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. . .

The Many Sides of Forgiveness

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

Joni Mitchell

I miss my friend, Ed. I miss watching Ed make sushi rolls with his large fingers. He rolls them slowly while talking lovingly about Japan where he grew up and where later he was head of an international school. I miss sitting on his deck and discussing children’s learning—the importance of activity. I miss visiting schools with him and teaching children to make Origami cranes. Most of all, I miss his friendship, which I once believed would last forever.

Something happened, but I don’t know what. After a mutual friend died, Ed stopped talking to me. I tried to connect over and over, but he barely acknowledged me. It’s been at least fifteen years now since we’ve shared a friendship. I’ve asked myself again and again: What did I do?  How can I atone? I know the reason might be within him, but unless we both value the friendship enough to talk, I cannot address my part.

Ed embraced many Japanese cultural beliefs, including the belief that folding 1000 cranes strengthens the chance that a wish will be granted.  Sadako Sasaki, a girl in Hiroshima exposed to radioactive fallout from the atom bomb when she was 2 years old and who developed leukemia at age twelve, set out to fold 1000 cranes so her wish to live might be granted. The story says that she died before she finished and that other school children finished for her. There are shrines to Sadako all over Japan and in other countries. She has come to symbolize innocent victims of nuclear war.

This June, in a pandemic malaise, when I was longing to talk to Ed to see what he makes of it all, I decided to fold 1000 cranes for him as a symbol of the value I held of our friendship. Perhaps when he opened the huge box of cranes all strung together, he would know how much it meant to me, still means to me. Maybe my wish for a dialogue would be granted. I calculated that I’d need to make six a day to be finished by the end of the year. I’ve been folding them ever since.

Not even halfway there yet!

Not too long into the folding, it occurred to me that I am folding in the hopes of repairing a friendship with someone who has shunned me. Do I really want such a friend?  And I started asking myself deeper questions. What changed between us? What was my role in it? Does he recognize a role that he might have played? If I had answers to these questions, would there be a common ground for apologies from either or both of us? And is reconciliation even possible?  These are not easy questions to answer. It might be easier to simply move on.

Which brings me to forgiveness. . . Karen and I have focused on forgiving others, but what about people in our lives that might hold pain that we’ve caused? I know that when I divorced my first husband, I hurt him deeply. He wanted the “’til death do us part” promise kept, and I could not give him that. He did not remarry and maintained that he held our marriage as sacred. He has passed on, and I wonder if he ever forgave me.

We celebrate the healing that occurs when we forgive someone, but there’s an internal healing in recognizing and facing our own transgressions.  I don’t recall telling my first husband that I knew I’d hurt him or that I was sorry for causing that hurt—I was sorry, although not for divorcing. At the time I needed to save myself. It took me a long time to come to terms with the loss that each of us experienced, but once I did, I changed my behavior from angry and resentful to compassionate—not in a patronizing way but as an equal, as a human being acknowledging that life isn’t easy, and we don’t always get what we want. Once I felt his pain, I stopped seeing him as the person who’d imperiled our marriage, a vital step in forgiveness. And then the next step, which was seeing that I, too, needed forgiveness. I have come to believe that at times something is out there that needs forgiving, and both parties created it and own it—a wound that needs healing.

          Human pain is human pain. We have all felt it. It may be pain inflicted by others, knowingly, unknowingly, or as fallout from a decision one or the other makes because she must. To effect any forgiveness, both parties must open themselves to remorse—If I could do it over, I would do it differently; regret—I’m sorry about my part in what happened between us; and reconciliation—I will work to have our relationship go forward.

          As I fold my cranes and think about Ed, I realize that in shunning me, he loses, too. We could have supported each other in grieving the death of our friend; we could have continued our work to better children’s lives; we could have shared the last fifteen years over numerous glasses of wine and sushi. Both of us lost a friendship. I continue to hope that that friendship can be restored, through forgiveness if needed. Meanwhile, I will continue to fold my cranes.