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.  

In All Visible Things. . .

Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg, Austria

One holiday evening this year, I watched the Sound of Music. It’s one of my favorite movies. I love the music, but mostly it makes me recall a four-month mini-sabbatical I had in Salzburg where the movie was filmed. Nostalgia overwhelmed me as I viewed the nuns walking through the Nonnberg Abbey, and the children and their nanny, Julie Andrews, cavorting in the Mirabell Gardens, all set against the Austrian Alps, places I remember from my time there.

I recalled my zimmer with chickens beneath my window, whose eggs I ate for breakfast, and the shop down the street where I could buy a takeout Austrian dinner. I was doing research on school lunch in Europe, and I had access to Salzburg schools because my son, his wife, and my new grandson were living there and through their work had met local educators.

I could go on about the many memories, but what struck me as I watched the moviewas that I was remembering this time as happy when, in truth, it was not. My husband had died three years before, and I was in a prolonged grief, crying easily at almost everything, feeling like a role player in a meaningless life, while struggling to build an authentic one.  The only joy I felt was spending time with my grandson, Peter, a toddler with unlimited wonder at his unfolding world. Otherwise, I spent way too much time in my room, forcing myself to revise field notes of my research observations and to read about cultural learning—with the goal of delaying going to bed and crying myself to sleep. 

It wasn’t a happy time at all! And yet, today I remember it fondly. What is going on, I asked myself, as I reflected on my faulty memory? Was I rewriting the experience to make a bleak time look rosier?  Or was nostalgia for Salzburg and my grandson overriding my memory of unremitting grief. Perhaps my process was a part of a subconscious life review, consolidating my memories into something that would eventually make the whole of my life hang together? Regardless, if I was honest with myself, accurate memory had given way to nostalgia.

I’ve written about nostalgia before in Nostalgia 101, noting that it is healthy and tends towards positive memories. Its highest occurrence is when we are young and old with the middle years of life less given to nostalgia. Experts believe it’s helpful during life transitions when we’re unsure of where we’re going. We can look back and see the past as happy, thus the future feels safer. My time in Austria was part of a long transition to reestablishing my life without my husband. Though I was incredibly sad, deep within me, I believed I’d find my way. That said, I was still troubled by my disparate memories. How could I allow what I knew as truth be glossed over with nostalgia?

I walked around for several days asking myself what does it mean to have conflicted memories. Which one is really true?  Then I started reading Pauline Boss’s The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. One of her central ideas is that  in adapting to losses, we should not think either/or—which was exactly what I was doing by seeking one truth about my perceptions of my time in Salzburg. She says we need both/and thinking. In terms of the pandemic, she writes: “I am both hungry for alone time and for social contacts; I both disagree with my neighbor and continue talking with him. . . “

After reading this, I revised my thinking.  I was both happy in Salzburg experiencing a beautiful city, and I was deeply sad about losing my husband. I was making progress with finding my way as a researcher and feeling up-ended by the loss of my marriage-infused dreams. I was happy to spend time with my family there, especially my new grandson, and sad that I couldn’t share this with my husband. It feels so right to be able to say all these things, there’s a clarity and truth to the statements that either/or doesn’t provide.

In the days following this insight, I found myself infatuated with both/and thinking, ready to chuck dualism as obsolete.  And like any good revelation, I kept seeing both/and everywhere.  Even the New York Times was onboard, running an op ed about both hating one’s husband and loving him. Then I asked myself if both/and adds up to a whole, and that stopped me in my tracks.  It was too simplistic.

I turned to my fellow blogger, Karen Rose, who assured me that there’s more going on than simple addition, and she pointed me to a passage in Parker Palmer’s new book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old. The passage isn’t from Palmer, however, rather Thomas Merton in Hagia Sophia. It begins: There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity. . . Suddenly I saw it, the fecundity immanent in all human experience. In Salzburg, I was healing and in pain, and at the same time laying the groundwork for things to come, like my deepening relationship with my grandson, Peter; like insights about the culture of school lunches; even like the relationship with Karen Rose, such that we now write a blog together. 

Two insights—both/and and the fecundity in human experience. Wow, what a way to start a new year!

I floated only a short time on the excitement of these new ideas, mainly because we are living in a pandemic that’s always with us. I cannot help but think about our present situation as a country and planet. Omicron, political dissent, and climate change are among the issues. I am getting towards the end of my life, while others, including my loved ones, are at the beginning and middle. We are all living in uncertainty. My hope is that Merton has it right, beneath the travails of this troubled time are seeds to a new and better world.

Hagia Sophia

Doubt and Reflections

In this short Life that only lasts an hour

How much – how little – is within our power

-Emily Dickenson

Almost a year ago I asked Fran Vavrus if I could have a copy of her new book, Schooling as Uncertainty, and I would write a review in return.  I finished reading it some time ago, but pulling my thoughts together to prepare a review for a scholarly journal – something I am usually able to do easily – has been challenging.  As I texted Fran ( and have repeated to many other people), her work gob smacked me:  I thought I had signed up for an exegesis of her ethnographic experience studying women’s education in Tanzania – a country about which I know so little that I was sure that it would be an intriguing read.  Instead, what I encountered was a book that is equal parts scholarship, personal memoir, and a timeless story. 

Fran’s big message is that the accepted mantra, “get more education to get ahead and have a good life,”, may be accurate for some populations, but it obscures the circumstances that disrupt the narrative’s accuracy for individuals.  She recounts in loving and sometimes intimate details the histories of talented rural Tanzanian children, whose life paths she has followed for years.  Their journeys  through secondary or higher education – some successful, some not – often depended less on their own effort and more on the appearance (or disappearance) of family members or mentors who could afford school fees, or their family’s geographic location at  a convenient distance from schools for which they were qualified.  As she wrote searingly about those whose chances were permanently derailed by the AIDS crisis, which orphaned or impoverished many, I was struck less by the foreignness of their stories than by their congruence with my experience.    

I read Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age, when I was in graduate school in New York City.  It was the late 60s – a peak period of street crime and also the “great school wars”, where poor parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville rallied for more say in their children’s schools and teachers called for more professional determination.  The conflict was a true dilemma – both sides had a point.  Those experiences led to my 40-year obsession with studying urban schools.  But, in the end, it is still often the children who have lost.  Big visions, like the Great Society or Eugene Lang’s I have a Dream, did not dent the immediate realities of family economics, under-resourced and segregated schools, and the distraction of immediate opportunities that promised survival.

Ok, so those are the facts, backed up by solid analysis.  But what about all the other unseen stories of uncertainty that are deeply painful although not associated with dramatic, newsworthy failure?  Even for my friends who are not impoverished, life has a way of interfering with the dream that education is easily available and can open all doors.  Just as in Tanzania, early marriage or unplanned pregnancy, a parent’s death, or temporary homelessness throw careful plans into disarray:  the hope for something big “out there” is abandoned (or delayed).  For my mother, being orphaned in the Great Depression meant that the generous uncle who paid her tuition at the University of Minnesota thoughtfully added a requirement that she become a teacher (sure employment) rather than a biologist (risky, especially for a woman). Karen Martha waved her sister off to college, but had to confront her parents’ financial collapse when it was her turn.

Uncertainty is always close to the surface as Fran interweaves her own life experiences in the U.S. with those of friends and colleagues in Tanzania.  Her personal stories make me cringe with recognition.  Fran’s dissertation was viewed as “theoretically inadequate” by a single faculty member, which required her to spend vast amounts of energy and time in revisions and prevented her from graduating on time; my experience was similar, although my advisor bulldozed the less powerful member of my committee.  Fran’s critical promotion to a tenured position was almost derailed, again by a single faculty member.  In my friend Doug’s case, an erratic committee in one of the U.S.’s most prestigious institutions sent his five years of post-graduate work into a black hole, to be resuscitated much later at a different institution.  I stepped off the tenure track for a decade to avoid the tenuous assistant professor role while I was a young mother (no, you can’t have it all….) and managed, largely through unanticipated opportunities, to get back on track. Those are happy accidents.  But I have seen other colleagues sidelined because they didn’t follow all the unwritten rules on the way to tenure – or had a dean who disliked them.  Conformity is required, but it does not eliminate uncertainty.

Speaking from my own vantage point, the timeless story in Fran’s book is more than a cautionary tale about the certainty of financial and personal payoff from education.  Instead, her narrative leads me to consider each of the uncertainties I have encountered and how my struggle and occasional despair remains within me but disappears from the abbreviated public arc of a life that looks seamlessly successful (my close friends know better).  As with Fran, thinking about my personal encounters with uncertainty at this juncture in my life has affected how I retell my story, not only to myself but to others.  Perhaps that is why I do not run out of things to write about for Karens’ Descant….

A final reaction to Fran’s description of the effects of Tanzania’s post-colonial turmoil on educational careers requires me to consider how individual experiences are situated in their larger context.  When and where we are born – in times of affluence, war, or environmental crisis – adds an existential uncertainty that we cannot escape.  Like most people, I have intense reactions to social unrest as it happens but often become aware of its long-term impact only much later.  I grew up aware of the magnetic evil of McCarthyism in the 1950s because academics were among those he targeted, and my father was at the beginning of his own career as a professor.  A lasting consequence is that I do not trust the wisdom of crowds and popular opinion. I grew into early adulthood in the 60’s and early 70s, when it felt as if the foundations of the country were at risk, so aptly captured in the last few months by Ken Burns’ probing visual chronicle of Mohammed Ali, and the (for me) very personal movie about the Boys Who Said No! to the Vietnam War.  Now, as the country feels, once again, as if it has lost its collective mind, I am pricked again by the menacing prescience of William Butler Yeats’ Second Coming, written in 1919, just after World War I:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned

Fran’s depiction of the larger conditions over which we have no control echoes throughout her story, initially set in one of the poorest countries in Africa, but also situated in her own experiences.  I am humbled by the resilience that accepting uncertainty brings to those who live with it as a fact of their own and other’s lives. The art of muddling through life’s inevitable ambiguities and failures is not a skill that we usually promote to our children (or grandchildren), but as I view events through the rear-view mirror, it feels like one of the most important lessons.  Fran has reminded me that, when I cling too closely to something, the universe is laughing. 

I Want Out!

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Today I told my daughter that I’ve been thinking that I need to get out of my comfort zone, which Dan Buettner describes as the “behavioral and psychological construct in which our activities and thinking fit a routine pattern.” 

My daughter replied, “You think you want out! I don’t leave the house!” Between COVID and working from home she knows exactly what I mean about being stuck, comfort zone notwithstanding.

My clinging to a comfort zone was brought home to me last week when my husband and I visited the “other Karen” and Dan at their new home in Boulder, Co. In pre-historic times, i.e. prior to COVID, Karen and Dan intended to winter in Boulder, which has four seasons but a milder and shorter winter than Minneapolis, and then return home in the spring. During the second year of this plan, while they were still in Boulder, along came COVID, making it feel both difficult and risky to come back for spring and summer in Minneapolis. After a back and forth of emotions and reasoning, also a couple of trips “home,” they decided to make a clean break with the only home they’d known together and experience something new; they moved permanently to Boulder. 

Immediately they were thrust into a world of differences, taking them out of the comfort zone of neighborhood, people, coffee shops and politics that fit them well. Visiting them, I realized the many changes they’ve made and experienced. There’s the ethos of the west—independence and self-reliance. Then there’s the difference between the lush green, mostly flat terrain of the Twin Cities and the Flatiron mountains framing a basin that is mostly dry and dusty.

The move required selling their Uptown condo and moving into a tiny house, which meant truly embracing Susanka’s “not so big life.” Loved pieces of furniture and art objects had to be considered one by one and either kept or sent to another home (I got an amazing desk). They needed to find a new church, friends, and ways to spend time. I won’t belabor the innumerable decisions and differences, rather note that a taken-for-granted way of life had to be changed.

Karen and Dan’s new life was what precipitated my preoccupation with my own “comfort zone” (see Karen’s blog about wrestling with her comfort zone). They are having an adventure, and I’ve always been up for an adventure. Karen glowed when she talked about all the new things they are experiencing, the adaptations they’ve made to living a smaller life, and their emerging new friendships. Moving has clearly taken them out of their comfort zone, and from my vantage point, it looks like FUN!

Starting about the day we enter school, our world expands, from our family, to the school, the community, state, country and world. We grow outward to a bigger life, leaving home, finding our way, and making our own home. It seems like the natural order of things.

Now here I am as an older, retired person, and it feels like I’m going in the opposite direction. Instead of life getting bigger, it’s getting smaller. Some of the progression is my own doing. I like an orderly life, which hardly sets me apart from the norm. The price of that orderly life, however, can be a fence that keeps me in and life out—like a border wall, intended for psychological safety but locking out the other, the unknown and the chance to learn and grow.

We stay in our comfort zones because they make the world predictable. We stay because we don’t want to disrupt others and because physical changes can make us hesitant. Our judgments can obscure how the world works. Some of us have caretaker responsibilities. And then there’s COVID, which has constrained us all. It’s not hard to produce a list of plausible reasons—maybe I should call them excuses. But that seems too harsh.

About a month ago, I signed up for a short class on writing about sacrifice. Karen Hering, the leader, asked us to focus on any object in our sight and write about why we need it. I focused on a birdhouse that I had covered in rosemaling (I couldn’t bear to leave it outside over winter, so I’d brought it into my office). I found myself writing that I need the birdhouse because it allows me “to be whimsical in the world, to step out of predictable Karen into creative Karen. . . to see what the predicable Karen can’t see when she’s always doing what people expect her to do. The birdhouse reminds me of art and beauty and playfulness while being a home for birds—birds that fly—leave the ground and fly.” 

Writing those words was a revelation to me. I suddenly saw why I need to break out of my comfort zone (at the time I didn’t call it that). For me right now, during the restrictions of COVID, my rosemaling class has given me some of the stretch I need. I have never considered myself artistic—and here I am painting! In the process I’ve met new people, learned about folk art, worked with one of the prize-winning rosemalers in the US, found a way to honor my Norwegian father, and have had the joy of creating, even when my line work is shaky and my flowers somewhat crooked

I’m reminded of other risks I’ve taken in my life, moving numerous times, including to Utah and Pennsylvania, and quitting a secure job that I liked to go back to graduate school in my 40s. Not to mention the risk-taking men I fell in love with (and sometimes married). All have had moments of great pain, discovery, and happiness. I’ve worried about failure and did fail off and on. But these risks, these stepping out of my comfort zone have been life changing. As I’ve reached outside myself, the inside of myself has had the most meaningful change, because I’ve found persistence, resilience, patience, and impatience within myself, and I’ve learned I’m up for a challenge.

This December I will turn seventy-eight. I’m promising myself that this year, I’ll step out of that comfort zone a little further. I don’t know what it’ll be, but I’m open and ready. Parker Palmer says in his new book, On the Brink of Everything, my expectation is not of the world but of myself: delight in the gift of life and be grateful.” As for me, the brink I stand on is taking a new risk, however big or small, but one that takes me out of my comfort zone.  So far, I’m thinking about a trip to Rome with Karen Rose…. And that’s a good place to start.