LET OLD THINGS PASS AWAY (2 Corinthians, 5:17)

Or

DO NOT GO GENTLY INTO THIS GOOD NIGHT (Dylan Thomas)

Or

NEVER WASTE A GOOD CRISIS (Milton Friedman)

Photo by Peter Hermann on Unsplash

Perhaps an inevitable part of aging is looking backward, searching for meaning in the distinctive chapters of our lives. After moving past obvious markers (leaving home for college, getting married, etc.), I keep stumbling across the fact that there are periods that are less clearly marked by an anticipated beginning or a clear end.  Some of these are unpleasant: Queen Elizabeth had her annus horribililis,  Karen Storm writes about her past experience with prolonged grief, Katherine Malanga reflects on being in the middle of  figuring out the job of loving and caring for someone who is declining. 

For me, 1998 and 1999 were such a chapter.  Nothing exceptional happened that distinguishes me from other fallible human beings who experience suffering –  except that everything occurred in quick succession.

Photo by Damiano Baschiera on Unsplash

Well, to be perfectly honest, the symptoms started earlier, beginning with rocky transitions to college for my children.  The resultant stress and disagreements about how to handle myriad other issues tore at an already fragile marital relationship. By 1997, we were living together in 17th century house on a beautiful canal in the Netherlands (because we were on sabbatical) without our children (who were still causing us anxiety). 

With a lot of travel, living largely separate lives, we struggled through.  I responded by spending weekends with friends in another city and drinking Jenever (Dutch Gin, which smells a bit like rotten cabbages), straight from the freezer.

Back in the U.S.  The semi-separation became a real separation.  The children were gone.  Frisk, a beloved dog, was very old and barely able to move. My parents died, a little over a year apart.  My sister felt like my only support, but our grieving took different forms – she turned inward and to her family, and I wanted to turn outward because my family was….well, disintegrating.  I was able to briefly distract myself as International Karen — a 1999 Fulbright trip to examine the condition of higher education in post-Soviet Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Czechoslovakia and an invitation to cheer in the new century with friends in London, accompanied by bagpipes in the Royal Park in Greenwich.  I am, however, here to let you know that, in spite of the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love, treating distress by relocation is overrated.

I thought that I needed a project, and foolishly took my half of the sale of the jointly owned elegant town home and bought a “fixer-upper” in Uptown, a densely populated, just-on-the-edge-of-becoming-trendy part of Minneapolis.  The house was owned by a blind woman, who lived with two alcoholic sons and a husband who had recently entered an assisted living facility.  Her sons assured her that they were maintaining the property and redoing the kitchen.  Hah…the ring of cigarette burns on the floor outlining their beds was evidence that only dumb luck kept them from burning the place down.  I am not a very handy person – I have no idea what inspired me to take on a neglected home despite its “good bones” and untouched quarter-sawn oak woodwork in all the rooms. My friends were worried.  But I barely saw them because I spent most of my time isolating when not at work. I was a contemporary version of the Prodigal Son, who after failing to maintain my social and financial assets, wanted to go home.  Except, although I had a house, I had no real home to turn to.


Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

One day, when walking the dog, I fainted and hit my head.  No concussion, but my doctor insisted on a sleep-deprived EKG.  Now, I am a person who could never stay up all night even when I was in college…I had no idea what to do other than to rent a machine that would pinch me regularly.  At a rare social gathering, I humorously asked where I could get one.  A bit later, Dan, who I barely recognized, approached me and said that he had worked nights, was easily able to stay up, and would be happy to help.  He suggested the local all-night Home Depot, followed by a very early breakfast in the café of a 24-hour grocery store.  Putting aside every caution – I, after all, had inhaled Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar that left woman my age thinking that behind every eligible middle-aged man lurked a serial killer – I agreed.  And I thought about Carol, who was as close to an intimate friend as I had. I knew that I could cut the evening short because she got up ridiculously early and could get me to the test before 7.


When I least expected it, two people came into my life to accompany me on what turned out to be a quotidian medical adventure. A few years later, I married Dan, who never made the slightest pass or sign of flirtation during our 5 hours examining hoses, shovels, and industrial cleaning implements at the all-night Home Depot or the coffee shop.  Carol and I grew into closer friends over the years, even when our conversations were rare due to moves.  This modest, almost non-event was, in retrospect, a crack that widened and allowed me to see that things could be different.  I can only conclude that one mystery of life is that when I am experiencing the greatest turmoil, it is often a small voice that reminds me that relationships can change and heal. 

The prodigal son returned to his father’s home, but as a humbled and open person, ready to leave what he had become in order to be changed. There was no instant moment when I saw a way out, but Dan’s kindness and Carol’s support at a juncture where I felt my human frailty so intensely allowed me to see that I was not alone.  I was ready to be changed, but I needed to see that I had companions who could walk with me.

Unlike Dylan Thomas’ cry for an intense battle to grasp what joy is available, I was listening to gentler voices that recognized that chaos – what in 12 step groups is referred to as psychologically “hitting bottom” –  is often required to provide the courage to return to oneself.  I learned that it is precisely when I am in existential turmoil that I must depend on others to support me.  Milton Friedman’s assertion that  “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change”  is also time to remember John Donne:  “No (wo)man is an island.” This minimal insight has altered my life and the way I respond to those first inklings that “things are not going well….”  Instead of isolating, or throwing myself on the most immediate comfort or escape, I try to look closely for the small voices, usually of others, that remind me that I am worth saving.

She Wants to Put Me in a Box

By Guest Blogger Katharine Malaga

This week we’ve invited Katharine Malaga as our guest blogger. Katherine is a retired RN, ESL teacher, and Spanish interpreter and lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is writing a memoir about the multilayered aspects of caregiving after her husband’s stroke and dementia.

Katharine’s husband, Ross, had a massive stroke several years ago, which drastically changed their lives of travel and adventure. Ross is now facing dementia. One interesting thing about Ross is his uncanny ability to use words in a way that seems slightly off but is incredibly insightful. We wanted to post this because many of us have similar struggles or may have them in the future. Thanks, Katharine!

Here are some of the unique ways he has relearned to use language:

  1. “He’s unhelpful,” he said of his dangling right arm.
  2.  “Who’s coming tomorrow?” he asked one Wednesday evening.

             “Rachel,”  I said. “Your favorite.”

             He looked down and moved his jaw back and forth while gathering his words.

             “I would like a degree of freedom.”

3. “Hee..loo,” Ross said.

             A  loud bang thundered in the background. Maybe a truck backfiring.

             “Where are you?” 

             “ I…I…am… at the… apogee… of my walk.” 

“She wants to put me in a box,” Ross said one day.  He had overheard me discussing memory care options on the phone.

I don’t want to put him in a “box,” but he needs more care.  His doctors are recommending 24-hour supervision because of his decreasing memory, judgment, and poor balance. 

I am home twenty-four hours on most days. But sometimes I take the bus to a grocery store or to get a haircut. Today I had an appointment with a retina specialist and Ross was alone from 8:15 to 10:00. Last week I saw another eye doctor and a physical therapist. I have a mammogram on the 28th. I could take him with me, but that would be hard for him.  I text him when I arrive somewhere and he texts back. I come and go as fast as I can. He worries about me as much as I worry about him.   

My efforts to find home health care have not been successful. Between the pandemic issues and the shortage of home health aides, agencies cannot find workers.  (Minnesota is reporting a need for 15,000 home health aides.) “We hear that all the time,” his doctors tell us.

I put him on a waiting list for the Veterans Administration Home (VA) last June. They told me there was a two-year wait for veterans with  “immediate needs.”  I was surprised when they called last week and said he was getting close to the “top of the list.”  

I spent about thirty hours filling out their thick packet: tax forms, one year of bank statements, insurance forms, health records, marriage and divorce degrees, rental agreements, and more. 

The facility is on the Mississippi River and sits on 53-acres of woods.  Every resident has a large private room and bath that meet disability needs. They have a medical, dental, and podiatry clinic in the building and provide transportation to the nearby VA hospital and clinics. I take Ross to those appointments at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) now, but it is getting more difficult for him to get into cars. They also have a barber shop which after COVID has been very difficult to schedule.

“I like it,” he said. I was impressed, too.  There are a lot of patios and gardens for walking, as well as decks on each floor.  They can accommodate a vegetarian diet.  They have mass on Saturdays on the first floor. It is on the bus and light rail lines. All visitors must wear an N95 or surgical mask, plus a face shield in the skilled nursing area. They must mask in the hallways.

If not for the price, $11,000/month, I would be making plans for his move there.  (The community  standard for skilled nursing/memory care is $10,000 to 12,000 per month.)  He has long term care insurance that would pay about a third of that, but so far they have denied him coverage.  We are applying for the sliding scale payment plan, based on income.  I still have more paperwork to fill out. The VA is doing a background check and getting his medical records from HCMC.  (Unlike assisted living, he must prove medical needs.) It may take a month or two before we can make a decision.

We don’t know if it will work out, but we are looking into the possibility.  These are not easy decisions, not what we planned, at least this early in our lives.  But, we have to try to meet his ever increasing needs for care.  

It’s not a “box,” but it is a more restrictive way of life for both of us.  This is what so many face with age and disease.  

How to Retire During a Pandemic. . . or Any Other Time

A group of people on a stage

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Rolling Stones, 2018

Karen Rose and I promised not to give advice, so don’t think of this as advice, rather encouragement.

First of all, why not retire? There’s nothing that says you shouldn’t. It’s completely your own decision. Retirement right now could make you part of the Great Resignation—and who doesn’t want to be a trend-setter? So, in the spirit of all the self-help gurus who have gone before me, here’s my list of how-to’s.

  1. Tell your friends, family, and colleagues how you want to celebrate.  You could have a bonfire or even a Zoom meeting (I’m kidding). Restaurants and bars are starting to open. It’s not impossible anymore. I like cake, so that’d be my go-to, a Danish layer cake from a bakery in Racine, my hometown, or if not available, a big white cake with white frosting from Whole Foods with vanilla flavor—you might be trying a lot of new foods when you retire, that’s one way to pass time—eat. 

If you retire in summer, you can always have an outdoor party. In fact I went to a couple last summer, and the retirees didn’t seem intimidated by the pandemic at all. And there was lots to eat—even cake.

There’s always the person that wants to go quietly. The one who rather slides into retirement; some even take it year by year, never really announcing it until they’ve completely left the playing field (E.g., KRS?) It’s not a bad way during a pandemic, or during any hard times, as everyone is busy watching CNN, the CDC, NBC, OSHA, SCOTUS, ETC.

  1. Let those feelings come forward. Maybe you’ll be relieved—you’ve had enough of working for a lifetime. You might be discombobulated—I certainly was. That first Monday morning after my drinks at the bar party—no, I didn’t get cake—left me unmoored. Should I wear jeans?  Jeans are for weekends. What time should I have breakfast? Lunch? What am I going to work on? Does my spouse have to be near me all the time? I can hear him rattling around the house. Is he always like this? When do I get to “quit” for the day—oh, I never started.  

You will have feelings. I promise!  Let them all hang out!

  1. If you live with someone, warn them. They may have had the house all to themselves, but that’s changing. Someone new will be sitting on the couch reading the morning paper, playing the stereo during the day, making lunch right when they like to make lunch. Maybe you’ll start to clean closets, throwing things out. Someone else might not be ready for this.  And are you ready?  Your close relationships will change, hopefully for the better.
  1. Don’t sweat having a purpose. This is a biggie!  I know, you’ve read all those books about the importance of having a purpose when you retire, Something to Live For, Retirement Reinvention, Purposeful Retirement, and Encore Adulthoodamong the many—but I’m here to tell you retirement is all about the unknown, and that’s what makes it both interesting and challenging. In the world of work, you needed goals. The idea was to get ahead, to strive (more about this from Karen Rose), to seek, to find. . .  to make a name for yourself, do better than meeting quotas, etc. You are done with all that. New paradigm coming your way! And you get to create it.

The Purpose experts argue that having a purpose is linked with better outcomes for aging, living longer, etc. But you’re not an outcome, a statistic. You are you, and if you don’t have a purpose, that’s just fine.  I’ve written about Big P and Little p, arguing that Big Purpose is a male oriented way to live and that there are lots of Little purposes in our daily lives—relationships, family, great books, helping out in the community, that can evolve daily. By letting go of the need to find some big, all encompassing Purpose, you can let the day’s own offerings be sufficient—and you’ll be more inclined to show up for them, because you won’t be busy searching for that big Purpose. 

If you have a big Purpose for your retirement, by all means, go for it. My take is because so many of us love our lives but probably can’t identify some big Purpose in how we live them. But then living a moral and kind life is rather a big Purpose.

Instead of worrying about purpose, resolve to be CURIOUS–like the Torstein Hagen advertising for Viking Cruise Ships. When the pandemic first hit, and we were all scared, staying home, isolating, I started daily walks—like everyone else—around the little lake by our house. After several of these walks, I noticed stumps, which had been cut off in the prime of life, had branches growing out of them; they were putting out shoots of hopefulness. I photographed these stumps and shoots and followed them throughout the spring. I saw them turn green and produce leaves. Later a friend told me about something called coppicing, a process used to manage forests by taking advantage of these persistent trees. What astonished me about this discovery was how I’d walked by it most of my life! (https://karensdescant.com/2020/04/20/condition-provisional/0)

So be easy on yourself about purpose. Maybe you’ll find one, maybe you won’t, but retirement allows you time to be with the unknown, to pay attention to the details, or, as a friend once advised me—to smell the roses.

  1. Let go of expectations! I absolutely believe that we would all live happier lives if we could let go of expectations. In the dictionary, 1) expectation is defined as the state of looking forward to or waiting for something. 2) A belief that someone will or should achieve something. Until the pandemic, retirements were full of expectations—“I’m going to travel.” “I plan on spending more time volunteering.” “Maybe I’ll take some classes.” All worthwhile endeavors, but this pandemic has certainly put us on pause.

So what recourse do we have? We could approach our new retirement lives without those expectations, instead curious and willing to engage with what shows up. You now have time to explore who you are inside and act from within rather than without, based on expectations set by others, the society, and eventually by ourselves. 

If you’re planning on retiring, go ahead. You will have a chance to approach life with curiosity, seeing what unfolds, and maybe, with that curiosity, learn more about yourself and the world around you. I wouldn’t normally turn to the Rolling Stones to talk about retirement, but their song, No Expectations perfectly sums up my idea for approaching retirement:

Take me to the station
And put me on a train
I’ve got no expectations
To pass through here again.

A retired Keith Richards

What is My Footprint?

Fillipo Pallizi, Franciulla sulla roccia

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of tim
e

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — A Song of Life

Geert Hofstede’s research suggests that striving for a life that will be noticed is fundamental to the American psyche.  And, in a big country, the longing is often equally big and broad.  From Patrick Henry to John Wayne, large and swaggering (and male) is what is noticed.  I saw myself in the narrative, but identified as a thoughtful visionary seeking a bigger world – like Pallizi’s romantic 19th c. portrait.  As I noted previously, my husband called this “International Karen” who, as frequently as possible, moved beyond contemplation to collaboration with people in other countries who also wanted to make their schools better. But, between Covid travel restrictions and a dwindling passion for experiences far from home, International Karen is coming to terms with the obvious:  the past will not be the future.  What is emerging is a different longing—to figure out how to leave smaller but still meaningful footprints.

Several years ago, some friends and I – (aka, The Retirement Biddies Workgroup) — read Sarah Susanka’s reflections on living a “not so big life”.    A well-known architect, she urges us to think about what really matters through analogies between designing a smaller home and designing a smaller life.  Some of her questions are relevant to anyone at any age:  How is what we are purchasing fitting in with what we need?  How are we using our resources?  When do we have enough?  But then, her zinger:  How have you wanted to change the world and how are you looking for related changes in yourself?  Her challenge suggests beginning with our biggest aspirations (do they come much bigger than changing the world?) and then look internally to see as if we are up to the task. 

But that question needs reframing in a life that has become radically smaller during Covid, while I am also busy considering a future that will inevitably be different from my expectations of a few years ago.  As I look at “international Karen” and cringe at the carbon offsets that I owe the world, I know that I could not go back, even if it were possible.  I pulled Susanka out of my bookshelf….

At a personal level, I have already made a commitment to a smaller life. A decade ago, Dan and I made a radical move from a rather large house to a condo, which was about the size of Susanka’s designs for a “not so big house”.  When The Retirement Biddies were contemplating the “not so big life”, Dan and I had given away many of our possessions, including furniture, books that we finished reading many years ago, and appliances that we rarely used.  We felt lighter and patted ourselves on the back, while filling every nook of our new walk-in closets.

But I was still working.  Although my home office was small, I had a bigger office at work for all the professional stuff.  The only question “not so big” question that had immediate resonance was a more thoughtful consideration of what we were buying. It was all about “the stuff.”

But now retirement-during-Covid is a reality, along with the unanticipated consequence of our decision to stay in Boulder, CO where we are engaged in a noble experiment: two people living peaceably in a 1000 square foot 1960s ranch that has only two interior doors that don’t lead to a toilet.  But this requires a different kind of decluttering.  The grand project of moving and starting over – just like those who are part of “the great resignation” or who have otherwise changed their lives in the last few years – requires a decluttering of the spirit and heart. 

The challenges are huge.  I have always been BUSY, largely with activities that are not essential. I  am easily distracted by emails or random thoughts.  I have never meditated, and have been totally unsuccessful at journaling because it requires discipline.  Since childhood, I have been unable to cope with boredom and have a long list of attractive projects that I can turn to if that awful feeling appears.  But these habits, some of which were functional when I was “busy working”, are now impediments.  In Susanka’s terms, I am unable to turn away from alluring “time clutter”. 


Clearing out the heart requires stillness – so different from concentration —  that does not come naturally.  I have taken a course on contemplative prayer.  I have read poetry out loud.  I have worked on a skill that never came naturally to me – listening to what other people are really saying rather than immediately generating a stimulating conversation.  I am even weaning myself off the computerized calendar that beeps too often, and writing out to-dos and appointments using a fountain pen.  More importantly, I am tracking a new habit – explicitly noticing, contemplating, and being grateful for something that is exquisitely beautiful, whether in nature (frost covered ornamental grass or snow on the Flatirons outside our house) or when making faces with a four-and-a-half-year-old.  And writing down a few of those things in turquoise ink.  I really love the turquoise ink. 

But what about changing the world?   I take heart in reading aloud Mary Oliver, who suggests that, at least for a poet, a large life can be inscribed through small acts: 

I don’t want to live a small life. Open your eyes,

open your hands. I have just come

from the berry fields, the sun

kissing me with its golden mouth all the way

(open your hands) and the wind-winged clouds

following along thinking perhaps I might

feed them, but no I carry these heart-shapes

only to you. Look how many small

but so sweet and maybe the last gift

I will bring to anyone in this

world of hope and risk, so do

Look at me. Open your life, open your hands.

Mary Oliver – I Don’t Want to Live a Small Life, Red Bird

To live a more open and intentional life, I need to consistently remind myself that small efforts, expanded over many committed people can make a difference in this world of hope and risk. I think of the years when I hauled dozens of yogurt containers to my office before my city started recycling – only to find out now that the containers were not actually recycled.  So, my Instant Pot and I now have a bi-weekly routine that involves yogurt making.  I find local issues that are pressing – affordable housing, unjust judicial practices, and the continued exclusion of the Native people who once owned this land – and find others who want to change them.  Goodbye International Karen:  You did good work and had fun.  Now I want to bring small gifts to the place where I live and to those I am with – and I also remind myself that large footprints in sand will be washed away.