient for me, they now approve fully. I have never had a moment’s regret about the move. My music circle and friendship circle is fuller here, and I enjoy town life. But if you are happy in your community, certainly stay there. In old age, connection to friendships and networks are super-important.

For anyone interested in downsizing, I would advise getting a ground floor place, in case of disabilities later. I think it should have a garden, patio or deck. I almost rented an apartment in a many-story building (they would let me have the dog for extra rent). Now I realize that would have been a huge mistake—I had lived fifty-plus years in houses with easy access to the green outdoors, and I would be miserable in a high-rise. It is essential to have a good landlord who is diligent about maintenance. With such a one, I find it a huge relief to deal no longer with plumbing, leaks in the roof, balky sprinkler systems and all the other upkeep problems of owning a house. Even though I did have a thrifty mortgage, I believe that being free of maintenance expenses balances out the cost of rent.

Allow plenty of time ahead of moving to get rid of stuff. Living decades in a house fosters too many possessions. I started de-cluttering six months before I put the house on the market, and have not missed a single bric or brac, except for some books I regret not having now. I confess the possessions creep back, but I try to have a purge of the surplus now and then.

 Enjoying Balboa Park, San Diego.

You are, as I alluded to before, not just a passionate teacher but also a passionate student. Your love of language is especially amazing to me. As a “young” 85 year old woman, you think nothing of zipping down to Mexico and living local to attend schools there to study Spanish. Tell us about the trips you’ve made to Mexico, your love of the art, the people and the language.

Yes, I love Mexico. I will mention three best trips. One was Oaxaca for Days of the Dead, which are November 1st and 2nd. Oaxaca is a major center for this festival, when families go to the cemeteries at night and decorate the graves of their dead with flowers and humorous tiny skeleton figures dressed up for various occupations and activities. With the candlelight, guitars, and family groups silent or singing (perhaps depending on the amount of mescal being consumed), it is as picturesque a sight as you can imagine. Oaxaca is a lovely city, and surrounded by nearby crafts villages (rugs, pottery, wooden figures). It is near the pre-Colombian site of Monte Alban, in a fine state of preservation. The trip I took was with Elderhostel (now known as Road Scholars), my favorite way of travel, and included Spanish language instruction every morning.

A second, also an Elderhostel trip, was the spectacular Copper Canyon train, winding up from Chihuahua into the mountains. You can stay at the top, overlooking the Copper Canyon, which is five times larger than the Grand Canyon, although a more wooded and geologically different vista. Then you can continue by train to a port on the Gulf of California, or go back through Mennonite dairy country to Chihuahua.

The third I did on my own with a friend. It was a three week stay to attend a Spanish language school in Guanajuato, the capital of a state in central Mexico. It is an historic silver town, with spectacular Colonial architecture, set in a mountain bowl. I liked the Escuela Mexicana, the school we attended every morning. We had classes in grammar, Mexican history and customs, and conversation. We much enjoyed the life of the city with its good restaurants, theaters, museums and colorful street life.

I study Spanish at my age partly because I have always wanted to speak that language—it is so interwoven into the past and present of California, and also I hope language study and music study may help to keep my brain from turning into porridge! Unfortunately, the visitor traffic to Mexico is way down because of the drug news in the media. The people there plead with us to say that except for the border towns, most of Mexico is safe for travelers.

While Jack was alive, the two of you were absolutely avid travelers. Would you mind telling us about some of your more memorable trips?

A lot of Jack’s and my traveling had to do with his business as an executive with the international division of Del Monte Corp. Some of our favorite places were Kenya where we stayed for six months, Belgium, southern France, and London, not to forget our several Collins family reunions in the west of Ireland. I am especially fond of Denmark, where I went to research my novel set there. I could mention other wonderful places, and feel lucky to have had such travels.

You are also a very supportive Mom and Grandmother. How do you manage to stay in touch with them all? I know you plan annual family get-togethers, including a recent one at Pajaro Dunes in the Monterey, California, area to celebrate your 85th! How is it possible to bring everyone together --- so many schedules and so many busy people!?! What do you recommend for those of us hoping to create the same type of quality family time?

Planning these family reunions is quite a dance, I can tell you. My family is so busy that it’s a real feat to find a date we can all agree on. We have had some reunions in late May or early June, when there is a cluster of birthdays. For such a number, it makes sense to rent a house somewhere for a few days. We also take turns having Thanksgiving and Christmas either in the Bay Area or South Pasadena where my younger daughter and her family live. It is my greatest joy that the siblings like to be together.

Meghan, granddaughter Nova Ray, and daughter Laura.

So, Meghan, dare I ask: What’s next?

What’s next? I have to say I think crossing oceans in a plane is not for me any more—I never have loved flying, and it gets more unpleasant all the time. But I could be tempted. Anyway, I hope to do more Elderhostel trips in the U.S. or Canada. The Southwest, Charleston, and Quebec sound appealing.

If any readers would like to contact you about any of your many interests, get advice about traveling or planning family outings, would you mind if they reach out to you? And if that’s okay, what’s the best way to reach you?

Of course---my e-mail is

So, dear readers, do reach out to Meghan for information, ideas, inspiration, and maybe even some trips where you’d love to have a great traveling companion! As a lifelong student and teacher, you couldn’t possibly be in better hands. Thank you, Meghan!

 Up, up and away on her 85th birthday!