Musings. . . George Floyd. . . Dreams. . . Hope

The week after the murder of George Floyd, Karen Rose and I, as Minneapolitans, were too shocked to post, write, or even think about our blog. In a place we both love dearly and call home, something so tragic happened that the sadness was overwhelming. Because I am in Minneapolis, I mostly responded by following the news 24/7, putting aside worries about the pandemic for a bigger concern. Karen Rose, who’s been away from our city because of how the pandemic unfolded, said she kept thinking of Langston Hugh’s poem Dreams.

Dreams

Langston Hughes – 1902-1967

Hold fast to dreams 
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

While the George Floyd tragedy unfolded, I remembered two African American students I encountered in my preservice teaching education. The first was Kenny, at the time a fourth grader at Irving Elementary School in Minneapolis. As young as he was, Kenny had charisma. Kids and adults wanted to be around him. He exuded friendliness and confidence in himself, even though he couldn’t read. When he learned that my husband had attended Irving and that his parents still lived in the neighborhood, Kenny started visiting my in-laws who were quite taken with him. Evelyn, my mother-in-law, would have him in for a piece of cake or cookies, whatever she was baking, and Kenny became a regular at her house.

The other boy was fittingly named George, and I worked with him at Willard Elementary where I was doing my student teaching under the supervision of an incredible Black woman who ran a disciplined classroom with warm caring. She assigned George to me. George had tested below average at the start of the year and was about to be labeled educable mentally retarded (the term at the time), but she saw a spark in George’s eyes and did not want this to be his fate. George responded because Mrs. Hendrieth believed in him, and she assigned me to give him the attention he so sorely needed but hadn’t been given. By the end of the school year, he was reading on grade level and tested a 106 IQ, well within normal range. (IQ testing was the fashion of the time).

As I thought about justice and opportunity and as Al Sharpton put it, “keeping a knee on Blacks’ necks” I remembered those two boys and wondered what happened to them. That’s when I realized how big hope can be, because I always hoped that they had the opportunities and lives they deserved, that all people deserve.  

So what is hope?  It’s not just the opposite of despair, but it’s what keeps dreams alive. In early May, when it seemed things couldn’t get much worse than the pandemic, Karen Rose wrote about hope. How prescient that blog is for where we find ourselves today. She noted, hope rests on our capacity to change, even with an incomplete vision of what will be asked of us. I believe that George Floyd’s death has reminded all Americans of the dreams we hold for this country. But it also screams at us that not everyone has had a fair chance at these dreams. 

The relentless protesting, as jarring and frightening it has been at times, made us start looking for what is hopeful in our current mess of a country. Here’s our list of what gives us hope about our capacity to change.

Our Top Ten Reasons for Hope

1. Youth are energized and leading the movement for justice. A few days into the protests, Minneapolis St. Paul high school students arranged their own protest on the grounds of the state capitol. Young artists are speaking out.

https://www.startribune.com/mother-of-george-floyd-s-daughter-speaks-out-thousands-crowd-state-capitol/570964242/

https://www.startribune.com/two-young-artists-create-a-cemetery-in-minneapolis-to-honor-victims-of-police-killings/571213142/

2. People of all ages, ethnicity, race, income are standing together for justice, even in these polarizing times. Maybe we have found our unifying cause.
https://theconversation.com/george-floyd-why-the-sight-of-these-brave-exhausted-protesters-gives-me-hope-139804

3. Some police and National Guard personnel crossed lines in support of justice.
https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/01/us/officers-protesters-images-george-floyd-trnd/index.html

4. Reforms in policing are already beginning.
https://www.vox.com/2020/6/10/21283966/protests-george-floyd-police-reform-policy

5. Small town newspapers, from Brainerd, Minnesota
https://www.brainerddispatch.com/news/crime-and-courts/6522127-George-Floyd-memorial-raises-hope-of-change to Marshfield,Massachusetts
https://www.marshfieldnewsherald.com/story/news/2020/06/04/george-floyd-protest-police-attendees-hope-rally-marshfield-brings-unity/3137900001/ report hope and a chance for unity in response to George Floyd’s death.

6. Confederate statues, symbols of those who fought to preserve slavery, are finally being taken down.
https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/virginia-has-most-confederate-memorials-country-might-change-n1227756 and https://myfox8.com/news/residents-react-to-confederate-monument-removal-overnight-in-alabama/

7. Faith groups are coming together to work for justice.
https://www.southwestjournal.com/news/2020/06/faith-groups-respond-to-george-floyds-death/

8. Support and calls for justice are worldwide.
https://www.npr.org/2020/06/02/867578129/cities-around-the-world-hold-protests-in-response-to-george-floyds-death

9. Businesses are speaking up for justice.
https://www.businessinsider.com/corporate-responses-to-george-floyd-death-analysis-racism-diversity-inclusion-2020-6

10. Individuals are asking what they can do and how they need to change.
https://lithub.com/letter-from-minneapolis-why-the-rebellion-had-to-begin-here/?fbclid=IwAR3EyDdOqw4dNnJ1BoiVfWgANpvdjWl0qVj966sY-5gSrG3aAUWZSt0x0pU

And now for a story that always reminds me that I can make a difference. When my second husband, Gary Stout, was dying, he felt regret that he had been nominated to be secretary of HUD, but was not given the position. He felt that he could have had a real impact on housing and urban development. In the last weeks of his life, he received many calls and letters from people he had worked with on small projects throughout the United States, including Anoka, MN. These people thanked him for the work he had done in revitalizing their communities. He was astounded by these heartfelt expressions of gratitude. He told me that he never realized the impact small projects can make in individual lives and locally. He said that for the first time he realized he had not failed even though he hadn’t made it to the pinnacle in urban development. His work had made a difference after all.

I remind myself of this often, because it’s easy to dismiss the impact of our small lives, day-by-day, person-by-person, and in our small circles. As for the lessons of George Floyd, real justice can only come when each of us commits to small changes in how we individually work for justice. I urge us all to be part of the change.

TO BE CONTINUED

Reinvention: Take #10

Who knew that every time I’d sit down to write about the notion of reinvention, so strong in the retirement literature, I’d end up more bewildered than I started. That’s why I’m on my tenth try. Here’s what I do know: most articles and books about reinvention describe it as about finding a new career late in life, something novel when compared to a person’s past life, and something that fulfills a dream. There’s also a thread of reinvention tied to greater purpose, reinvention both and in and outside of work, with deeper understanding, definition, and authenticity to one’s self with an emphasis on service. Clearly, there’s enough here for more than one blog and possibly even blogs by some re-inventers (anyone out there hearing the call to share a blog with us?)

The other thing I know with some certainty about reinvention is how riled I get when I think about it for myself. Re-inventing suggests that there was some original, invented self, or, if we limit the definition to reinvention as about career, that my career path was a deliberate invention, not a marvelous amalgam of propensities, opportunities, decisions, life experiences, roads taken and not taken, circumstances beyond and under my control—although I’m less inclined as I get older to believe we have control over much of anything besides our response—and just plain luck. And this sidesteps the whole nature nurture debate, both of which surely influenced the amalgam that is this Karen.

As I sit with the idea of reinvention, I see what it is that pokes at me, scares me, if I’m being honest. It’s the idea that the current rough draft of this self and career was somehow not okay, such that I need to pursue reinvention.  Now I know that’s not the case for many who seek something new. I get it.  There are people who showed up for their lives and did what needed to be done, and now they have a chance to show up for themselves. I am completely in support of anything they decide to do in retirement, whether it’s career reinvention or a total self-reinvention. As for the scary part, well, most new things are, and surely a reinvention at age 76 implies risk.

          I like to believe that there’s something organic about who we become, that it’s neither all purposeful nor chance, rather an unfolding of who we need to be. The reason I hold this belief is that I became a teacher so I could have summers off and play golf, but also because I didn’t know what else I could become. Researchers who study vocation know that people seek vocations for which they have models. I had working class parents who wanted their children to go to college but didn’t have jobs that required college. My models of people who went to college were primarily teachers. Regardless of why I ended up teaching, it was right for me. I was painfully shy; I could barely speak in a social group of friends, I was so shy. As a teacher, I learned to stand up and speak every day, but in front of children, far less threatening, and I practiced my way out of shyness. I also have an altruistic streak, and teaching gave me an opportunity to serve.  Gradually, teaching lost its challenge and I sought more, so I went into academia. My career, as I view it, was not an invention, but an organic unfolding.

          So what does any of this matter. . . especially as I can’t untangle the reinvention question in one blog? It matters because of where I find myself, where we all find ourselves, socially distancing in what was to be a glorious retirement of new interests and ways to engage with the world. Ironically, it feels to me like the one thing I’ve held at bay, reinvention, is what I most need to be doing. Oh, it won’t be reinventing a new career or self as much as reinventing how to use time, how to stay meaningfully engaged while sheltering-in-place, where to find opportunities to serve from a laptop or a telephone. I do believe that for many retirees like myself, purpose does matter, whether it’s Big P or little p. That may even be part of the drive to reinvent, to add greater purpose to life. So how do I find it now?

          To reinvent during COVID-19 times is a challenge unlike any other. I think of Jerry Seinfeld’s comment about living with COVID-19: It’s like you’re a bird and suddenly they change your cage. You’re just not sure who you are now. On good days I believe I will find that new direction—reinvention. Words like curiosity, opportunity, and imagination inspire me as do the amazing things I see young people doing. On not-so-good days, I’m terrified I’ll be in this new cage at least two years, consuming what life I have left, searching but finding no new way of living a meaningful life, that retirement I imagined.

For the present, I find myself holding on to interests, looking for ways to keep them alive in this changed environment, e.g., learning rosemaling from YouTube videos, supporting the youth in my life, my grandchildren, which takes the place of tutoring, which I dearly loved. Is there a way to truly reinvent my newly altered retirement? I’m not sure, and I’m running out of the time it takes for an organic evolution. I deplore ending this blog with more questions than answers. . . In front of us is a changed world, and from what I read, we will not be back to normal for some time. My eyes have been opened to reinvention. I wait expectantly to see how and if it comes about. 

Hope – Fighting and Screaming?

I have been reading Mary Oliver’s essays.  I don’t remember what was happening in 1999 that would have caused Mary Oliver to write the words that seem so prescient now:

In the winter I am writing about, there was much darkness.  Darkness of nature, darkness of event, darkness of the spirit.  The sprawling darkness of not knowing. We speak of the light of reason.  I would speak here of the darkness of the world, and the light of ______.  But I don’t know what to call it.  Maybe hope….Hope, I know, is a fighter and a screamer 

–Mary Oliver, Winter Hours

Image of Mary Oliver; Poetry Foundation

Although I have confined my interaction with current news to morning coffee with a side of the New York Times, I encounter the dark times every day.  I have not lost a job and none of my family members are ill with the COVID virus, but the feeling of suspended animation has become a challenge.  I am the kind of person who is always careening ahead.  That doesn’t mean that I have a plan (because I have never really had a plan) but my “monkey mind” is full of random fears about what is coming and how I need to get ready for it. 

All of my delighted anticipations for the short-term future are in disarray.  I am not at home in Minneapolis because traveling with a dog and a car full of stuff across Nebraska seems like a truly bad idea. We know that we cannot predict when this will change.  We will cancel summer trips, and it is impossible to say when we will be able to visit our Massachusetts family pod.  Unanticipated online work obligations and ill-fitting roles as home-schooling parents distract my mid-career students from their own writing, but I cannot nag them because Zoom meetings incessantly divert me as well.  Even though there is supposed to be more time because we cannot go out, it feels like less.

These are not serious complaints – we are very fortunate to be nicely housed and fed, as well as (knock on wood) healthy.  I am surprised at how easy it is to “accept the things I cannot change” under these conditions. But, I have to choose between accepting a year of suspended animation and considering, on a day-by-day basis, the offered opportunities. And Mary Oliver’s comment about darkness and a scrappy kind of hope hit home.

 Arundhati Roy’s recent heart stopping article described the current pandemic as a portal:  “the rupture exists….And in the midst of this terrible despair …it is a gateway between one world and the next.”  Portal implies threshold, door, an invitation to change – a topic that I wrote about in lighter times, in the post Close a Door and Begin Again?   What I wrote nine months ago about looking both backward and forward seems like an innocent discernment of subtle rumblings that are as Roy suggests, becoming seismic and obligatory.

Back to hope, which Mary Oliver proposes not as a path but almost as a prayer.  Hope feels so insubstantial – not something that you can hold in your hand and appreciate, and certainly not a plan.  Yet so many others whom I admire see it as essential.  Parker Palmer, who struggled with the darkness of depression, describes it as an asset and “of all the virtues, ‘hope’ is one of the most-needed in our time. When people ask me how I stay hopeful in an era of widespread darkness, I answer simply: ‘Hope keeps me alive and creatively engaged with the world’. ”  There is it – anticipatory engagement with the world that prepares us for walking through the portal.  Like Mary Oliver, he sees hope as an active virtue rather than a personal characteristic. 

Krista Tippet, my go-to practical spiritual director, talks about hope as a muscle – something that must be exercised if it is going to be of any use to us when we really need it.  Hope is more than sunny optimism (a hard sell these days) because, unlike optimism, it is grounded in reality.  However, hope’s reality distinguishes between today’s dramatic headlines and the whole story of the human condition. 

It is easy for me to dismiss hope.  I can be a Debbie Downer, whose character on Saturday Night Live made me laugh uproariously (while cringing a bit inside). I still sometimes watch the YouTube clips of my favorite Thanksgiving skit, which references pandemics along with global inequity and dementia…. my mind drifts to worry a lot.  But, Mary Oliver’s observation about hope being a fighter and a screamer helps, because I have long played those roles too.  Moreover, as we peer at the portal into the unknown, some intensity and focus may be useful.  We can drag the detritus of our old preferences and prejudices with us into the future or, as Roy says, “we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”  That suggests that hope rests on our capacity to change, even with an incomplete vision of what will be asked of us.

photo by Sarah Rigg

I can rejoice that the natural world heals as we drive less and as we spend more time cementing relationships with those who mean the most to us.  But, are any of us really ready to anticipate what we will do when we walk through the portal into a transformed world?  I need to develop my hope muscle before I leap to purpose and passion. For now, this means (perhaps for the first time), observing the details of each day and the moments in it with care, and finding hope – and joy – in them. Choices are required:  Do I stop and meditate on the clouds, or rush in to make a call to someone who means a lot to me?  Do I focus on the grandeur of the Colorado foothills, or look at the equally awesome iris unfolding in a neighbor’s yard?  Do I choose to play with my granddaughter this morning or extend a deep conversation with my husband?  Any of these choices can bring hope, both in the present and for the future, if I am in the right frame of mind.

My calendar is not full and life seems suspended, but time moves along at the same pace that it did before. If I wish to prepare myself for what cannot be known, my hope muscle exercises need to start with basic training: paying attention to what is most important right now, in this moment that cannot be repeated.

Condition: Provisional

https://www.flickr.com/photos/rayandbee/5915105592
The Wheel of Life
Vigeland Sculpture in Frogner Park, Oslo

As I live through this COVID-19 pandemic, one phrase keeps popping up in my mind: the human condition. To me, the human condition is our imperfection, our inability to escape suffering, and that we live in a natural world indifferent to us. I keep reminding myself and my family that we are experiencing firsthand what can go wrong in a natural world that we thought we had mostly tamed. At the same time, our culture promotes an ethic of personal responsibility, suggesting that we have an influence on what happens to us. So what does it mean to be subject to the human condition but responsible at the same time?

Take my grandfather Nils Jacobsen’s life. In 1917, before the end of World War I and another pandemic, the Spanish flu, he brought his wife, Marthe, and two-year-old son, Alden, my father, from their farm in Norway to Racine, Wisconsin, where they hoped to build a new life. The 1920 census listed them living in a rental in Ward 8. They were still finding their footing. In 1926, Nils sold the family farm in Norway, which he inherited as the eldest son, to his brother.  It appears that life was going well in Wisconsin. Times were good! 

By the 1930 census, Marthe and Nils owned a home, a sweet bungalow that’s still standing, and they listed a second son, my father’s brother. But it was the start of the Great Depression. Soon after, Marthe died at age 51, and by the 1940 census, Nils, my father, my mother, my father’s brother, and my older sister were living in a rental flat. It was World War II, and the fishing on the Great Lakes had dried up.  My father and Nils struggled to find work they could do. Nils died in 1948, a bitter old man, as my mother described him. 

Not an altogether happy tale, but I suspect most families, if they dig, can find similar stories. How much of what happened was Nil’s responsibility? Maybe selling the farm? But surely not Marthe’s death, the loss of their home, and the loss of fishing for a living. I tend not to judge him harshly. Nils and his family lived through World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and World War II. As for Nils dying a bitter old man, I’d say he succumbed to the human condition

While Nils confronted the human condition writ large, until now, my own experience has been more personal.  After my second husband, Gary, died, I struggled, literally, for years with searching for meaning about his death.  I endured guilt that I had done something to bring this outrage on us, and I believed that if I could identify what I’d done, I could atone for it—I should atone for it. When I wasn’t feeling guilty, I was asking myself about the larger karmic meaning of his death—were the repercussions in our immediate world a way of balancing the scales, so to speak? I found no clear answers. 

Being a church-goer, I decided to take my pain to the minister, Pastor Rob. Pastor Rob didn’t like the idea of karma—that I bore responsibility for Gary’s death and, thus, for my grief.  He thought such thinking was where New Agers go wrong. Instead, he told me that Gary and I, like all humans, were subject to the human condition, which includes suffering. Neither of us had caused his death and I didn’t owe any atonement. Wow! I walked out his office feeling lighter, a new freedom. I still didn’t know the meaning, and in truth, I continued to seek it, but not finding it now felt okay. My search became part of my human condition. 

Later I learned about provisional existence. Viktor Frankl wrote that prisoners in concentration camps could not see an end to their suffering.  They could see no future so they lived a “provisional existence.” Pastor Rob had given me such an existence. I found no meaning, but I could live with that, provisionally, and keep looking. Frankl said something else that resonates with me in these times, that rather than me asking for the meaning of Gary’s death, I am being questioned by life and I need to find my own answer in my own terms.  In Frankl’s words: Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life byanswering for his own life

So here I am, living in a world-wide pandemic. This isn’t the retirement I planned, stuck at home, worried about family, friends, and the world more generally. Worried about an uncertain future, are my savings withering so that I’ll be one of the people living solely on Social Security? Will we have a depression? What about my grandchildren, one in college who’s been forced to come home?  The other about to graduate into a precarious world, and there will be no celebration. I am being questioned by life, and how will I answer? 

I have choices. I can weather the pandemic, hopefully stay healthy, and go forward with what is available now.  I can support family and friends as they move forward, too. If my money’s gone . . . well, I’ll deal with that if I must.  My other choice, of course, is, like my grandfather, to grow bitter, that my glorious retirement has been denied me, that my plans have been slayed by a merciless nature. 

 Every day I take advantage of the one freedom still left, the opportunity to take a walk in the unfolding spring, oblivious to the havoc of a virus. It’s Minnesota, so it takes a while for spring to show its color, but because my life has so drastically slowed down, I linger on my walk and look for small signs of the turn towards spring.

One day I noticed tree stumps, and I walked along eagerly photographing tree stumps, which mind you, are presumed to be dead, cut off. But then I noticed that some tree stumps don’t quit easily. They make the best of things and put out new shoots of life. Now and then there’s a hollowed out-stump that couldn’t regenerate itself. But everywhere in nature there are examples of persistence. Think about those weeds we so fervently pull. 

I have my share of human arrogance, but I’m learning to accept the indifference of our world—some natural and some human behavior—it is the human condition.  But in fact, indifference is a condition all life faces, human, stumps, and otherwise. So I carry on, knowing that as I’m questioned by life, I can keep on putting out shoots, it’s on me to find my own answer. 

A picture containing photo, fence, showing, outdoor

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Later I learned that coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management that harnesses the ability of many species of trees to put out new shoots from their stump or roots if cut down.