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. 

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!

Retirement During a Pandemic

Garden in July

In the middle of July 2019 I announced my intent to retire at the end of June 2020; nearly one year in advance.  Some people thought that time frame a little excessive.  Would I not be considered a lame duck for the entire year?  What would this mean for my ability to lead?  Yet I know my boss, the Superintendent of Schools, appreciated the long lead time.  I was a department Director for a school district and sat on the Superintendent’s cabinet.  This gave him plenty of time to find a replacement. 

I had a plan for winding down my time in the school district.  Get as many projects as I could completed (or at least underway) before I left.  And start helping my husband with his business.  Things were moving along nicely.  I was very productive at my job while also helping my husband deliver in-person workshops around the state on weekends.  I was a little overwhelmed but feeling good. 

Then came March 15, 2020.  That was the day the Governor of Minnesota announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state was going into lockdown and school districts would start planning for distance learning.  Students’ last day of in-person school would be March 17.

That changed everything. For everybody.

For me, as a school district employee, that meant stopping everything I was doing and refocusing on distance online learning and childcare for essential workers.  It meant many daily meetings (virtual, from home), onslaughts of emails, sifting through pages and pages of Department of Health and Department of Education guidance that changed daily, checking in with my staff, checking in with others in my field, all while still trying to move some projects forward with the hope that school would reopen in the fall.  It also meant that my husband’s in-person workshops (and therefore his business) came to an abrupt halt.  Not that I would have been able to do them anyway – I had to work on weekends as well. 

This went on for three and a half months – right up to June 30.  Then on the morning of July 1, I woke up to – nothing.  It was jarring to say the least.  Don’t get me wrong – the weight of the stress lifted from my shoulders made me feel I was floating on air. I was happy to shed that weight.  Yet I pride myself on being productive and I didn’t have any idea what to do. 

Do – it’s a small word with a huge amount of baggage attached to it – at least for me. Does gardening count as doing? Does reading a book count as doing? Does cooking meals count as doing? Does going for walks count as doing? Does sitting and contemplating my life count as doing? Does it count as doing if I’m not earning money?

That last question gets to the heart of my dilemma.  I have been a consistent earner since I got my first job at age 15, nearly 47 years ago. I took only four weeks off for each of my kids. I’ve never been laid off.  I work; I earn money. That’s how I see myself. That’s been by design.  My dad died leaving my mom a widow at age 53.  She had not worked for pay since she was pregnant with me. Even though he left her with enough money to take care of herself, it hit me that it might not have been that way. What if he hadn’t left anything, and she had not been able to take care of herself?  I vowed that I would ALWAYS be able to financially take care of myself and my family.  I was 23 years old.  And I fulfilled that promise to myself.  The problem is I didn’t make any promises for what I would do in retirement.

It’s taken me nearly three months to start cutting myself a little slack.  After all —we are in COVID times. The retirement life I visualized is not viable —at least for now.  It’s time to start visualizing something different and, possibly even better. We are in a period of flux where things are changing for everyone. I can use this time to my benefit.

The concept is called liminal space. “The word “liminal” comes from the Latin root, limen, which means “threshold.” The liminal space is the “crossing over” space – a space where you have left something behind, yet you are not yet fully in something else. It’s a transition space.”  (Alan Seale, Center for Transformational Presence)  This time of pandemic could be considered a very long liminal space for me, and for everyone else.

It’s time to leave behind the idea that I need to earn money for money’s sake. Financially, my husband and I are in a good place.  Between my pension, his Social Security and our savings, we can take care of our basic needs and then some.  (Although I will admit that we need to earn money if we want to live an exciting life of travel – when we’re able to travel again.)

It’s time to explore what it would look like if I were truly doing something I loved to do.  That means trying new things and further exploring familiar things. And it means shedding old ideas of what it really means to be productive and unpacking the word “do.”

When I was 23, I didn’t think to make a promise to myself for what my life would look like when I retired.  And why would I?  It was so far into the future.  Now the future is here. One of my favorite sayings is “When is the best time to plant a tree?  20 years ago.  When is the second best time?  Today.”  So today I make a promise that I will open my mind to the possibilities of what an actualized life really means for me.

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. . .