A Soul on the Move

            . . . the ground at my own feet. . . 2019

“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.” 
― Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

Given that I’ve lived at least 39 places in my 75 years, I felt compelled to write a sequel to Karen Rose’s piece, Should I Stay or Should I Go, especially since I usually pick the “go” choice. Moving seems commonplace to me, what people do.  But when I listen, I realize that not everyone is on the move. I’ve had neighbors and friends tell me they’ve lived in their houses for 20, 30, 40—since the beginning of time—years. Because I can’t speak to that experience, and, since right now I’m obsessed with doing my own soul work, I decided to think about moving in soul work terms, or, as Wendell Berry calls it, my spiritual journey.

          One of my mother’s favorite stories about me was how, even as a young child, I liked to run away. I’d go missing and she’d find me way around the block.  My recollection is that I wasn’t trying to be naughty; I truly wanted to see what was around the corner.  My son had the same proclivity.  When he was about four, though instructed to stay in front of the house, he would invariably ride his Big Wheel to the gas station around the corner, where I’d find him watching the comings and goings of a busy filling station.  My explanation for our curious natures is that it’s genetics, starting with my paternal grandfather, Nils Jacobsen, who left Norway in 1888 at age sixteen to come to the US. I like to think that he, too, wanted to see what was “around the corner.”

          Early in my life, as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, my moves were to find a room I could afford.  Everyone moves around at that point in life.  My tendency to move as a strategy to solve life problems started later, with my first husband, always looking for an affordable and better place, big enough for two children, and located in the same school district.  We moved ten times until we were able to afford a house. Our children, at ten and eleven, had lived somewhere new just about every year of their lives.  After our divorce when our children were grown, I started graduate school and moved again and again, always to find a better place within my means, which wasn’t much. Soul work at that point was building a new life.

          Building a new life to me meant having a fresh start in a new, clean house—no cluttered drawers, dusty shelves, moldering food in the refrigerator—not to mention, unpleasant memories. As Robert Louis Stevenson puts it, “The great affair is to move.” I’m not surprised that after retirement people consider making a move. Retirement, fundamentally, forces one to start over, to reconsider all the choices made over the years, including where to live.

          To be a professor, one has to move upon graduation. I was all in for that requirement. Upon graduation, I moved for a job and adventure, off to Utah and a new life with a new husband, Gary. We would hike in the mountains, ski, and explore the southwest. It was travel rolled into a career move. But then something changed.

          Our second year in Utah, Gary was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a year to live, if he was lucky. About eight months into his last year, I had a tremendous urge to move “home”, back to the Twin Cities. I found a posting for a job in Minneapolis, applied, and was hired.  I persuaded him that we needed to move; he died four months later in the Twin Cities.

          Although we’d bought a house for me to have when he died, I immediately started looking for a new place to live.  And there it was, the need to keep moving had become almost a pathology. See what was around that corner.  It had to be better than sitting alone in the house where Gary had died, facing my grief.  And move I did, first to a condo that I lived in less than a year, then a house, then to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Lehigh University, all in the space of four years. . . another travel adventure combined with a job change.  I sold it to my now married children as “exploring the east coast.”

          I moved to Bethlehem in June of 2001, and on September 11th, our country was attacked. Planes crashed in Pennsylvania, the Twin Towers in New York City, and the Pentagon. All felt too close. I was alone in a strange city, and I couldn’t reach my children because the cell phone lines were overwhelmed. On that afternoon and days after, I longed for “home,” someplace solid, with familiar ground under my feet. I had learned that in an emergency I would never be able to get to my children quickly. I lasted five years in Bethlehem, spending a good deal of time wanting to move back to the Twin Cities. Yes, I explored the east coast, and I made many friends, but I needed to belong somewhere, a place close to my children and grandchildren. I moved, back to the Twin Cities.

          I bought a townhome I didn’t particularly like, thinking I’d stay there a short time and move on. But then came the Great Recession. The housing market crashed, and I couldn’t get out of my townhome. Everyone else liked it and my friend, BetsAnn said, “Make it into a place you like. Don’t just sit there and complain.” I did, and I stayed there over eight years—almost a record for me—and I became attached to it.  I even looked forward to going “home” at the end of a day.

          In 2013, I remarried, and Jim and I bought a house together, which we’ve lived in for five years. This spring I had the urge to move. I insisted my husband look at townhomes with me.  We looked and concluded that our house suits us and our relationship, and we decided to stay put. Our children live in the Twin Cities, so we don’t have the pull to be near family. Our next move could very well be our last, and we’ll wait, like Karen Rose suggests, until it just feels right.

          But how will I handle my need to leave, to see if there is anything better around the corner? I’ve learned that I have a wanderlust that bubbles up whenever life gets uncomfortable. The lesson that I move to run away has not been easy to learn—39 domiciles attest to that. It means doing the work of my soul—confronting my seemingly logical reasons to move and seeing them for what they are—boredom and low level anxiety, the sense that something isn’t right, covered by a veneer of wanderlust.

          The other day I made my usual circle of the neighborhood, first to the co-op, then the library, from the library to Kowalski’s for a gourmet touch to dinner, a stop at the ATM, and finally home. How comfortable it felt! What I used to believe was boring—staying in the same place—has changed to belonging. That evening I biked the Minnehaha Creek Parkway. Living here long enough has allowed me to know the creek at both low and high levels, in winter under new fallen snow, in spring, raging as the ice gives way, and during summer, when it meanders under a lush canopy of green.

          As for “should I stay or should I go,” my first impulse is to say GO, move.  I am Nils’s granddaughter after all.  But staying in my last two homes has opened me to something else around the corner—the dynamic of neighborhood, the way a calm or raging creek invites me into my own movement and change. This isn’t an advice blog. The only thing I can say for certain from my experience with losing a husband and 911 is that being near family counts. The decision to move, while it may seem straightforward when the reasons are financial or job-related (and even those have nuance), is complicated, especially so with the emotional, physical, and family considerations that come with getting older. Maybe the best we can hope for when sorting things out is Karen Rose’s wish that “a place (will) just speak to me and tell me where to get off.” Meanwhile, for now, for me, I am in a place where I can finally, “learn to be at home.”

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.

David Wagoner, from Collected Poems 1956-1976

Don’t we all long for the sense of place that David Wagoner’s poem describes?  A place where you belong, that reinforces your sense of being “right sized” and in tune with your surroundings?  

That is what I do not have….

Last December, I discovered that my friend Jane was leaving her condo overlooking a small lake just outside Minneapolis.  She sold all the carefully curated furniture (including a fireplace that she had recently installed) and moved to a house in Florida with her new-ish partner Dave.  Boom. A Minnesota native, Jane was not much of a traveler and had season tickets to every theater, orchestra, chamber music or other event in the arts-rich community in the Twin Cities.  In other words, this was not an expected next chapter in her retirement story. At least I didn’t expect it.

Then yesterday, I chatted with Susan, who confided that the 9 weeks she and Bob spend in Puerto Vallarta were just too long – ‘I feel so disconnected – Bob loves it, and would stay longer.  We compromised so that next year we will stay for 6 weeks and come back for a few. Maybe go away again for a couple of weeks on a road trip with the dog to see the kids.’ Disconnected in Mexico…..but looking forward to long summer weeks in their remote and rather primitive cabin in Northern Minnesota – Susan’s “happy place”.

Another couple, long-time Minnesotans, recently moved back into their house, remodeled to suit the vision they had when buying it decades ago.  It sits on a large city corner lot, where they are responsible for shoveling two long stretches of sidewalk. Even when we visit them in the glory of early fall, the house’s steep front entry invokes fears of slipping – and I fast forward to hospitals stuffed with elderly people with pneumonia and broken hips.  But for our friends, an adventuresome trip or two a year in a warmer continent (including lots of hiking), is enough. They never seriously discussed any other options than the major remodel….

What about Sue, who lives in a spectacular three-story mountain home in Colorado, but whose husband is tired of plowing the driveway and dreams of a tripped out Mercedes Sprinter and a couple of years on the road while they are still in great health? (Wait!  Even though they have no children, the dogs are still young…and where will they all live when life on the road gets old?)

As Joe Strummer and Mick Jones put it in The Clash’s famous lyrics:

Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know…

We and our friends are all vigorous in our mid-60s to mid-70s. Not wealthy, but also not strapped.  We can do almost anything we want to — but not everything (and long ago redefined our fantasies to fit our budgets).  Blessed with the freedom to move or be “snowbirds” who fly away in the winter, we all have different stories that dance around the question of where and how to live once we are not tied to a job.   

Although I still have a year to work part-time, Dan and I have off-and-on been grappling where we want to be forever (or what seems that way). The dilemma of moving-or-staying may seem particularly acute for Minnesotans who, although a tough bunch, are mostly willing to admit that winter is challenging.  We love Minneapolis – the arts, friends, lakes within walking distance, good government, and fun restaurants on every corner – it is truly glorious seven or eight months of each year. But, as we say, there are two seasons: winter and road repair. (A local ice cream, Nicollet Pot Hole, memorializes the tire-busting crevasses that emerge every year after the incessant freeze-thaw of hard winters.)  

The question of staying or going is only partially a byproduct of weather.  We are living out the consequences of the tendency of better educated and more affluent Americans to wander.  Like many of our friends, Dan and I lack real roots. Our parents lived far from where they were born; we moved away from our parents.  My daughters and grandchildren live in Massachusetts and Colorado; Dan’s closest relatives are in Nebraska and New York. Easy enough to get to for planned visits, but not for Sunday brunch or occasional babysitting.  We have no role models (except Dan’s mother, who lived by herself and bought a new car at 92) and worry about creating mid-life drama for our loved ones if we age-in-place. We have vicariously experienced how frequent plane flights to deal with emergencies take an emotional and financial toll on friends in their 60s who are caring for parents in their 80s who live far away.  There is always an independent retirement community with affiliated health care. I AM NOT READY FOR THAT – I don’t want to live in an age-ghetto.  We will think about it again when I am 80!

That leaves us with the explicit or implied dilemmas faced by my friends.  Move to New Mexico, which is cheap-ish and has all four seasons, but requires starting over with friendships and community?  Split time between Boston-Denver-Minneapolis (none of which is a winter paradise), but feel a bit disconnected everywhere? Spend a few weeks away from deep winter (while postponing the issue)?  We have been through all of the options and none fits perfectly.  

Dreaming about alternative life styles is a playful “imagine a different future” activity when you are 25-35-45.  Now, we want to live each day to its fullest, and evaluating the many patterns of staying-going feels like a waste of time.  Why can’t a place just speak to me and tell me where to get off? Like a merry-go-round, the scenery changes and then I realize that I have been here before….

Big Stuff

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein

Two words in particular that Karen Rose used in her blog “Falling from Grace” caught my attention. Soul work. It was only two little words, dropped into a sentence, yet they seemed to pulse on the page, written exclusively to me. I went to bed wondering how much soul work I really do. I woke up admitting that I probably have not been doing much, at least consciously, because I’ve rationalized to myself that I did all the soul work I needed when my second, beloved husband, Gary, died. But are we ever really through?

Mark Nepo notes: Life takes time. It takes time to unfold its more lasting truths. . .” The more I sat with the idea of soul work, the more I realized I’d put it on hold. So I tried an experiment—giving the day in front of me to soul work. Ignoring my list of things to get done and becoming the young girl I once was who used to let the day unfold (borrowing from Nepo) as it inevitably would.

My first thought was something I’d thought about earlier in the week, taking a quiche to a good friend whose husband had been quite sick for the last few months, after years of surgeries to address a bad back. A private and self-sufficient person, she has been his caretaker through it all. I decided that if I followed my heart, or soul, rather than reading the papers for my class, I’d finally get around to taking that quiche to her. Mind you, it took me some time to get to this, as I kept prevaricating around items that had been on my agenda, thinking about how I’d still work them in—old habits are hard to break.

After breakfast, without showering or getting my daily exercise, I threw on some jeans and headed to Turtle Bread, a Minneapolis restaurant that has some of the best quiche I’ve ever eaten.  It was March 30th and we were having an early spring in Minnesota after a classic winter of snow and even a couple days of a polar vortex with temperatures at -34. The sky was bright blue and most of the snow was gone, although the temperature was just above freezing and a chilly breeze was blowing.

Soul work is the process of bringing the essential self – the soul – out of hiding. It’s a fundamental shift away from occupying the constructed self, and toward the art of living our soul. http://www.phyllismathis.com/what-is-soul-work

As I drove to Turtle Bread I thought about soul work and what the term actually refers to. I realized I had no solid “definition,” rather an association with faith and authenticity. Doing this, getting the quiche for our friend, felt like soul work. And suddenly, I teared up. I wanted to cry, but I had no idea what I might be crying about.  Was it the parallel with taking care of my second husband when he was dying of pancreatic cancer? The realization that it’s the two of you, husband and wife, in this dance with a human body that’s lost its homeostasis and is on a course all its own, dragging you with? Or was it simply my soul being let out to breathe, unearthed from the lists and agendas and obligations that cover it. I wasn’t sure, but there I was at the restaurant.

I ordered the quiche, and as the young man packed it up, I knew I was about to cry in earnest. Soul work is big stuff, I thought, as I rushed out to the car. Big stuff. I challenged myself to sit with it, sort it out if I could, realizing that the sorting out might take the rest of my life.

I dropped off the quiche. My friend was clearly touched, and I had that incredible feeling we get when we do something nice for someone, when we put everything aside and reach out in love and support. I hugged her and told her how much the Karens’ love her, and we laughed. Back to the car and more big stuff, soul work, in this case, being mainly crying. I’d always thought that soul work involved reading and studying spiritual texts, but now I see that it’s much bigger than that. To borrow from Mary Shelley, there is always something at work in my soul, and I often do not understand it. What I do know is that for me the work begins with opening my heart, giving and receiving kindness. In this new life of retiring, it’s turning away from whatever door is closing, be it work or some other door—as described by Parker Palmer—and being willing to open that other door into your heart and your essence, your soul. I also suspect that soul work involves looking back through that door over and over, seeing one’s life through your soul. And coming to a place, dare I say, when you live through your soul.


…..retirement isn’t an event, nor is it a one-size-fits-all proposition. It’s a process that takes time, especially as we look toward post-career lives that are likely to last as long as our working lives…Whether it is through a new line of work, service, learning, or other meaningful activities, Encore Transitions emphasizes post-career engagement as a foundation for vitality, happiness, and healthy longevity (Encore Transitions Program, University of Minnesota).

To fall from grace is an idiom referring to a loss of status, respect, or prestige (Wikipedia).

The University of Minnesota, where both Karen Rose and Karen Martha worked, is busy developing initiatives to support “the successful transition” of their employees and others in the community to the world after retirement.  As we boomers arrive en masse to a time when we are expected to retire, an emerging cottage industry acknowledges that:  (1) most of us won’t die before we are 80; (2) we are terrified of settling in to a life that consists only of golf or babysitting for our adorable grandchildren; and (3) we, apparently, need to be taught how to retire.

At first, the idea of retirement struck me as simply unthinkable.  I would be like Pablo Picasso, who completed his most massive sculpture—the “Chicago Picasso” —  when he was in his late 80s.  I would continue to become a slightly quieter, but significantly more reflective version of what I had always been.  But then I began to observe what happens to most people – perhaps not Picasso or other artists whose creativity seems to expand with age – but most of us.  We just get a little slower, a little more tired.  Perhaps irritating features of work that we overlooked because we were enthusiastic about most of it begin to annoy us more.  Maybe we began to annoy our colleagues more.  Time to think about leaving before people started to hint that it might be time….

The Reality: I loved the external validation that came with being an “expert” in my work life – someone whose wisdom was sought by younger colleagues and whose insights were considered important on various “strategic planning committee” assignments.  It was not as if I didn’t have a life outside of work – an adorable husband, good friends, two adult children who gratifyingly produced grandchildren who were also lovable.  But, I was reminded of the time when my children were young, and I would be introduced as “Erica and Margit’s mother” – it didn’t feel bad, because I knew that was would follow shortly was “she is a professor at the U”.  If retired and introduced as “Margit’s mother,” it would end there.   Unless I became something else.  A new identity is what the “Encore Transitions” program at the U promised to provide – is that promise a shield from invisibility?

If that doesn’t feel like a fall from grace, I don’t know what else I could call it.  Hang up those academic robes.  Remember that every book you have every written ends up on the publisher’s remainder list at about 10 years after it comes out.  Remember that you haven’t kept in touch with people who were good colleagues but who retired a few years before you.  No office.  No one to fix your computer for free. 

What is at stake? Conventional ambition…a desire for visibility and influence?  An inability to be imaginative about the present, much less the future?   I could get a life coach!  But wait, I am a life coach. Oops.

Parker Palmer (who is not retired…although he is nearly our age) writes about this compellingly in Let Your Life Speak (Jossey-Bass, 2000).  Chapter III of his book is titled “When Way Closes”.  He goes on to say,

As often happens on the spiritual journey, we have arrived at the heart of a paradox:  each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up.  All we need to do is stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around – which put the door behind us – and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls…(p 54)

That is the good news.  But it took Palmer a decade to figure this out.  And he was in his 30s and 40s when he confronted losing his first career and finding something else.  And I just re-read a book that is nearly 20 years old and still selling well.  I probably don’t have a decade to figure it out.  Ok – stop wishing that you were Parker Palmer instead of Karen Rose Seashore. 

The less good news is the rather depressing list of course topics included in the U of Minnesota’s “Encore Transitions” classes.  They do not reflect soul work, but approach the topic of retirement as figuring out how to manage the logistics (money, health care, etc.) and get busy with something that looks a lot like work  — but different in an indefinable way (even less definable when it is posed as designing a third act career….). Many people have raved about this program, so I know that the discomfort I feel is in me…

And I am left with a puzzlement.  How often does retirement feel like a fall from grace?   Consider the sad “retirement party” syndrome, where many people stand up to celebrate who you WERE, and add a few vague phrases about what YOU MIGHT DO.  I think that I should ritually burn my academic gown and hood instead!  Except I found it on the back of a door when I moved to a new office after several years of using the cheap rental robes the university provides for people who don’t have their own.  A kind person left it there.  I added a zipper.  Maybe someone else should have it.  Is that falling into grace in this instance?