Resolved. . . to Be Kinder to Myself

Sunset at Round Lake, Nisswa, MN

“What convictions survive into dotage?” asks the main character in Jane Gardam’s book, Old Filth, surely a question worthy of a blog devoted to retirement and aging. When I ask myself this question, I hear my stepfather expounding on one of his own favorite convictions—that most people are afraid and lack the courage to look hard at themselves, to admit their failures. On the face of it, this appears a wise and reasonable caution, and as a young idealistic girl who wanted to be a person of courage, I grabbed on and internalized this notion, not realizing how harmful constant self-criticism would be.

Focusing on my failures assumed the negative, that I had failed in some way, even when a different perspective might have pointed out that I had also succeeded in another way, thereby polarizing the outcome. It was either a success or a failure; there was nothing in between or a mix of results.

Casting a critical eye, which I took to be a brave me facing my deficiencies, led to many dark nights of looking back with regrets. But Parker Palmer points out “the past isn’t fixed and frozen the way we think it is. Its meaning can change as time unfolds, if we pay attention.”

My second husband, Gary Stout, loved to go to the burning bowl service at Unity church on New Year’s Eve. If you are not familiar with a burning bowl ceremony, what happens is that you write something that you want to let go of on a piece of paper and put it into a bowl where it gets burned—presto, you are done with it, ready to move on and stop fretting—notice how fretting rhymes with regretting? Gary and I also freely told each other what we thought the other person ought to let go of—ouch! It made for a lively New Year’s Eve.

So, should we face our regrets about our failures and flagellate ourselves endlessly, as my step-father maintained; let go and burn them away in a burning bowl ceremony; or, as Palmer suggests—reframe them? In the spirit of growing older and wiser, as a start, I suggest we reframe them.

My choice to reframe leads me to a highly personal story, one that I hesitate to share, but acknowledging that one way to reframe regrets is to take their power away by telling their story.

A regret I’ve struggled with for years is that I was a failure in my professorial career. I started out, as a new professor at age 50 at the University of Utah, filled with ambition, ready to set the world on fire. Instead, about a year after I arrived, my world was set on fire when my new husband, Gary Stout, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given about a year to live. I supported him, loved him with all I had, and watched him die over the next year.

His death flattened me, crushed me, rendered my ambition lifeless. The belief that I could do work that would improve schooling for the children I so had wanted to serve decayed into a hopeless cynicism. Except for a couple of bright moments, I never really got going in the traditional professor role.

In addition to being flattened, I had my stepfather’s voice, my “conviction” that I had to tell myself the truth, that I was a big fat failure. As you can guess, this truth did not have the effect of lifting me out of my despair, it only deepened it.

Then one day, another voice clamored to be heard, asking me what else I had done in my twenty years of failure. I believe I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, when I had this breakthrough. I made a list of all the other things I had done in the twenty years, deciding I would subtract my failures from this list. It was a long list—I now have it posted near my desk. It includes such things as reading great books, hanging out with loved friends, seeing my children grow into fine adults, grandchildren, a couple of flings, travel, commitment to teaching, helping students achieve their dreams. . . and so on.

Not a bad way to spend twenty years, I realized. Better yet, I had told myself the truth, looked hard at myself. Palmer says, “regret shuts life down.” I would add that it also shuts memory down, freezes it on what didn’t work instead of opening us to what did.

Ocean Vuong, in his magnificent book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, says:

History moves in a spiral, not the line we’ve come to expect. . . the past never a fixed and dormant landscape but one that is reseen. Whether we want to or not, we are traveling in a spiral, we are creating something new from what is gone (pgs. 27-28).

I’ve come to believe that to make sense of my life and my past I need to ignore the harsh voice I adopted from my stepfather and instead to not only reframe but to look again with new eyes, eyes that refuse to label good or bad, success or failure, eyes that are willing to “create something new from what is gone” by seeing the nuance and looking anew over and over.  I don’t mean the cliched “Everything happens for a reason,” but rather a willingness to be kind to myself and my past.

Which brings me to New Year’s resolutions, which I love—and I’m not talking about diet and exercise. I’m talking about resolutions that open life up, refresh it, if you will. This year I’m resolving to get passionate about making time to be at peace—maybe twenty minutes a day of meditating, doing a full body scan, deep breathing, or something like that.  All this, of course, is about living in gentle kindness with myself, seeing those spiraling memories that can dominate growing older with kind and gentle eyes. So, be it resolved—Karen Storm will make time for peace and be kinder to herself in 2020. May such kindness last forever. Happy New Year!

‘Tis the Season

For some reason, I feel surrounded by people who love Christmas and revel in cookie exchanges, lights, and special dinnerware with seasonal themes.  They might as well have “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” tattooed on their foreheads.  I have a more ambivalent relationship with everything that commences after Thanksgiving and lasts until the holiday ornaments are stowed away in their special boxes…..

I should start at the beginning.  I grew up, as I noted in my decluttering blog, in a Swedish-American family where Christmas was elevated to the critical role of proving that the American had not crowded out the Swedish.  Unlike every other family that I knew growing up, Christmas Eve was the big event – the day when we brought in the tree and decorated it, where the “adult beverage” was glögg that my father made from a family tested (and highly alcoholic) recipe several weeks before. My mother worked all day to bake two kinds of Swedish bread (julekage and limpa), in addition to making a Julbord with Swedish cheese (no cheddar allowed!),  lutefisk (look it up – ugh), potatiskorv (a bland Swedish sausage), and a miscellany of other things to keep the traditions alive.  We made the four kinds of Swedish Christmas cookies (absolutely no red and green sprinkles) well ahead of time, of course, and served them up with a baked rice pudding.  NOTHING COULD EVER BE CHANGED or SUBSTITUTED – and as others have noted, all the foods seemed to have been subjected to a “whitening agent” so that no color deeper than beige was visible.  The American part was that Santa Claus came and the presents opened on Christmas Day. 

When I had my own family, my parents were always part of my holidays, and the Christmas Eve traditions continued unabated (much to my children’s dismay).  It was only after my mother died that, after a long consultation, we deleted the detested lutefisk and substituted fresh torsk (cod). I add, however, that because we lived in Minnesota we were able to get my father a takeout serving of lutefisk from a local restaurant…

Although I didn’t like the food very much, I always felt sorry for families who lacked the set-in-stone traditions that solidified their family identity. But life changes when the kids leave home, and they are able to make their own choices….And, with each year I “declutter” my holiday life by becoming temporarily willing to give up another tradition.  Try to buy potatiskorv in Boston or Boulder (although if we were genuinely serious, we could have made our own, Instead, my sister and brother-in-law created a kind of pork burger-with-potato that almost passed). 

Last week I was with a group of “women of a certain age” when the topic of “making it through the holidays” came up.  The person who raised it felt rather anxious, because she was traveling “home” to a family gathering that included both frail parents and alcoholic relatives who had, in the past, behaved badly.  She had already made a backup motel reservation…..

What an unexpected Pandora’s Box!  As each woman spoke about their upcoming holiday plans, there was a consistent theme:  Stress, low-level conflict, fatigue – and a sense that perhaps even the most vivid childhood memories of the perfect Christmas were less than truthful.  One chimed in that she had always disliked Christmas, but her husband loved it.  Recently married, they were traveling to another state to be with his parents in a retirement community.  She looked hesitant when she described the trip.  A third noted that, as an adult, she experienced Christmas as a time when people drank too much and were not always able to participate in the joyfulness that young children have when they see the lights and a stocking from Santa.  But it was Sue, whose quiet story put me into alert mode:  “My mother wanted everything to be perfect.  Our tree was decorated to the teeth, with every matching ornament perfectly placed.  The food was lovely, served on those special Christmas plates.  Her wrapped packages were works of art before we tore in to them.  And then, as soon as the packages were opened, she collapsed….”  What I recall from my later adolescence was the same:  My mother would go to bed starting around noon on Christmas Day, and we would not see her until late evening, as we munched on leftovers.  While I never went quite as far in trying to create the perfect Swedish-American Christmas, as she said that, I remember vividly how quickly my Christmas Eve fun melted into fatigue….

Sue has found a new approach:  Her husband makes a list of every Christmas light tour, pageant, special concert, etc. – and wants to do it all with her.  They experience joyfulness because they have removed the work to get ready, the travel, the strained family relationships – by sequencing experiences that are fun, but not exhausting—while staying home.  And whatever Christmas cookies they bake are ones that they like, and not those prescribed by tradition.

Part of my heart wants to cheer “Let’s try it – get rid of all of it except presents for the younger kids!  Eat Thai takeout on Christmas Eve if we want to!  Give the money we would spend on presents to the food shelf – or use it to take a real vacation!  Maybe if we did less we might even be awake enough to go to a midnight candlelight service (isn’t that what we should be thinking about?)”  But the other part (and I am split down the middle) screams “No!  Family is cemented when the holiday traditions are strong but a little flexible!  I really LOVE making stockings for everyone, and don’t want to stop!  We already have given up on making only Swedish cookies—isn’t that enough?” 

If I think Marie Kondo, I have to ask:  Which of the traditions makes me smile and brings me joy?  And, which could be adapted to a new generation – my grandchildren – for whom we all want to create a sense of being part of a special family time.  And who will tell the stories about the takeout lutefisk unless there is the smell of julekage to elicit it?

Decluttering – But Be Sure Not to Cut Too Deeply

From Richard Leider through Marie Kondo, it is all about getting rid of stuff.  Stuff is not just STUFF (physical things) but includes sorting through memories, photos on your computer, etc.  It is also getting rid of assumptions that draw us into exclusionary thinking, such as examining the invisible knapsack of White Privilege (or any other kind of privilege).  Many of the references to decluttering are aimed specifically at US, older people who have never done anything other than randomly box stuff up and put it in the (literal or metaphorical) attic or basement.  According to Margareta Magnusson, who popularized the Swedish practice of döstädning, every person over 50 should get started because we are getting older and will otherwise leave a mess for the next generation.

And oh, the side benefit:  All of the above assume that if you do this, you will be happier.  Not just content, but even joyful, as your decluttered work life (or busy volunteer life) takes on a new sense of meaning, and your sentimental life becomes serene, as you chuck (or donate) unused bits-and-pieces of physical or emotional stuff that belonged to your dead grandparents. 

It took Dan and me six months to sort out the miscellany in the basement and attic of our house before we moved to a condo.  The stuff was unbearable, ranging from old toys to photography equipment from a distant hobby.  After moving, we did feel joyful and free as we surveyed our minimalist and light-filled new space.  We have not decluttered in the sense that any of the popular authors suggest, however.  We are influenced by our depression-raised parents, for whom reusing every bit of string was a virtue – and today’s ecological focus, which says “don’t throw and reuse”.  Books may go to the Little Free Library, but we are also liberal in borrowing from the same….as is visible in the pile of last summer’s planned summer reads.

But decluttering is about more than that.  Leider says, when repacking our bags for life’s journey, we should decide “what’s essential for the road ahead—what to let go of and what to keep, how to lighten your load, both tangible and intangible, for the new way that is opening up.”

However, If you google unpacking and repacking, the first things that come up are illustrated instructions on what to do when you get a package filled with complicated “stuff” that you need to put together – and possibly repack because it wasn’t what you wanted.  The first instruction is “Be sure to not cut too deeply”.  I kept looking for a googly way to keep that post from coming up first, but it stayed there.  I kept reading it.

Marie Kondo emphasizes the importance of finding joy in those things that we decide not to get rid of.  And, on All Saints Day (aka Halloween) I was reminded again that there are small things that we keep in our lives because they have become totems that store the memories of people who have been important to us – or even people who we never knew but who were important to another person who is dear. Maybe they are in a closet or on a shelf, largely ignored removed and dusted off once a year.  Is it the homely and old-fashioned candy dish that graced a great aunt’s Thanksgiving table?  Or the deteriorating butter box that is the only item to survive my great-great grandmother’s frightening and exhilarating journey from a rocky farm in Småland to a new life in Minnesota in the 1860s?   Neither belong in a curated/decluttered loft-like condo, but getting rid of them would require a cut too deep, even though it is not possible to say that they give me joy.  Fortunately, they are small, and can be kept without feeling like much of a burden, still carrying the deep past.  And they carry simple stories about where “we” came from.

But back to the larger “stuff” that contains emotions and occupies physical and mental space.  I just sent out a last call to my cousins to see if anyone wants our great grandfather’s rather homely and cumbersome late 19th century desk.  It no longer fits in any space in my daughter’s soon-to-be-renovated house, but everyone in my generation is down sizing.  The next generation is already in their 40s and each of them has accumulated too much stuff to accommodate it.  They are the ones who really need Kondo/Leider/Magnussen! 

I am (after much agonizing) at peace with the fact that the desk will probably go to another family — and I will survive without knowing where it is.  But the stories that come with the desk (and the candy dish and butter box) will survive because whenever the desk was moved the dates, locations, and mover’s names were recorded in a non-visible place.  They form a bare bones record of the dispersal of my father’s family from its roots in a village in Minnesota to New York, Massachusetts, Michigan….A photographic record of “The History of Great Grandpa Rose’s Desk” can become another easily stored totem of family history – if we remember to tell the stories.