About Karen Seashore

I am a sociologist, life coach, policy wonk, and tarot reader. Other than reading a book, I always prefer to work with other people. Creating small changes -- in myself and in the world around me -- is my calling. You can find my scholarly publications under Karen Seashore Louis (or Louis, K.S.).

A Journey To Gratitude

Guest blog by Lynne Sarnoff Christensen

Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual; you have an obligation to be one.”

~Eleanor Roosevelt, American Humanitarian (1884-1962) 

Photo by Lynne Sarnoff Christensen

Let me tell you a little bit about myself.

I am a my own individual. I have had an incredible journey. I made it through my teenage years in the 60’s and am a proud survivor of college, experienced in the early 70’s. I lived through driving my dad’s car through the back of the garage wall and being rejected by crushes I didn’t have the courage to pursue. I drove while under the influence of being stupid and yet had the tenacity to align myself with personal intentions and move forward.

Through all of the “My purpose in life” conversations I have had with whomever would participate, I never really realized, that I hadn’t embraced one damn thing. Waking up in the morning was my start, but I had no idea as to what I was going to do with “that”. I soon came to realize that once my thrill of the moment was gone, do to a lack of purpose and vision, I moved on to another. My goals were of a short reach, constantly changing once achieved, a distant memory. My determination was beaten down by boredom. I needed objectives: purpose, passion, and perception.

Jump forward a few decades, I was blessed with a 10 pound 3 ounce bundle of joy and that was the beginning of my attention to gratitude. I was 42. My personal “snooze alarm” was going off and he was truly my gift.

Mentioning quickly and respectfully, that I was diagnosed with breast cancer when my son was 7, I was soon to realize that my purpose had shifted slightly and deepened along with an embraced passion and heightened desire to live and be bold as I have always done,  but now with a sharper vision. I wanted to create a trajectory worth reaching and one that was attainable. I had plenty of time to be with myself, observing my son all while creating a vision of my recovery, to be the best of situations. I felt a strength like no other. I became aware that I was empowered by an energy that made me aware of things I never took the time to be present for.

Gratitude was the foundation for my healing and wellness. When I visited my place of gratitude, I became calmer, less stressed and more keen to what I needed from myself and what I needed for that boy of mine. Created by this experience was a heavy weight, forcing me to slow down and take time to define a total purpose in life. How was I going to live was first and foremost. What was I going to do with this indescribable second chance at life? How was I going to achieve being the best mentor for my son without defining his path yet embracing it? Through the grace of gratitude, I can be at my best.

I have come to the conclusion that my purpose in life is to make an impact on others through my art and my voice. As vast as that may sound, it was a start for me. It was my canvas. I began to read books that would help me to gain focus. Books that directed my personal faith without directing my religion. I searched for something clear in definition, clear in pursuit clear in…purpose. It was my true soul and spirit that I was raising the bar for, for I had to be true to myself before anyone else. I needed to be empowered and dedicated to my conviction. It is with a clear definition, that I gained direction. I am grateful for where I am in life, as my own individual and engage others in recognizing their potential through my art and my words.

If we can think and act with a direct mindset, (which for me is sharing the essential need for gratitude) and take charge of our need to believe we can make a difference, then we truly will.

Throughout this journey I practice and recognize gratitude. It is the foundation of my calm as it is being the foundation of all my relationships. It is a connection to my experiences and to my influencers that have supported me. It is an expression of thankfulness and appreciation to people that have fostered me through to the next part of my journey. It is a peaceful place to rest.

photo by Lynne Sarnoff Chrisensen

I took a step back with the work in my pottery studio, to create a series of bowls simple and yet persuasive. I wanted to share how important gratitude can be. By creating these bowls, it allowed me to engage others with the ability to express gratitude towards others. I created a message of “why” in hopes of people understanding the need to express and share this emotion. I watched my son follow this direction with me, explaining that if I don’t try to make a difference with this emotion, then I will fall short of influencing others as an individual. I needed this vehicle to connect.

I wholeheartedly believe that gratitude can catapult us gently into a place of appreciating what we have, what we can accomplish and who we are. Gratitude can create a calmer culture to live within and grant us approval to accept differences, viewing them through a different lens.Would I have ever embraced the serenity of gratitude had it not been for the obstacles that arrived on my path in life? Would I have recognized it and honed in on the potential gratitude comes with? My spiritual connection is solid because I am so grateful…SO grateful.

Sharing the need to embrace gratitude by shifting our mindsets just a few degrees, is my way of making a difference. As an artist, woman of conviction, mother and individual, I have this obligation.

We are not here to simply exist. We are here to experience and contribute to the art of being the individuals we have become. To be fully present for myself allows me to be fully present for others.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png

Lynne Sarnoff Christensen’s bio is in the guest blog section on Karens’ Descant

What is Aging When I’m Still the Same Kid?

Nick Hitchon is the handsome young 21 year old on the far right.  That picture was taken four decades ago, after the release of the third film in the “Up” series, which has followed the lives of those in the picture from age 7.  “63 Up”, opened to thoughtful reviews, with many critics quoting Nick’s observation: “I’m still the same little kid, really.  I think all of us are”, probably because it captures a universal dilemma.  What we retain—the “essence of me” as we barrel into the future— is at the heart of defining identity as we age. 

The jokesters say, “I didn’t expect to turn into my mother” while the cynics say, “you can’t get rid of the past”.  In my case, the joker and cynic regularly change places.  In my 60s, whenever I met my kid I was surprised.  Now she is following me everywhere, mimicking my mother (and my father as well) and occasionally still rebelling at them.  Some of my kid-acquired habits are modestly noble (giving as much money as I can to those who have less) and some are laughable (squirming, as I did this year, at the Ghost of Christmas Past visiting me again with the groaning mantra of “a little lutefisk at Christmas keeps you Swedish for the rest of the year”). 

But the good side of revisiting my kid is that it causes me to think about the power of childhood experiences that have shaped me forever.  How being asked to write the music for my 4th grade school play left me with the belief that I could do most things that I had no idea how to do if I had some help along the way and didn’t expect the outcome to be perfect.  How traveling to Norway for a year in 1955 (we had to go on a boat!) gave me both a life-long commitment to visiting new places and a belief that kids are really alike, even if they travel to school on sleds rather than buses, eat whale, and don’t speak English.  I learned  to  “Knit the Norwegian Way” even before Arne and Carlos became famous…These experiences, which were challenging and joyful, are a deep part of who I became.  I think about them now not as stories of fun times, but as stories about the kid who is still within.

The “positive aging” gurus call revisiting these stories legacy wisdom (or a similar term):  We want to make sense of what we have experienced or done so that we can explain it, with modest coherence, both to ourselves and our grandchildren (Lord only know that our children don’t really want to listen to it….).  Just as important is remembering how my “inner child” is reflected in what I choose to do today and how I choose to do it.  Now this can get even more fraught than legacy wisdom, since “inner child work” is identified with healing early traumas that hold us back.  I have nothing against that, but I honestly don’t feel that any difficulties that I experienced before I hit late adolescence were anything but bumps in the road – certainly not axel-smashing potholes.

Instead, I remind myself that I am still what I was then.  As a child, my mother took me to the library every week and I would read the 5-7 books under the covers with a flashlight in order to be ready for the next visit.  I loved the words as well as the stories. I liked playing with other children, but I also liked being alone – my father made me a perch in a small poplar where I could sit and read as the leaves quaked silvery green. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1955-karen-copy.jpeg

I was curious, and looked forward to exploring our encyclopedia (it was bound in a pseudo-green leather and I can almost see the print in my mind). I was always too ready to speak up in class, which some teachers loved and some hated. I was not a daredevil, but I wasn’t worried about doing new or unexpected things when they came up, and I was never concerned about being perfect.  Although I rode my bike everywhere (like all children then), I was happier when I was sitting. I was not a jokester, but loved to groan at my father’s shaggy dog stories. (I also have to admit that I was regularly mean to my little sister).

I am all those things today — curious, wordy-nerdy, happy with others but equally happy alone, experimental and modestly allergic to formal exercise.  These inner child characteristics are, perhaps, even more apparent than I was when I was jousting with the world of work and frantically trying to maintain a reasonable role as a mom while maintaining a svelte shape – in other words, wearing my adult overachiever persona like a shield. But meeting and enjoying my personal kid does more than solidify my identity – as a “person of a certain age”, when I bring my child with me, I am less afraid of the very real uncertainties of tomorrow.   Listening to my kid means paying more attention to the activities and interactions that reward her rather than “professional Karen”, whose persona is also still part of me.  It is my kid who experiences joy that goes beyond satisfaction with accomplishment.

I review the list of opportunities that I described in Curating Joy – and think more about how they will make my kid feel.   What is the right balance between Zooming with others and being alone?  What will nurture my curiosity?  How can I plan my days to make sure that I have time to knit and read?  So, as I write this I am playing with my wordy-nerdy kid rather than cleaning my house, which is crying for attention.  I was never a perfectionist….

Let me end with the surprising similarity between Nick Hitchon (a physicist) and Gertrude Stein (an iconoclast):  Stein said, “We are always the same age inside” before Nick came to the same conclusion.  Or, perhaps, we all come to that realization on our own, which is why if you google “I’m the same kid” you will find over 1 billion hits. 

At least I am not mean to my sister any more.

WE ARE WAITING….

photo by Adam Tinworth

There is a December season of waiting every year – waiting for Christmas, waiting through eight days of Hanukah to commemorate the oil that lasted, waiting for the New Year.  My Viking ancestors, along with most northern European tribes, waited for Yuletide and the return of light, as I am sure that Romans anticipated Saturnalia’s (December 17-23rd) gifting and respite.  The waiting season reminds us to slow down, reflect and be grateful.

But this year is different:  We are waiting for the end of drawn-out ordeals — COVID isolation, closed schools, the U.S. election farce, and Brexit.  We are not waiting with delighted anticipation, but for a concrete end to crazy-making uncertainty.  Oh, what fools we mortals be….

Personally, I am reacting with impatience and a persistent stream of random desires…Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, I am waiting, made me laugh by capturing the preposterous and trivial hopes that populate my mind during this year’s waiting period:

I am waiting for my case to come up

and I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder

and I am waiting for someone to really discover America

and wail…

and I am waiting for the Age of Anxiety

to drop dead…

and I am awaiting perpetually and forever

a renaissance of wonder.

That’s where Ferlinghetti got me – a rebirth and a renaissance of wonder!  I cannot change the world or make people discover the real America.  I can (returning to themes in earlier blogs) make an effort to calm my “monkey mind” and reflect on the underlying message of hope that infuses both the pagan and modern December days.

Waiting implies that something is coming.  In my least reflective periods, that means waiting for the bus to arrive or a planned vacation. But what are we all waiting for post-COVID?  After the current political turmoil runs its course?  Neither I nor anyone else really knows – and all of the predictions offered in the newspapers seem like misplaced flailing against a brick wall of existential uncertainty.  So what can waiting mean now, when my only conviction is that the future won’t be the same?  

Waiting without impatience, to prepare for the unknown — that’s hard.  It means slowing down.  Really slowing down.  Not taking time in the big chunks of weeks or days, but focusing on each hour’s potential. Dan Albergotti’s evocative poem about waiting points to the same lesson:  enforced waiting requires attention to life’s details and distractions, but also to moments of quiet grace and awakening, in preparation for the time that will come.

Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

But I still find myself bound to an electronic datebook that defines the somewhat arbitrary landscape of my week — ignoring this, as Albergotti urges, is a tough call.  John O’Donahue, asks me to think about what it would mean if I abandoned futile hopes of domesticating everything I touch.  Both remind me that the gift of uncertainty (that we encounter in the belly of the COVID whale) is that a disorientation invites becoming more awake – if I allow it.  And, O’Donahue assures me that “Once you start to awaken, no one can ever claim you again for the old patterns.”  Not sure that I buy that as a certainty either, but it is a starting place…..

One thing that I know is that it is hard to relinquish my efforts to domesticate everything – make it manageable on my terms – without relying on others.  I am astonished at the degree to which acknowledging mutual vulnerability has become part of my routines:  Call someone who is floundering.  Reach out to grasp the certainty that I care for someone and that they care for me.  Be honest about how hard the little things are, and get my friends to laugh with me at my human imperfections.  And I am reminded, when I berate myself at night for all of the unaccomplished things on my list, that I wake up every morning feeling disoriented, but that disorientation slowly shifts to a sense of awe when I face the immovable mountain outside my door, which then eases me into morning’s hope and curiosity (along with two cups of coffee). 

I have a friend whose name is Patience, who has spent a great deal of effort over her more than 70 years to live up to her name.  She lives alone and has had the same year of cumulative perplexing loss that we are all experiencing.  However, her patience is not inert but is sustained by daily attention to well-honed practices that induce attentiveness and keep her awake to hope and joy. I learn from her practices, the most accessible of which are PAUSE. LISTEN. FREQUENTLY. Patience, along with all the poets, urge me to just pay attention during and after this season of anxious waiting.

Curating Joy in Troubling Times

photo by Bikku Amitha

Things really suck.  Mostly, we are surrounded by uncertainty and its ugly cousin, fear.  Disagreement and incivility still dominate the news, and I am challenged to see an easy path to restoring social trust.  Then, there is COVID-19.  Whether you mask or don’t, we live with more isolation and less freedom than we are used to. I desperately miss family members who I have not have seen in person for a year or more – especially grandchildren who are growing up without our hugs.  As my husband says (too cheerily), our only real job for the next six months is to stay healthy.  Now, if that’s my only job it’s boring AND scary when you actually think about it.

But I was struck by a second mandate:  “While we can’t control what’s happening around us, we can cultivate the capacity to be with what is with more ease, joy, and freedom.” (Sebene Selassie).  Salassie’s words brought to mind the much bigger job that faces me: finding a fulfilling life while we are in the cusp of shifting from middle-aged to older, from working to retired, and from planning-for-the-future to living-as best we can-today.  Karen Martha and I have written about this from different perspectives, emphasizing the importance of building a “hope muscle”, using the space and time that has been thrust upon us to find joy in a new challenge  and pondering how we redefine meaningful “work” when we are partially or fully retired.  And yet, many of us are still sitting awkwardly in the cusp…

And then Babs Plunkett sent me a pre-publication copy of her new book, Choose Joy.  No, it is not a sequel to Kay Warren’s best-selling Christian books of the same name.  Rather, it is more analogous to what Studs Terkel, our treasured oral historian, would have done if he had chosen to find out what older people thought about finding happiness in the last third of life. 

I was immediately drawn by Bab’s willingness to follow an unexpected inner voice.  She admits that living with her miserable and crabby grandmother was the source of a life-long conundrum on how to avoid the same fate. The solution was unanticipated: “I just woke one spring morning (March 1, 2018, to be exact) with a fiery passion to collect stories about people aging with joy and purpose.”  Finding joyful older people was a matter of using her personal networks, asking for nominations, and following them up with interviews, which she has distilled into engaging portraits.

Some of the people she describes prepared for retirement and entered with a blueprint – they are inspiring, but they are not me.  Most however, slid into retirement (as Karen Martha and I have done) without a concrete plan or purpose.  More importantly, “Most didn’t find just one big thing that filled their lives with purpose. Rather, they curated an engaging collection of interests that gave their lives meaning.” 

gathering #things #mabon #altar #for #aGather Gather, gatherer, or gathering  may refer to: | Mabon, Equinox, Altar

Ahh, curating….the antidote to the burdening social expectation that we develop a retirement passion that can be inscribed on our tombstone.  And an affirmation of the idea that we don’t always find a passion—opportunities and purposes appear and we are prepared to collect them. I plunged into the stories…which are arranged to reflect the typical recommendations for living a longer life (always a good place to start as far as I am concerned…), and will reflect on just a few that touched me.

Expert recommendation #1 is to keep your mind active – and many people do that by volunteering in ways that keep them engaged in learning.  I was particularly struck by Barbara’s story.  Rather than finding a particular volunteer opportunity and sticking to it, Barbara’s mantra is Tikkun Olam – healing the world – by finding many places that need short-term volunteers.  She has filled in for librarians, made recordings for the blind, and substituted in afterschool programs.  “When the volunteer role isn’t fulfilling anymore, I find something else”. Her mind is clearly activated by challenging herself with new ideas and routines, while at the same time doing good.  I found this inspiring:  I have friends who have found a volunteer passion, but I don’t have one – like Barbara, I will probably be best if I can find ways to learn by dabbling while doing good.

Molly’s story stood out for me because she is doing what she loves.  But what she loves is, on the surface, in inexplicable pastiche– birds (both the indoor and outdoor kind), pottery, and learning the harp!  It is wonderful to read about someone who feels totally fulfilled with many small passions because it is the combination of them that keeps her excited, engaged, and learning.  As I consider how to curate the small passions that I have never had enough time for, I am heartened by Molly’s obvious joy in having the time to deepen old hobbies while re-engaging with newer pleasures for which she now has time.  Molly is working with all of her senses in her curated mix, and I the joy I might have if I savor my own mix as “enough” feels within reach – even if it looks a little weird to an outsider.

I was struck by my introverted husband’s announcement that the end of the election cycle had left him feeling as if there was a void in his life.  His solution is to commit to calling at least one person every day – some old acquaintances and some newer.  I found another curating story in Choose Joy that expresses the same therapeutic power of the cell phone.  Lois, at 100, has created a wealth of connections that sustain her even though she has chosen to live independently in an assisted living facility close to one of her children.  Rather than keeping in touch only with family and what (at 100) would be a shrinking list of old friends, Lois keeps a phone list that includes people from all phases and places in her life.  She doesn’t wait for people to call her – she reaches out.  As someone with a bit of a phone phobia, she causes me to think about the importance of making new phone (or zoom) friends.  Especially in this time when our social world seems to be shrinking, Lois is a super heroine at curating relationships. 

As I reflect on the other stories in this lovely book, I find many that will help me think about how I can curate to find joy in this “in between time” where physically “joining” is impossible but I can’t bear the idea of losing a year.  I am writing down all of the website, on-line groups, and opportunities to do volunteer work by zoom that I can find.  And they are a diverse bunch, ranging from supporting an array of people who find themselves in challenging circumstances to exploring the meditation chapel website to finally learning enough chess to play with my husband (who knows all of the openings in the Queen’s Gambit). Oh, and reigniting my tactile delight in knitting by finishing some of the projects that have been on my list…find me on Ravelry!