Reinvention: Take #10

Who knew that every time I’d sit down to write about the notion of reinvention, so strong in the retirement literature, I’d end up more bewildered than I started. That’s why I’m on my tenth try. Here’s what I do know: most articles and books about reinvention describe it as about finding a new career late in life, something novel when compared to a person’s past life, and something that fulfills a dream. There’s also a thread of reinvention tied to greater purpose, reinvention both and in and outside of work, with deeper understanding, definition, and authenticity to one’s self with an emphasis on service. Clearly, there’s enough here for more than one blog and possibly even blogs by some re-inventers (anyone out there hearing the call to share a blog with us?)

The other thing I know with some certainty about reinvention is how riled I get when I think about it for myself. Re-inventing suggests that there was some original, invented self, or, if we limit the definition to reinvention as about career, that my career path was a deliberate invention, not a marvelous amalgam of propensities, opportunities, decisions, life experiences, roads taken and not taken, circumstances beyond and under my control—although I’m less inclined as I get older to believe we have control over much of anything besides our response—and just plain luck. And this sidesteps the whole nature nurture debate, both of which surely influenced the amalgam that is this Karen.

As I sit with the idea of reinvention, I see what it is that pokes at me, scares me, if I’m being honest. It’s the idea that the current rough draft of this self and career was somehow not okay, such that I need to pursue reinvention.  Now I know that’s not the case for many who seek something new. I get it.  There are people who showed up for their lives and did what needed to be done, and now they have a chance to show up for themselves. I am completely in support of anything they decide to do in retirement, whether it’s career reinvention or a total self-reinvention. As for the scary part, well, most new things are, and surely a reinvention at age 76 implies risk.

          I like to believe that there’s something organic about who we become, that it’s neither all purposeful nor chance, rather an unfolding of who we need to be. The reason I hold this belief is that I became a teacher so I could have summers off and play golf, but also because I didn’t know what else I could become. Researchers who study vocation know that people seek vocations for which they have models. I had working class parents who wanted their children to go to college but didn’t have jobs that required college. My models of people who went to college were primarily teachers. Regardless of why I ended up teaching, it was right for me. I was painfully shy; I could barely speak in a social group of friends, I was so shy. As a teacher, I learned to stand up and speak every day, but in front of children, far less threatening, and I practiced my way out of shyness. I also have an altruistic streak, and teaching gave me an opportunity to serve.  Gradually, teaching lost its challenge and I sought more, so I went into academia. My career, as I view it, was not an invention, but an organic unfolding.

          So what does any of this matter. . . especially as I can’t untangle the reinvention question in one blog? It matters because of where I find myself, where we all find ourselves, socially distancing in what was to be a glorious retirement of new interests and ways to engage with the world. Ironically, it feels to me like the one thing I’ve held at bay, reinvention, is what I most need to be doing. Oh, it won’t be reinventing a new career or self as much as reinventing how to use time, how to stay meaningfully engaged while sheltering-in-place, where to find opportunities to serve from a laptop or a telephone. I do believe that for many retirees like myself, purpose does matter, whether it’s Big P or little p. That may even be part of the drive to reinvent, to add greater purpose to life. So how do I find it now?

          To reinvent during COVID-19 times is a challenge unlike any other. I think of Jerry Seinfeld’s comment about living with COVID-19: It’s like you’re a bird and suddenly they change your cage. You’re just not sure who you are now. On good days I believe I will find that new direction—reinvention. Words like curiosity, opportunity, and imagination inspire me as do the amazing things I see young people doing. On not-so-good days, I’m terrified I’ll be in this new cage at least two years, consuming what life I have left, searching but finding no new way of living a meaningful life, that retirement I imagined.

For the present, I find myself holding on to interests, looking for ways to keep them alive in this changed environment, e.g., learning rosemaling from YouTube videos, supporting the youth in my life, my grandchildren, which takes the place of tutoring, which I dearly loved. Is there a way to truly reinvent my newly altered retirement? I’m not sure, and I’m running out of the time it takes for an organic evolution. I deplore ending this blog with more questions than answers. . . In front of us is a changed world, and from what I read, we will not be back to normal for some time. My eyes have been opened to reinvention. I wait expectantly to see how and if it comes about. 

Hope – Fighting and Screaming?

I have been reading Mary Oliver’s essays.  I don’t remember what was happening in 1999 that would have caused Mary Oliver to write the words that seem so prescient now:

In the winter I am writing about, there was much darkness.  Darkness of nature, darkness of event, darkness of the spirit.  The sprawling darkness of not knowing. We speak of the light of reason.  I would speak here of the darkness of the world, and the light of ______.  But I don’t know what to call it.  Maybe hope….Hope, I know, is a fighter and a screamer 

–Mary Oliver, Winter Hours

Image of Mary Oliver; Poetry Foundation

Although I have confined my interaction with current news to morning coffee with a side of the New York Times, I encounter the dark times every day.  I have not lost a job and none of my family members are ill with the COVID virus, but the feeling of suspended animation has become a challenge.  I am the kind of person who is always careening ahead.  That doesn’t mean that I have a plan (because I have never really had a plan) but my “monkey mind” is full of random fears about what is coming and how I need to get ready for it. 

All of my delighted anticipations for the short-term future are in disarray.  I am not at home in Minneapolis because traveling with a dog and a car full of stuff across Nebraska seems like a truly bad idea. We know that we cannot predict when this will change.  We will cancel summer trips, and it is impossible to say when we will be able to visit our Massachusetts family pod.  Unanticipated online work obligations and ill-fitting roles as home-schooling parents distract my mid-career students from their own writing, but I cannot nag them because Zoom meetings incessantly divert me as well.  Even though there is supposed to be more time because we cannot go out, it feels like less.

These are not serious complaints – we are very fortunate to be nicely housed and fed, as well as (knock on wood) healthy.  I am surprised at how easy it is to “accept the things I cannot change” under these conditions. But, I have to choose between accepting a year of suspended animation and considering, on a day-by-day basis, the offered opportunities. And Mary Oliver’s comment about darkness and a scrappy kind of hope hit home.

 Arundhati Roy’s recent heart stopping article described the current pandemic as a portal:  “the rupture exists….And in the midst of this terrible despair …it is a gateway between one world and the next.”  Portal implies threshold, door, an invitation to change – a topic that I wrote about in lighter times, in the post Close a Door and Begin Again?   What I wrote nine months ago about looking both backward and forward seems like an innocent discernment of subtle rumblings that are as Roy suggests, becoming seismic and obligatory.

Back to hope, which Mary Oliver proposes not as a path but almost as a prayer.  Hope feels so insubstantial – not something that you can hold in your hand and appreciate, and certainly not a plan.  Yet so many others whom I admire see it as essential.  Parker Palmer, who struggled with the darkness of depression, describes it as an asset and “of all the virtues, ‘hope’ is one of the most-needed in our time. When people ask me how I stay hopeful in an era of widespread darkness, I answer simply: ‘Hope keeps me alive and creatively engaged with the world’. ”  There is it – anticipatory engagement with the world that prepares us for walking through the portal.  Like Mary Oliver, he sees hope as an active virtue rather than a personal characteristic. 

Krista Tippet, my go-to practical spiritual director, talks about hope as a muscle – something that must be exercised if it is going to be of any use to us when we really need it.  Hope is more than sunny optimism (a hard sell these days) because, unlike optimism, it is grounded in reality.  However, hope’s reality distinguishes between today’s dramatic headlines and the whole story of the human condition. 

It is easy for me to dismiss hope.  I can be a Debbie Downer, whose character on Saturday Night Live made me laugh uproariously (while cringing a bit inside). I still sometimes watch the YouTube clips of my favorite Thanksgiving skit, which references pandemics along with global inequity and dementia…. my mind drifts to worry a lot.  But, Mary Oliver’s observation about hope being a fighter and a screamer helps, because I have long played those roles too.  Moreover, as we peer at the portal into the unknown, some intensity and focus may be useful.  We can drag the detritus of our old preferences and prejudices with us into the future or, as Roy says, “we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”  That suggests that hope rests on our capacity to change, even with an incomplete vision of what will be asked of us.

photo by Sarah Rigg

I can rejoice that the natural world heals as we drive less and as we spend more time cementing relationships with those who mean the most to us.  But, are any of us really ready to anticipate what we will do when we walk through the portal into a transformed world?  I need to develop my hope muscle before I leap to purpose and passion. For now, this means (perhaps for the first time), observing the details of each day and the moments in it with care, and finding hope – and joy – in them. Choices are required:  Do I stop and meditate on the clouds, or rush in to make a call to someone who means a lot to me?  Do I focus on the grandeur of the Colorado foothills, or look at the equally awesome iris unfolding in a neighbor’s yard?  Do I choose to play with my granddaughter this morning or extend a deep conversation with my husband?  Any of these choices can bring hope, both in the present and for the future, if I am in the right frame of mind.

My calendar is not full and life seems suspended, but time moves along at the same pace that it did before. If I wish to prepare myself for what cannot be known, my hope muscle exercises need to start with basic training: paying attention to what is most important right now, in this moment that cannot be repeated.

Condition: Provisional

https://www.flickr.com/photos/rayandbee/5915105592
The Wheel of Life
Vigeland Sculpture in Frogner Park, Oslo

As I live through this COVID-19 pandemic, one phrase keeps popping up in my mind: the human condition. To me, the human condition is our imperfection, our inability to escape suffering, and that we live in a natural world indifferent to us. I keep reminding myself and my family that we are experiencing firsthand what can go wrong in a natural world that we thought we had mostly tamed. At the same time, our culture promotes an ethic of personal responsibility, suggesting that we have an influence on what happens to us. So what does it mean to be subject to the human condition but responsible at the same time?

Take my grandfather Nils Jacobsen’s life. In 1917, before the end of World War I and another pandemic, the Spanish flu, he brought his wife, Marthe, and two-year-old son, Alden, my father, from their farm in Norway to Racine, Wisconsin, where they hoped to build a new life. The 1920 census listed them living in a rental in Ward 8. They were still finding their footing. In 1926, Nils sold the family farm in Norway, which he inherited as the eldest son, to his brother.  It appears that life was going well in Wisconsin. Times were good! 

By the 1930 census, Marthe and Nils owned a home, a sweet bungalow that’s still standing, and they listed a second son, my father’s brother. But it was the start of the Great Depression. Soon after, Marthe died at age 51, and by the 1940 census, Nils, my father, my mother, my father’s brother, and my older sister were living in a rental flat. It was World War II, and the fishing on the Great Lakes had dried up.  My father and Nils struggled to find work they could do. Nils died in 1948, a bitter old man, as my mother described him. 

Not an altogether happy tale, but I suspect most families, if they dig, can find similar stories. How much of what happened was Nil’s responsibility? Maybe selling the farm? But surely not Marthe’s death, the loss of their home, and the loss of fishing for a living. I tend not to judge him harshly. Nils and his family lived through World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and World War II. As for Nils dying a bitter old man, I’d say he succumbed to the human condition

While Nils confronted the human condition writ large, until now, my own experience has been more personal.  After my second husband, Gary, died, I struggled, literally, for years with searching for meaning about his death.  I endured guilt that I had done something to bring this outrage on us, and I believed that if I could identify what I’d done, I could atone for it—I should atone for it. When I wasn’t feeling guilty, I was asking myself about the larger karmic meaning of his death—were the repercussions in our immediate world a way of balancing the scales, so to speak? I found no clear answers. 

Being a church-goer, I decided to take my pain to the minister, Pastor Rob. Pastor Rob didn’t like the idea of karma—that I bore responsibility for Gary’s death and, thus, for my grief.  He thought such thinking was where New Agers go wrong. Instead, he told me that Gary and I, like all humans, were subject to the human condition, which includes suffering. Neither of us had caused his death and I didn’t owe any atonement. Wow! I walked out his office feeling lighter, a new freedom. I still didn’t know the meaning, and in truth, I continued to seek it, but not finding it now felt okay. My search became part of my human condition. 

Later I learned about provisional existence. Viktor Frankl wrote that prisoners in concentration camps could not see an end to their suffering.  They could see no future so they lived a “provisional existence.” Pastor Rob had given me such an existence. I found no meaning, but I could live with that, provisionally, and keep looking. Frankl said something else that resonates with me in these times, that rather than me asking for the meaning of Gary’s death, I am being questioned by life and I need to find my own answer in my own terms.  In Frankl’s words: Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life byanswering for his own life

So here I am, living in a world-wide pandemic. This isn’t the retirement I planned, stuck at home, worried about family, friends, and the world more generally. Worried about an uncertain future, are my savings withering so that I’ll be one of the people living solely on Social Security? Will we have a depression? What about my grandchildren, one in college who’s been forced to come home?  The other about to graduate into a precarious world, and there will be no celebration. I am being questioned by life, and how will I answer? 

I have choices. I can weather the pandemic, hopefully stay healthy, and go forward with what is available now.  I can support family and friends as they move forward, too. If my money’s gone . . . well, I’ll deal with that if I must.  My other choice, of course, is, like my grandfather, to grow bitter, that my glorious retirement has been denied me, that my plans have been slayed by a merciless nature. 

 Every day I take advantage of the one freedom still left, the opportunity to take a walk in the unfolding spring, oblivious to the havoc of a virus. It’s Minnesota, so it takes a while for spring to show its color, but because my life has so drastically slowed down, I linger on my walk and look for small signs of the turn towards spring.

One day I noticed tree stumps, and I walked along eagerly photographing tree stumps, which mind you, are presumed to be dead, cut off. But then I noticed that some tree stumps don’t quit easily. They make the best of things and put out new shoots of life. Now and then there’s a hollowed out-stump that couldn’t regenerate itself. But everywhere in nature there are examples of persistence. Think about those weeds we so fervently pull. 

I have my share of human arrogance, but I’m learning to accept the indifference of our world—some natural and some human behavior—it is the human condition.  But in fact, indifference is a condition all life faces, human, stumps, and otherwise. So I carry on, knowing that as I’m questioned by life, I can keep on putting out shoots, it’s on me to find my own answer. 

A picture containing photo, fence, showing, outdoor

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Later I learned that coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management that harnesses the ability of many species of trees to put out new shoots from their stump or roots if cut down. 

The Chair: A Parable for Our Time?

I have so many friends who have confided that, since self-isolating began, their homes have never been cleaner.  They are also going through the old piles of books, the mess in the bathroom vanity, and all the almost-used-up cleaning products under the kitchen sink.  Hoarding toilet paper has given me new enthusiasm for decreasing waste and insisting on using and washing microfiber cloths rather than discarding paper towels, as well as making our own disinfectant.  Okay, we are all going a little nuts.  My point is that we are really paying attention to how we are living — how we occupy our little space in this world and how we can conserve what we have. 

Which brings me to The Chair.  The story of The Chair is, in some ways, an elaboration of my previous post on decluttering and connects me to ongoing reflections about “stuff” that both contains emotions and occupies physical space.  It raises the dogged and still unanswered question:  What will matter most when my mental fog around the current situation lifts?

To begin: In 1969, I lived in New York, with two graduate student fellowships as my husband’s and my only source of income.  As a friend said about my husband, however, “You could fall into a sewer and come up holding diamonds”.  So, while having NO MONEY AT ALL, we lived in the most luxurious home that I have ever occupied – a sublet in a Columbia University-owned faculty building on Riverside Drive, complete with doorman, polished door handles, three bedrooms-plus-study, and a parking space – a parking space in Manhattan!   But, after all, it was New York.  It was the late 60s-early 70s, and there was lots of good stuff going on for free (or nearly free).

When we moved from our first apartment to the brief Riverside Drive idyll, we brought with us a bed, a sofa (which I reupholstered – my only and not particularly successful effort of that type), a desk/dining table — and The Chair. She was a slightly bulky but stylish piece, whose Peter Max screaming orange velvet upholstery was the probable cause of her deeply discounted price at Maurice Villency (a big step up from the Door Store, which provided our cheap flat surfaces).  It was also the dog days of summer in New York,  and no one in their right mind wanted to sit on orange velvet in a marginally air conditioned pre-war apartment.  The Chair was actually a designer’s effort to make mid-century modern meet American recliner.  It was huge – big enough that we could sit in it together (sort of….).  She was the chair of choice for reading.  She was, even with orange upholstery, much more reflective of who we thought we would become than the very unprofessionally recovered second-hand sofa. 

I didn’t know at the time that The Chair would move with me through all of the chapters of my life, including a divorce and a remarriage.  Recovered three times,  her last reincarnation (a rust and gold patterned fabric that cost a lot more than I wanted to spend) ensured that it would fit in with the bold colors that Dan and I chose to set off the ocean of quarter-sawn oak trim in our 1910 “four square” honeymoon house in Minneapolis.  We loved it.  It was the chair of choice for any visitor.  Our dog, Moxie, thought that he should own it (although officially banned from the furniture) and leapt up whenever we turned our backs….

When Dan and I moved from a three-story house to a bright loft-like condominium, it never occurred to me to leave The Chair behind, although full shipping pods went to each daughter and we left a few other good pieces behind for the lucky new owner.  We knew when we moved her that she was in desperate need of another facelift.  For six years, she hung on, increasingly out of place in a loft that was otherwise furnished with Scandinavian antiques, Dan’s exquisite one-of-a-kind “art furniture” that occupied his dreams in the winter and his time in his summer shop, and handmade wood pieces from Thomas Moser’s Maine workshop, one of which I inherited from my father. 

The new dog, Kasper, loved The Chair as much as Moxie, our previous dog did.  Her arms acquired an increasing patina of permanent grime.  I shopped for fabric with our friend Laura, who held out the incentive of her architect’s discount. I couldn’t let The Chair go….and I couldn’t figure out how I could make her fit.

Then, somehow, things changed.  As I hemmed and hawed over The Chair, it became clear that she held too many memories (in addition to being huge and heavy) to carry with me as I moved into retirement.  She embodied too much past without holding a promise of what the future might bring.  And, all of a sudden, Laura said, “I know what you can do – send a picture to OmForme and see whether he could recycle it into a completely different chair”.   Omforme takes good quality old furniture and reimagines it and Laura was so intrigued with the possibilities that she used her deep dive into the online fabric sphere to score enough fabric to seal the deal.  And she loved the result so much that I gave the chair to her (she paid for the redo) – with the stipulation that I could visit.

Now, here I am in Boulder in a tiny rental house that we furnished from Ikea and Craig’s List, unable to get back to our Minneapolis loft until the “don’t travel unless necessary” recommendation is lifted.  I am trying to carve out a different life in retirement, where I live with fewer attachments to “old stuff”, whether it is a physical object or a professional persona that has become almost inseparable from what is just behind it. The world is in a frenzy, where my intense desire to reach out on Zoom to everyone who has ever meant something to me punctuates the relatively silence of our house. We have no way of predicting what will happen in the next few months, and I screen the competing voices seesawing between doom and “back to normal by fall.”

I sometimes think that I have two choices – hang on to what I have (relationships, hopes for the future…) or really try to live day-by-day, curious about what life-with-less will be like tomorrow.  But it is not easy to let go, although hanging on requires a lot of the mental energy that I could put to other uses.   And I am not even sure what is most important to hang on to. 

As for The Chair:  In this new and even more uncertain world, I am glad that you showed me that I could live without you.  So long good friend.  I needed to let you go but I won’t forget you — and I am glad that you are safe