What is Aging When I’m Still the Same Kid?

Nick Hitchon is the handsome young 21 year old on the far right.  That picture was taken four decades ago, after the release of the third film in the “Up” series, which has followed the lives of those in the picture from age 7.  “63 Up”, opened to thoughtful reviews, with many critics quoting Nick’s observation: “I’m still the same little kid, really.  I think all of us are”, probably because it captures a universal dilemma.  What we retain—the “essence of me” as we barrel into the future— is at the heart of defining identity as we age. 

The jokesters say, “I didn’t expect to turn into my mother” while the cynics say, “you can’t get rid of the past”.  In my case, the joker and cynic regularly change places.  In my 60s, whenever I met my kid I was surprised.  Now she is following me everywhere, mimicking my mother (and my father as well) and occasionally still rebelling at them.  Some of my kid-acquired habits are modestly noble (giving as much money as I can to those who have less) and some are laughable (squirming, as I did this year, at the Ghost of Christmas Past visiting me again with the groaning mantra of “a little lutefisk at Christmas keeps you Swedish for the rest of the year”). 

But the good side of revisiting my kid is that it causes me to think about the power of childhood experiences that have shaped me forever.  How being asked to write the music for my 4th grade school play left me with the belief that I could do most things that I had no idea how to do if I had some help along the way and didn’t expect the outcome to be perfect.  How traveling to Norway for a year in 1955 (we had to go on a boat!) gave me both a life-long commitment to visiting new places and a belief that kids are really alike, even if they travel to school on sleds rather than buses, eat whale, and don’t speak English.  I learned  to  “Knit the Norwegian Way” even before Arne and Carlos became famous…These experiences, which were challenging and joyful, are a deep part of who I became.  I think about them now not as stories of fun times, but as stories about the kid who is still within.

The “positive aging” gurus call revisiting these stories legacy wisdom (or a similar term):  We want to make sense of what we have experienced or done so that we can explain it, with modest coherence, both to ourselves and our grandchildren (Lord only know that our children don’t really want to listen to it….).  Just as important is remembering how my “inner child” is reflected in what I choose to do today and how I choose to do it.  Now this can get even more fraught than legacy wisdom, since “inner child work” is identified with healing early traumas that hold us back.  I have nothing against that, but I honestly don’t feel that any difficulties that I experienced before I hit late adolescence were anything but bumps in the road – certainly not axel-smashing potholes.

Instead, I remind myself that I am still what I was then.  As a child, my mother took me to the library every week and I would read the 5-7 books under the covers with a flashlight in order to be ready for the next visit.  I loved the words as well as the stories. I liked playing with other children, but I also liked being alone – my father made me a perch in a small poplar where I could sit and read as the leaves quaked silvery green. 

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I was curious, and looked forward to exploring our encyclopedia (it was bound in a pseudo-green leather and I can almost see the print in my mind). I was always too ready to speak up in class, which some teachers loved and some hated. I was not a daredevil, but I wasn’t worried about doing new or unexpected things when they came up, and I was never concerned about being perfect.  Although I rode my bike everywhere (like all children then), I was happier when I was sitting. I was not a jokester, but loved to groan at my father’s shaggy dog stories. (I also have to admit that I was regularly mean to my little sister).

I am all those things today — curious, wordy-nerdy, happy with others but equally happy alone, experimental and modestly allergic to formal exercise.  These inner child characteristics are, perhaps, even more apparent than I was when I was jousting with the world of work and frantically trying to maintain a reasonable role as a mom while maintaining a svelte shape – in other words, wearing my adult overachiever persona like a shield. But meeting and enjoying my personal kid does more than solidify my identity – as a “person of a certain age”, when I bring my child with me, I am less afraid of the very real uncertainties of tomorrow.   Listening to my kid means paying more attention to the activities and interactions that reward her rather than “professional Karen”, whose persona is also still part of me.  It is my kid who experiences joy that goes beyond satisfaction with accomplishment.

I review the list of opportunities that I described in Curating Joy – and think more about how they will make my kid feel.   What is the right balance between Zooming with others and being alone?  What will nurture my curiosity?  How can I plan my days to make sure that I have time to knit and read?  So, as I write this I am playing with my wordy-nerdy kid rather than cleaning my house, which is crying for attention.  I was never a perfectionist….

Let me end with the surprising similarity between Nick Hitchon (a physicist) and Gertrude Stein (an iconoclast):  Stein said, “We are always the same age inside” before Nick came to the same conclusion.  Or, perhaps, we all come to that realization on our own, which is why if you google “I’m the same kid” you will find over 1 billion hits. 

At least I am not mean to my sister any more.

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.

Circling Back (Way Back….)

Photo courtesy of cousin Kristen Seashore (Keeper of Tradition)

It makes no sense to talk about Christmas trees or holiday dinners in the middle of January.  But we are doing it anyway because this strange December season made both of us – in different ways – visit our role as “elders” in keeping connections with the past alive, even when nothing was normal….

Holidays as Liminal Space….[Karen Rose]

From the time I was a child in the early 50s, my mother would always remind me that our Christmas Eve dinner “would keep me Swedish for the rest of the year”.  That didn’t make me face the pickled herring, bonddost, lutfisk, potatiskorv, bruna bönar, rödkål, and risgrynsgröt med lingon with delight….The bread and the cookies were ok.

Yet, after my parents died two decades ago (when we were finally free to find substitutes for the dreaded lutfisk), my sister and I maintained the food traditions.  The beans were often crunchy, good korv was hard to find, none of our kids liked pickled herring and my brother-in-law made great julekage with a sourdough starter and extra cardamom!  For all these violations, not much changed. 

But my kids are now in their 40s.  They didn’t like this food much and my grandchildren like it even less.  Nor did they (by that time, American mongrels with a mixed ethnic heritage) feel a need to “keep Swedish for the rest of the year”.

So, as I entered December 2020, it felt as if everything could change because everything had changed.  I vowed that our tiny “family pod” would have a normal American Christmas, putting up the tree before Christmas Eve and maybe baking lots of new kinds of cookies.  I was ready.  Until a week before Christmas, when I started thinking about my parents – both third generation Swedish Americans – who knew only a few words of Swedish but who felt an intense desire to honor all who had come before on this one evening. 

For my parents, it wasn’t really about food – it was about being in a brief liminal space where we could feel close to our ancestors in their small Småland farm houses, acknowledging all that they had given us.  It was like The Day of the Dead transported to Michigan-in-December.

I started feverishly making lists of what we could find (or substitute).  I baked.  I gave Dan a recipe for limpa and asked him to do his best.  Some of the old recipes, in feathery handwriting, were inaccessible.  I researched Swedish websites to duplicate things as best I could.  We produced a meal that would keep me Swedish for the rest of the year – and that prompted daughter Erica to demand that we visit as soon as we could.

Opal (age 3 and, only about 30% Swedish) ate a bit of everything except the herring. It was liminal, seeping into the future, drawing from the deep past.  That is what ancestors are supposed to do, and it is my job, even if I didn’t ask for it.

Karen Martha:

          This year we bought a tree before Thanksgiving (I have never bought a tree before my birthday in early December), thinking we would have an entire month to feel the holiday spirit during a time when spirit seemed needed—the pandemic and ongoing election concerns.

          Nevertheless, isolation loomed over the holidays, no friends or family would be coming over to share in the festivities, so “who cares,” I thought. I couldn’t bring myself to decorate the tree. Then one night, sitting in the living room listening to Radio Deluxe’s Thanksgiving weekend program, I heard Irving Berlin’s I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For” and Let There Be Peace on Earth. I remembered my parents and the trees of my childhood—fighting with my sisters over who got to hang which ornament or to open the new package of tinsel. The wonders of music. I found myself singing and decorating the tree.

No one saw the tree but my husband and me. I walked past it many times a day and soon found myself pausing to say “Namaste,” I bow to you. I wasn’t bowing so much to the tree but to the memories evoked by the ornaments. Even though no one would see the tree, I felt a sense of responsibility for preserving the web of relationships represented by the simple ornaments collected over nearly fifty years of family history. Isolation was not a reason to abandon tradition.

          My ties to the larger world changed with retirement, but that change opened an opportunity to engage in other ways. We older people with our experience in the world, are both keepers of memories and of knowledge, understanding and wisdom. We share these gifts whether by creating a Swedish Christmas in Colorado or by decorating a tree in Minnesota, the little p’s—purposes—that give our lives continuity from generation to generation.

          After Christmas, whenever I greeted the tree with Namaste, I promised it one more day in the spotlight. Soon it started dropping needles, signaling it was running out of the energy it had stored when rooted in the soil. It was time to give it back to the earth and time to put my ornaments away, time to give the past a rest and circle back to that which roots us all, our talents and interests, however expressed in work or retirement, but most of all, our webs of relationships.

And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

WE ARE WAITING….

photo by Adam Tinworth

There is a December season of waiting every year – waiting for Christmas, waiting through eight days of Hanukah to commemorate the oil that lasted, waiting for the New Year.  My Viking ancestors, along with most northern European tribes, waited for Yuletide and the return of light, as I am sure that Romans anticipated Saturnalia’s (December 17-23rd) gifting and respite.  The waiting season reminds us to slow down, reflect and be grateful.

But this year is different:  We are waiting for the end of drawn-out ordeals — COVID isolation, closed schools, the U.S. election farce, and Brexit.  We are not waiting with delighted anticipation, but for a concrete end to crazy-making uncertainty.  Oh, what fools we mortals be….

Personally, I am reacting with impatience and a persistent stream of random desires…Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, I am waiting, made me laugh by capturing the preposterous and trivial hopes that populate my mind during this year’s waiting period:

I am waiting for my case to come up

and I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder

and I am waiting for someone to really discover America

and wail…

and I am waiting for the Age of Anxiety

to drop dead…

and I am awaiting perpetually and forever

a renaissance of wonder.

That’s where Ferlinghetti got me – a rebirth and a renaissance of wonder!  I cannot change the world or make people discover the real America.  I can (returning to themes in earlier blogs) make an effort to calm my “monkey mind” and reflect on the underlying message of hope that infuses both the pagan and modern December days.

Waiting implies that something is coming.  In my least reflective periods, that means waiting for the bus to arrive or a planned vacation. But what are we all waiting for post-COVID?  After the current political turmoil runs its course?  Neither I nor anyone else really knows – and all of the predictions offered in the newspapers seem like misplaced flailing against a brick wall of existential uncertainty.  So what can waiting mean now, when my only conviction is that the future won’t be the same?  

Waiting without impatience, to prepare for the unknown — that’s hard.  It means slowing down.  Really slowing down.  Not taking time in the big chunks of weeks or days, but focusing on each hour’s potential. Dan Albergotti’s evocative poem about waiting points to the same lesson:  enforced waiting requires attention to life’s details and distractions, but also to moments of quiet grace and awakening, in preparation for the time that will come.

Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

But I still find myself bound to an electronic datebook that defines the somewhat arbitrary landscape of my week — ignoring this, as Albergotti urges, is a tough call.  John O’Donahue, asks me to think about what it would mean if I abandoned futile hopes of domesticating everything I touch.  Both remind me that the gift of uncertainty (that we encounter in the belly of the COVID whale) is that a disorientation invites becoming more awake – if I allow it.  And, O’Donahue assures me that “Once you start to awaken, no one can ever claim you again for the old patterns.”  Not sure that I buy that as a certainty either, but it is a starting place…..

One thing that I know is that it is hard to relinquish my efforts to domesticate everything – make it manageable on my terms – without relying on others.  I am astonished at the degree to which acknowledging mutual vulnerability has become part of my routines:  Call someone who is floundering.  Reach out to grasp the certainty that I care for someone and that they care for me.  Be honest about how hard the little things are, and get my friends to laugh with me at my human imperfections.  And I am reminded, when I berate myself at night for all of the unaccomplished things on my list, that I wake up every morning feeling disoriented, but that disorientation slowly shifts to a sense of awe when I face the immovable mountain outside my door, which then eases me into morning’s hope and curiosity (along with two cups of coffee). 

I have a friend whose name is Patience, who has spent a great deal of effort over her more than 70 years to live up to her name.  She lives alone and has had the same year of cumulative perplexing loss that we are all experiencing.  However, her patience is not inert but is sustained by daily attention to well-honed practices that induce attentiveness and keep her awake to hope and joy. I learn from her practices, the most accessible of which are PAUSE. LISTEN. FREQUENTLY. Patience, along with all the poets, urge me to just pay attention during and after this season of anxious waiting.