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Week 40: Ellen Bentz

Early this morning sitting at the breakfast table, I scanned a copy of “Life is Messy” by Matthew Kelly and ate a delicious bowl of homemade granola. Both the granola and the book were gifts from Ellen Bentz, my hiking companion for the 40th week of “A Year of Hikes: 52, Weeks, 52 Women, Same Trail.”  I’m not going to write a review of the book (I’ll leave that to the professionals), but I’ll share my review of the granola:  Yummilicious! With just a hint of sweetness and the perfect amount of crunch, it was the world’s tastiest granola.  Between the crisply baked oats, nuts, seeds and the chewy craisins, my mouth was in texture heaven!  óóóóó   I just want to know how to reorder!

It rained hard the night before our hike and was still drizzling when we got to the trailhead.  As I always bring extra hiking poles, I gave Ellen my spiel on the benefits of using them. I explained that according to experts, hiking poles increase core engagement, burn more calories, improve balance, decrease stress on joints and reduce sausage fingers.  Ellen, who is an avid long-distance runner and triathlete and in fantastic shape, said, “Okay, I’ve never used them before, but I’ll give them a go!”  And off we went, across what I used to call the field of wildflowers. On this cool, gray morning though there were hardly any wildflowers, which makes me think that as the sun shifts further to the south, I will have to come up with another name. Despite the light rain, we weren’t bothered by the weather in the least. In fact, we agreed that sometimes experiencing a light rain on the trail, especially when it’s not too cold, can magnify the feeling of being at one with the natural world.

Though I first met Ellen nine years ago, I finally got to hear more of her story as we hiked the incline toward the lichen-covered wall. Ellen grew up in New Jersey, not far from Atlantic City, as the fourth of five children. From her earliest years until the present, she has always loved the beach and wanted to live there! With an ironic smile, Ellen laughingly said, “The best advice I never followed came from my Dad who said, ‘Move where you want to live.’”  For years Ellen lived in communities for other reasons, for her work, for love, for her family.  But just recently, Ellen finally took her father’s advice and purchased a town home in Atlantic City.  She was so darn excited as she told me about her new abode that she seemed to be floating above the trail, her feet barely touching the ground! In fact, the two of us so wrapped up in her story, we completely forgot to take a photo by the wall…that’s never happened before!

When Ellen purchased her new home, her mother said, “Good for you, Ellen. Now you can live in your “happy place! Atlantic City is your America!”  Ellen explained that she loves Atlantic City because, like her, the city thrives on diversity.  Ellen and her two children, Otto and Echo, enjoy not only the beach but all the different social and cultural offerings.  Even more, she appreciates the diverse population and the fact that the residents speak 32 different languages!

The clouds over the powerline filed were magnificent…smoky gray here and almost pitch black there.  With the sun trying its hardest, and even succeeding, to filter through in places, the view offered the promise of a beautiful tomorrow.  As we walked, Ellen talked about a new chapter in her life’s journey.  When we approached the tree where I ask my companions to strike the “strong woman” pose, I thought of all Ellen had shared. I understood that she was intentionally trying to appreciate her past experiences and relationships while giving herself permission to change, if not directions, at least the route she was traveling.  It seemed the sky over the powerline field was a perfect metaphor for Ellen’s current life situation.  Darkness and light, but with the promise of hope for more beautiful tomorrows! And then Ellen, true to her free spirit, struck her own “karate kid” poses, which made me laugh!  I’m quite sure Ellen will experience some bumps on the next phase of her journey, but I also know that she will find ways to infuse it with joy and laughter and love.

Down by the stream at Warner Hollow I had a chance to ask Ellen about her work. She is the Vice President of Safety, Reliability and Infections Prevention for a health system based in Cincinnati comprised 46 hospital in 8 states. In this position, since the beginning of COVID-19, Ellen has been focused on preventing infections for all 56,000 employees. She has faced tremendous challenges and overcome many obstacles and talked of being grateful to all those who developed and implemented new strategies with the goal of keeping employees safe.

Lost in conversation, we may have missed some nature sightings, but we did take note of several different varieties of mushrooms, which varied in colors, size, shape, and texture. My favorites were the round, red ones and the wee, tiny ones that were on stalks as thin as thread.  As we climbed up the incline form the stream, I asked Ellen if she got to spend any time with her siblings.  It turns out, this past summer Ellen and her sister participated in RAGBRAI, which stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. This seven-day non-competitive bike ride covered 490 miles with stops in eight host communities.  Ellen and her sister got to witness the beauty of Iowa, support the local economies, and meet tons of great people.  Learning about unique opportunities like this is one of the things I like best about “A Year of Hikes!”  Who knows, I may be going to Iowa next summer!

Ellen and I had an all-encompassing conversation about menopause, covering its physical, emotional, and spiritual manifestations. We agreed that every woman’s experience is unique and should be validated. For many women, menopause is a gift, a time of re-birth, a time to contemplate a new calling for the second half of life.  For both of Ellen and me, menopause has been both difficult and enlightening. I shared a story about my horrific hot flashes! OMG…they were awful. Sometimes my husband and I had to change the sheets in the middle of the night. I remember being grateful when, in the morning, my husband would say, “Boy, we really had a rough night.  Those were some intense hot flashes you experienced!”  I felt less alone. I felt someone else witnessed what I was going through. Though the worst of my hot flashes were 10 years ago, I clearly remember visualizing the heat of my body burning off the “chaff” or the emotions and roles that no longer served me. I was hoping the fire within would refine me, making me the best version of myself for the second half of my life. It was oddly comforting…I still had hot flashes, but I felt they had a purpose. Ellen said for her menopause has been a time of discernment…a time to let go of who she thought others wanted her to be and be who she wants to be. In acceptance and celebration of this phase of life, Ellen has decided to let her hair go gray and re-tool her wardrobe.  I think, or at least I hope, that menopause can be a time for all women to get in touch with their authentic selves, to be who they truly are, to share themselves fully with others.  I experience a little bit of this each week when the women I hike with share themselves and allow me to do the same…and I am beyond grateful!

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