BEGIN AT THE END?

Planning is only the ego’s decision to be anxious now. ~Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself

Beginning with the end in mind is, for many people, the 13th commandment.  It is the second of Franklin Covey’s “7 habits of highly effective people”  and assumes that we need to be goal directed.  One business consulting website, for example, argues that each person needs to be able to articulate what they want but also:  What is the purpose of what I’m trying to achieve? What outcomes do I want? Why are these outcomes important/valuable?  While it appears that we are being asked about our principles, the underlying message is that effective people lead their lives according to one or more value-driven plans. But I don’t have such a plan and I never have had one.  So where does that leave me? 

Of course my assertion that I lived a goal-free life is an overstatement.  One example:  I knew early – before college — that I wanted to work with people in other countries.  I had no firm idea of what that would do for me but felt a persistent curiosity about places where assumptions about “how we do things around here” were different.  So I worked tirelessly to find opportunities, especially those where someone else might foot part of the cost.  My efforts worked out well:  I met many people who are still important to me and never felt that my time in strange airports and out-of-the-way countries was wasted.  But the goal of becoming what my husband calls “International Karen” was vague, guided by questions about what I might learn and how that might change me.  It required instinctive rather than logical responses to opportunities. Being curious helped when I accepted (for instance) an out-of-the-blue invitation to review a teacher education program in Azerbaijan, a country about which I knew almost nothing (another “I work for airfare” opportunity).   Paul Coelho asserts in The Alchemist, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieving it”.  But every encounter increased my questions and my longing rather than a sense of closing in on a goal. 

Longing for something (like becoming  International Karen) is not the same as having a goal.   A defined “end in mind” has some clarity, but longing is, for me, often shapeless and imprecise, shifting with accumulating experiences.  And that has become more so as I get older. 

I still long to live in another country (again) but need to balance that against the fact that Dan, whose company consistently grounds and delights me, does not share that longing.  I have a persistent fantasy about a tiny home in Georgia O’Keefe’s scrubby New Mexico landscape, with its unique amalgam of Gringo, Spanish, and Indigenous cultures, but am reminded that living hours from good medical care is unwise, much less coping with the an off-the-grid lifestyle and the lack of neighbors.  I play with more realistic versions of one aspect of this longing–silence and a particular kind of nature–in a glamping version of Nomadland.  Then I remember that I want to spend more time with my grandchildren, who are neither silent nor located in New Mexico. 

In other words, the inherent dilemmas between the experiences and relationships that I want are increasingly apparent.  As my wise older friend Larry often said, “I can do almost anything I really want, but not everything I really want.”  Longing is an element of my primal need to keep reshaping my life, balanced against other realities. I must keep examining my longing and what it is telling me….it is a voice speaking to me rather than having an end in mind.  I may long for multiple, incompatible futures, knowing that they express something of my heart’s desire.  But I only need to think about the more near-term future, which may mean trading off Nomadland in New Mexico for Christmas with family in Boston.  But longing is also never satisfied; there is no end to most of my dreams.  When I published my first book, I didn’t achieve an end – instead I peered into a whole new world in which I could think about and use words in ways that would give me pleasure (and maybe do something for others as well).

There is another, but decidedly non-Covey approach that is increasingly appealing as I (finally) exit an intellectually and spiritually engaging career.  I hinted at this when I wrote about my friend Barb’s work on choosing joy as a key to successfully negotiating the last 1/3 of life.  In my mid-70s, I am aware that realizing longing—turning it into a goal and a plan–is constrained by the unknowability of what the future holds and how that might reshape what I long for.  But I can choose which emotions I want to experience regularly.  Joy may be a bit exaggerated for someone who is Swedish-American to the core, but I can consider the meanings that the word evokes in me:  Happiness.  Flourishing. Engaged. Useful and not used up.

The past two years made it apparent that the next step is often revealed by unanticipated (and even unwanted) “opportunities”.  Most of us existed with a simple hope that a year-and-a-half of chaos and inability to plan for anything, including dinner with friends, would end. But it is complicated. In the waning phases of my paid work, someone recommended that I become a life coach.  Intrigued, I did my homework and consulted with friends who combined coaching with their research and teaching.  Seemed like a no-brainer and clearly a plan:  I could develop a small life coaching “business” as part of my retirement.  But I have not, in part because of COVID, in part because we moved away from my networks, and in part because I found opportunities to use what I learned in ways that that I did not anticipate.  I am not interested in being an entrepreneur.  Do I feel that I have been unable to achieve something I wanted?  Absolutely not:  Instead, I see the many ways in which coaching has just become part of how I live in relationship with others.  It changed me without becoming a goal.

I am beginning to understand that my inchoate and often unarticulated curiosity, imbricated with  longing and constraints,  conspire to help me to define “opportunity” more nimbly and make choices guided by something that is more instinct than intellect.  I admit that my mostly goal-free and mostly “successful” life has been a gift – and  try to appreciate the last lines of Robert Frost’s poem, Acceptance (which I will never fully live into):  

Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.

iStock Photo

Lost and Found: That “Third Thing”

My third husband, Jim, was already retired when I met him, both of us in our 60’s. We had lost spouses to cancer and were living as singles—for me, nearly seventeen years, but not so long for Jim. We had much in common and didn’t want to date for years to get to know each other, so we decided to jump right into the complexity of marriage.  “Uff da,” as we Norwegians say.

We believed we were old hands at marriage—especially me—but quickly realized that marriage later in life, like all marriages, has plenty of challenges.  They are just different ones. I began to understand, too, the importance of what the poet, Donald Hall, calls a “third thing.”

Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment.

Starting out, Jim and I didn’t have that third thing. We both had our individual families and histories, but nothing we’d created or shared exclusively as a couple. Then along came Eddie, our beagle, who showed up on our deck one afternoon in late September. At the time Jim’s dog, Happi, was dying of oral cancer. She slept peacefully most days on the corner of our couch.

I’d noticed a dog wandering in the thicket behind our house, and wondered what he was doing there, so when he showed up, I let him in, believing he had to be lost. He came in like he owned the place, and gently sniffed Happi, resting on the couch. He then took a drink of her water and settled down on the rug with a sigh. When Jim came home, we walked the neighborhood with the dog, expecting that he belonged to someone nearby. No luck, so Jim took him to our local vet and left him. The vet called later and said that using the dog’s chip, they had found the owner, and the two were reunited. Case closed; Happi died a week later.

Then came November and a call from the vet who told us that the owner didn’t want the dog and was going to take it to the pound, unless we might be interested. We were mourning and didn’t want another dog. We also didn’t want this friendly dog to go to a pound. So we took him. A week later was Thanksgiving, and Eddie—we now knew his name—made a grand entrance to our family by lifting his leg and peeing on the dining room table leg, just as we were about to eat.  An ignominious beginning, to say the least.

Over time Eddie showed his true worth. He was always a stalwart defender of Jim through his illnesses. He sometimes howled in happiness when Jim walked through the door. He also followed me doggedly (pun intended) around the house. Gradually—and finally—we found ourselves with a third thing—our family of pets, which included Thor, whom I brought to the marriage, and Tress, Jim’s cat, and of course, Eddie, with his beagle personality, the obvious linchpin. (Tress later died, and we now have a new cat, Stella.)

Jumping ahead to this September. . . we went up north to Lake Superior, on the edge of the Superior National Forest, beyond Duluth and almost to the Canadian border. A pristine wilderness, and we would be there at the peak of fall colors.

A Beautiful Fall Day–Up North

It was our first time out after Jim’s illness, finding our way back to the world. Wonderful friends had invited us to a cabin and said, “Of course, bring Eddie.”  And Eddie had been Eddie, kind and loving to everyone, and trusting that this change of venue was fine, jumping onto a red chair and settling for a nap, whenever he could.

The weekend was coming to an end. Jim was already in bed in our little guest cabin. Outside the night was pitch black; it had been raining all evening. As I got ready to climb in bed, I looked for Eddie in his red chair.  No Eddie. I looked all over the cabin, peeked under the beds, opened closet doors that he couldn’t possibly have gotten into, but still no Eddie. I woke Jim to help me search. He suggested that maybe Eddie had gotten outside. The screen door did not latch, although it made an angry retort if you didn’t manually close it.

Eddie was gone. We’d lost him and in a place immense and filled with dangers everywhere. I started thinking about those TV dramas where a child goes missing and someone says, “The first 24 hours are the most important.” So, in my pajamas, I slipped on my hiking shoes, grabbed a rain jacket and flashlight and took off down the dark road calling “Eddie, Eddie,” still traumatized from almost losing Thor only a month ago and thinking dark thoughts about our status in the universe.

Who did we think we were, venturing out when Jim was still recovering? We’d been preoccupied with having everything go well for Jim, so that his legs would not swell and pull us back into the hole of sickness we’d been climbing out of.  And now we’d put Eddie—a big part of the menagerie that made up our third thing—at risk, Eddie, who trusted us and believed in the goodness of the world.

I searched near the steep shoreline and down the two roads near the cabins.  There were a couple of hiking trails along the river, but I didn’t dare take those in the dark though I imagined Eddie sniffing his way down them, following a provocative scent, then trying to find his way back to the cabin. All the while, a wolf watching and waiting to make dinner of him. No Eddie. As I walked back, my eyes filled with tears, overwhelmed with loss—the loss of Eddie along with the loss of Jim’s health.

Imagine This–In the Dark

I walked into the cabin, knowing there’d be no sleep, just as there’d not been much sleep in the weeks before. There was Jim in the kitchen, Eddie at his feet, begging for a bite of toast. I couldn’t believe it. Eddie had found his way back in the murky, threatening darkness. 

But Eddie had never been gone at all. There was a mattress stored under the bed, and although both Jim and I had looked under the bed, we had not been able to see that Eddie had squeezed himself on top of that mattress and directly beneath the bed mattress, with barely enough room to raise his head, like being the filling on a mattress sandwich. He’d finally come out to all the excitement. Crisis averted, our boy, the linchpin of our third thing was safe and sound.

We live in a time rife with threats—to our country, to climate, to the flora and fauna of our earth, and we live with this during a time in our own lives filled with uncertainty. Having a third thing is one way of standing together among that uncertainty. Jim’s and my third thing might not be the stuff of poetry, but it is our third thing, and, like life itself, both ubiquitous and fragile. Will we someday lose Eddie, or Thor or Stella or something else we dearly love? Of course, but meanwhile we have Eddie, who found his way to our doorstep and people who love him. While I was searching for the “lost” Eddie, there he was, wedged between the mattress version of a rock and a hard place, sleeping soundly and trusting that all would turn out okay.

Who Is the Old Lady Directing This Circus?

vintage photo

A week ago, I sat in a zoom circle organized by Jenny Antolak to reflect on a problem endemic to almost anyone over the age of 30:  We have been so busy growing up that we have often forgotten how to fall in love with our lives.  Jenny directed us to Shel Silverstein’s remarkable poem, “Growing Down”, which starts with a description of Mr. Brown, “the grumpiest man in town” who constantly hectors children to grow up, but ends up learning from them:

He got his trousers torn and stained,

He ran out barefoot in the rain,

Shouting to all the folks in town,

“It’s much more fun, this growin’ down.”

As we shared about the rules we followed in order to become successful adults, I confronted my carefully nurtured self-image as a bit of a rebel and a rule-breaker.  Sure, I made some career choices that were “risky”, leaving a plum job at Tufts University to go to a soft-money research institute, and later making a decision to detour from an obvious path to higher administrative positions in order to become a “regular” faculty member – but those were within a game where I knew all the rules and which ones I could break with no consequences.  More often I made careful and conventional choices that were “adult” and “responsible”, in marriage, in work, in friendships and other commitments.

But, while recovering from a divorce that my then-husband and I had avoided for years (those rules– “until death do us part”), I fell in love with someone who, before we were even sure that we were an item, asked me to join him in a spitting contest on the porch!  The silliness of it blew me away – as well as the utter charm of being childlike in my mid-50s.  When we married, I included in our vows his obligation to make me laugh every day.  No problem there, but on the outside, I still held on to the persona of someone who had been handed the playbook of life and had memorized it.  And I wanted to look it.  I colored my hair.  I wore eyeliner.  I bought my clothes at the American Craft Council shows, not at Macys.  And of course I had the black dress (or pants and top) to show them off.

Fast forward to retirement…when all the rules could change because we had played by the careful financial planning rules for middle-income professionals. But then there is a new script – the script for aging gracefully from the New York Times. Horrifyingly, it starts not with social skills or running barefoot in the rain, but with buying a hearing aid sooner rather than later and making sure to give up your driver’s license before, rather than after, an accident. 

Another article also triggered me, reporting that The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, has grown to more than 150,000 residents–with a 10 page list of rules governing residents.  Could Mr. Brown learn to “grow down” there, or would he be tied to an art class at 10, golf at 1, and cocktails at 5?  The behavioral rules of aging tell us where we want to live, what we should wear (read any woman’s magazine, which has hair and clothing suggestions tailored to age….), what to eat, how much to exercise, and repeatedly urge us to stay socially connected (once we get the hearing aids that allow us to…)

What happened to “When I Grow Old, I Will Wear Purple”, and Jenny Joseph’s 1992 warning that,

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

Jenny argues for joyful silliness and breaking rules precisely because we are old enough to realize that we could always have gotten away with it – but were too cautious (or forgot).

Karen Martha laughed when I mentioned this, recalling that, when she recently complained about loud music in a coffee shop, her granddaughter (who happens to be our blog’s technical assistant) looked at her and said, “you usually don’t act like a grandma, but just now you did.”  Ooph – a 2X4 to the side of the head to remind us that it’s ok to ask for a quiet table in a restaurant when we are out with our 70+ year old friends, but not ok when we make it into a rule.

Which also reminds me that my 16-year-old granddaughter was invited to see Chicago by a friend’s grandmother.  The kids assumed that they were going to see a local production of the musical.  When they got there, it turned out to be the band  by the same name—at least some of whom are septuagenarians.  They had a blast listening to the songs that rocked our world when we were in our 20s!  Now that’s an astute grandma.

We are still part of the circus of life. So, every circus has lots of rules – they are there to govern the safety of the performers.  However, the performance needs to ensure that the audience is only aware of the magic and not what keeps the circus functioning behind the scenes.  The behind-the-scenes rules for those of us who wish to age well while “not acting like a grandma” is to pay attention only to new rules that keep us safe (if your knee suggests that a cane will keep you from falling, use it!), while ignoring the rules governing old people’s behavior that are designed to keep us invisible.  Even more, can we celebrate everyday events that suggest that we, like Mr. Brown, are growing down rather than growing up in the way that modern memes of aging expect?

I remind myself that the circus—especially Cirque du Soleil and its more modest spinoffs –  is magical because it pushes us to think about our humanity beyond our usual imagination.  For me, that will translate into more humble efforts: Getting down on the floor to play with a 4-year-old (my knees remind me that it was a lot easier with the oldest grandchild, but I can still do it).  Or remembering to have another spitting context.  Or sometimes just doing whatever equivalent of running in the rain strikes me.  I am reminded of the last lines of Brittany Spears’ song – prescient as the voice of someone who was forced to play by other people’s rules for much of her life:

Don’t stand there watching me, follow me, show me what you can do
Everybody let go, we can make a dance floor just like a circus

I guess that I am the ringmaster here….

–photo of t-shirt from The Old Ladies Rebellion

Welcome to the Club

The Clubhouse

I wake up from pleasant dreams that I can’t remember, but I do know I felt good in them. Slamming awake I realize that it’s still there, the reality of my life. My husband, Jim, has a chronic condition that will require care the rest of his life.  Currently, it’s acute and my days revolve around it. I eat breakfast, not only standing, but taking a bite and then doing something that needs doing before the lymphedema nurse arrives. I haven’t showered, but the dog’s been walked, I’ve tidied, and I’ve thrown a load in the washer. This is the life of a caregiver, disjointed and always on call.

I am not alone in my call to give care, indeed, having joined a club that welcomes all members. Nearly 42 million adults in the US care for elderly parents or friends, with three out of five of these, women. The average age of caregiving recipients is 68.9 while the average age of caregivers is 49. I’m outside the norm on that one. But I’m not outside the norm of a 20 hour work week for caregivers (See https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2020/05/full-report-caregiving-in-the-united-states.doi.10.26419-2Fppi.00103.001.pdf.).

I’ve been thrust in the roll of caregiver four times in my life, and each experience was completely different. Context matters, who you are taking care of matters, your life at the time matters, the malady matters, how long the caregiving will go on matters, and your attitude matters. I suspect this is just a minimal list of all the permutations. For now, let me tell you a little about how caregiving has impacted my life. Maybe others will be inclined to share their experiences.

Two thoughts dominate my internal monologue. The first is how long will this last? Will it consume my entire retirement? There’s anger behind this thought, and I don’t like that in myself. But I’m not only angry. My second prevailing thought is compassion. Someone I love is coping with pain and the knowledge that his life will never be the same, that many of his favorite ways of spending time are gone. Probably toughest of all is watching him cope with the knowledge that this recurring illness is a harbinger of the end of life.

My first introduction to caregiving was when my mother, Margaret, was dying of kidney cancer. My two sisters and I agreed to do two-week stints to help her and our stepfather. I went first. It was heart wrenching to see her in pain all the time. Her cancer had spread to her bones, and she lay, mostly moaning in pain. A strong painkiller patch deadened some of her pain, but she was also in pain about dying. “I’m not ready,” she told me. “I wanted more time.” She never talked about how she would use more time. She knew she wasn’t going to have it.

My mother lived three months from those first two weeks when I cared for her.  I never had a chance to care for her again. When I returned home, my second husband, Gary, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was to be a caregiver to him instead. Caring for my mother felt like a loving responsibility. I was to quickly learn that caring for a husband whom you love very much is a completely different experience.

Gary lived fourteen months from his diagnosis of cancer. We had a mix of good and bad times, and I never resented caring for him. During the hard times, he was extremely cross from his pain—understandable, but still difficult. During the good times, we mourned the loss of our future together. I was with him every step of the way. A part of my heart was broken when he died. A wise counselor has taught me that within the brokenness is the memory of a man I dearly loved. I can hold that memory and go forward with my own life.

Seventeen years after Gary died, I met Jim, my third husband, whose own wife had died of cancer. We were going along nicely, forgetting how life can turn on a dime. Over one Labor Day weekend, he developed sepsis and went into septic shock, almost dying. We later learned it was from a perforated ulcer. When he came home from the hospital, I was back in the club. What I didn’t expect were the demands of helping someone who’s in great emotional turmoil from the aftermath of the disease itself—depression. We muddled through, not realizing that chronic edema, a consequence of his illness, would create the ideal conditions for another bout of sepsis three years later.  

So here I am again, a fourth time, which I sense will be indeterminate. I must say it feels different. Two days ago, a nurse bluntly said to us “It’s not edema, it’s lymphedema, a different condition. And you’ll have it the rest of your life.”  She kindly didn’t add, “Get used to it,” but it was implied.

Once again, those same two thoughts haunt me—what will happen to my life? Will I be able to do the things I enjoy? Will I ever be able to travel again? And what about my writing? Rosemaling?

Then there’s that second haunting thought about his suffering and fears. I feel challenged to alleviate these and help him go forward. I also feel great sadness for him. Am I up to the challenge?

Susan Allen Toth wrote an excellent memoir, No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days,  about caring for her husband who died of Parkinson’s disease. She writes:

“So much.” I think that simple phrase could easily be the motto emblazoned on a caregiver’s shield. Love, pain, courage, endurance, loss. So much, so much.

We caregivers are a club. We don’t have to feel isolated because we are in the company of caregivers all over the world, not to mention the circle of help from home nursing services, friends, and family. And we have love, the foundation that helps us go forward no matter how uncertain the future may be. As for me, it’s early, and doggone it, I will do my utmost to take care of both Jim and Karen. If there’s one thing the caregivers club has honed in me, it’s determination!