Life Connections

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Retirement has put me in a stock-taking mood, less a search for meaning than simply an understanding of my past and present.  I often turn to internal story-telling….

My narratives change with new insights and reedits. These days, I have moved away from event-based stories (the college years; the productive 50s…). Julia Cameron, in her follow-up to The Artist’s Way focusing on the over-60 crowd, urges us to take our chronological age, divided it by 7, and write about the years included in each span.  As Dan and I watched the 7-Up series, which every 7 years revisits the lives of a randomly assembled set of English children, I thought of how powerful it is to break away from the constraints of decades or major events as chapter markers in our stories…

But in the past few months my internal storytelling has focused less on chronology and more on the way in which people intersect with each other and with loosely defined periods in my life.  Much of this happens when someone from my past seems to pop in to my mind for several days, causing me to rethink how and where they belong in the threads braided into my experience.

Last week a personal message on LinkedIn told me of the death of someone with whom I had lost contact.  That loose connection, between continents (my friend who died was Dutch) and across generations (the messenger is at least 20 years younger than I am), activated memories of a wider network of people who were meaningful to me over more than a decade, even though they did not constitute an identifiable social group.  What I was struck with again is the how this nebulous collection of colleagues, friends, acquaintances has provided meaning to my life, even though its members do not cohere into a usual life-story format.  They represent, collectively as well as individually, an extended period in which I felts as if I was learning about the world, other people, and professionally every day. 

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Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of interbeing – the dependence of all beings and things upon one another captures this nostalgic gratitude:   

… I was looking for an English word to describe our deep interconnection with everything else. I liked the word “togetherness,” but I finally came up with the word “interbeing.” The verb “to be” can be misleading, because we cannot be by ourselves, alone … the action of interbeing reflects reality more accurately. We inter-are with one another and with all life…. Whether we’re at work or at home, we can practice to see all our ancestors and teachers present in our actions… We can experience profound connection and free ourselves from the idea that we are a separate self ( from The Art of Living)

While this way of thinking is still a bit mind boggling to a Westerner raised with Descartes’ individualistic claim that “I think therefore I am”, it leads me to pay attention to human connections beyond the people I love with all my heart.  Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can be a rabbit hole and a space to post the least interesting things that happen in my life (yes, I admit to occasionally bragging about Wordle), but they also allow me to contemplate the loose linkages that are part of my direct experience of interbeing.  

I smile when I read the words of adult children of friends whom I haven’t seen in years, and I am filled with awe as I look at them sending their own babies to college. At one level this seems trivial, but at another it reminds me that networks are never lost, even if they are not currently active.  And, as the miracle of Facebook informs me that a friend who meant the world to me from 7th through 12th grade had visited her childhood home, I became instantly reconnected to her parents, whose escape from Nazi Germany created the opportunity for hosting a gaggle of very ordinary American teenage girls, which in turn opened up other doors of connections, known and unknown.

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I am also in awe of how my own (middle aged) “kids”, who grew up in a world of cheap phone calls, cheap flights, and the internet, keep consistent contact with beloved friends from high school as well as college.  I, however, grew up in an era when a long-distance call home to my parents from college was short because it was costly, and visits to relatives who lived a few states away were rare because they involved several days of driving.  Constant connection is a habit I never developed, and my life is littered with people—friends, relatives, mentors– with whom I lost touch with completely.  And now, increasingly, I think about those who died before I could reconnect and share the unspoken gratitude for what we meant to each other.

I regret these lapses as a byproduct of the dismal period when the art of letter writing had died but the internet was not yet born. However, I am persistently struck by the way in which inactive connections become potent with even a few exchanges.  During Covid, Google provided me with the email of someone who I knew in both college and grad school — I thought she would be amused that I had cited her 1972 dissertation in a paper.  We have been exchanging episodic emails with personal, professional and family news – almost as if there were not a 50-year gap in our shared experiences. Facebook and loose connections allowed my own adolescent gang of “cool nerds” to commit to our 50-year high school reunion and, more surprisingly, to two additional get togethers with some (including me) traveling long distances.  Our parents are gone, none of us live near where we grew up, and we are the only ones other than siblings who can tell stories about our teenage years that stir a sense of connection not only with each other but with place and time. 

I know that taking interbeing seriously requires more sustained spiritual practice.  But perhaps it is the enforced isolation from our closest friends and family during Covid that supports the deeper significance of our looser human connections, whether one-off conversations, attentive participation in group events, or the spontaneous reconnecting that seems to be happening in my life.  As I get older, the significance of loose ties that are filled with caring and compassion has never seemed more important.  I am committed to contacting at least one “loose” connection regularly, only to remind ourselves of how we fit into each other’s stories….

The Gift of a Child

Christmas 2011
Christmas 2022

Karen and I were looking over the blogs we’ve written and realized we’ve never written about grandparenting. So I decided to take a first stab at the topic. It felt overwhelming—like I’d be writing a dissertation in order to say all that comes up for me. I remembered my mother, who wanted to be a grandmother, even though motherhood had not been easy for her. And Gary Stout, who, when told by the doctor that he had 6-18 months to live said, “Now I’m glad I have grandchildren.” His daughter’s pregnancies were not planned and came while they were both getting a foothold on being adults. He was not happy at the time.

Then, the Sunday before Christmas, sitting in church, the topic came back to me again. A woman was reading the Christmas story to some children, and I found myself asking, “I wonder if Jesus had grandparents.” (I suspect some of you know the answer to this.) Specifically, I was thinking about a grandmother, since I’m a woman. I do not know the answer to this question, but it made me recall the birth of my first grandchild, Peter, in 1999.

When my son, Walter, announced to me that he and his wife, Elizabeth, were expecting, I was excited, but more for them than for me. I was busy trying to restart my life after Gary’s death. I cheered them on through the pregnancy, but the prospect of becoming a grandmother barely entered my consciousness.

Walter and Elizabeth were adamant about experiencing Peter’s birth privately, as a couple.  They made it clear to their large family that they didn’t want anyone with them during the birth, and they especially didn’t want a waiting room of relatives hanging outside, following every development.  We respected that.  We didn’t even ask for a call when they left for the hospital.  And we knew they would not call until it was over. 

The call came on a warm July evening. I had just laid down for bed, window open, enjoying the night breeze and sounds of the city.  The phone interrupted my drift into sleep.

“Mom, he’s here.  Peter’s born,” Walter’s sobs seemed to pour through the phone.  “It was so unbelievable.  He’s wonderful.”

“Congratulations new dad,” I said, “Pretty terrific, isn’t it?” I could imagine their night.

“Please come, please.  You have to see him.”  Now he was openly crying—the unflappable Walter was crying harder than his newborn son.

When your son implores you to come, you take off your pajamas, get dressed and drive to the hospital. They were in Abbott Northwestern Hospital. I’d last been there the day before Gary died. The halls seemed to squeeze the breath out of me, but I found the maternity ward.

And there he was, Peter, my first grandchild red and raw, wrapped in a hospital blanket, looking around at his new home and his new daddy.

“Do you want to hold him?”  Walter asked.

I didn’t need to answer.  My arms opened, and Walter laid Peter in them.  I looked down into the stone blue eyes and met my first grandson.  The room and voices seemed to fade.  We simply stared at each other.  “Hello,” I said. “I’m your grandmother.”  And he just kept staring.  I could not look away, bound by a love I’d forgotten I could feel welling into me.  Here was a new soul ready for the journey.  I gave him my promise to always be there for him. 

That was 23 years ago. Peter is now a young adult working at his first job in Washington DC. I’ve been there through most of his journey thus far. That honor, that privilege, that gift makes me think of my own grandmothers, both of whom I never met. Ruth, my mother’s mother, died in childbirth at the age of 22. My mother was three, with a new baby brother but no mother. My father’s mother, Martha, died in 1930, at the age of 51. My father was thirteen years old. Neither of these women had the chance to be a grandmother.

When I had my own children I was in my twenties. They were a precious responsibility, and much as my heart overflowed with love, there was always that looming responsibility to parent well and provide for them. But I am now older. I realize that not everyone gets the gift of grandchildren. I know what a gift a child is. I know, too, that a grandmother is another sort of gift, since I never really had one. These realizations make me want to bring joy and love into every moment I spend with my grandchildren. These realizations make me feel blessed.

What About the Cows?

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Karens’ Descant has regularly touched on the topic of paring down, decluttering, releasing loved objects, and living smaller.  Still, when I came across Thich Nhat Hanh’s story about the farmer who lost his cows in No Mud, No Lotus, I was struck (again) by his gentle insistence that we must look beyond the obvious detritus with which we are surrounded.

 His parable runs something like this:  A farmer, looking anxious, passes by The Buddha and group of monks, and asks “Have you seen my cows?”  The Buddha replies that they have not, and that he should look in another direction.  After the farmer leaves, he turns to his group and says “Aren’t you very lucky.  You don’t have any cows to lose.”

Well, that’s a head scratcher.  The Buddha and his followers may be fed by the kindness of strangers (or devotees), but the farmer’s existence is dependent on his cows.  At first the parable seemed a bit like Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” response to the absence of bread – a life of contemplative ease contrasted with a life that is marginal in its well-being.  No wonder the farmer was anxious – he has a family to feed and small children who are crying for milk – and cows on the run also distract him from the many other tasks that a small farmer must accomplish (mindfully, one hopes) in order to sleep well at night.  I am all in with the farmer….

But as the story unfolds, it is clear that my automatic social critic lens is (once again) too narrow to take in the meaning of The Buddha’s response.  Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that the story is not about real farmers and rambunctious cows, but about our attachments to ideas and habits – particularly those that we associate with our well-being and happiness: 

One of the biggest cows that we have is our narrow idea of happiness.  You may suffer just because of your idea; and you continue to suffer, until, one day, you are capable of releasing the idea and right away you feel happy — No Mud, No Lotus, p 59)

To be truly happy, we must release our cows – the attachments that hold us back.  As I Googled “releasing our cows”, I discovered that there is even a printable worksheet to help….

Ok – as I look at my life I have to consider not just the “stuff” that Dan and I have been pretty good about culling, recycling and donating, but at the other less visible baggage that I still carry.  I don’t have to get too reflective to find cows mooing in almost every corner of my inner life.  Here is just a quick list….

  • I am attached to my convenience – such as having 2 cars even though we rarely need them.  Oh, the excuses I make – they are paid for, we always combine errands to drive less, we don’t have a garage to hook up an electric charger…My friend Kyle, who has chosen not to own a car, kindly pointed out this cow today after I tut-tutted about his ecological failings in using Swiffers
  • I am attached to my slothfulness – I have never liked exercising, and can conjure up 1000 excuses even when my Apple Watch tells me that I may expire in an untimely fashion from lack of activity. I feel guilty when a few days go by and I am happily puttering, writing, cooking – and I even count gardening as exercise, but I belonged to a YWCA health facility for a year – and never went.
  • I am attached to worrying – about my children and grandchildren, whose lives and future I cannot control (or even directly influence…).  And would they be annoyed if they knew how much I worry…about whether the house will need to be painted in a few years (yes, probably – but will worrying about it make it less inevitable?); about if and when we should consider moving into a life care community.  Well, this list is endless and useless…
  • I am attached to having the dishwasher loaded a certain way – I even sneak up after Dan has loaded it to rearrange stuff…let’s not go into the other areas of secretive tidying so that things will be arranged in a way that I like…well, sometimes I tell him the right way to do things (which he sensibly ignores).
  • I am attached to my own significance — I say yes to requests even when I immediately know that it will require me to do things that will make neither the other person’s life or mine much better (and I sometimes have to back out with a limp excuse).  And I feel guilty about NOT going to a conference, which involves canceling dates/coffees/dinner, etc. with people whose lives will not be deeply affected by my absence (they all have other friends).  I even work at maintaining a public image that no longer fits, polishing my “emerita vita”, which no one is likely to read….

Honestly, even the beginning of the mooing cacophony makes me start to laugh at myself, albeit with a large dash of added discomfort.  I should add that this list does not make me feel like beating myself up:  these cows are not harming anyone else in a significant way.  They are not “character defects” but cows – all the small things that, when I chase them, reduce rather than increase the joy in my life.  I think that I will print out the worksheet and start thinking about releasing my cows.  If I can give away a beloved chair, take almost all of the books that we have finished reading to a neighbor’s Little Free Library, and pare down the boxes of family memorabilia to a size that our families might actually want to take a look at some day – well, surely I can reduce my attachment to a few cows.

Photo by Lenstravelier on Unsplash

My Perfect ‘Little p’

Lake Harriet Community School

If you’re someone who’s followed this blog, you know that ‘little p’ refers to one of those small purposes that each of us carries out daily, purposes that make families run smoother, make people feel loved, and spread kindness. Things like volunteering at a book sale to raise money for scholarships, preparing and serving lunch at church after a funeral, and making sure family members have a good day. These are not grand purposes, but incrementally, they make life better.

A common ‘little p’ is volunteering. Although it’s almost a cliché to say that when we volunteer, we get more than we give, I have to indulge that cliché when I talk about tutoring, my ‘little p.’ I definitely get more than I give.

I have the perfect tutoring gig—four mornings a week at a nearby school in Minneapolis where my son is the principal, Lake Harriet Community School. It’s a small school, grades 3-5, and a highly successful school—a Minneapolis Public School that ranks 4th in the state. It’s also over a hundred years old, with shiny wood floors, heavy oak doors, windows, and woodwork, and tired classrooms, even though they’ve been kept up well. Like many districts, currently, it has children who were in primary school during the COVID shutdowns, and some are not ready for grade level work (we are avoiding calling them “behind.”). One way schools are addressing the needs of these children is through tutoring. That’s one reason I’m tutoring, specifically in math. The gift to me is that I AM NEEDED.

I tutor three small groups and then I help in a classroom. I’m on my feet for three hours, and on my toes mentally, even though it’s basic mathematics—in my day we called it arithmetic. Mathematics is not being taught the way you and I learned it or the way I taught thirty years ago. Now arrays are used to teach multiplication; children learn properties like commutative and identity; and algebraic thinking is introduced in first grade, etc. Clearly I must stretch mentally and find ways to teach new ways of doing arithmetic. That’s my second gift—keeping my brain challenged.

Then there are the obvious benefits, tutoring gets me out of bed and cleaned up early in the day; it gets me moving in natural ways rather than going to a gym; and my favorite, tutoring gives a purpose to my days.

Like other things we do in our mostly small lives, tutoring, at first, felt insignificant. I initially labeled it a feel-good way to spend some of my time in retirement. (By now you know I’m a hopeless cynic). I mean, how much difference can 2-4 hours a week make in a child’s mathematical growth? But to be an educator—which I am—is to believe fervently in small steps, small miracles of understanding. So, cynicism notwithstanding, a part of me believes what I do matters. I’m a caring adult in these children’s school experience who believes in them and supports them.

Yesterday, the impart of tutoring was resoundingly brought home to me. It occurred in the 4th grade class where my role is to hang out and help as needed. I’m the right hand “woman” to the teacher, who is especially creative and commanding when she teaches. She often starts the class period with a video that gives an example of kindness. Here’s a link to the video she showed yesterday. I urge you to watch it before you read further.

Please Enjoy before You Read On!

After viewing the video, the teacher asked students what was going on, what was the video about. Why were some residents in the nursing home tearing up? It took some time for these ten-year-olds to stop focusing on the gifts and to think about what was really going on for the residents. But they got there. As one little girl put it, “She showed that she cared about them.” That led to a discussion about loneliness. I’m not sure that all the children understood, but it was one of those small steps of learning.

For the remainder of the class we studied what to do with a remainder in division. That was fun and equally challenging. In my car on the way home, I reflected on the class in the context of the video. And suddenly I felt it, the biggest reason I tutor—I feel like I belong! I belong to this one classroom, to the other teachers I support with small groups, and in this small school. Best of all, I belong in a world that I care for because I know what individual children need.  I am doing my part to make this place and their lives better in small, incremental ways. 

If you want to find out more about Ruby, here’s her website:

https://3wishesproject.org/who-we-are/