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.).

‘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.  

“I’m 64, Should I Give Up Trying To Be Successful?”

Believe it or not, this is a real question, posted to the Quora feed.  What followed in a response was a post by a young woman about her father.  The upshot of her comments was:

He taught me that you can always succeed if you believe you’ll succeed.

So believe in yourself. I know that’s cheesy, but I’m currently in class with a 74-year-old woman who’s getting her psychology degree after being a housewife for 45 years. My dad was five years from retirement, and then worked an entry level job. People start over at all stages of life. If they can be a success after so long, then anyone can.

This was apparently a hit with the readers, garnering 2,700 likes and 64 shares when it appeared in my inbox.  But, if you read through the heartwarming story, her father “started over” when he was 50.  Life looks different at 64.  Or 74.  

But back to the question:  What does it mean “to be successful” much less “giving up” on trying to be successful? 

“To be, or not to be?  There is consensus that Hamlet is talking about enduring the pain of his life versus the calm of death.  But (for me) “being” is more than merely “living” and one of our biggest jobs in moving from living to being is to consider success more deeply.  I like to use the Tarot to understand this work – and to remind myself of the stories that I want to tell myself and others.

Juggling with Joy in Early Adulthood — When I was in my 30s, what I wanted most from my life was to experience my young children’s development and maintain a modest professional profile (which meant a job doing something that I liked).  In other words, success was measured primarily by short-term joyfulness and maintaining a do-able balance between family and work.  It was all about balance….and dancing a little while doing it.

Fast-Forward to My Mid-Forties: Craftsmanship…The kids’ needs were less immediate and they were busy with friends and school.  I, on the other hand, was experiencing external “success” at work, with increased ego-stroking responsibilities and annual reviews that placed me among the “exceeds expectations” group in all of the areas associated with being an academic (the three-legged stool of teaching-research-service).  I focused on skill and artisanship at work.  At the same time, my life was not in balance.  I traveled a lot, focused on my own learning, and believed (incorrectly) that my family needed me (or even wanted me) less.  Without thinking too much about it, these external markers increased in importance over the next decade.  While the focus on skillful work resulted in lots of tokens to hand on the walls of my office, this card does not exude joyfulness….

image

A Slow Crush..My success contained the seeds of failure. While busily crafting at work, I gradually became accustomed to before-and-during dinner drinks, which allowed me to relax and avoid thinking about my marriage or the daily challenges of parenting teenagers.  Work was challenging but manageable, but not the emotions and preferences of other human beings.  I managed to hold on to the external trappings of success but lost personal direction and Shakespeare’s “not to be” became an increasingly attractive option.

One of the consequences of depression is a generalized sense of meaninglessness — what better a definition of being unsuccessful?  I looked OK on the outside, but the image captures the way life felt on the inside.

Comfort and a Different Success? Twenty years later, my life had changed radically again, with a new (and peaceful) marriage, a position within my work as an “elder stateswoman” whose job was to nurture the development of others, and grandchildren.  This Tarot card represents the abundant fruition of success and a life finally almost back in balance.  I think that in this image I am both the older person on the left and the woman on the right, in conversation (with a student? My husband?).  Bridget, my oldest grandchild, is tugging on my dress, while beloved dogs wait to be petted.  Who could ask for more in this life?

This redemptive card is part of the story of dancing while juggling, honing a craft, and ignoring relationships and self.  But, in my mid-60s, much life remained. 

Becoming New Again? So success (or failure) has meant very different things to me over the last 40 years.  Of course I cannot know what further success might look like – it is easy to tell a story after the fact, but predicting anything is a challenge.  And rather than hoping for “success” I have to keep reminding myself that I am likely to find a gift if I am willing to accept the mystery and not try to force the future. 

To return to the Quora post, what appealed to me about the story that the young woman told was not that her father founded a successful business in his 50s.  Rather, it was that he was willing to take a risk:

He said ‘I don’t think I can make this work anymore. I might have a chance if we move….Within a month, we left New York and drove 16 hours down to Georgia.

I am not sure where I will find my psychological or physical equivalent of Moving-to-Georgia.  But, I hope that I will wake up one day, and have a similar insight.  And be willing to act on it – with abandon and “wise innocence”, like my favorite Tarot card. 

The Fool has found something lasting – a “successful” understanding of joy that emerges from deep inside, seemingly for no reason at all. But he is also embracing adventure — more than willing to take a new risk.

Close a Door and Begin Again?

………………………..

The (Wo)man who moves mountains starts by moving stones

-Chinese proverb

This cartoon spoofs a saying that annoys me almost as much as “Everything happens for a reason”.  My past was more happy than disappointing and I do not expect a future full of failures and distress.  BUT it is often the very idea of CLOSED DOORS between the past, the present, and the future that bothers me.  And that has not changed with age….

Doors opening – great!  The thought of a door closing has always felt wrong.  I like to move forward with the belief that the paths that I have already walked are places that I can return to as long as I do so regularly.  When I think about the often-quoted Chinese proverb, I am reminded that if I am moving mountains by moving stones, I have to keep going back for the next stone.  That means revisiting an ever smaller mountain.  Sometimes for a long time.  Eventually the mountain is so changed, that even when I go back it is not the same….and I may choose not to go back.

But I also think about the doors that haven’t closed because I go back to something different but still alive and engaging.  I can reach out to friends I haven’t seen in years – and we mix conversations as if we had not changed even as we are talking about what has happened in the intervening years.  I can reread Anna Karenina for the 5th time (I believe in reading it once every decade) and, although it is the same book with the same characters, I experience it as new and different. 

In other words, I feel as if my backpack is full of things that I carry with me and I can therefore go back with reverence but without wallowing in dusty memories (as Karen Martha warns against in Nostalgia 101).  Going back and re-opening doors is a deliberate practice, rather like walking the public footpaths that traverse private property in England in order to keep them open.  As Sam Knight remarks, “Retrieving a lost path requires a certain cussedness” and (in my experience) -the willingness to climb over stiles and between someone else’s laundry.   I have cussedness to spare, and enough friends (as well as a patient husband) that I get to tell the same story, with different acquired embellishments about the path, more than once.

Of course, that is also nonsense.  One of the mixed blessings of the internet is that it allows me to visualize closed doors in a very literal sense. The antique house that I still love (probably more than any I will ever have) was sold in 1986.  Sometimes when I have nothing else to do I Google “31 Hancock Street”, and recognize all of the things that made me love it (including the back door into the kitchen).  But it is not mine:  someone else owns it.   Even if I knocked on their door and they welcomed me in for a look, I would not be revisiting my house but one that has permanently changed and where I would not feel at home (which is why I don’t look at the pictures of the inside, which also leads me to unnecessary judgments about the last owner’s taste in colors, furniture and kitchen design…..) 

The message of “door closes-door opens” is annoying because it is often true even though I don’t want it to be.  Although difficult, the move from Lexington, MA to Minneapolis, MN opened many doors professionally and personally, and I am not going back. My daughters are in their 40s, and no matter how often I look at pictures of them when they were young, I love seeing them as parents and emerging wise women rather than as my babies. And I want to leave an institution and work that has given a lot of meaning to my life.   

I moved a lot of stones before deciding to retire, but they are now piled in the hallway between work and what comes next.  That no new door has opened yet is a fact.  I have no plan, although most people tell me that it is a mistake to retire without one.  The image of moving stones rather than mountains comforts me, because, although I have only poorly formed ideas about the path I am walking, what parts of the mountain I am trying to disassemble, or whether moving those stones will lead me to a door that is now hidden I am still moving something.  New energy.  New hope.

I started messing around in my friend Jacqueline’s studio and I have pieces that I painted in my living room.  I would continue moving artful stones with Jaqueline as my guide, but she inconveniently lives in the Netherlands.  Should I keep putting stones in that pile right now or defer it?  I have taken several years of classes to become a life coach, although I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with the new skills and ideas that I embrace.  In both cases, a “set in stone” identity as an expert has shifted to a new identity of being an even more curious novice.  Buddhists call it beginners mind – and I have discovered that it makes me more playful and less worried about the future.  As a novice, I walk through an open “being” door and leave behind a “doing” door (that is, at least temporarily, still open).  Does that count?