Forgiving – A Practice or a Gift?

image-2Forgiveness is not something most of us come to easily. 

I was a pretty happy child, but even so I remember all sorts of minor offenses.  Many of these are associated with my sister, who is seven years younger than I am.  Of course that meant that she was an endearing tow-headed four-year-old just as I was entering my awkward and mildly sullen preteens — ripe for feeling annoyed at the slightest perceived difference in attention and privilege — not to mention that she appropriated clothes that I left behind when I departed for college! Ok, I adore my sister now, but we still (sort of) joke about these things, including the countless abuses that I, the older child, inflicted on her.

But thinking about how ridiculous most of my childhood slights seem from a distance of over 60 years, I began to consider what forgiving means now.  And what occurs to me is that it is not an attribute (“Ahhh, she has a forgiving nature…”) as much as a practice.

Practices, at least in my life, are routines that I protect because they make my life – and often that of those around me — better.  Some of these are what I would call preventative routines of daily living: I make sure that the kitchen is reasonably tidy before I go to bed because a sink full of dirty dishes in the morning automatically puts me in a foul mood.    

Then there are simple practices that give my life meaning and depth.  I spend time almost every morning in focused conversation with Dan – Unlike tooth brushing or dish washing, this does not prevent bad consequences but ensures that the day starts by renewing our connection.  I take time at some point every day to reflect on gratitude – especially when I am facing challenges.  I do yoga two or three times a week because my mind is clearer and my aging body thanks me afterwards.

But forgiving practices are not like that.  Forgiving starts not with the feeling of anticipatory well-being or the reward of having accomplished small tasks of daily living, but with a big challenge.  Someone, somewhere, has done something that makes me sad, hurt, anxious or even enraged.  The feeling is not temporary – I know that it is not going to go away by tomorrow.  Sometimes it is an old hurt newly revealed.  At other times, it is like water-on-stone – repeated small experiences accumulate and the conclusion “I AM WOUNDED” bursts out.  It may be a sudden encounter – a quarrel, an accident, an insult from a stranger.  All of the emotions become a giant hairball of resentment. And I know that I am not alone – all of these emotions are unsettling but normal and familiar to everyone (and, I believe, even to my dog). 

We struggle to put resentment behind us, especially if it was not a threat to our life or essential being.  It affects not only us but people around us – directly or indirectly – even when they were not the source: 

I only give you a hard time
‘Cause I can’t go on and pretend like
I tried and I tried to forget this
But I’m too damn full of resentment

(‎Beyoncé Knowles, 2006)

I have tried to create practices that will help clear the cloud of bitterness when it arises, but I haven’t found a single list that works. I do most of the things that are recommended by tiny buddha, including loving kindness meditations.  I ruminate on the imperfections of mankind in general, acknowledging that the imperfection of others allows me to forgive myself.  I muster whatever empathy I can because I know that without it, my resentments will continue.  I remind myself that forgiving does not always imply condoning or even a full understanding of the circumstances that may have led to the behavior or words that keep stirring up negative emotions.

This is an unmanageable effort however, and doesn’t always work, especially if the person is dead or distant.  Returning the formal name of Lake Calhoun to its original Bde Maka Ska felt like a victory, but didn’t change my umbrage at the legacy of John C. Calhoun, a champion of slavery and dispossession of Native Americans.  But, if I continue to work at it, eventually something happens.

Susan Ruach refers to the end of the struggle as “simply to jump off into the abyss”.  The jumping off to find forgiveness comes as a surprise after the struggle.  This happened to me very recently – still fresh in my heart. 

image-3
Dick Nystrom and Rebecca Kanner, at our wedding

Dick was Dan’s buddy – and the best man at our wedding.  They were truly a Mutt-and-Jeff friendship, both physically and socially.  Dick was everything Dan is not: short and a bit rotund — his mouth was unchained, he was ebullient on almost all occasions, he loved to dance and to dress up for dancing.  He was restless and stubborn in a way that was always charming.  He was an entrepreneur, and ran his own business (largely unsuccessfully).  People loved him.  He was also a former heroin addict…

And, at some point that Dan and I saw but couldn’t really identify, it became clear that he was changing.  He became crabby, aggrieved, and jumpy rather than restless.  Then he relapsed, and after 20+ years of clean living, was readmitted to a Methadone program.  After a difficult back-and-forth, he stopped calling and stopped returning Dan’s calls.  Dan was devastated because he would have stood by his best friend through his physical and emotional challenges – but he was not allowed to do so.  I just became mad, and I couldn’t get over it – the waste of Dick’s large life and what I saw as a betrayal of friendship.  But then, just a month ago, Dick died – not of his addiction but of one of the other myriad illnesses that he had developed during his two decades of clean living.  We found out on Facebook – a crap way to hear about the death of our best man.

Dan had one of his many encounters-while-dreaming with Dick, who appeared as he used to be, dressed up for dancing and full of his usual quips.  When he told me about his dream, in which Dick was dead but making an amend, I tumbled –and fell – and the resentment slipped away, with no effort at all.

And, I guess that is a lesson for me about learning to forgive.  Forgiveness practices – well, they are just practice.  The gift of forgiving is free and often unexpected.  In an earlier post, I described how an encounter with a shaman blew the seeds of forgiving into me. But, if I don’t practice, I may not be ready and forgiveness may pass me by….

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.

Woe Is Me

I found this on Google, and it's the exact picture Aunt Selma had.


Description automatically generated
This is exactly how Aunt Selma’s looked!

Karen Martha’s Take on Should I Stay or Should I go

June 14, 2020

Next to the bathroom door in my Aunt Selma’s house was an embroidery with a cross-stitched house and below it the saying: Let me live in the house by the side of the road and be a friend to all. (Actually, as you can see from the picture above, it said a friend to man, but over the years, I’ve revised it to a gender-neutral ending.) I have always imagined myself aging into a tiny woman, living in a nondescript house with overgrown bushes in front, doling out cookies to the neighborhood children and wisdom to their young mothers, and being a friend to all. In short, I wanted to age in my home. I didn’t think about marriage or any complications. It would be just me, in my own modest home, like Aunt Selma.  

Needless to say, things haven’t quite turned out this way. Here I am in south Minneapolis, near our lovely Minnehaha Creek Parkway, lakes, and hiking and bicycling paths. An abundant, green landscape greets me every morning—who would ever want to leave (It’s easy to forget winter in the midst of summer)? I’ve moved over 40 times in my life and putting down roots has been a pleasant surprise to me. I’m not sure that I believe this is the place, but it’s a good place overall.

I also live with a husband, so though I might be called tiny, and definitely aging, I’m not alone to hand out my cookies and wisdom, and truthfully, he’s much better at being a friend to all. Where I live, at least for now, is a decision we made mutually.

Idyllic as our home may sound, gradually our response to it has changed. The gardens that surround every corner of our yard, while giving us a lovely view from our windows, shout at us to get outside and weed, thin the overgrown phlox, and trim the bushes. Gardening, especially in the spring, weighs on us. Last spring the downstairs flooded, and we had to get new flooring. Then the aging air conditioner quit and had to be replaced. . . and the house needs paint. I could go on and on, but anyone who owns a house knows that there’s a price to pay, in sweat and money.

Meanwhile, our friends have moved from their houses into low maintenance townhomes, and in the case of our best friends, out of the Twin Cities, taking a piece of our hearts with them. So, we began to ask, what about us?

That’s when the serious discussion about moving began, much like Karen describes in her piece Should I Stay or Should I go?. Jim, my husband, gets wanderlust just about every morning, and he solves it with a long walk and a stop at the coffee shop—even during COVID. But periodically—I haven’t calculated the length of the interval—he ratchets it up and wants to move completely. When he mentioned moving again this May, at first I benignly ignored him and waited for him to cycle back to staying here.  But he didn’t. I started to listen and examine my own feelings.

Having an over-developed left brain, I immediately researched how to make decisions. I knew there were lots of formulas out there for processing information, but I didn’t know that there’s also a literature that says we older folks aren’t as good at it as younger people are. To quote: Aging may affect decision performance in more complex decision situations. The bright spot is that older people do well with decision making about that with which they have experience—in fact, we’re very good at drawing on our experience—and I am an expert in moving. 

So as not to compromise our decision-making performance, I copied down a list of questions from Forbes, not a perfect list, but somewhere to start so we wouldn’t be swept away by our feelings of loss and life moving forward for others but not us. I was determined that we would make a rational, as opposed to an emotional decision. The questions were helpful: How will you fill your days? Who will you spend time with? What is wrong with where I call home now? And, of course, Can I afford to move? They spurred a terrific discussion, and I recommend them to anyone considering a move after retirement.

It turns out that my vast experience in moving is not helpful because decisions in the past were largely career or family related. This decision has nothing to do with career or where we want our children to go to school. Instead, one factor alone permeates all decisions made in retirement—AGING. And we are learning that as we go. We ask ourselves: Will a move be largely lateral, meaning, we may want senior or assisted living within less than five years. What about one level living? Bad knees run in my family, and I have inherited that weakness. The questions pile up—How much space can we manage? How much space away from each other do we need and can we afford? How close to our children do we want to be? 

After considering many questions that we can’t completely answer, the decision for us comes down to a strong emotional pull—the need to feel that we are not living as though we’re getting ready to die. How to do that can mean different things to people. Some want a more communal setting because they want to stay engaged with others. Some want to garden, woodwork, own multiple pets, golf, or all of these. We want to move now for the adventure of it, the newness, the novelty of learning about and adapting to a new environment. We don’t know how long we have. I don’t know when my knees will give out, and Jim doesn’t know when his health issues will escalate. But meanwhile, if we want to live life to its fullest, living with fewer house-owning responsibilities seems like a start. So off we go!

July 15, 2020

A week ago we got a quote about painting our house.  We looked at each other and said, “Have we made a decision about moving?” We had our answer.

Forgiveness

For the next two blogs, we two Karen’s will focus on forgiveness. It is a part of growing older to review one’s life, and giving and receiving forgiveness inevitably surfaces.  But what is forgiveness? Here’s a psychological definition—nicely precise.

An act of deliberately giving up resentment toward an offender while fostering the undeserved qualities of beneficence and compassion toward that offender. (Freedman & Enright, 1996, p. 983).

Here’s a philosophical take, richer with the nuance implicit to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is one of the really difficult things in life. The logic of receiving hurt seems to run in the direction of never forgetting either the hurt or the hurter. When you forgive, some deeper, divine generosity takes over. When you can forgive, then you are free. When you cannot forgive, you are a prisoner of the hurt done to you. If you are really disappointed in someone and you become embittered, you become incarcerated inside that feeling. Only the grace of forgiveness can break the straight logic of hurt and embitterment. It gives you a way out, because it places the conflict on a completely different level. In a strange way, it keeps the whole conflict human. You begin to see and understand the conditions, circumstances, or weakness that made the other person act as they did.

John O’Donohue, excerpt from Eternal Echoes

Part 1: Forgiving Our Mothers; Forgiving Inter-generational Sorrow….

This blog is about forgiving our mothers — and healing.  Too many women have experienced emotionally or toxic relationships with their mothers.  We are not among them. Yet, every childhood has its scars, and many women we know trace these to their mothers rather than their fathers. 

Both of us grew up largely in the 1950s, when parenting was quite different from today. Because of the norms of the time, our mothers were more present in our lives. Fathers were out making a living. Additionally, parents had fewer resources, and children expected, at least in part, to raise themselves.  Our parents were imperfect, but in very human ways.  Both of us also raised children in the 70s and 80s, and we tried to be more attentive/better mothers, but we also made mistakes, some of which caused our children pain.  Forgiveness is what we work on, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so, in every part of our lives.  These are excerpts of our own stories.  We invite anyone who wishes to make a contribution…..

Karen Rose

The Johnson family c. 1912. Sigrid Johnson Danielson and Edward Danielson are in the middle

When I was in my late 50s, I went to a shaman – I thought of it as a kicky thing to do, and a dear friend, who is always open to alternative ways of experiencing her life, made the recommendation.  The shaman introduced himself as a psychiatrist who gave up his traditional practice to study shamanic recovery – and the experience was about as odd as I anticipated.

 I lay on a table with my eyes closed, while he was apparently dancing around me with a variety of native instruments that made subtle noises.  After several minutes of this, he stopped abruptly, and came over to speak:  “You come from a long line of unhappy women.  I can blow it out of you.”  He then put a hollow tube – was it made of bone? – near my heart and blew.  It was over.  I left, profoundly shaken but much lighter, hoping that I had not passed inter-generational sadness on to my daughters.

He was right, but I had never put the pieces together.  My two grandmothers were both, in retrospect, miserable.  Laura Rose’s father owned a sawmill on the St. Croix River in Minnesota – but drank himself and his family into poverty.  I never knew her as anything other than sour. Sigrid Johnson, from a relatively affluent immigrant farm family, was trapped in rural Minnesota with a husband and his reportedly ill-tempered father.  She and Edward Danielson (my grandfather) died in “the accident” – an apparent murder-suicide.  It was during the Depression, and their three girls were separated and dispatched to live with different distant relatives.  My mother, the oldest at 14, ended up in North Dakota—well fed and educated, but never at home.  “The accident” was taboo — neither she nor my two aunts talked about it.  According to my father, she had never discussed it with him.

Wen I was quite small I somehow understood that my job was to make my mother happy, Along with my sister, we were successful for quite a while.  She was an ideal 1950s Mommy – a good cook, active in the Democratic Party, on the board of the local Girl Scouts, happy to help with my writing, and almost always there to talk when I came home from school. When I was in high school, friends wanted to gather at my house because my mother was so welcoming.  After I left home, the weight of inherited alcoholism and untreated trauma emerged, and by the end of her life it seemed as if she was someone else – unavailable, a recluse, a non-drinker who never made peace with her addiction, and a smoker until she died, even while on oxygen.  It infuriated me to see her like that, especially when her mental illness made her largely indifferent to my children.

The shaman opened a door to forgiveness.  I slowly began to see how generations of unexamined sadness seeps through the lives of the people who are closest to us, and create pools of shared but vague disequilibrium and depression.  I am learning, albeit later in life, how to express rawer emotions in ways that bring others into my life rather than pushing them away.  Beginning to forgive my mother for what she was unable to change in her past or herself gave me a glimpse of a new kind of freedom. 

Karen Martha

In 1996, as my mother lay dying of kidney and bone cancer, in her lucid moments she agonized about the many difficulties she’d had in her life and how she had handled them. She kept saying, “I needed more time. I’m not ready. I need to fix things.”

In terms of me, her middle daughter, she felt great guilt about allowing me to be put in Taylor Home, an orphanage/home for children, when I was four. It was 1948, she was divorced and left with three girls to take care of alone. She worked days as a short order cook and nights as a bar waitress, but she could not support us. The county took her children away from her, and I’m not sure if she had choices about where we would go, but my sisters went to relatives, and I went to a home.

I suddenly found myself living in a Gothic mansion sharing a dormitory with strange and older girls, unable to see my sisters or my mother. I felt ripped from my security and at the mercy of strangers. I spent hours outdoors, sitting on a swing, twisting round and round, swinging higher and higher, waiting for someone to take me home. I was there until I started kindergarten, so about two years. My mother succeeded in getting her girls back, she remarried, and we began anew as a family.

But the story doesn’t end there, because I made it my cause to punish my mother for what she had done to me. If she tried to hug me and say she loved me, I pulled away. Sometimes I simply said, “I hate you.” She gave up, and though we lived as mother and daughter, that essential bond was never completely restored.

As my mother lay dying, she asked my forgiveness for putting me in the home. I believed I had gradually forgiven her, and I regretted that we had lost our relationship as mother and daughter. To her request for forgiveness, I remember saying, “There’s nothing to forgive. You did the best you could.” But that’s not the same as saying, “Of course, I forgive you, and I love you very much.” I never quite got to that place, and if I had the chance today, I would say that to her. I hope what I did say was enough that she died in peace.

Karen Martha and her mother, at her son’s/grandson’s high school graduation

For my mother and me, forgiveness reaches back generations. In 1924, my mother’s own mother, Ruth, “abandoned” her by dying in childbirth. My mother was four when Ruth went to the hospital to have her second baby, a brother to my mother. Ruth died in childbirth of a stroke, at age 21, and never came home. All that returned was a crying baby and a devastated father. How does a four-year-old understand this except as having been abandoned? It was a pain my mother carried her entire life. Everything about my mother can be filtered through that loss. But that’s another story.

How do you forgive someone for dying, especially when you are four? Instead, my mother carried the pain. I had the chance to forgive, and I could have made mine unequivocal. For now, I hold my mother in my heart and remember her many fine qualities. Fortunately, I have a granddaughter named after her, Margaret, whose curly brown hair, sparkling brown eyes, and effervescent personality remind me often of my mother, who did the best she could.

To be continued.