Can an Abstract-Random Older Woman Find a Comfort Zone?

When I logged into my e-mail today, I clicked on brainsparker (as I often do if there is nothing more pressing) This is what came up: 

“Great Things Never Came From Comfort Zones”

I found that both unsettling and soothing.  Most of the time I feel just a tiny bit uncomfortable.  I don’t quite fit it; I don’t look quite right today; My thoughts are jumbled; I put that meeting in on my calendar on the wrong day–damn!  Underlying this is my fading but still genuine love of chaos (aka, “real life”).  Just enough so that I am always a little on edge.  I hate lists (too confining), excel spreadsheets, and prefer making decisions (after some agony) based on heart rather than head.  

But it often feels as if my needs are changing.  Controlled anarchy that was fun in my 30s – two young children, multiple pets, an antique house that required endless maintenance, a demanding job – would feel unbearably complicated now.  I can’t multi-task the way I used to – and I don’t want to because it distracts me from things that I want to do (writing, knitting, and drinking coffee). 

Is it being older that makes me yearn for “flow” and the sense of being lost in one activity or thought?  Or, have I just worn myself out from years of struggling to find something that others might consider “balance”? 

I was talking to my friend Cryss today and she reminded me that both of us are “abstract-random”.  And we are still often uncomfortable, even now that we are Medicare eligible.  Julie King hints at the origins when she says that “People with this thinking style dislike dictatorial leaders, narrow boundaries, unfriendly people and competition. They also like to work on things at a high-level and can be frustrated when asked to focus on one thing at a time or to look at or share exact details” (  Ouch–too close to the bone.  But abstract-random can be creative – and creativity is what great aging is all about (at least according to gerontologist Gene Cohen).

But even now, when I am fully focused and “in the groove”, I am still a teeny bit uncomfortable because what I want is just out of reach. 

What is comfort anyway?  I dove into Google Scholar (one of my favorite places to be if I am restless), and searched for writing on “comfort zones” before the 1980s.  It was all about temperature control.  One title, “Thermal Sensations of Workers in Light Industry in Summer”, gives you a good sense of what I found.

There was a single startling exception, a 1978 article in Social Problems about women

…and cultural mandates.  The authors concluded that “comfort zones” (in quotes) were medical specialties where married professional women did not feel the derision, rejection, and hostility that they experienced as normal most of the time. 

Patricia Bourne and Norma Wikler, the authors of the study, provided the “aha” moment that I was searching for:  women who wanted it all – marriage, children, and a professional career – were rarely comfortable.   And they were me.

When I went to college in 1963, I assumed that I would marry a nice man (preferably a professor), live in a pleasant home (preferably eclectic MCM) and raise creative, smart (preferably two) children.  By 1967, when I left with my BA, I knew that I would choose a different path .  But that path was not easy.  In 1968, no woman had ever been tenured in the sociology department at Columbia University.  When I finally left that was still true.  I married, but in New York at that time, keeping your “maiden name” required a huge bureaucratic and legal rigmarole, and finding an apartment with two last names (are they living in sin?) was not always easy either.  So I took my first husband’s name.  I saw only one woman in a senior position until I was in mid-career. 

So I made choices to feel as comfortable as I could. For a while I worked outside an academic job.  I then chose to work in education rather than sociology or a business school because it was felt more comfortable.   I enjoyed my small victories and a sense that being a bit unpredictable and on the edge would bring me a little strength in a world that was not designed for women.  Yup, that meant that I tended to “sweat the small stuff” because sometimes what other people saw as small I thought of as much bigger.  Sometimes I was right, sometimes I wasn’t…

But now the comfort of feeling that I belong seems almost within reach.  When I look around at work, men and women are more able to talk about balancing family and work.  My second marriage feels, as the British say, “bespoke” and we have figured out routines that allow an abstract-random person to live with someone whose way of being in the world is more concrete. Life just feels – well, mostly comfortable. And not boring. But it is hard not to ask whether feeling more comfortable will somehow diminish me. Do great things never emerge from comfort? Does thinking or writing in a way that is challenging to me and others require discomfort?

Or, is it just a result of aging — the much quoted finding that most people become happier as they get older?  A response to the zeitgeist, where comfort becomes an essential respite from the daily bludgeoning of the national and international news? Am I finally learning lessons that most people “got” when they were much younger? Reflecting on the connection between comfort and creativity/great things raises more questions….

And, as for the thermal stuff, they still keep all restaurants, movie theaters, and offices set for temperatures that men prefer – Olga Khazan says that most women like them warmer and perform better when the thermostat is up a few extra degrees.  Women and older people (older women?) are, as one article puts it “thermally dissatisfied” – out of their comfort zone. 

Saving A Life, Especially If It Is Your Own

I often wonder why I’m the only one still living?   In 1975, my Father gifted me with his very special kidney.  Dad saved my life. My kidney is now 93 years old, but it makes me feel young.

During my six months in the hospital, I nurtured friendships that withstood the test of time.   I connected with 21 amazing patients of all ethnicities and ages. All of them have died, some because of their transplant, others from accidents or other chronic diseases.  They were lifelong friends and a sounding board for me. I miss them all.  

My Dad once asked me why I thought I did so well with my kidney?  I immediately responded that I never labeled myself a “transplant patient.”   Instead, I was a grateful daughter who was blessed by my Dad’s gift.

The gratitude theme tended to show up in everything I did.   Professionally, I focused on public health, and as a full-time consultant starting in my 40’s; I tended to attract jobs where I can “pay it forward.”  For example, my late sister had diabetes. What could I do for her? I found myself coordinating a statewide diabetes strategic plan and managed other projects that helped people like my sister.  

Through the years, I had some ups and downs related to the transplant but found I had a core of resilience that I kept revisiting.  It served me well—until five years ago.

To keep my kidney, I take drugs that prevent rejection but suppress my immune system.  There was only one drug available when I had my transplant, and I’ve taken it for 44 years.  At age 60, I started to get a slew of squamous cell skin cancers. My kidney drug played a role in causing them, and I had 26 skin cancer surgeries in the past 4.5 years.   

Recently, I became aware of a newer transplant drug that could decrease skin cancer incidence by 30 percent.   I immediately researched this drug and did the due diligence to see if it was worth a shot. At my doctor’s appointment, I was told the drug I’d been on for 44 years was a “poison.”  When I read the drug studies, I was shocked! The drug is mutagenic, causing damage to DNA and increasing cancer risk.  

Because it was the sole drug I could take to keep my kidney and me alive, I deliberately never researched the drug side effects.  Because I tend to want data on everything, this took some willpower. Remember my roots are in public health! I didn’t just promote primary and secondary prevention; I applied it to my life.   Loving myself to take care of myself was another aspect of my resilience. I imagine the doctors would call that “compliance.”

I find I am now in a whole new grateful universe.   As I let go of the old drug, I thanked it for keeping me alive.  Then something amazing began to happen. Colors now seemed brighter.  I’m filled with startling wonder and awe. I’ve become a better listener.  And I tell more people I love them. 

As I was struggling with the decision about the new drug, I decided to call an old friend I hadn’t seen in years.  Ed had his first transplant two years before me, and he’d visit every week when I was in the hospital in 1975. I was eager to ask him if he was on the new drug and chat about his experience.   On July 15, I searched Google to get Ed’s phone number– and then my whole body froze. His obituary came up. Ed died on July 8–I was now the last one left.   

What does it all mean?   Life is unpredictable, and it’s important to look at what I can control.   Being negative or judgmental is wasted time. If I’m grateful, I’m positive.  When I look for the best in people and life, I release drama and get my energy from peace.  As I move through my retirement, I feel more alive than ever.

No, I don’t know why I’m the only one still living.  What I can do is focus on what makes me happy. And continue to wake up every day awash with gratitude.

Sticking with What Works or Starting Anew?

Catching a Big Fish at Post Lake, Wisconsin, about 1955 (looked big to me)

I remember as a child waking up in the morning to a day fresh and new, filled with possibility. Something exciting was waiting to be discovered, maybe just around the corner. All I had to do was get dressed, scarf down a bowl of cereal, and walk outside. Sometimes I rode my bike around the neighborhood, looking for something interesting. Other times I’d try to find a friend to join me. I’d walk to my friend Carole’s house, and from the street, I’d call “Oh, Carole.” If she could play, she came outside and off we’d go inventing on the way. If not, her mother opened the door and said, “Carole can’t play right now.” In that case, I’d wander to the park or go home and read a book of my choosing. I was between five and ten when I experienced my life this way, the unadorned curiosity of a young girl.

          Idealized, of course, but I remember that time seemed to stretch on forever (especially when I was bored at the end of summer).  Bored or not, I didn’t look outside myself for something to do, rather, I acted from within, indulging my moods and curiosity. My notion of work was uncomplicated, something imposed by adults, “Practice your clarinet, finish your homework, do your chores.” It was before I learned that work was ubiquitous to living, any and all work, jobs, housework, yard work, volunteer work, and meaningful work, however it is defined. I had not yet assimilated the byproducts of work, productivity, success, and accomplishment, as guideposts for adult life.

          I remember telling my son, out of college and frustrated because he couldn’t find a job, “don’t worry about it. You won’t escape working. You will spend basically your whole life working.” At the time, I believed that the necessity of work had absolute power over my life, what I called the “tyranny of work,” because I saw work, too often, as something that needed to get done. I’d lost the inner direction that had, as a child, given so much impetus to my daily living. I didn’t see my work in context, as a necessary part of life but also, if completed purposefully, as an expression of my authentic self. I had not yet come face-to-face with the question of what life would be like without work—retirement, if you please.

And Then It Came. . .  Retirement

          On December 11, 2015, I retired at age 73. I woke up that first Monday, after the retirement toasts at the bar on the previous Friday, feeling that overnight the ground had become unsteady. I was prepared to shower, get dressed for work, fight the traffic, and get a good parking space, but there was nowhere to go. I knew I could sleep in, hang out in blue jeans. . . but then what? Unlike my fellow blogger, Karen Rose, I had not taken a phased retirement. I simply decided that it was time to step aside for someone younger with fresh enthusiasm. I worked on soft money, and I was tired of chasing it. As for getting “busy with something that looks a lot like work,” (Falling from Grace, posted 7/8/2019) I thought it would be easy. Finally, I would have the time to sit at my desk doing the creative writing I’d longed to do but had put off throughout my life.

My Facebook posting with the caption:  This is where it ends. . .

Writing, however, didn’t happen. Ideas suddenly went dormant. Rather, I spent three months having panic attacks until I read a book about how to overcome them. But overcoming them wasn’t the same as addressing the root cause. That little girl who once welcomed a day of possibilities had lost the ability to not only see those possibilities but also to act on them. I was caught in the conundrum of living from within or living from the cultural and societal norms that describe work—I’d fallen from grace and had no idea how to catch myself. . . .

Part 2: One Big Step for Karen-Kind                                           

I shared my angst about adapting to retirement with friends—and I mean “adapt.” I saw it more as forced obsolescence. Friends said to find a new routine.  Do the things you’ve been putting off—like cleaning closets. Find a new direction. I bought into it and muddled my way into a sort of routine, cleaned my desk in lieu of the closets, and started searching for that new direction. I grew a ponytail—I’d never had long hair. It was something I could accomplish.

          I started tutoring fourth graders in math at my local school—I wanted to be productive, feel useful, and there’s nothing as regenerating as being around ten-year-olds. I taught a couple of classes as an adjunct professor, and I joined a research project in my field as a consultant. Writing ideas resurfaced, and I found myself at my desk again. Whew, finally those panic attacks waned. I was in safe territory—work ( I cut off the ponytail).

          Then, as life will do when you’re ready for it, I was thrown a curve, albeit a pleasant one. My husband and I and Karen R. and Dan went on vacation to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, Texas For two days we were immersed in a culture different than upper midwestern city life. A culture of cowboys, in boots, bolo ties, Ariat shirts freshly pressed, creased jeans, and wide belts with polished silver buckles, standing for over an hour reciting new and classic poems. These poems were about life on the range, around the campfire, under the stars, and the meaning of life when everything slows down and you feel the immensity of our world beneath that naked night sky. Corny poems, sometimes, but poignant, nevertheless, and framed by the big questions we all grapple with—is there someone who watches over us? What is the meaning of our time on earth? Do our lives matter? Turned out, there was more to cowboy poetry than campfires.

          Thinking about the poetry gathering on the plane home and later as I went about my routine of teaching and tutoring, a glimmer of something started to break through. Experiencing the cowboy culture reminded me that there are multiple ways to live and know the world. I was living retirement like my former work life, with never-ending assignments where productivity ruled. I was judging my life through the lens of work, and that’s why I had found retirement wanting, a time for panic, and a need to find something, anything, new to do and quickly.

          I’d crossed that demarcation between work and retirement, and I’d found it painful, so I kept trying to go back to what I knew and had valued for some fifty years—working, doing something meaningful in the eyes of the world. Yet available to me was the life of that young girl who awoke every day to possibilities, unless, of course, I chose to clutter it up with the detritus of those fifty years of working. I realized that I didn’t need to “find a new direction.” I was free to have no direction. To wake up and follow my curiosity. To read a book of my choosing.  To call a friend and hang out at a museum. Even to go to Wales and live (something I’ve dreamed of doing). To sit on the deck and stare at the stars, unless of course, the mosquitos got me first. The point was, I didn’t need to have an agenda, unless that agenda was relearning how to be this person who allows the day to unfold as it wants to. Retirement wasn’t so much the end of work as it was a challenge to “start anew,” to just be and to awaken with curiosity about what the day will bring, and to rediscover the joy of that young girl, which, hopefully, is still in me.

From Anthem

So mornings now I’ll go out riding
Through pastures of my solemn plain,
And leather creaking in the quieting
Will sound with trot and trot again.
I’ll live in time with horse hoof falling;
I’ll listen well and hear the calling
The earth, my mother, bids to me,
Though I will still ride wild and free.
And I ride out on the morning
Before the bird, before the dawn,
I’ll be this poem, I’ll be this song.
My heart will beat the world a warning—
Those horsemen will ride all with me,
And we’ll be good, and we’ll be free.

Buck Ramsey

If I Don’t Know My Purpose Am I A Retirement Failure?

Photo credit:  Ian Schneider

When I was in my 50s, I gave my mother (who was 30 years older) a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.  She was in a funk, battling a tendency toward untreated depression, and I thought it might help her.  Of course, I hadn’t considered some underlying reasons why that was a poor idea (she was an avowed atheist and often frustrated by her generation’s limited expectations for what women would do outside the home).  My inappropriate choice was based on the title, which implied that everyone already has a purpose and our job is to accept and live into it.  My mother didn’t read it, so I feel only a smidgen of regret at the gift.  But I think that I was dead wrong….

Here I am, almost as old, inundated with a drumbeat of blogs, and aphorisms that urge me to FIND—REIGNITE–CREATE a purpose-driven life, which is typically described with an almost sexual PASSION at the center.  A sampling from the web includes: 

  • “Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire”
  • “Life – seize it and make it amazing. Discover your passion. Take chances. Follow your dreams. Today is the day. Don’t pass it by”
  • “There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
  • “The things you are passionate about are not random. They are your calling.”

Books extolling this certainty for later-in-lifers proliferate –now is the time to find that passion!  Directly or subtly, effort is at the core:  How to find your passion after you retire.  As one website, 60 & Me suggests, now is the time for people to become more purpose-driven and more passionate – and probably do something that looks like work (paid or unpaid):

“The overlap between what you are good at and what you are paid for is your profession. On the other hand, what you are paid for and what the world needs is your vocation or calling.  The point where what you love overlaps with what the world needs constitutes your mission. Then lastly, the combination of what you are good at and what you love is your passion.”

THIS QUOTE EXHAUSTS ME, in part because I had to read it three or four times to understand it.  MOREOVER, IT MAKES ME FEEL BAD ABOUT MYSELF. Not only do I have to have purpose and passion – I need a mission and a vocation in my retirement!  I have no idea where to start with this….

There is a dark underbelly to the mandate of finding purpose at all life stages.  I have a colleague, quite brilliant, a wonderful administrator who effortlessly makes things happen within a large bureaucracy, is exceptionally kind, and who suffers from a sense that her life is not meaningful because there is no focused PURPOSE at the center, nothing that DRIVES her daily work.  She feels that she is not enough.  Her work life lacks passion. Or focus. Or certainty.  Or something. 

I don’t blame Rick Warren, although producing a book that has sold 30 million copies provides impetus for others to adopt his words (but not his meaning).  Warren’s work focused on finding purpose by living fully into beliefs and a community shaped by a particular set of virtues and principles.  It has less to say to the self-motivated individual who tries to self-actualize through individual striving.  His title was highjacked.

So, back to age, retirement, and a redefined “purpose”. I find comfort in some ideas that I have come across, most of which involve making purpose more “right sized” in our lives rather than the driver of happiness and fulfillment.  Dmitri Pavluk talks about self-actualization, which includes insight (think of the Buddha!), awareness and clarity (look around; be observant!), and connectedness (Yay! Other people) – and, yes, something called purpose.  In other words, purpose can only be understood in the context of a whole life that has both inner and outer expressions. The elements that he defines as self-actualization are related, fluid, and inseparable.  We change.  We grow. Life does not always happen on the schedule that we had in mind. 

Mark Manson, whose blog often addresses questions of personal meaning, says it more simply:

So when people say, “What should I do with my life?” or “What is my life purpose?” what they’re actually asking is: “What can I do with my time that is important?”

I couldn’t make my mother happy, but I know that she adored her family and made my high school friends want to come over to our house because they felt so welcomed.  She exposed me to eggplant in the late 1950s, when no one else in Ann Arbor knew what an eggplant was, much less how to cook it.  She enjoyed living in several foreign countries during her adult life. She taught me not to stand on the sidelines when an important political question is on the agenda.  I am not an atheist, but her questioning of EVERYTHING has been an invaluable model for me.  I remember her (when not severely depressed) as “right sized” and adventuresome. 

When I look at Ian Schneider’s photo above, what I see is visual irony:  How often do passion-purpose lead us to a place where all we can (metaphorically) see is our tired feet in a featureless landscape?  That sense led one of my internationally recognized colleagues to retire earlier than he had planned.  However, a year later, as we checked in at a casual breakfast, he described his choices about how to spend his time—to read and think, explore awareness and joy of nature, create new connections with his wife –with a sense of gleeful gratitude

In the end, isn’t caring for a precious asset – time – at the core of purpose?  I can do the most important and meaningful things that are available today.  And tomorrow.  And stop worrying about BIG PURPOSE AND PASSION.  …To be continued….