About Karen Martha

I am a searcher and not always sure about what I’m looking for. I’ve lived in thirty-nine houses in four states and changed my name five times. One would think I embrace change, yet I find it discombobulating. My unrest is part of what inspires this blog on retirement. It’s like a last chance to live reflectively, instead of wandering helter-skelter into whatever shows up to keep me occupied. I’m interested in the soul work that presents itself at various times in our lives and in how that changes us. In past lives I taught middle school math and science, raised two children and helped with four grandchildren, finished four degrees, worked as a professor and researcher, and married three times—whew. In my present, retired life, I’m tutoring 4th graders, learning rosemaling, and when I’m not working out—writing—writing about this wonderful, often painful, and fascinating journey.

Main Course. . . Patience

My 16-year-old granddaughter, our “technical consultant,” called me last week in tears that her school, which has been hybrid, was going completely online.  There would be no more “real school” as it is delivered now, with plastic barriers in the lunch room, one-way halls for passing, tables that once afforded group work replaced by desks spaced far apart, and masks, masks, and masks! She said, “Even if we have to wear masks and don’t have as much chance as normal to socialize, it’s still better than sitting at home alone in front of a computer!” She almost never shouts or gets riled, but she was mad and making it known.

“Be patient” I advised. “Your teachers and the principals want to keep everyone safe. I’m sure they have good reasons for doing this.” She wasn’t hearing me, although a few days later when some students started an online petition to keep hybrid school, she said she wasn’t going to sign, arguing that maybe it was for the better since Minnesota is having a real Corona Virus surge.  Patience has prevailed for now, although she loves to dream about everything she will do this spring, when “we get a vaccine.” Her patience for now, is grounded in hope, that dreaming ahead we humans love to do.

We’re having a great opportunity with the Corona Virus to practice patience, and now with the election of Joe Biden, it’s twofold. First we were in limbo about who won and now we now find ourselves waiting for the handover of power. As for the virus, in Minnesota the governor has ordered a significant lockdown for the next four weeks. What can we do but wait—be patient?

That said, being patient is not always easy, especially when confined to the same house with the same people doing the same things day after day. I have four grandchildren, and all of them are experiencing disruptions to their lives that they neither anticipated nor have been taught how to handle. I can remind them that humans have survived many terrible things, world wars, other pandemics, droughts, depressions, etc., and I can express encouragement. Nevertheless, I wish I knew how to do more to help them. 

As a teacher, I learned that one of the most powerful ways to teach is to model, or, by example. Practice what you preach, walk the talk! This was brought home to me when I was teaching fifth grade while in graduate school. I would make note cards to study for a test, and whenever I had a break in my teaching day, like lunch, I’d use the notecards to study. I’d sometimes have students test me with the note cards. One day before a math test, I noticed that many of my students had made note cards about what would be on the test. When I commented on this, they told me they were studying like they saw me study. Wow!  I had not even tried to teach them this strategy, but they had learned it by watching me.

In a reverse of the generational expectations about who teaches whom, my technical consultant granddaughter is the one teaching me how to DO patience.  Her approach is about kindness, thinking about others instead of oneself. At the beginning of the pandemic when schools and everything else abruptly closed, she started calling her two grandmothers every couple of days so we wouldn’t be lonely. She has continued this throughout, and I truly look forward to it, as does her other grandmother I’m sure, who, in her late 80’s, lives alone in South Dakota. Talk about modeling!  And talk about “to teach is to learn!” She teaches me by example as she teaches herself. I am awed.

Last week my other granddaughter texted me that she missed my sloppy joes. It’s a custom in our family to get together to celebrate birthdays, and I make sloppy joes. I told the technical consultant granddaughter about this text, who immediately said, “You should make some and take them over to her.” I did, and as I set them on the doorstep, I welled up with pure joy—I was doing something to help, making the waiting just a tad easier.

When our governor nixed even outdoor gatherings for Thanksgiving, I was angry. In my family, we know how to gather around a bonfire while socially distancing, which was what we had planned. I remembered why Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It’s a holiday not about gifts or elaborate decorating or religious significance. It’s about celebrating our many blessings, the reliability of a sun that rises every morning on a spinning planet, rich with everything we need; strangers, friends, and family who mostly want to live right lives; and moments of joy and love.

Henrik, about to mix the filling

While I fretted about how to preserve my favorite holiday, my grandchildren, via a series of texts, planned a virtual pie baking afternoon for Wednesday (We’ve always baked pies together the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving). They are not letting a shutdown order stop them. Who better to forge a new way to celebrate than the young!

Next, our families sent out Zoom invitations to get together for the holiday. So, this year, on Thanksgiving day, after my husband and I have stuffed our chicken and put it in the oven, we’ll gather with our families around a laptop, the province of the young, for moments of joy and love, waiting hopefully and patiently for next year, when we can all be together once again. 

The COVID Canon

There I was, thinking I had my retirement all sewed up.  I was learning rosemaling—I who had never painted a thing in my life had found my people!  Three days a week I was tutoring fourth graders in math—I had also found some little people to nurture and who would tell me the truth about life in plain and simple language—Don’t run in the hall,” and “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

And then it hit.  The Pandemic!   Exciting at first, we were going back to 1918. Who doesn’t want to make history? After all, my paternal grandparents and father took a boat from Norway to the US during the pandemic, and they did okay. What’s the big deal? And if Anne Frank could hide in an attic in Amsterdam and write a classic memoir/diary about it during WWII (which we should all reread by the way), I could certainly buy two weeks of groceries and stay home.

I was teaching at the time, so I hastily put my class online. I decided that I’d need to bake bread—like 2 million other Americans—and used the only two packets of yeast I had for the first two loaves, then waited 8 weeks for a two pound package of yeast from Amazon. By then I was happily going to the store and buying bread again. Toilet paper was still dicey.

I could go on and on about adjusting to the pandemic.  Suffice it to say it was a scary adventure at first, then it began to get tediously scary, and now it’s a way of life, equally scary. So what happened to the glorious retirement I was working on?  Well, I’m still retired and for now at least, checks still get deposited into my bank account, and I haven’t gone under financially yet. The garden bloomed, and the weeds thrived. At first I told myself, “You’ve got this. You’re an introvert.  You don’t need other people.” But I realized I could sit in front of the computer or TV or in a chair reading only so many hours a day.  I missed my people, especially my little people.

It was a good summer for exercise, though. Got out on that bicycle way more than in other summers.  But winter is coming. That will be its own challenge in Minnesota. And we dare not book a trip to Florida, a hot spot of Corona Virus.

By now, dear reader, you’re probably saying “Blah, blah, blah, Karen.”  So, I’ll cut to the chase, as they say—why do they say “chase?” Here are my new rules for retirement during COVID, the COVID -===================dfgggggggggggvgv Canon, the first rule of which should be Keep your cat off the keyboard.

The COVID Canon

1.Teach your pets to know their place. You’re not staying home all the time to spend more time with them.  They need to get over that assumption. You aren’t going to throw the ball endless times in the house just to keep the dog happy, and you definitely will not be giving them treats to shut them up (I’ve had trouble keeping that one). 

2.You have only one purpose—TO STAY ALIVE (although the cat may think it’s to feed him). All the good retirement books advise us to “find our purpose.” For the first time this is finally clear to me. I don’t want to get this nasty virus, I’m 76 and I hope to someday be 86.  Knowing my purpose is very freeing.  No more having to find meaning in my life beyond wearing a mask, social distancing, and staying home.

3.All rules about TV are off.  You can have it on during the day and no one will accuse you of becoming an old person glued to the TV. And your kids won’t know unless you tell them—assuming they are staying away. Besides, who knows, you might be watching the Minnesota Orchestra, lectures, or National Geographic—expanding your mind.  Better yet, you could be watching our two candidates for president—there’s nothing like a good horror show.

4.Falling asleep in front of the TV is also allowed.  Who’s going to see you?

5.Long stringy gray hair is now permitted.  For men, you can have that ponytail you always wanted and that your wife said was ridiculous. And two days beard. . . well, you might be able to pull that off. And women, you, too, can have that ponytail you always wanted. . . which everyone said was too young a look for you.  Who gives a rip!  As for me—self-styling has reached a new low, but no one sees me. I might even take the mirror out of the bathroom.

6.Getting dressed still counts—now this is a tricky one. I still like to clean up, pick the matching earrings, accessorize!  But my husband. Eew. Not sure I should even admit this, but I have counted how many days he’s worn the same shirt. These matters can be grounds for fighting, and I suggest if you’re a couple that you negotiate standards for changing clothes. But then, now that it’s autumn, you can always sleep with the windows open.

7.The rules about doing something useful in retirement have changed—although how, I’m not sure. As for doing something meaningful and useful—the point of retirement—well, you’re not going to travel, unless you know something I don’t know or have a death wish; so the number one dream of retirees has been taken down a notch. Although you could buy an RV and do a John Steinbeck Travels with Charlie sort of thing.

You can still take a class—online, of course.

Maybe you could write your memoir, or a BLOG—what a great idea!  A blog about retirement—in the pandemic.

But then, if all else fails—all rules about TV are off.

8.Finally, the super big rule—do whatever it takes to outlast this pandemic! As a famous poet said, If winter comes, can spring be far behind. (This is the MN state mantra).  How about To the victor belong the spoils?  Or All things come to those who wait. Whatever platitude works for you.  Finally, dear readers, I ask you. . .

The Many Sides of Forgiveness

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

Joni Mitchell

I miss my friend, Ed. I miss watching Ed make sushi rolls with his large fingers. He rolls them slowly while talking lovingly about Japan where he grew up and where later he was head of an international school. I miss sitting on his deck and discussing children’s learning—the importance of activity. I miss visiting schools with him and teaching children to make Origami cranes. Most of all, I miss his friendship, which I once believed would last forever.

Something happened, but I don’t know what. After a mutual friend died, Ed stopped talking to me. I tried to connect over and over, but he barely acknowledged me. It’s been at least fifteen years now since we’ve shared a friendship. I’ve asked myself again and again: What did I do?  How can I atone? I know the reason might be within him, but unless we both value the friendship enough to talk, I cannot address my part.

Ed embraced many Japanese cultural beliefs, including the belief that folding 1000 cranes strengthens the chance that a wish will be granted.  Sadako Sasaki, a girl in Hiroshima exposed to radioactive fallout from the atom bomb when she was 2 years old and who developed leukemia at age twelve, set out to fold 1000 cranes so her wish to live might be granted. The story says that she died before she finished and that other school children finished for her. There are shrines to Sadako all over Japan and in other countries. She has come to symbolize innocent victims of nuclear war.

This June, in a pandemic malaise, when I was longing to talk to Ed to see what he makes of it all, I decided to fold 1000 cranes for him as a symbol of the value I held of our friendship. Perhaps when he opened the huge box of cranes all strung together, he would know how much it meant to me, still means to me. Maybe my wish for a dialogue would be granted. I calculated that I’d need to make six a day to be finished by the end of the year. I’ve been folding them ever since.

Not even halfway there yet!

Not too long into the folding, it occurred to me that I am folding in the hopes of repairing a friendship with someone who has shunned me. Do I really want such a friend?  And I started asking myself deeper questions. What changed between us? What was my role in it? Does he recognize a role that he might have played? If I had answers to these questions, would there be a common ground for apologies from either or both of us? And is reconciliation even possible?  These are not easy questions to answer. It might be easier to simply move on.

Which brings me to forgiveness. . . Karen and I have focused on forgiving others, but what about people in our lives that might hold pain that we’ve caused? I know that when I divorced my first husband, I hurt him deeply. He wanted the “’til death do us part” promise kept, and I could not give him that. He did not remarry and maintained that he held our marriage as sacred. He has passed on, and I wonder if he ever forgave me.

We celebrate the healing that occurs when we forgive someone, but there’s an internal healing in recognizing and facing our own transgressions.  I don’t recall telling my first husband that I knew I’d hurt him or that I was sorry for causing that hurt—I was sorry, although not for divorcing. At the time I needed to save myself. It took me a long time to come to terms with the loss that each of us experienced, but once I did, I changed my behavior from angry and resentful to compassionate—not in a patronizing way but as an equal, as a human being acknowledging that life isn’t easy, and we don’t always get what we want. Once I felt his pain, I stopped seeing him as the person who’d imperiled our marriage, a vital step in forgiveness. And then the next step, which was seeing that I, too, needed forgiveness. I have come to believe that at times something is out there that needs forgiving, and both parties created it and own it—a wound that needs healing.

          Human pain is human pain. We have all felt it. It may be pain inflicted by others, knowingly, unknowingly, or as fallout from a decision one or the other makes because she must. To effect any forgiveness, both parties must open themselves to remorse—If I could do it over, I would do it differently; regret—I’m sorry about my part in what happened between us; and reconciliation—I will work to have our relationship go forward.

          As I fold my cranes and think about Ed, I realize that in shunning me, he loses, too. We could have supported each other in grieving the death of our friend; we could have continued our work to better children’s lives; we could have shared the last fifteen years over numerous glasses of wine and sushi. Both of us lost a friendship. I continue to hope that that friendship can be restored, through forgiveness if needed. Meanwhile, I will continue to fold my cranes.

Impatience Meets Pandemic

I was folding an Origami crane when I started to think about impatience—probably because Origami teaches precise steps taken one-at-a-time, which requires patience. I am by nature impulsive. I don’t know if that’s equivalent to impatient, but certainly related. When I am impulsive, I’m not necessarily feeling impatient. I act without thinking and a different feeling follows the action. Sometimes the feeling is regret, which I can often shake off. With impatience, however, that longing for something to happen and then trying to force that something, the regret goes deeper. It often leads to remorse, “if I could do it over, I’d do it differently.”

I’m the person new car dealers love. Take my last car. I set out with my sixteen-year-old grandson to buy a Mazda. He, however, didn’t want to drive across town (inherited impatience?) to the Mazda dealer, so suggested we start with the Volkswagen dealer in his neighborhood. I ended up with a VW. It was impatience meets impulsiveness. The car buying process that takes patience—or endurance—was sped up with an impulsive purchase. Fortunately, I love my car—having no Mazda to compare it with, since I never considered one.

Life is a first-rate teacher about impatience. One of my most enduring lessons occurred when I was about ten years old. I had a baby tooth that ached and ached, but would not fall out on its own, but instead needed to be pulled. My stepfather took me to the free dentist at the gas company in Racine. As we rode the bus downtown, I was filled with dread and fear. Up until then, my experience of losing teeth involved pliers or strings tied to the tooth, connected to the knob on a door that would then be slammed, and voila—the tooth would be out, instant but short-lasting pain. To my mind, my stepfather taking off work to take me to a dentist surely involved something worse, although I couldn’t imagine what.

I don’t remember how the dentist pulled the tooth—the dental equivalent of a pliers? I do remember sitting on the bus on the way home crying, with blood and saliva running down my chin. My embarrassed stepfather handed me his hanky and hissed at me to Stop crying!

The next day I woke up feeling great, no more toothache, and now the permanent tooth could come in. I’d learned an indelible lesson: “Get it over with. Worrying and dread are worse than moving forward. Once it’s over, all will be fine.”

When my second husband, Gary, was dying of cancer, that lesson kept rearing up. Our situation was life and death, in no way like a tooth extraction, yet my mind kept capitulating to “get it over with.” Gary’s pain was unremitting from the disease, fear about dying, and a deep sense of loss—he was 54 years old. My pain was watching his suffering and feeling like I could do nothing to help. I dreaded what was to come for both of us.

How much more could either of us take? At one point I thoughtlessly told him that I just wanted it all over with. He responded cynically—and rightfully hurt—“I’ll see if I can’t speed things up.” Fortunately, my careless remark prompted us to spill our feelings and share the pain to the extent that we could—love in the midst of dying—yet I still regret those thoughtless words.

And then he died. Regret was nothing compared to the unrelenting pain of a heart trampled by death. And the notion of “getting it over with” . . . a childish fantasy. I felt even worse than I had watching him die. Day after day of sudden crying, feeling the loss so deeply. I thought over and over about what I would give to have him back. I realized that I should have hung on every moment we had together in that last year, treasured them. A new lesson took hold “Live fully in what is tangible and present today. Cherish those you love.”

I tell this story because the pandemic, for me, calls up again that childhood lesson of wanting something over with. I want this damn pandemic DONE, FINI! I wish COVID was a tooth that could be pulled, and we’d wake up tomorrow feeling better.

But then there’s that competing lesson of enjoying what is tangible and present. I’m also reminded that I’m 76. My time could end abruptly from a heart attack or stroke. I could learn tomorrow that I have a fatal disease.

So, I forge on, wear my mask for a better tomorrow for all, while reminding myself that a beautiful summer is blowing through my windows. On my daily walks or bike rides, at my socially distant breaks with friends on our patios, or during my Zoom meetups, I remind myself to show up fully. This is the new normal, and I’m resolved to stay present, to know the magic in today’s moments. Even time during a pandemic can never be gotten back. Patience, Karen, patience.