Destination Death

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    To This Favor by William Michael Harnett, 1879 (Wikipedia)

Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble keeps a skull on her desk, one of many sent her by her followers, and believes that the words ”You are going to die,” can give comfort. These are part of her mission to revive the practice of memento mori, Latin meaning “Remember you will die.” As a practice, a memento mori object reminds us to consider  death daily and that life will end. Thus we learn to value the present as well as the future. Sister Aletheia argues that we tend to think of our lives as continuing and continuing, but confronting the inevitability of death, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist, leads us to a deeper understanding of our lives.

Sister Aletheia Noble is forty years old. As I think back to my forties, I don’t remember that I thought excessively about death, although the black colored themes and cards we send on 40th birthdays suggest that forty is a transitional age, when we at least acknowledge our mortality. Now, in my mid-seventies, every day brings me manifestations of aging, from the mundane wrinkles, to the chronic, aching knees and hips, slowing steps, and consciousness about falling. All of which, in their entirety, lead to diminished mobility, the inability to experience life as we once did. For me, the Tiger Tail foam roller on my desk is as good as a skull, because it reminds me of where gradual physical changes lead, that I am mortal, and that death is my ultimate destination. 

Interestingly, I came across the Sister while looking for information about people who maintain exceptional physical fitness into old age. I was back from a week at a cabin on Lake Superior and had done both some easy and quite strenuous hiking, including the seemingly innocent path from the cabin down to the lake shore.

For the first time in my many visits to the cabin, I felt hesitant, even a tad scared. The path starts with a series of steps with a handrail and becomes a long needle-covered slope descending to a rocky barrier with the necessity of almost scooting, legs first, (at least for me) over the rocks to the beach itself.

To my 77-year-old judgment, the path looked doable, but deceptively so, because one wrong step, one foot mistakenly placed or unable to hold its position, would lead to a long slide ending at or on those rocks. And, at my age, that wouldn’t be a pretty ending.

With the help of a hiking stick, something I wouldn’t have used in my younger years, I made it down the path—more than once—and enjoyed the beauty of Lake Superior, the thrill of the icy water on my feet, and basking on rocks in the spring sunshine. But I didn’t attempt the path at night, as much as I wanted to gaze at the spectacular night sky. Instead, I enjoyed it from the driveway. Later, thinking about my hesitancy and realizing that the path will only get more difficult as I get older, I asked myself, how long will you be able to do this, Karen? 

The internet is full of answers to this question and full of examples of elderly people running marathons, swimming the English Channel, lifting enormous weights—you name it. But impressive as these are, my sense is that such achievements require unquestioned and total commitment—24/7 if you will. Which reminded me of our old friend, “purpose.” These people clearly have a sense of purpose and it’s all about the physical challenge, making the infirmities of old age seem optional.

Which leads me to ask how facing death on a daily basis, whether it’s contrived as in the Sister’s revival of memento mori or simply the harbingers of death as we age, affect how we construct our old age. I respect that some people find a big purpose in exceptional physical fitness to which they devote their remaining time (although I sometimes wonder if this is a way of ignoring the reality of destination death), but for me, as much as I treasure all the wonderful activities the body allows us to do, as I age, I want to stay open to new callings that could potentially replace lost abilities. So what if eventually I can’t navigate a difficult trail? I can still mentor my grandchildren and the occasional student. I can learn rosemaling, tutor middle schoolers, enjoy Bridge, enjoy my friends and family, publish an occasional article and read books that make me think. My days balance small purposes, the “little p’s,” that make up a life. As May Sarton says, “I have work to do and a constant response to it that makes me feel that life has meaning.”

When my mother was nearing the end of her life, if we planned something like an all-night wedding reception or party that would keep her up late, we’d ask her if she wanted to attend because we worried she’d get too tired. She was always up for it. She’d say, “I’m going to spend a long time asleep in my grave. I want to be awake for my life.” She didn’t need a skull on her desk to be reminded of her mortality. Part of aging is facing our deaths gradually – very gradually. Aging does slow us down; it incrementally steals once taken-for-granted skills. The challenge is to stay immersed in living while knowing the inevitable ending.

“Both Sides Now?”

Lake Superior Path

When my mother was dying of excruciating kidney cancer that had spread to her bones, even though she was completely bedridden on strong painkillers, she insisted on going over and over her life. She wanted to ask forgiveness for things she saw as mistakes. To Dr. Robert Butler, what she was doing was a life review, a “naturally occurring, universal mental process characterized by the progressive return to consciousness of past experiences, and, particularly, the resurgence of unresolved conflicts.” According to Butler and others, such a review allows the dying to die in peace by reintegrating life events so that they give meaning to a life.

Butler (1927-2010) is a giant in the field of aging and gerontology,  winning a Pulitzer Prize for Why Survive?: Being Old in America (1975), serving as the first director of the National Institute on Aging, and founding the first department of geriatric medicine. But the contribution that has permeated so much of psychology and self-help, is the notion of a “life review,” which has grown into a therapeutic treatment used with adults at all stages of life.

Others have seized on the life review concept as a way of creating a meaningful retirement. Julia Cameron in It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, advises dividing your life into sections—your age divided by 12—and reviewing a section each week in a memoir. Other retirement gurus like Richard Leider use the idea of life review to promote writing an ethical will in which you distill your life experiences into wisdom and values you have gained. Gene Cohen also advises writing an autobiography that includes unfinished interests and dreams. Even a book written for all ages, Designing Your Life incorporates a version of the life review.

I read all these books, but I mostly ignored the advice to do a life review.  I didn’t have time; I wanted to get on with the new chapter I was writing in retirement. Then came the pandemic and lots of time. Suddenly I found myself looking back. I realized that my life has turned a corner. I no longer have more time ahead than behind me. Life might seem like a circle, childhood, adulthood, elderhood, and circling back to dependent old age, but, chronologically, it’s not a circle, and we don’t get do-overs. We traverse a straight line forward, ending in death. That said, we have the ability to look back and make emotional sense of our lives, to find meaning, and in the language of Erikson, to achieve ego integrity. But am I ready for this?

Last week I visited a cabin on Lake Superior. The weather was abysmal, an occluded gray of mist. I wanted to hike, but the woods near the cabin was a morass of red mud and exposed roots. I decided to walk the paved path in Two Harbors, a community of about 3700 people just south of the cabin on the shore of Lake Superior. The trail was an out-and-back, straight walk, repeating the same path in each direction. On the way north, with my eyes peeled on the lake shore, I passed the city water works, a somewhat rickety old light house at the end of a long pier, an equally long freighter in the harbor, and scrubby wooded areas. It wasn’t particularly scenic, aside from the natural beauty of Lake Superior.

On the way back, over that same path, my focus turned to the side away from the lake. I noticed a wetland, with cattails and grass waking up to spring. As I walked further, a small woods, preserved by the people of Two Harbors, sheltered my walk. I realized that I had not noticed either of these beauties on my way out. It wasn’t until turning around, heading back, looking from another perspective that I saw what I had missed by being so focused on the enormity of the lake. I’d missed the whole of the walk, both sides.

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Two Harbors, Minnesota

Which brings me to a favorite Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now. For me, the last stanza captures precisely what I feel and am afraid to face when I consider doing a life review.

I’ve looked at life from both sides now

From up and down and still somehow

It’s life’s illusions I recall

I really don’t know life at all.

Mitchell herself says that “This is a song that talks about sides to things. In most cases, there are both sides to things and in a lot of cases, there are more than just both.” So am I ready to see not just both but all sides, the whole of my life? To let go of my present narrative of the past for a different one? Or if I do a life review, will I end up feeling, “I really don’t know life at all?” I’m not sure. Perhaps my older self, no longer in such a hurry to get somewhere will make something different of the past. Like most of us, I’ve often imagined what I would do if I could have a do-over of some parts of my life, knowing there is no such thing. But there’s still the think-over, the life review, and I don’t have to wait like my mother did until I’m dying. Now I just need the courage to take the risk of a life review, and do it now, not later!

Hand It Over!

A chance, that is. . . for a career in whatever drives someone. In my case it was education, being a teacher. When I entered teaching in the early ‘70s, jobs were scarce. I was lucky to get a job at the local school teaching two hours a day—no one wanted a job that breaks up your day and doesn’t pay much. But it allowed me to ease into teaching after being a stay-at-home mom. I was much younger than the teaching staff at my school; I was filled with liberating ideas, too, like having students call me by my first name, and playing rock music during home room. The culture of my school quickly put me in my place, but I persisted with my “new” ideas about how to support learning. When my low group math class out-performed the middle group at the end of the year on standardized tests, I earned a new respect from my colleagues.

I stayed in education my entire career, first as a classroom teacher, then as a professor, next working on a drop-out prevention program, Check & Connect, and finally as an evaluator for something called reflective practice for nurse home visitors. What a span, and from the vantage point of looking back, I loved it all. But as I hit my 70’s, I became increasingly aware that my passion was moderating and changing. I didn’t go to work with the fire I had once had. Let me say that as a teacher, by Friday afternoon, I was spent. I needed two days to recuperate, but by Monday, I was once again ready to take on the challenge. I’d lost that ability to bounce back, but I saw it in others. A young woman, Angie, with whom I worked on Check & Connect; Ann, a new Ph.D. in evaluation, my partner in the reflective practice evaluation; my own daughter who lived and breathed evaluation. It was time. Time to . . . 

Pass the baton to the new professionals. When I first grabbed the baton in that parttime teaching job, it was light, easy to carry. But by retirement, that baton was heavy, made of intractable human problems like babies getting poor nurturing from chronically depressed mothers; homeless kids, kids with great potential who drop out, persistent gaps in learning—I could go on and on. From my vantage, which might be colored by the fact that my “time is more gone than not,” passing the baton was my rite of retirement. I would pass it to the next runner, the Angie’s and Ann’s full of knowledge, training and inspiration, waiting expectantly to grab the baton and run with it.

Yet I still want to run at least for a while or maybe as long as I can. I haven’t given up on ameliorating the problems, but I’ve changed how I want to run. My way of running suits where I’m at, mostly retired with new interests. I continue to teach an introductory evaluation class, hoping to inspire others to enter the field, and I tutor fifth and sixth graders in math. In my tutoring I work with great teachers who use smart boards and videos and classroom techniques that are the result of years of educational research. I learn from them. But they learn from me, too, because I have teaching strategies from years of practice and study in the field. We are a team and respectful of the knowledge each brings. 

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Salient is Cattell’s theory of intelligence. Cattell posited two types of intelligence, fluid and crystallized. Fluid is strong when we’re young. It allows us to problem solve, innovate, and think abstractly. It goes down through age—but doesn’t disappear. Crystallized is our accumulated knowledge that we acquire through life.

Think young teachers with their new approaches working together with the seasoned tutor who has accumulated knowledge about how to teach math to struggling students, a win-win.

Older people do know things the young do not. But if that’s true why did I reach a point that passing the baton seemed the right thing to do? It was a combination of two realizations. First, fluid intelligence does count, at least when you are younger. I saw new Ph.D.s with fresh ideas for solving those wicked problems. Second, in seeing that, I believed that they deserved their chance. I’d had mine. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work and that I didn’t have a wealth of experience to bring to the work. Instead it was because I saw an eagerness in them to take on these intractable problems, while I was eager to try my hand at deferred dreams, like writing and rosemaling. 

So, I passed the baton and retired. In passing the baton, I moved on to a different race, one with an accelerated pace but a wide-open track of new adventures. And like most finish lines in life, even in retirement, it’s always shifting. I love the vision of a finish line that keeps changing, moving forward, whatever stage of life one is in, whatever track one is running on. 

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A Journey To Gratitude

Guest blog by Lynne Sarnoff Christensen

Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual; you have an obligation to be one.”

~Eleanor Roosevelt, American Humanitarian (1884-1962) 

Photo by Lynne Sarnoff Christensen

Let me tell you a little bit about myself.

I am a my own individual. I have had an incredible journey. I made it through my teenage years in the 60’s and am a proud survivor of college, experienced in the early 70’s. I lived through driving my dad’s car through the back of the garage wall and being rejected by crushes I didn’t have the courage to pursue. I drove while under the influence of being stupid and yet had the tenacity to align myself with personal intentions and move forward.

Through all of the “My purpose in life” conversations I have had with whomever would participate, I never really realized, that I hadn’t embraced one damn thing. Waking up in the morning was my start, but I had no idea as to what I was going to do with “that”. I soon came to realize that once my thrill of the moment was gone, do to a lack of purpose and vision, I moved on to another. My goals were of a short reach, constantly changing once achieved, a distant memory. My determination was beaten down by boredom. I needed objectives: purpose, passion, and perception.

Jump forward a few decades, I was blessed with a 10 pound 3 ounce bundle of joy and that was the beginning of my attention to gratitude. I was 42. My personal “snooze alarm” was going off and he was truly my gift.

Mentioning quickly and respectfully, that I was diagnosed with breast cancer when my son was 7, I was soon to realize that my purpose had shifted slightly and deepened along with an embraced passion and heightened desire to live and be bold as I have always done,  but now with a sharper vision. I wanted to create a trajectory worth reaching and one that was attainable. I had plenty of time to be with myself, observing my son all while creating a vision of my recovery, to be the best of situations. I felt a strength like no other. I became aware that I was empowered by an energy that made me aware of things I never took the time to be present for.

Gratitude was the foundation for my healing and wellness. When I visited my place of gratitude, I became calmer, less stressed and more keen to what I needed from myself and what I needed for that boy of mine. Created by this experience was a heavy weight, forcing me to slow down and take time to define a total purpose in life. How was I going to live was first and foremost. What was I going to do with this indescribable second chance at life? How was I going to achieve being the best mentor for my son without defining his path yet embracing it? Through the grace of gratitude, I can be at my best.

I have come to the conclusion that my purpose in life is to make an impact on others through my art and my voice. As vast as that may sound, it was a start for me. It was my canvas. I began to read books that would help me to gain focus. Books that directed my personal faith without directing my religion. I searched for something clear in definition, clear in pursuit clear in…purpose. It was my true soul and spirit that I was raising the bar for, for I had to be true to myself before anyone else. I needed to be empowered and dedicated to my conviction. It is with a clear definition, that I gained direction. I am grateful for where I am in life, as my own individual and engage others in recognizing their potential through my art and my words.

If we can think and act with a direct mindset, (which for me is sharing the essential need for gratitude) and take charge of our need to believe we can make a difference, then we truly will.

Throughout this journey I practice and recognize gratitude. It is the foundation of my calm as it is being the foundation of all my relationships. It is a connection to my experiences and to my influencers that have supported me. It is an expression of thankfulness and appreciation to people that have fostered me through to the next part of my journey. It is a peaceful place to rest.

photo by Lynne Sarnoff Chrisensen

I took a step back with the work in my pottery studio, to create a series of bowls simple and yet persuasive. I wanted to share how important gratitude can be. By creating these bowls, it allowed me to engage others with the ability to express gratitude towards others. I created a message of “why” in hopes of people understanding the need to express and share this emotion. I watched my son follow this direction with me, explaining that if I don’t try to make a difference with this emotion, then I will fall short of influencing others as an individual. I needed this vehicle to connect.

I wholeheartedly believe that gratitude can catapult us gently into a place of appreciating what we have, what we can accomplish and who we are. Gratitude can create a calmer culture to live within and grant us approval to accept differences, viewing them through a different lens.Would I have ever embraced the serenity of gratitude had it not been for the obstacles that arrived on my path in life? Would I have recognized it and honed in on the potential gratitude comes with? My spiritual connection is solid because I am so grateful…SO grateful.

Sharing the need to embrace gratitude by shifting our mindsets just a few degrees, is my way of making a difference. As an artist, woman of conviction, mother and individual, I have this obligation.

We are not here to simply exist. We are here to experience and contribute to the art of being the individuals we have become. To be fully present for myself allows me to be fully present for others.

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Lynne Sarnoff Christensen’s bio is in the guest blog section on Karens’ Descant