Pause?

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Several weeks ago, I attended a contemplative writing session with Reverend Karen Hering, whose skill at eliciting new thinking always amazes me.  That evening, however, I  found myself befuddled by her first question:  When have you paused? . 


It took me several minutes to think of any time when I have paused in a memorable way.  During most of my life, I embraced the ideal of being busy, being of concrete use to other people, and, above all, being productive in a way that could be counted.  Like many (most?) women, I found it hard to say no, which meant that both at work and in my personal life, I was often overloaded, constantly prioritizing which obligation would get the most attention at any given moment. 

Vincenzo Campi, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, c.1580

I

I reveled in the research suggesting that multi-tasking is a female superpower…. 

In other words, there were few pauses.  As I scrolled through my past life, my first hit responding to Karen Hering’s question was the last month of my first pregnancy:  It was a torrid August in Massachusetts, and I was not working, largely immobile, and waited on by my husband.  However, it was less a pause than a period of intense anticipation.

A few days later,  I smacked my head and remembered that, as an academic, I had regular long sabbaticals, whose purpose is, in theory, a time for renewal and reflection, to live fully in the ideal of the Torah:  “…in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard “ (Leviticus (25:4-5).  But in the modern university, that ideal is as far from reality as the typical observance of the Sabbath as a day of rest.  Instead, when I  filed my sabbatical plans with the university, they included writing, data collection, and a projection of the usual output of publications, research proposals, and  new course syllabi. 

It is obvious that the usual American vacation – one or two weeks, crowded with delightful activities – may provide novel adventures but hardly qualifies as a pause….

The expectation that we should be doing something useful barely shifts when we retire, as we are urged make and then to work down our “bucket list” of experiences that we have been putting off.  And don’t forget the podcasts and books urging us to find a new purpose that will keep us sufficiently busy that we don’t sink into a Laz-e-Boy with a TV remote and a glass of wine.  But there are equally pervasive expectations that we should build yoga and meditation into our schedules.  Pausing has become a big business, especially for we retirees, who are also urged to remember that aging is expected to bring sagacity and spiritual growth

Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash

But these mixed cultural messages beg the real question that has nagged me since my disquieting evening with Karen Hering:  Why pause?  And, in my case, how to recognize “pause opportunities” rather than additional programmed obligations?

I thought about my recent efforts to do anything that might lead to meditating.  Long ago I read a book about different forms of meditation – I can’t remember much except that it gave permission to apply the label to almost any practice that clears out incessant to-do messages.  It remains my goal rather than a scheduled event most days, and when I decide to take a break, I try something.  Most of the time I successfully reduce my creeping anxiety about the to-do list, but I am also occasionally startled by an insight or a feeling that emerges not out of thinking, but out of emptiness.  I am willing to call those insights accumulating wisdom, even if I can’t easily name them.

Then there is the unanticipated stop-in-your-tracks that occurs as I practice reading slowly,  a skill that atrophied during the years of skimming piles of student papers with red pen in hand.  When I encounter an unexpectedly beautiful sentence, or a poem that just appears when I pick up a book, I sometimes feel my heart beating faster.

And there’s the  benefit of having a young child in my life who has  not digested the ideal of productivity.  To walk around the block with a four-year-old can take an hour, because it is in her nature to pause.  New flowers (or weeds) blooming (“What is that one called?  Smell it!”),  A bug eating a leaf (“it’s so blue!”).  Yards with intriguing ornaments, whether kitschy or real art, that are always worth re-examining.  When I feel today’s time ticking away, I remember how quickly four-year-olds turn in to teenagers and adjust my adult cadence to her desire to observe intently, with no real purpose in mind. 

— Jimsonweed, Bandelier National Monument

Sometimes I think that my granddaughter is channeling Georgia O’Keefe:

Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.

So, if pausing is a value that I am starting to savor, what knot does it unravel other than being, for a moment, less engaged with busy-ness?  Yannis Ritsos suggests that these encounters with the intangible may be fundamental to my evolving consciousness:

I hide behind simple things so you will find me….

Every word is a doorway
to a meeting, one often cancelled,
and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the meeting.

As I read this, I am aware that it is not big planned or anticipated pauses that give me the greatest joy, but the small ones that knock on my door—and then ask me to change. Ordinary time is suspended in wonder and, as Ritsos claims, becomes an opening to the “thin places” where I am able to experience life beyond that which I can touch.  When I meet a sense of communion with a granddaughter or friend, a feeling, a nascent idea, or a burgeoning of love, perhaps I am simply experiencing a flow that cannot be programmed.  The real problem solved is the (re)cognition that much of what I value most at this stage in my life is not planned, but experienced – often as a pause.

Milestones: Just for the Young?

June is the month of milestones, weddings and graduations in particular. I had the joy of seeing a granddaughter graduate from high school, and a grandson finish college and start his first job. Equally exciting, a good friend in her late 40’s, who’d forever longed to be married, tied the knot!  Adding to the joy, I partied with family and friends, old and new. At the time, though, there was a tiny tinge to the events—if only for me. Maybe it was a negativity in me after having COVID in April, in spite of two years of taking every precaution, or maybe it was the general mood of the country with shootings and Roe v. Wade at stake. I had the sense of being a spectator to others’ joys, and I wondered, what are the milestones left in my life?

At the time, and with the support of the dictionary, I assigned a milestone as a tangible event that marks “a significant point in development.” A study at Stanford University buttressed my understanding with its list of common milestones in life up to age 74, including a getting a full-time job, starting to save for retirement, getting married, buying a home, and starting a family. It was clearly a truncated list, and worst of all, it ended at age 74, making me again question what milestones are left for my life, given that I’m 78.

My ironic inner self took over and I found myself saying things like—going into assisted living? Or memory care? In the meantime, I traded my beloved, powder blue, Bianchi bicycle for a “step-through” bike, since it hurts my hip to swing my leg over the seat. Was that a milestone—learning to make do so I can keep doing the things I love? That led to a list of “learning to live with things” like medications, cortisone shots for arthritis, support socks, bodies that are starting to give out. I was still in my bleak mood, I guess.

Then one evening I went to a bar where my son’s band, the Strolling Clones was playing—they only play Rolling Stones music, hence the name. Friends and family were there, and when we could hear each other, we somehow managed to ask Henrik, my 20 year old grandson what it was like to graduate the year COVID began and not have a graduation or open house and then to not go to college. He had missed one of those big milestones.

He told us, “At the time, it was horrible. But now I realize I didn’t miss anything. I did something different.” Henrik chose to go to a folk school inside the Arctic Circle in Norway, where he majored in Norwegian language and history and survival. Survival was the challenge, long camping trips into the mountains involving both canoeing and skiing with heavy backpacks to campsites.  Then there were the solo camping trips, dropped somewhere in the middle of nowhere and having to survive. When his year was finished, he decided to enroll in college in California, telling us he’d had enough of being cold and wet and eating boiled fish.

We all remarked that since being back, he’s a different person. Before COVID and Norway, he played video games ad infinitum, and now he seems willing and enthused even if you ask him to cut the lawn or help you move something. He’s more curious and just out there in the world. So “what happened?” we asked him. He replied, “Sitting alone at a campsite in winter, climbing mountains, swimming in icy water—it was all scary stuff, and I did it. I learned that if I just keep going I can get to that light at the end of the tunnel. And being alive is everything!”

That, and a little coaching from my Boulder, Colorado coach, led me to realize that milestones always come with challenges. Off to college away from home for the first time can be tough; that first job is not easy; and marriage—well, many of us all been there, and if you stick with it, it’s a lifelong challenge. The insights we get from these experiences are what really count.

Adapting, getting on with it, as Karen Rose wrote about in Yes! is what comes after that milestone party. Henrik didn’t get a graduation, but he crossed a social/emotional milestone, he experienced an understanding about life that changed him and moved him forward in his development, learning that he can get through the hard stuff.

Now I had a new insight of my own—a milestone, if you will. I realized that many of the milestones we celebrate and take for granted, like graduations and marriage, are socially defined, built into our culture, but, other than retirement, we don’t have such obvious ones as we age. But maybe they aren’t needed, either. We get something bigger from the accretion of milestones throughout our lives, knowledge of ourselves and living, for example. The lack of social markers doesn’t mean there are no milestones as we age. I’ll bet all of us can identify experiences that moved us forward in our development.

I love two of Pema Chodron’s four truths—how really sweet and precious our lives are and impermanence. . . the essence of life is fleeting. Studies show that older people are happier than younger—both people in their 20’s and 30’s and the middle-aged. Maybe it’s because of the social/emotional learning that enables older people to accept what is—which is also a cornerstone of emotional well-being—and to see what is as both precious and impermanent. I like to think I have milestones ahead of me, though I know they won’t be college or starting a new job or having a family. I like to think they will be deeper, inside me, as I get better at this precious thing called life.

YES!

Dan and I recently decided to dip back in to Grace and Frankie, the comedic overview of aging, divorce, sexuality, friendship and family. Season 1 is, at its heart, about relationships, which go from testy to close when Grace (the retired uptight businesswoman) agrees to participate in a “Say Yes” evening with Frankie (the aging hippie) (Episode 12). Their compact was an obligation to agree to anything the other person proposed. The scene where Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, two 70-ish women, bond on a sidewalk curb after being  thrown out of a nightspot where they dared each other to dance on the bar (to the applause of the 30-something crowd) revealed the power of YES. It happened because they trusted each other to push the boundaries of their routines.

Pondering the power of YES, I was drawn back to one of my own memories. My father, recently widowed, began having a series of small stokes, each of which had equally small but incremental effects on his mobility (certainly not his brain or his wit). He would get sad and anxious for about a week, and then would pick himself up and say, “well, I can’t walk a mile with a cane, but I can….” Well, fill in the blank, because there was always something that he could do. When one of the later events left him unable to walk far without being in a wheelchair, his life changed again…but not his YES. On his 83rd birthday, a friend gave him a new chance — a 1 hour balloon ride over the St. Croix Valley in Minnesota, where we lived. It was quite an ordeal getting a wheelchair and my dad onto the field and into a little basket, along with his friend and the balloon operator, but he was game. He said YES to adventure, wherever possible.

Photo courtesy of Stillwater Hot Air Balloon

What does saying Yes involve? And what does it require of us? And why should we think about it anyway? For me, Grace, Frankie, and my father suggest that it is the importance of being open to something that is unfamiliar – and even a little scary. Something that is challenging, that requires more than you normally expect of yourself. It means going outside of your comfort zone – or at least pushing hard against the boundaries of your comfort zone.

It has been hard to say YES over the past five years. Covid accustomed us all to doing less, being out less, and interacting with strangers less.  This is not a mindset that promotes YES, which implies novel experiences that we can incorporate into the evolving story that we tell about ourselves. In the past, I have not had to think about this – opportunities have presented themselves and I decided to say YES – often with little rumination or thought — just as my father delighted in going up in a balloon in a wheelchair.

But the last years have meant that random adventures have become fewer and I  sometimes feel that I have gone from being brave to cautious. I am not happy about this. But simply hoping that the old opportunities will present themselves unannounced is about as reasonable as expecting anything else to “go back to the way it was.”  I realized, after seeing Grace and Frankie saying YES,  that I have to be responsible for creating prospects for YES rather than waiting for them to appear.

I need to be prepared, and like Grace and Frankie, it helps to have others along. Dan and I have started to plan a road trip to Washington, where we can try to reconnect with friends who have, for one reason or another, drifted from our day-to-day lives.

Every road trip provides many opportunities to Say YES by veering off the highway and into a small town with a place to stay, a museum and an adequate meal, so on our last trip to New Mexico we decided to stay in a converted cowboy bunkhouse on a 23,000 acre ranch rather than a hotel – and I know that we will be back (this time with food) to experience the solitude and stars. (No museums, but some strange flying bugs).

Fite Ranch, New Mexico, May 2022

Karen Martha and I committed to a week in in Rome – a city that I have not been in for over 40 years, where we will be unleashed from a hotel-and-planned itinerary mentality to allow us to choose our own adventures. That’s how I used to travel when I was in my 20s—and I can do it again.

I have already argued for breaking the rules that dictate appropriate behavior in older people! But it’s also my job to imagine opportunities to challenge my own easy routines in collusion with others who are willing to challenge theirs. To paraphrase Frankie, “You can’t say No until it’s over.” 

So bought a new pair of hiking boots in order to be ready — for something.

Possibilities

A person standing on a balcony

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I Dwell in Possibility

Emily Dickinson 

Joachim Trier’s movie, Worst Person in the World, is about a young woman exploring the possibilities in her life looking for that one true passion. It’s a universal story line—the quest–yet as my friend and I walked to our cars after the movie, all I could think about was the line “I no longer have a future” (spoken by one of the other characters). “It’s exactly how I sometimes feel about getting old.” I told my friend. “Like I no longer have a future.” She agreed that that line had stood out to her, too.  We walked around the corner to our car, parked on a street of lovely old mansions near Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. The early spring sun brightened the landscaped lawns and melting snow. 

“Take these gorgeous homes,” I said. “I’m never going to own or live in one. Twenty years ago, I would have walked by them and daydreamed about living in one. But that’s never going to happen.”

My friend noted that one of the harder realities about getting older is the realization that the range of possibilities is shrinking, if only because we’re running out of time—not to mention that most of us have more money going out than coming in. 

A few weeks later, I visited a college with my daughter and granddaughter. I heard my daughter say, “Gosh, I wish I could go back and do college all over at a place like this.” Her wishful thinking reminded me that there’s a universality to dreaming about what might have been or what might yet happen. The fact is, however, we get only one life. She is through college, and I’m never going to own a mansion in Milwaukee. But does that mean that I have no future?

I could still move somewhere new. . . or maybe travel. Is this why we older people like to travel? We have time and we’re looking for novelty? For my husband, the fun is in the planning. He gets to run through all the possibilities. For days before we go somewhere he changes the itinerary. When I saw Frances McDormand in Nomadland, it struck me that though she didn’t have any money, she traveled and was open to possibilities, too. 

This morning I asked myself what I like best about being retired. The first answer that popped up was having the time to contemplate and work on myself (a blog will soon follow on this). Richard Rohr in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, argues that in the first half of our life, we build and identify with a persona—I’m an educator, I’m a mother. Others are policemen, teachers, professors, plumbers, community activists—however we see ourselves. We work hard to create and maintain this persona, but underneath is an authentic person. In the second half of life, however, we have time and inclination to turn inward and explore that person, who we are at our core. That’s a powerful and challenging possibility.

In a recent podcast of No Stupid Questions on NPR with Stephen Dubnar (Freakonomics) and Angela Duckworth (professor at U Penn, well known for her work on grit) take on the question of What’s so Great About Retirement? There are many good reasons to listen to this podcast (or read the transcript), but the one that stood out to me was Duckworth’s emphasis on goals or purpose:

She describes her father, a retired chemist, who upon retirement announced that he didn’t want to do anything, and he proceeded to get up in the morning, have his coffee and his breakfast, shuffle over to the love seat, sit down, take the remote control, and turn on the Weather Channel. She believes that his choice to spend his retirement this way made him profoundly unhappy (Both Karen R. and I believe she should have looked closer instead of judging him). Duckworth notes:

I have a theory of happiness, which is very simple. I think people pursue goals spontaneously at every age. Whether you’re 4 or 84, you have goals. You have things that you want to accomplish. I think, actually, the greatest unhappiness there is, is not to have goals at all. 

As soon as I heard this, I knew I was back at my favorite rabbit hole—purpose. Maybe having purpose is the way we counter the perception that we have no future other than aging. Maybe I need to stop raging about it and look more closely. Purpose, in the second half of life, may be drawn from an inner imperative. That requires the very inner work that Rohr writes about, and it doesn’t have to result in a big world changing purpose/imperative. Instead, it can be a commitment to the little p’s in front of us daily

Two of my little p’s, as you’ve heard me say before, are tutoring and rosemaling. On the surface they seem like time fillers, but I made these choices after self-examination, not because I needed a job, or wanted to pursue a career, or whatever. Tutoring reflects my joy in teaching children, of being in schools, and in observing that fascinating process called learning. Rosemaling reflects a search for my identity as part Norwegian and my love of making things. While perhaps not soul work, these two choices came from an exploration of who I am and what I love doing. And finding them screams “You do have a future right in front of you, Karen!” Maybe it’s not a mansion on Lake Michigan, but the fruits of inner work from where I stand today, are every bit as rewarding as building a career was when I was younger. It’s true, I won’t get another life, but meanwhile, having found some little p’s, I wake up most days engaged in the one I have.

A person drawing on a piece of paper

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