And the Learning Continues

In June I signed up for rosemaling summer school at Vesterheim Folk Art School in Decorah, IA. The 5-day course didn’t start for several weeks, so I had time to daydream about how wonderful it would be. I’d paint for eight hours, starting at 9am Sunday morning and until 5pm the following Thursday. Even better, we’d be painting in the Os style, which I wanted to learn because it’s the style from the area where my ancestors lived in Norway.  Anticipating the fun reminded me of teaching summer school as an elementary school teacher. One summer we made balsa wood model airplanes. Another year we made kites—it’s not easy to make a kite that will actually fly—we had lots of crashes before we perfected a design. Best of all, I got to make things with kids who liked to make things. Now, here I was, looking forward to making something with adults who liked to make things—and there’d be a road trip, too.

Finally, it was time to go. I set out Saturday afternoon, so I’d be ready for the 9am start on Sunday. The drive to Decorah had all the elements of a scenic midwestern countryside—rolling hills, tidy fields of corn, idyllic farms with enormous barns, clusters of contented cows grazing, and a highway lined with prairie flowers in full bloom. The beautiful drive heightened my anticipation. An entire week of painting my own beauty awaited me!

Sunday morning at last. I walked up the three flights of the Vesterheim Folk School and into the classroom with a mix of excitement and some trepidation. After choosing my spot and pulling out my supplies, I looked around the room.

Then I saw it, the plate we’d be making. It stood on a counter in the front of the room, and it was HUGE, nothing like what I’d imagined from the course description. Okay, I’d read that the plate was 18 inches, but my mind had glossed over that part. I was picturing a plate like one of my original rosemaling attempts—more like 8 inches.  Still, I mostly admired the plate, not fully comprehending what its size meant…

The BIG one and My first ever plate

After introducing ourselves, our instructor said “today we will learn to make Os flowers”. She proposed eight hours of practicing. I took another look at the plate and started to wonder whether it was wise to spend a day practicing, but I had no idea how to make an Os flower, so I listened to her instructions and started to practice.

And thus began the first lesson of the week. Up until this class, I’d followed designs from our local teacher, Shirley Evenstad, an internationally known rosemaler, although I had to learn many skills to do that. But here was a new teacher, asking me to design and paint my own flowers. I felt frustrated and uncertain, and as I watched others plunge in and design flowers, I wondered whether I belonged in the class. But, I’d paid a sizeable tuition, and I didn’t want to go home, so I gave it a try.

It was fun! I could design my own flowers, and I liked them. I’d taken a new step in my learning by working independently. However, by the end of the day, I was exhausted—I’d never painted for more than a few hours, and I wasn’t sure how I’d get through the week. As I left, I looked again at the beautiful sample plate. Having just spent seven hours making four flowers, I didn’t see how I’d finish that plate in the remaining four days.

The next day I asked the instructor if I could make a smaller plate. She said, “Oh no, you will easily finish.” Huh! By the end of day two, I still had not started on the plate as I was practicing the big scrolls that anchor the design. As class ended, I begged her again to let me make something smaller. Once again, she dismissed my concerns. Where was Shirley when I needed her?

Well, of course I didn’t come close to finishing. I managed only to make the scrolls and one large flower at the top. I was angry and frustrated. I wanted to take my anger out by blaming the teacher for not letting me switch, but in truth, I was crabby because I was face-to-face with my limitations.

In craft circles there are always jokes about UFO’s—unfinished objects. As the class wrapped up, everyone was joking about not wanting another UFO! So it wasn’t just me. No one finished, but our instructor seemed unconcerned. As a former teacher, I judged that she was learning something, too. It was too much to do in five days, although she did not admit this.

Or maybe she was just less worried about UFOs than I was.  At home, I put the plate on our hutch, and I started calling it my albatross. I don’t want UFO’s of any sort in my life. I don’t like quitting, but I had no idea how I’d finish such a huge plate.

The following Wednesday, when I met my local rosemaling friends, I told them that I was carrying the plate around like an albatross—it got a laugh, but no suggestions.  But a few days later my daughter saw the plate and said, “I want that for my office. Don’t quit, keep going!” I carried my plate to my local group the following week and the intrepid Shirley said, “You can take it a flower at a time, and you’ll have it for your daughter’s next birthday!”

Thinking back, two observations come to mind: “Beginner’s Mind” and resilience. Beginner’s mind is dropping our expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and seeing things with an open mind, fresh eyes, just like a beginner. I believe I started out with that—Os was new and I was willing to learn, though initially I’d been uncertain about flowers and scrolls. Resilience, however, took some time to develop. I was angry that the class had not fulfilled my eager anticipations—a finished plate to take home. The support of others, however, helped me see that I can turn my UFO from an albatross into a beautiful plate. That’s what I’m now doing, one flower at a time.

As of September 26th

A Way Back

Marylyn, Laurel, and Karen (me)

My younger sister, Laurie, or Laurel as she preferred to be called, died in January, seven months ago, age 76. I think about her almost every day. I think mostly about loss, because our loss started when we were about high school age when we started to grow apart. As a close friend put it to me, “You two were like oil and vinegar.” I have a mix of memories from our childhood; many are happy. My mind has a way of shelving the not so happy memories in the back so I can pull out the happy ones in the front.

          Over the last 30 years, I barely saw Laurel. But I never labeled us as “estranged” until her death, when I started reflecting on our non-relationship. The dictionary defines estrangement as having lost former closeness and affection: in a state of alienation from a previous close or familial relationship. That about sums it up, although it doesn’t capture the mix of sadness and shame I felt after Laurie’s death, when I realized it was too late to heal our rift.

          Joshua Coleman, in the Atlantic, noted that families used to center around mutual obligation and interdependence to assure everyone’s survival, and those values shaped our identities. But we no longer rely on each other for survival, so forming an identity has taken a more individualistic turn. Whereas identity used to be grounded in religion, class, and community, “personal growth and happiness” are now more important for figuring out who we are. We have the autonomy to carve out identities separate from our families.

My two sisters and I, the Evans sisters, growing up in the late 40’s and early 50’s, started out relying on each other. We needed to have each other’s back. Our father was an alcoholic given to angry bursts, and after our mother divorced him, she married another alcoholic with a similar meanness. He became the stepfather who raised us. We had to look after each other.

          That all changed in high school, about the time when adolescents seek their own identity. Marylyn, our oldest sister, four years older than I and 6 years older than Laurie went off to college at the U of Wisconsin in Madison—she escaped the family dysfunction. Laurie and I were left in high school, but we ran with different crowds. Meanwhile, our mother and stepfather struggled with financial and marital problems, so we fended for ourselves. Laurie hung with outsiders, characterized as “wild.” I took the school-centered path. That’s when our estrangement started.

          Finding one’s way out of an alcoholic family is fraught with problems, as evidenced by the fact that AA has spun off AlAnon with12 step groups focused on supporting family members. From the first, Laurie was the target of our stepfather’s erratic discipline. The research on estrangement says that one sibling often believes they were treated worse than others. Those who are targeted often become “grievance collectors,” and as I look back, I see how our stepfather’s unrelenting criticism of Laurie made it hard for her to find her own path in life. Marylyn became a librarian, and I became an educator. Laurie was an experimenter and a searcher.

          A searcher! Something I never saw when Laurie and I were busy being oil and water. Again, turning to studies about estrangement, one of the things that fosters it is mobility. We move around in this society. Since we don’t rely on one another, we’re free to move on. It’s like a Catch 22—moving around gets us out of dysfunction but it also robs us of opportunities to confront and grow from our differences. Marylyn moved to Florida, and Laurie moved to Detroit and then to Texas. I stayed in the Twin Cities and raised my children. Had I been able to connect with Laurie, I might have learned that Laurie and I weren’t so different after all—I consider myself a searcher in many aspects of life. My searching was and is less experimental than Laurie’s but it’s there.

          Eventually Laurie found a passion, rescuing homeless animals. She raised two fine children on her own until she met and married a guy from Detroit who made them his family. I couldn’t ask for more for Laurie given her difficult start. Unfortunately, I saw all this from a distance, busy with my own life.

Laurel with her beloved pets

I always told myself—and believed it—that Laurie and I would someday sit down, hash it all out, the little slights and differences that we both nursed. We’d laugh about it and go forward. But the truth is we didn’t. I’m writing this because in reading about estrangement, I know how prevalent it is. Some 25% of families have some level of estrangement—that’s not trivial. I’m also writing this to urge anyone who feels even the slightest estrangement with a family member or friend—Find a way back!

          This spring, after Laurel’s death, a dear friend died, a friend with whom I’d had a period of estrangement for which I could find no cause. He stopped talking to me, no matter how many times tried to open a dialogue. When the pandemic hit, I missed him more than ever. I folded 1000 origami cranes, stringing them together (which is the difficult part), put them in a box, and deposited them in his driveway. The crane is a powerful peace symbol, one that my friend had introduced me to. Upon finding my gift, he called me, and we healed our friendship.

          With Laurie, I could find no way back, but I didn’t look hard either. I didn’t travel to Texas for a sustained visit. Instead, I mailed cards for her birthday and Christmas and other important occasions. I didn’t sit down nightly folding six cranes for nearly a year. I waited for something to happen so we’d get together. And it did, only it was a death and funeral. Realistically, it would have taken both of us to heal the estrangement, but one person needed to open the door. Now that Laurel—she’ll always be Laurie to me—is gone, I’ve lost that possibility. But the memories I have of growing up together remind me that love can persist, even when we feel separated. Reconnection lives in that love.

Pause?

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Several weeks ago, I attended a contemplative writing session with Reverend Karen Hering, whose skill at eliciting new thinking always amazes me.  That evening, however, I  found myself befuddled by her first question:  When have you paused? . 


It took me several minutes to think of any time when I have paused in a memorable way.  During most of my life, I embraced the ideal of being busy, being of concrete use to other people, and, above all, being productive in a way that could be counted.  Like many (most?) women, I found it hard to say no, which meant that both at work and in my personal life, I was often overloaded, constantly prioritizing which obligation would get the most attention at any given moment. 

Vincenzo Campi, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, c.1580

I

I reveled in the research suggesting that multi-tasking is a female superpower…. 

In other words, there were few pauses.  As I scrolled through my past life, my first hit responding to Karen Hering’s question was the last month of my first pregnancy:  It was a torrid August in Massachusetts, and I was not working, largely immobile, and waited on by my husband.  However, it was less a pause than a period of intense anticipation.

A few days later,  I smacked my head and remembered that, as an academic, I had regular long sabbaticals, whose purpose is, in theory, a time for renewal and reflection, to live fully in the ideal of the Torah:  “…in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard “ (Leviticus (25:4-5).  But in the modern university, that ideal is as far from reality as the typical observance of the Sabbath as a day of rest.  Instead, when I  filed my sabbatical plans with the university, they included writing, data collection, and a projection of the usual output of publications, research proposals, and  new course syllabi. 

It is obvious that the usual American vacation – one or two weeks, crowded with delightful activities – may provide novel adventures but hardly qualifies as a pause….

The expectation that we should be doing something useful barely shifts when we retire, as we are urged make and then to work down our “bucket list” of experiences that we have been putting off.  And don’t forget the podcasts and books urging us to find a new purpose that will keep us sufficiently busy that we don’t sink into a Laz-e-Boy with a TV remote and a glass of wine.  But there are equally pervasive expectations that we should build yoga and meditation into our schedules.  Pausing has become a big business, especially for we retirees, who are also urged to remember that aging is expected to bring sagacity and spiritual growth

Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash

But these mixed cultural messages beg the real question that has nagged me since my disquieting evening with Karen Hering:  Why pause?  And, in my case, how to recognize “pause opportunities” rather than additional programmed obligations?

I thought about my recent efforts to do anything that might lead to meditating.  Long ago I read a book about different forms of meditation – I can’t remember much except that it gave permission to apply the label to almost any practice that clears out incessant to-do messages.  It remains my goal rather than a scheduled event most days, and when I decide to take a break, I try something.  Most of the time I successfully reduce my creeping anxiety about the to-do list, but I am also occasionally startled by an insight or a feeling that emerges not out of thinking, but out of emptiness.  I am willing to call those insights accumulating wisdom, even if I can’t easily name them.

Then there is the unanticipated stop-in-your-tracks that occurs as I practice reading slowly,  a skill that atrophied during the years of skimming piles of student papers with red pen in hand.  When I encounter an unexpectedly beautiful sentence, or a poem that just appears when I pick up a book, I sometimes feel my heart beating faster.

And there’s the  benefit of having a young child in my life who has  not digested the ideal of productivity.  To walk around the block with a four-year-old can take an hour, because it is in her nature to pause.  New flowers (or weeds) blooming (“What is that one called?  Smell it!”),  A bug eating a leaf (“it’s so blue!”).  Yards with intriguing ornaments, whether kitschy or real art, that are always worth re-examining.  When I feel today’s time ticking away, I remember how quickly four-year-olds turn in to teenagers and adjust my adult cadence to her desire to observe intently, with no real purpose in mind. 

— Jimsonweed, Bandelier National Monument

Sometimes I think that my granddaughter is channeling Georgia O’Keefe:

Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.

So, if pausing is a value that I am starting to savor, what knot does it unravel other than being, for a moment, less engaged with busy-ness?  Yannis Ritsos suggests that these encounters with the intangible may be fundamental to my evolving consciousness:

I hide behind simple things so you will find me….

Every word is a doorway
to a meeting, one often cancelled,
and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the meeting.

As I read this, I am aware that it is not big planned or anticipated pauses that give me the greatest joy, but the small ones that knock on my door—and then ask me to change. Ordinary time is suspended in wonder and, as Ritsos claims, becomes an opening to the “thin places” where I am able to experience life beyond that which I can touch.  When I meet a sense of communion with a granddaughter or friend, a feeling, a nascent idea, or a burgeoning of love, perhaps I am simply experiencing a flow that cannot be programmed.  The real problem solved is the (re)cognition that much of what I value most at this stage in my life is not planned, but experienced – often as a pause.

Milestones: Just for the Young?

June is the month of milestones, weddings and graduations in particular. I had the joy of seeing a granddaughter graduate from high school, and a grandson finish college and start his first job. Equally exciting, a good friend in her late 40’s, who’d forever longed to be married, tied the knot!  Adding to the joy, I partied with family and friends, old and new. At the time, though, there was a tiny tinge to the events—if only for me. Maybe it was a negativity in me after having COVID in April, in spite of two years of taking every precaution, or maybe it was the general mood of the country with shootings and Roe v. Wade at stake. I had the sense of being a spectator to others’ joys, and I wondered, what are the milestones left in my life?

At the time, and with the support of the dictionary, I assigned a milestone as a tangible event that marks “a significant point in development.” A study at Stanford University buttressed my understanding with its list of common milestones in life up to age 74, including a getting a full-time job, starting to save for retirement, getting married, buying a home, and starting a family. It was clearly a truncated list, and worst of all, it ended at age 74, making me again question what milestones are left for my life, given that I’m 78.

My ironic inner self took over and I found myself saying things like—going into assisted living? Or memory care? In the meantime, I traded my beloved, powder blue, Bianchi bicycle for a “step-through” bike, since it hurts my hip to swing my leg over the seat. Was that a milestone—learning to make do so I can keep doing the things I love? That led to a list of “learning to live with things” like medications, cortisone shots for arthritis, support socks, bodies that are starting to give out. I was still in my bleak mood, I guess.

Then one evening I went to a bar where my son’s band, the Strolling Clones was playing—they only play Rolling Stones music, hence the name. Friends and family were there, and when we could hear each other, we somehow managed to ask Henrik, my 20 year old grandson what it was like to graduate the year COVID began and not have a graduation or open house and then to not go to college. He had missed one of those big milestones.

He told us, “At the time, it was horrible. But now I realize I didn’t miss anything. I did something different.” Henrik chose to go to a folk school inside the Arctic Circle in Norway, where he majored in Norwegian language and history and survival. Survival was the challenge, long camping trips into the mountains involving both canoeing and skiing with heavy backpacks to campsites.  Then there were the solo camping trips, dropped somewhere in the middle of nowhere and having to survive. When his year was finished, he decided to enroll in college in California, telling us he’d had enough of being cold and wet and eating boiled fish.

We all remarked that since being back, he’s a different person. Before COVID and Norway, he played video games ad infinitum, and now he seems willing and enthused even if you ask him to cut the lawn or help you move something. He’s more curious and just out there in the world. So “what happened?” we asked him. He replied, “Sitting alone at a campsite in winter, climbing mountains, swimming in icy water—it was all scary stuff, and I did it. I learned that if I just keep going I can get to that light at the end of the tunnel. And being alive is everything!”

That, and a little coaching from my Boulder, Colorado coach, led me to realize that milestones always come with challenges. Off to college away from home for the first time can be tough; that first job is not easy; and marriage—well, many of us all been there, and if you stick with it, it’s a lifelong challenge. The insights we get from these experiences are what really count.

Adapting, getting on with it, as Karen Rose wrote about in Yes! is what comes after that milestone party. Henrik didn’t get a graduation, but he crossed a social/emotional milestone, he experienced an understanding about life that changed him and moved him forward in his development, learning that he can get through the hard stuff.

Now I had a new insight of my own—a milestone, if you will. I realized that many of the milestones we celebrate and take for granted, like graduations and marriage, are socially defined, built into our culture, but, other than retirement, we don’t have such obvious ones as we age. But maybe they aren’t needed, either. We get something bigger from the accretion of milestones throughout our lives, knowledge of ourselves and living, for example. The lack of social markers doesn’t mean there are no milestones as we age. I’ll bet all of us can identify experiences that moved us forward in our development.

I love two of Pema Chodron’s four truths—how really sweet and precious our lives are and impermanence. . . the essence of life is fleeting. Studies show that older people are happier than younger—both people in their 20’s and 30’s and the middle-aged. Maybe it’s because of the social/emotional learning that enables older people to accept what is—which is also a cornerstone of emotional well-being—and to see what is as both precious and impermanent. I like to think I have milestones ahead of me, though I know they won’t be college or starting a new job or having a family. I like to think they will be deeper, inside me, as I get better at this precious thing called life.