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.

Destination Death

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    To This Favor by William Michael Harnett, 1879 (Wikipedia)

Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble keeps a skull on her desk, one of many sent her by her followers, and believes that the words ”You are going to die,” can give comfort. These are part of her mission to revive the practice of memento mori, Latin meaning “Remember you will die.” As a practice, a memento mori object reminds us to consider  death daily and that life will end. Thus we learn to value the present as well as the future. Sister Aletheia argues that we tend to think of our lives as continuing and continuing, but confronting the inevitability of death, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist, leads us to a deeper understanding of our lives.

Sister Aletheia Noble is forty years old. As I think back to my forties, I don’t remember that I thought excessively about death, although the black colored themes and cards we send on 40th birthdays suggest that forty is a transitional age, when we at least acknowledge our mortality. Now, in my mid-seventies, every day brings me manifestations of aging, from the mundane wrinkles, to the chronic, aching knees and hips, slowing steps, and consciousness about falling. All of which, in their entirety, lead to diminished mobility, the inability to experience life as we once did. For me, the Tiger Tail foam roller on my desk is as good as a skull, because it reminds me of where gradual physical changes lead, that I am mortal, and that death is my ultimate destination. 

Interestingly, I came across the Sister while looking for information about people who maintain exceptional physical fitness into old age. I was back from a week at a cabin on Lake Superior and had done both some easy and quite strenuous hiking, including the seemingly innocent path from the cabin down to the lake shore.

For the first time in my many visits to the cabin, I felt hesitant, even a tad scared. The path starts with a series of steps with a handrail and becomes a long needle-covered slope descending to a rocky barrier with the necessity of almost scooting, legs first, (at least for me) over the rocks to the beach itself.

To my 77-year-old judgment, the path looked doable, but deceptively so, because one wrong step, one foot mistakenly placed or unable to hold its position, would lead to a long slide ending at or on those rocks. And, at my age, that wouldn’t be a pretty ending.

With the help of a hiking stick, something I wouldn’t have used in my younger years, I made it down the path—more than once—and enjoyed the beauty of Lake Superior, the thrill of the icy water on my feet, and basking on rocks in the spring sunshine. But I didn’t attempt the path at night, as much as I wanted to gaze at the spectacular night sky. Instead, I enjoyed it from the driveway. Later, thinking about my hesitancy and realizing that the path will only get more difficult as I get older, I asked myself, how long will you be able to do this, Karen? 

The internet is full of answers to this question and full of examples of elderly people running marathons, swimming the English Channel, lifting enormous weights—you name it. But impressive as these are, my sense is that such achievements require unquestioned and total commitment—24/7 if you will. Which reminded me of our old friend, “purpose.” These people clearly have a sense of purpose and it’s all about the physical challenge, making the infirmities of old age seem optional.

Which leads me to ask how facing death on a daily basis, whether it’s contrived as in the Sister’s revival of memento mori or simply the harbingers of death as we age, affect how we construct our old age. I respect that some people find a big purpose in exceptional physical fitness to which they devote their remaining time (although I sometimes wonder if this is a way of ignoring the reality of destination death), but for me, as much as I treasure all the wonderful activities the body allows us to do, as I age, I want to stay open to new callings that could potentially replace lost abilities. So what if eventually I can’t navigate a difficult trail? I can still mentor my grandchildren and the occasional student. I can learn rosemaling, tutor middle schoolers, enjoy Bridge, enjoy my friends and family, publish an occasional article and read books that make me think. My days balance small purposes, the “little p’s,” that make up a life. As May Sarton says, “I have work to do and a constant response to it that makes me feel that life has meaning.”

When my mother was nearing the end of her life, if we planned something like an all-night wedding reception or party that would keep her up late, we’d ask her if she wanted to attend because we worried she’d get too tired. She was always up for it. She’d say, “I’m going to spend a long time asleep in my grave. I want to be awake for my life.” She didn’t need a skull on her desk to be reminded of her mortality. Part of aging is facing our deaths gradually – very gradually. Aging does slow us down; it incrementally steals once taken-for-granted skills. The challenge is to stay immersed in living while knowing the inevitable ending.

“Both Sides Now?”

Lake Superior Path

When my mother was dying of excruciating kidney cancer that had spread to her bones, even though she was completely bedridden on strong painkillers, she insisted on going over and over her life. She wanted to ask forgiveness for things she saw as mistakes. To Dr. Robert Butler, what she was doing was a life review, a “naturally occurring, universal mental process characterized by the progressive return to consciousness of past experiences, and, particularly, the resurgence of unresolved conflicts.” According to Butler and others, such a review allows the dying to die in peace by reintegrating life events so that they give meaning to a life.

Butler (1927-2010) is a giant in the field of aging and gerontology,  winning a Pulitzer Prize for Why Survive?: Being Old in America (1975), serving as the first director of the National Institute on Aging, and founding the first department of geriatric medicine. But the contribution that has permeated so much of psychology and self-help, is the notion of a “life review,” which has grown into a therapeutic treatment used with adults at all stages of life.

Others have seized on the life review concept as a way of creating a meaningful retirement. Julia Cameron in It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, advises dividing your life into sections—your age divided by 12—and reviewing a section each week in a memoir. Other retirement gurus like Richard Leider use the idea of life review to promote writing an ethical will in which you distill your life experiences into wisdom and values you have gained. Gene Cohen also advises writing an autobiography that includes unfinished interests and dreams. Even a book written for all ages, Designing Your Life incorporates a version of the life review.

I read all these books, but I mostly ignored the advice to do a life review.  I didn’t have time; I wanted to get on with the new chapter I was writing in retirement. Then came the pandemic and lots of time. Suddenly I found myself looking back. I realized that my life has turned a corner. I no longer have more time ahead than behind me. Life might seem like a circle, childhood, adulthood, elderhood, and circling back to dependent old age, but, chronologically, it’s not a circle, and we don’t get do-overs. We traverse a straight line forward, ending in death. That said, we have the ability to look back and make emotional sense of our lives, to find meaning, and in the language of Erikson, to achieve ego integrity. But am I ready for this?

Last week I visited a cabin on Lake Superior. The weather was abysmal, an occluded gray of mist. I wanted to hike, but the woods near the cabin was a morass of red mud and exposed roots. I decided to walk the paved path in Two Harbors, a community of about 3700 people just south of the cabin on the shore of Lake Superior. The trail was an out-and-back, straight walk, repeating the same path in each direction. On the way north, with my eyes peeled on the lake shore, I passed the city water works, a somewhat rickety old light house at the end of a long pier, an equally long freighter in the harbor, and scrubby wooded areas. It wasn’t particularly scenic, aside from the natural beauty of Lake Superior.

On the way back, over that same path, my focus turned to the side away from the lake. I noticed a wetland, with cattails and grass waking up to spring. As I walked further, a small woods, preserved by the people of Two Harbors, sheltered my walk. I realized that I had not noticed either of these beauties on my way out. It wasn’t until turning around, heading back, looking from another perspective that I saw what I had missed by being so focused on the enormity of the lake. I’d missed the whole of the walk, both sides.

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Two Harbors, Minnesota

Which brings me to a favorite Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now. For me, the last stanza captures precisely what I feel and am afraid to face when I consider doing a life review.

I’ve looked at life from both sides now

From up and down and still somehow

It’s life’s illusions I recall

I really don’t know life at all.

Mitchell herself says that “This is a song that talks about sides to things. In most cases, there are both sides to things and in a lot of cases, there are more than just both.” So am I ready to see not just both but all sides, the whole of my life? To let go of my present narrative of the past for a different one? Or if I do a life review, will I end up feeling, “I really don’t know life at all?” I’m not sure. Perhaps my older self, no longer in such a hurry to get somewhere will make something different of the past. Like most of us, I’ve often imagined what I would do if I could have a do-over of some parts of my life, knowing there is no such thing. But there’s still the think-over, the life review, and I don’t have to wait like my mother did until I’m dying. Now I just need the courage to take the risk of a life review, and do it now, not later!

Hand It Over!

A chance, that is. . . for a career in whatever drives someone. In my case it was education, being a teacher. When I entered teaching in the early ‘70s, jobs were scarce. I was lucky to get a job at the local school teaching two hours a day—no one wanted a job that breaks up your day and doesn’t pay much. But it allowed me to ease into teaching after being a stay-at-home mom. I was much younger than the teaching staff at my school; I was filled with liberating ideas, too, like having students call me by my first name, and playing rock music during home room. The culture of my school quickly put me in my place, but I persisted with my “new” ideas about how to support learning. When my low group math class out-performed the middle group at the end of the year on standardized tests, I earned a new respect from my colleagues.

I stayed in education my entire career, first as a classroom teacher, then as a professor, next working on a drop-out prevention program, Check & Connect, and finally as an evaluator for something called reflective practice for nurse home visitors. What a span, and from the vantage point of looking back, I loved it all. But as I hit my 70’s, I became increasingly aware that my passion was moderating and changing. I didn’t go to work with the fire I had once had. Let me say that as a teacher, by Friday afternoon, I was spent. I needed two days to recuperate, but by Monday, I was once again ready to take on the challenge. I’d lost that ability to bounce back, but I saw it in others. A young woman, Angie, with whom I worked on Check & Connect; Ann, a new Ph.D. in evaluation, my partner in the reflective practice evaluation; my own daughter who lived and breathed evaluation. It was time. Time to . . . 

Pass the baton to the new professionals. When I first grabbed the baton in that parttime teaching job, it was light, easy to carry. But by retirement, that baton was heavy, made of intractable human problems like babies getting poor nurturing from chronically depressed mothers; homeless kids, kids with great potential who drop out, persistent gaps in learning—I could go on and on. From my vantage, which might be colored by the fact that my “time is more gone than not,” passing the baton was my rite of retirement. I would pass it to the next runner, the Angie’s and Ann’s full of knowledge, training and inspiration, waiting expectantly to grab the baton and run with it.

Yet I still want to run at least for a while or maybe as long as I can. I haven’t given up on ameliorating the problems, but I’ve changed how I want to run. My way of running suits where I’m at, mostly retired with new interests. I continue to teach an introductory evaluation class, hoping to inspire others to enter the field, and I tutor fifth and sixth graders in math. In my tutoring I work with great teachers who use smart boards and videos and classroom techniques that are the result of years of educational research. I learn from them. But they learn from me, too, because I have teaching strategies from years of practice and study in the field. We are a team and respectful of the knowledge each brings. 

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Salient is Cattell’s theory of intelligence. Cattell posited two types of intelligence, fluid and crystallized. Fluid is strong when we’re young. It allows us to problem solve, innovate, and think abstractly. It goes down through age—but doesn’t disappear. Crystallized is our accumulated knowledge that we acquire through life.

Think young teachers with their new approaches working together with the seasoned tutor who has accumulated knowledge about how to teach math to struggling students, a win-win.

Older people do know things the young do not. But if that’s true why did I reach a point that passing the baton seemed the right thing to do? It was a combination of two realizations. First, fluid intelligence does count, at least when you are younger. I saw new Ph.D.s with fresh ideas for solving those wicked problems. Second, in seeing that, I believed that they deserved their chance. I’d had mine. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work and that I didn’t have a wealth of experience to bring to the work. Instead it was because I saw an eagerness in them to take on these intractable problems, while I was eager to try my hand at deferred dreams, like writing and rosemaling. 

So, I passed the baton and retired. In passing the baton, I moved on to a different race, one with an accelerated pace but a wide-open track of new adventures. And like most finish lines in life, even in retirement, it’s always shifting. I love the vision of a finish line that keeps changing, moving forward, whatever stage of life one is in, whatever track one is running on. 

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Purpose Notwithstanding … Show Up

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A deep sigh of contentment, I’m in the world of exploration, ambition, and dreams. Time feels limitless. 

In actuality, I’m doing a Zoom meeting for the first class of OLPD 5501: Principles and Methods of Program Evaluation, the class I’m teaching this semester. Evaluation should be front and center, and it is, but, as the students one-by-one introduce themselves, inside I’m feeling all the positive anticipation of young people. Some describe their purpose for taking the class as exploring a new subject. Others are fulfilling ambitions, finishing their coursework for a degree. All are dreaming of possible futures. It’s incredibly energizing.

Coming back to my real life, I recall Richard Leider’s Annual Purpose Check-up in his book, Something to Live For. He suggests that yearly, retirees, who’ve found that something to live for, do an inventory that assesses how they are doing at living with purpose.

I wonder how my students would respond if I asked them about whether they are living with purpose. Their lives are filled with the a priori purposes of age and circumstance—getting an education, finding a partner, having a family, finding a rewarding career, if possible. They are driven by both internal and biological forces. Though some might be aware of a larger purpose, I suspect most are busy living.

I remember being one of those students—at least four times in my life when I worked on degrees to follow my own ambitions and dreams all while intent on getting married and having children. As far as purpose goes, I didn’t give it much thought beyond living a good life with family and doing something I enjoyed. Life was full of chances to grow—up, hopefully. Like everyone, I had good times, not so good times, new friends, old friends, losses and opportunities, career ups and downs. When something didn’t work out, I latched onto another way to keep going forward. What is salient here, I believe, is that time never seemed to be an obstacle. I didn’t worry about running out of it and there never seemed to be a lack of opportunities 

But it turns out, time does matters. We age. I turned 70. At 72, I retired. I was ready to retire. I was tired of the grind (note the word “tired” in “retired”). Nonetheless, retirement felt new—and as my history demonstrates, the new has a pull on me. 

At first in retirement, time expanded. Retirement removed a huge pile of obligations from my days, months, and years. I read books like Leider’s and Cohen’s The Creative Age.

But one thing was different, that amorphous concept called the future started to feel finite. At first the reminders were physical, a sore knee or hip, that slightly slower pace walking, a diminished desire to run up steps two-at-a-time, all of which reminded me of a changed and aging body, with limitations.

Then came the contextual changes of a smaller life. My world shrank. Colleagues from work no longer included me in after hours parties. I searched for personal interests to replace work interests. The books I read about retirement pushed the idea of having a purpose. Like Karen Rose, in her blog, If I Don’t Know My Purpose, Am I a Retirement Failure?, I worried about finding one. Looking back, I realized my most fervent purpose had always been raising children with career intermingled. The thing about retirement and aging is that those two centering purposes, family and career, diminish in importance, and I had to rethink about what might replace them.

Leider’s emphasis on purpose is grounded in research that says people with purpose live longer, happier lives. If you search Google for “purpose” and “goal setting,” you get the idea that without these, your life is meaningless. However, purpose, with its concordant striving, implies that what’s present is not enough, I am not enough unless I have a purpose for my life complete with short and long term goals. But I am not a program or a business! I am a human being, both faulted and perfect at the same time. 

Purpose also implies always looking ahead, managing what is to come by setting in motion actions that achieve goals, manifest purposes. But life is messier than that. To use a personal and admittedly extreme example, when my second husband and I married, we set in place actions to have a vibrant marriage complete with fulfilling and dynamic careers that would serve others—we had Purpose(s). But then he got terminal cancer, something worse than messy. Coming home from the hospital, after being given his diagnosis, I remember thinking, “I must show up.” Showing up, doing what needed to be done and giving love on a daily basis became my way of being in the world. 

After my husband died, I searched for purpose in my career, almost as a substitute for the purposes that died with his death. I read books about finding your purpose, The Purpose Driven Life. I prayed for a purpose like he and I had had. It seemed like my search became the purpose. During my quest, time inexorably moved forward. I retired with never having found that clear purpose for my career.

Upon retirement, I found myself doing that sort of life review that involves making meaning of the events of one’s life. Then I remembered the showing up commitment. It was one of those light bulb moments—like the truth was always there only I was so busy searching for purpose, I couldn’t see it.

Showing up is how I want to live. One might argue that “showing up” is a purpose, but I believe it’s more a way of being in the world. It means letting go of that driven search for purpose and goals and instead asking yourself, “What gives meaning to my life today?” and then showing up.

Picture by Lisa Congdon.