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.

In All Visible Things. . .

Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg, Austria

One holiday evening this year, I watched the Sound of Music. It’s one of my favorite movies. I love the music, but mostly it makes me recall a four-month mini-sabbatical I had in Salzburg where the movie was filmed. Nostalgia overwhelmed me as I viewed the nuns walking through the Nonnberg Abbey, and the children and their nanny, Julie Andrews, cavorting in the Mirabell Gardens, all set against the Austrian Alps, places I remember from my time there.

I recalled my zimmer with chickens beneath my window, whose eggs I ate for breakfast, and the shop down the street where I could buy a takeout Austrian dinner. I was doing research on school lunch in Europe, and I had access to Salzburg schools because my son, his wife, and my new grandson were living there and through their work had met local educators.

I could go on about the many memories, but what struck me as I watched the moviewas that I was remembering this time as happy when, in truth, it was not. My husband had died three years before, and I was in a prolonged grief, crying easily at almost everything, feeling like a role player in a meaningless life, while struggling to build an authentic one.  The only joy I felt was spending time with my grandson, Peter, a toddler with unlimited wonder at his unfolding world. Otherwise, I spent way too much time in my room, forcing myself to revise field notes of my research observations and to read about cultural learning—with the goal of delaying going to bed and crying myself to sleep. 

It wasn’t a happy time at all! And yet, today I remember it fondly. What is going on, I asked myself, as I reflected on my faulty memory? Was I rewriting the experience to make a bleak time look rosier?  Or was nostalgia for Salzburg and my grandson overriding my memory of unremitting grief. Perhaps my process was a part of a subconscious life review, consolidating my memories into something that would eventually make the whole of my life hang together? Regardless, if I was honest with myself, accurate memory had given way to nostalgia.

I’ve written about nostalgia before in Nostalgia 101, noting that it is healthy and tends towards positive memories. Its highest occurrence is when we are young and old with the middle years of life less given to nostalgia. Experts believe it’s helpful during life transitions when we’re unsure of where we’re going. We can look back and see the past as happy, thus the future feels safer. My time in Austria was part of a long transition to reestablishing my life without my husband. Though I was incredibly sad, deep within me, I believed I’d find my way. That said, I was still troubled by my disparate memories. How could I allow what I knew as truth be glossed over with nostalgia?

I walked around for several days asking myself what does it mean to have conflicted memories. Which one is really true?  Then I started reading Pauline Boss’s The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. One of her central ideas is that  in adapting to losses, we should not think either/or—which was exactly what I was doing by seeking one truth about my perceptions of my time in Salzburg. She says we need both/and thinking. In terms of the pandemic, she writes: “I am both hungry for alone time and for social contacts; I both disagree with my neighbor and continue talking with him. . . “

After reading this, I revised my thinking.  I was both happy in Salzburg experiencing a beautiful city, and I was deeply sad about losing my husband. I was making progress with finding my way as a researcher and feeling up-ended by the loss of my marriage-infused dreams. I was happy to spend time with my family there, especially my new grandson, and sad that I couldn’t share this with my husband. It feels so right to be able to say all these things, there’s a clarity and truth to the statements that either/or doesn’t provide.

In the days following this insight, I found myself infatuated with both/and thinking, ready to chuck dualism as obsolete.  And like any good revelation, I kept seeing both/and everywhere.  Even the New York Times was onboard, running an op ed about both hating one’s husband and loving him. Then I asked myself if both/and adds up to a whole, and that stopped me in my tracks.  It was too simplistic.

I turned to my fellow blogger, Karen Rose, who assured me that there’s more going on than simple addition, and she pointed me to a passage in Parker Palmer’s new book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old. The passage isn’t from Palmer, however, rather Thomas Merton in Hagia Sophia. It begins: There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity. . . Suddenly I saw it, the fecundity immanent in all human experience. In Salzburg, I was healing and in pain, and at the same time laying the groundwork for things to come, like my deepening relationship with my grandson, Peter; like insights about the culture of school lunches; even like the relationship with Karen Rose, such that we now write a blog together. 

Two insights—both/and and the fecundity in human experience. Wow, what a way to start a new year!

I floated only a short time on the excitement of these new ideas, mainly because we are living in a pandemic that’s always with us. I cannot help but think about our present situation as a country and planet. Omicron, political dissent, and climate change are among the issues. I am getting towards the end of my life, while others, including my loved ones, are at the beginning and middle. We are all living in uncertainty. My hope is that Merton has it right, beneath the travails of this troubled time are seeds to a new and better world.

Hagia Sophia

I Want Out!

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Today I told my daughter that I’ve been thinking that I need to get out of my comfort zone, which Dan Buettner describes as the “behavioral and psychological construct in which our activities and thinking fit a routine pattern.” 

My daughter replied, “You think you want out! I don’t leave the house!” Between COVID and working from home she knows exactly what I mean about being stuck, comfort zone notwithstanding.

My clinging to a comfort zone was brought home to me last week when my husband and I visited the “other Karen” and Dan at their new home in Boulder, Co. In pre-historic times, i.e. prior to COVID, Karen and Dan intended to winter in Boulder, which has four seasons but a milder and shorter winter than Minneapolis, and then return home in the spring. During the second year of this plan, while they were still in Boulder, along came COVID, making it feel both difficult and risky to come back for spring and summer in Minneapolis. After a back and forth of emotions and reasoning, also a couple of trips “home,” they decided to make a clean break with the only home they’d known together and experience something new; they moved permanently to Boulder. 

Immediately they were thrust into a world of differences, taking them out of the comfort zone of neighborhood, people, coffee shops and politics that fit them well. Visiting them, I realized the many changes they’ve made and experienced. There’s the ethos of the west—independence and self-reliance. Then there’s the difference between the lush green, mostly flat terrain of the Twin Cities and the Flatiron mountains framing a basin that is mostly dry and dusty.

The move required selling their Uptown condo and moving into a tiny house, which meant truly embracing Susanka’s “not so big life.” Loved pieces of furniture and art objects had to be considered one by one and either kept or sent to another home (I got an amazing desk). They needed to find a new church, friends, and ways to spend time. I won’t belabor the innumerable decisions and differences, rather note that a taken-for-granted way of life had to be changed.

Karen and Dan’s new life was what precipitated my preoccupation with my own “comfort zone” (see Karen’s blog about wrestling with her comfort zone). They are having an adventure, and I’ve always been up for an adventure. Karen glowed when she talked about all the new things they are experiencing, the adaptations they’ve made to living a smaller life, and their emerging new friendships. Moving has clearly taken them out of their comfort zone, and from my vantage point, it looks like FUN!

Starting about the day we enter school, our world expands, from our family, to the school, the community, state, country and world. We grow outward to a bigger life, leaving home, finding our way, and making our own home. It seems like the natural order of things.

Now here I am as an older, retired person, and it feels like I’m going in the opposite direction. Instead of life getting bigger, it’s getting smaller. Some of the progression is my own doing. I like an orderly life, which hardly sets me apart from the norm. The price of that orderly life, however, can be a fence that keeps me in and life out—like a border wall, intended for psychological safety but locking out the other, the unknown and the chance to learn and grow.

We stay in our comfort zones because they make the world predictable. We stay because we don’t want to disrupt others and because physical changes can make us hesitant. Our judgments can obscure how the world works. Some of us have caretaker responsibilities. And then there’s COVID, which has constrained us all. It’s not hard to produce a list of plausible reasons—maybe I should call them excuses. But that seems too harsh.

About a month ago, I signed up for a short class on writing about sacrifice. Karen Hering, the leader, asked us to focus on any object in our sight and write about why we need it. I focused on a birdhouse that I had covered in rosemaling (I couldn’t bear to leave it outside over winter, so I’d brought it into my office). I found myself writing that I need the birdhouse because it allows me “to be whimsical in the world, to step out of predictable Karen into creative Karen. . . to see what the predicable Karen can’t see when she’s always doing what people expect her to do. The birdhouse reminds me of art and beauty and playfulness while being a home for birds—birds that fly—leave the ground and fly.” 

Writing those words was a revelation to me. I suddenly saw why I need to break out of my comfort zone (at the time I didn’t call it that). For me right now, during the restrictions of COVID, my rosemaling class has given me some of the stretch I need. I have never considered myself artistic—and here I am painting! In the process I’ve met new people, learned about folk art, worked with one of the prize-winning rosemalers in the US, found a way to honor my Norwegian father, and have had the joy of creating, even when my line work is shaky and my flowers somewhat crooked

I’m reminded of other risks I’ve taken in my life, moving numerous times, including to Utah and Pennsylvania, and quitting a secure job that I liked to go back to graduate school in my 40s. Not to mention the risk-taking men I fell in love with (and sometimes married). All have had moments of great pain, discovery, and happiness. I’ve worried about failure and did fail off and on. But these risks, these stepping out of my comfort zone have been life changing. As I’ve reached outside myself, the inside of myself has had the most meaningful change, because I’ve found persistence, resilience, patience, and impatience within myself, and I’ve learned I’m up for a challenge.

This December I will turn seventy-eight. I’m promising myself that this year, I’ll step out of that comfort zone a little further. I don’t know what it’ll be, but I’m open and ready. Parker Palmer says in his new book, On the Brink of Everything, my expectation is not of the world but of myself: delight in the gift of life and be grateful.” As for me, the brink I stand on is taking a new risk, however big or small, but one that takes me out of my comfort zone.  So far, I’m thinking about a trip to Rome with Karen Rose…. And that’s a good place to start.

Lost and Found: That “Third Thing”

My third husband, Jim, was already retired when I met him, both of us in our 60’s. We had lost spouses to cancer and were living as singles—for me, nearly seventeen years, but not so long for Jim. We had much in common and didn’t want to date for years to get to know each other, so we decided to jump right into the complexity of marriage.  “Uff da,” as we Norwegians say.

We believed we were old hands at marriage—especially me—but quickly realized that marriage later in life, like all marriages, has plenty of challenges.  They are just different ones. I began to understand, too, the importance of what the poet, Donald Hall, calls a “third thing.”

Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment.

Starting out, Jim and I didn’t have that third thing. We both had our individual families and histories, but nothing we’d created or shared exclusively as a couple. Then along came Eddie, our beagle, who showed up on our deck one afternoon in late September. At the time Jim’s dog, Happi, was dying of oral cancer. She slept peacefully most days on the corner of our couch.

I’d noticed a dog wandering in the thicket behind our house, and wondered what he was doing there, so when he showed up, I let him in, believing he had to be lost. He came in like he owned the place, and gently sniffed Happi, resting on the couch. He then took a drink of her water and settled down on the rug with a sigh. When Jim came home, we walked the neighborhood with the dog, expecting that he belonged to someone nearby. No luck, so Jim took him to our local vet and left him. The vet called later and said that using the dog’s chip, they had found the owner, and the two were reunited. Case closed; Happi died a week later.

Then came November and a call from the vet who told us that the owner didn’t want the dog and was going to take it to the pound, unless we might be interested. We were mourning and didn’t want another dog. We also didn’t want this friendly dog to go to a pound. So we took him. A week later was Thanksgiving, and Eddie—we now knew his name—made a grand entrance to our family by lifting his leg and peeing on the dining room table leg, just as we were about to eat.  An ignominious beginning, to say the least.

Over time Eddie showed his true worth. He was always a stalwart defender of Jim through his illnesses. He sometimes howled in happiness when Jim walked through the door. He also followed me doggedly (pun intended) around the house. Gradually—and finally—we found ourselves with a third thing—our family of pets, which included Thor, whom I brought to the marriage, and Tress, Jim’s cat, and of course, Eddie, with his beagle personality, the obvious linchpin. (Tress later died, and we now have a new cat, Stella.)

Jumping ahead to this September. . . we went up north to Lake Superior, on the edge of the Superior National Forest, beyond Duluth and almost to the Canadian border. A pristine wilderness, and we would be there at the peak of fall colors.

A Beautiful Fall Day–Up North

It was our first time out after Jim’s illness, finding our way back to the world. Wonderful friends had invited us to a cabin and said, “Of course, bring Eddie.”  And Eddie had been Eddie, kind and loving to everyone, and trusting that this change of venue was fine, jumping onto a red chair and settling for a nap, whenever he could.

The weekend was coming to an end. Jim was already in bed in our little guest cabin. Outside the night was pitch black; it had been raining all evening. As I got ready to climb in bed, I looked for Eddie in his red chair.  No Eddie. I looked all over the cabin, peeked under the beds, opened closet doors that he couldn’t possibly have gotten into, but still no Eddie. I woke Jim to help me search. He suggested that maybe Eddie had gotten outside. The screen door did not latch, although it made an angry retort if you didn’t manually close it.

Eddie was gone. We’d lost him and in a place immense and filled with dangers everywhere. I started thinking about those TV dramas where a child goes missing and someone says, “The first 24 hours are the most important.” So, in my pajamas, I slipped on my hiking shoes, grabbed a rain jacket and flashlight and took off down the dark road calling “Eddie, Eddie,” still traumatized from almost losing Thor only a month ago and thinking dark thoughts about our status in the universe.

Who did we think we were, venturing out when Jim was still recovering? We’d been preoccupied with having everything go well for Jim, so that his legs would not swell and pull us back into the hole of sickness we’d been climbing out of.  And now we’d put Eddie—a big part of the menagerie that made up our third thing—at risk, Eddie, who trusted us and believed in the goodness of the world.

I searched near the steep shoreline and down the two roads near the cabins.  There were a couple of hiking trails along the river, but I didn’t dare take those in the dark though I imagined Eddie sniffing his way down them, following a provocative scent, then trying to find his way back to the cabin. All the while, a wolf watching and waiting to make dinner of him. No Eddie. As I walked back, my eyes filled with tears, overwhelmed with loss—the loss of Eddie along with the loss of Jim’s health.

Imagine This–In the Dark

I walked into the cabin, knowing there’d be no sleep, just as there’d not been much sleep in the weeks before. There was Jim in the kitchen, Eddie at his feet, begging for a bite of toast. I couldn’t believe it. Eddie had found his way back in the murky, threatening darkness. 

But Eddie had never been gone at all. There was a mattress stored under the bed, and although both Jim and I had looked under the bed, we had not been able to see that Eddie had squeezed himself on top of that mattress and directly beneath the bed mattress, with barely enough room to raise his head, like being the filling on a mattress sandwich. He’d finally come out to all the excitement. Crisis averted, our boy, the linchpin of our third thing was safe and sound.

We live in a time rife with threats—to our country, to climate, to the flora and fauna of our earth, and we live with this during a time in our own lives filled with uncertainty. Having a third thing is one way of standing together among that uncertainty. Jim’s and my third thing might not be the stuff of poetry, but it is our third thing, and, like life itself, both ubiquitous and fragile. Will we someday lose Eddie, or Thor or Stella or something else we dearly love? Of course, but meanwhile we have Eddie, who found his way to our doorstep and people who love him. While I was searching for the “lost” Eddie, there he was, wedged between the mattress version of a rock and a hard place, sleeping soundly and trusting that all would turn out okay.

Welcome to the Club

The Clubhouse

I wake up from pleasant dreams that I can’t remember, but I do know I felt good in them. Slamming awake I realize that it’s still there, the reality of my life. My husband, Jim, has a chronic condition that will require care the rest of his life.  Currently, it’s acute and my days revolve around it. I eat breakfast, not only standing, but taking a bite and then doing something that needs doing before the lymphedema nurse arrives. I haven’t showered, but the dog’s been walked, I’ve tidied, and I’ve thrown a load in the washer. This is the life of a caregiver, disjointed and always on call.

I am not alone in my call to give care, indeed, having joined a club that welcomes all members. Nearly 42 million adults in the US care for elderly parents or friends, with three out of five of these, women. The average age of caregiving recipients is 68.9 while the average age of caregivers is 49. I’m outside the norm on that one. But I’m not outside the norm of a 20 hour work week for caregivers (See https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2020/05/full-report-caregiving-in-the-united-states.doi.10.26419-2Fppi.00103.001.pdf.).

I’ve been thrust in the roll of caregiver four times in my life, and each experience was completely different. Context matters, who you are taking care of matters, your life at the time matters, the malady matters, how long the caregiving will go on matters, and your attitude matters. I suspect this is just a minimal list of all the permutations. For now, let me tell you a little about how caregiving has impacted my life. Maybe others will be inclined to share their experiences.

Two thoughts dominate my internal monologue. The first is how long will this last? Will it consume my entire retirement? There’s anger behind this thought, and I don’t like that in myself. But I’m not only angry. My second prevailing thought is compassion. Someone I love is coping with pain and the knowledge that his life will never be the same, that many of his favorite ways of spending time are gone. Probably toughest of all is watching him cope with the knowledge that this recurring illness is a harbinger of the end of life.

My first introduction to caregiving was when my mother, Margaret, was dying of kidney cancer. My two sisters and I agreed to do two-week stints to help her and our stepfather. I went first. It was heart wrenching to see her in pain all the time. Her cancer had spread to her bones, and she lay, mostly moaning in pain. A strong painkiller patch deadened some of her pain, but she was also in pain about dying. “I’m not ready,” she told me. “I wanted more time.” She never talked about how she would use more time. She knew she wasn’t going to have it.

My mother lived three months from those first two weeks when I cared for her.  I never had a chance to care for her again. When I returned home, my second husband, Gary, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was to be a caregiver to him instead. Caring for my mother felt like a loving responsibility. I was to quickly learn that caring for a husband whom you love very much is a completely different experience.

Gary lived fourteen months from his diagnosis of cancer. We had a mix of good and bad times, and I never resented caring for him. During the hard times, he was extremely cross from his pain—understandable, but still difficult. During the good times, we mourned the loss of our future together. I was with him every step of the way. A part of my heart was broken when he died. A wise counselor has taught me that within the brokenness is the memory of a man I dearly loved. I can hold that memory and go forward with my own life.

Seventeen years after Gary died, I met Jim, my third husband, whose own wife had died of cancer. We were going along nicely, forgetting how life can turn on a dime. Over one Labor Day weekend, he developed sepsis and went into septic shock, almost dying. We later learned it was from a perforated ulcer. When he came home from the hospital, I was back in the club. What I didn’t expect were the demands of helping someone who’s in great emotional turmoil from the aftermath of the disease itself—depression. We muddled through, not realizing that chronic edema, a consequence of his illness, would create the ideal conditions for another bout of sepsis three years later.  

So here I am again, a fourth time, which I sense will be indeterminate. I must say it feels different. Two days ago, a nurse bluntly said to us “It’s not edema, it’s lymphedema, a different condition. And you’ll have it the rest of your life.”  She kindly didn’t add, “Get used to it,” but it was implied.

Once again, those same two thoughts haunt me—what will happen to my life? Will I be able to do the things I enjoy? Will I ever be able to travel again? And what about my writing? Rosemaling?

Then there’s that second haunting thought about his suffering and fears. I feel challenged to alleviate these and help him go forward. I also feel great sadness for him. Am I up to the challenge?

Susan Allen Toth wrote an excellent memoir, No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days,  about caring for her husband who died of Parkinson’s disease. She writes:

“So much.” I think that simple phrase could easily be the motto emblazoned on a caregiver’s shield. Love, pain, courage, endurance, loss. So much, so much.

We caregivers are a club. We don’t have to feel isolated because we are in the company of caregivers all over the world, not to mention the circle of help from home nursing services, friends, and family. And we have love, the foundation that helps us go forward no matter how uncertain the future may be. As for me, it’s early, and doggone it, I will do my utmost to take care of both Jim and Karen. If there’s one thing the caregivers club has honed in me, it’s determination!