BEGIN AT THE END?

Planning is only the ego’s decision to be anxious now. ~Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself

Beginning with the end in mind is, for many people, the 13th commandment.  It is the second of Franklin Covey’s “7 habits of highly effective people”  and assumes that we need to be goal directed.  One business consulting website, for example, argues that each person needs to be able to articulate what they want but also:  What is the purpose of what I’m trying to achieve? What outcomes do I want? Why are these outcomes important/valuable?  While it appears that we are being asked about our principles, the underlying message is that effective people lead their lives according to one or more value-driven plans. But I don’t have such a plan and I never have had one.  So where does that leave me? 

Of course my assertion that I lived a goal-free life is an overstatement.  One example:  I knew early – before college — that I wanted to work with people in other countries.  I had no firm idea of what that would do for me but felt a persistent curiosity about places where assumptions about “how we do things around here” were different.  So I worked tirelessly to find opportunities, especially those where someone else might foot part of the cost.  My efforts worked out well:  I met many people who are still important to me and never felt that my time in strange airports and out-of-the-way countries was wasted.  But the goal of becoming what my husband calls “International Karen” was vague, guided by questions about what I might learn and how that might change me.  It required instinctive rather than logical responses to opportunities. Being curious helped when I accepted (for instance) an out-of-the-blue invitation to review a teacher education program in Azerbaijan, a country about which I knew almost nothing (another “I work for airfare” opportunity).   Paul Coelho asserts in The Alchemist, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieving it”.  But every encounter increased my questions and my longing rather than a sense of closing in on a goal. 

Longing for something (like becoming  International Karen) is not the same as having a goal.   A defined “end in mind” has some clarity, but longing is, for me, often shapeless and imprecise, shifting with accumulating experiences.  And that has become more so as I get older. 

I still long to live in another country (again) but need to balance that against the fact that Dan, whose company consistently grounds and delights me, does not share that longing.  I have a persistent fantasy about a tiny home in Georgia O’Keefe’s scrubby New Mexico landscape, with its unique amalgam of Gringo, Spanish, and Indigenous cultures, but am reminded that living hours from good medical care is unwise, much less coping with the an off-the-grid lifestyle and the lack of neighbors.  I play with more realistic versions of one aspect of this longing–silence and a particular kind of nature–in a glamping version of Nomadland.  Then I remember that I want to spend more time with my grandchildren, who are neither silent nor located in New Mexico. 

In other words, the inherent dilemmas between the experiences and relationships that I want are increasingly apparent.  As my wise older friend Larry often said, “I can do almost anything I really want, but not everything I really want.”  Longing is an element of my primal need to keep reshaping my life, balanced against other realities. I must keep examining my longing and what it is telling me….it is a voice speaking to me rather than having an end in mind.  I may long for multiple, incompatible futures, knowing that they express something of my heart’s desire.  But I only need to think about the more near-term future, which may mean trading off Nomadland in New Mexico for Christmas with family in Boston.  But longing is also never satisfied; there is no end to most of my dreams.  When I published my first book, I didn’t achieve an end – instead I peered into a whole new world in which I could think about and use words in ways that would give me pleasure (and maybe do something for others as well).

There is another, but decidedly non-Covey approach that is increasingly appealing as I (finally) exit an intellectually and spiritually engaging career.  I hinted at this when I wrote about my friend Barb’s work on choosing joy as a key to successfully negotiating the last 1/3 of life.  In my mid-70s, I am aware that realizing longing—turning it into a goal and a plan–is constrained by the unknowability of what the future holds and how that might reshape what I long for.  But I can choose which emotions I want to experience regularly.  Joy may be a bit exaggerated for someone who is Swedish-American to the core, but I can consider the meanings that the word evokes in me:  Happiness.  Flourishing. Engaged. Useful and not used up.

The past two years made it apparent that the next step is often revealed by unanticipated (and even unwanted) “opportunities”.  Most of us existed with a simple hope that a year-and-a-half of chaos and inability to plan for anything, including dinner with friends, would end. But it is complicated. In the waning phases of my paid work, someone recommended that I become a life coach.  Intrigued, I did my homework and consulted with friends who combined coaching with their research and teaching.  Seemed like a no-brainer and clearly a plan:  I could develop a small life coaching “business” as part of my retirement.  But I have not, in part because of COVID, in part because we moved away from my networks, and in part because I found opportunities to use what I learned in ways that that I did not anticipate.  I am not interested in being an entrepreneur.  Do I feel that I have been unable to achieve something I wanted?  Absolutely not:  Instead, I see the many ways in which coaching has just become part of how I live in relationship with others.  It changed me without becoming a goal.

I am beginning to understand that my inchoate and often unarticulated curiosity, imbricated with  longing and constraints,  conspire to help me to define “opportunity” more nimbly and make choices guided by something that is more instinct than intellect.  I admit that my mostly goal-free and mostly “successful” life has been a gift – and  try to appreciate the last lines of Robert Frost’s poem, Acceptance (which I will never fully live into):  

Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.

iStock Photo

Who Is the Old Lady Directing This Circus?

vintage photo

A week ago, I sat in a zoom circle organized by Jenny Antolak to reflect on a problem endemic to almost anyone over the age of 30:  We have been so busy growing up that we have often forgotten how to fall in love with our lives.  Jenny directed us to Shel Silverstein’s remarkable poem, “Growing Down”, which starts with a description of Mr. Brown, “the grumpiest man in town” who constantly hectors children to grow up, but ends up learning from them:

He got his trousers torn and stained,

He ran out barefoot in the rain,

Shouting to all the folks in town,

“It’s much more fun, this growin’ down.”

As we shared about the rules we followed in order to become successful adults, I confronted my carefully nurtured self-image as a bit of a rebel and a rule-breaker.  Sure, I made some career choices that were “risky”, leaving a plum job at Tufts University to go to a soft-money research institute, and later making a decision to detour from an obvious path to higher administrative positions in order to become a “regular” faculty member – but those were within a game where I knew all the rules and which ones I could break with no consequences.  More often I made careful and conventional choices that were “adult” and “responsible”, in marriage, in work, in friendships and other commitments.

But, while recovering from a divorce that my then-husband and I had avoided for years (those rules– “until death do us part”), I fell in love with someone who, before we were even sure that we were an item, asked me to join him in a spitting contest on the porch!  The silliness of it blew me away – as well as the utter charm of being childlike in my mid-50s.  When we married, I included in our vows his obligation to make me laugh every day.  No problem there, but on the outside, I still held on to the persona of someone who had been handed the playbook of life and had memorized it.  And I wanted to look it.  I colored my hair.  I wore eyeliner.  I bought my clothes at the American Craft Council shows, not at Macys.  And of course I had the black dress (or pants and top) to show them off.

Fast forward to retirement…when all the rules could change because we had played by the careful financial planning rules for middle-income professionals. But then there is a new script – the script for aging gracefully from the New York Times. Horrifyingly, it starts not with social skills or running barefoot in the rain, but with buying a hearing aid sooner rather than later and making sure to give up your driver’s license before, rather than after, an accident. 

Another article also triggered me, reporting that The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, has grown to more than 150,000 residents–with a 10 page list of rules governing residents.  Could Mr. Brown learn to “grow down” there, or would he be tied to an art class at 10, golf at 1, and cocktails at 5?  The behavioral rules of aging tell us where we want to live, what we should wear (read any woman’s magazine, which has hair and clothing suggestions tailored to age….), what to eat, how much to exercise, and repeatedly urge us to stay socially connected (once we get the hearing aids that allow us to…)

What happened to “When I Grow Old, I Will Wear Purple”, and Jenny Joseph’s 1992 warning that,

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

Jenny argues for joyful silliness and breaking rules precisely because we are old enough to realize that we could always have gotten away with it – but were too cautious (or forgot).

Karen Martha laughed when I mentioned this, recalling that, when she recently complained about loud music in a coffee shop, her granddaughter (who happens to be our blog’s technical assistant) looked at her and said, “you usually don’t act like a grandma, but just now you did.”  Ooph – a 2X4 to the side of the head to remind us that it’s ok to ask for a quiet table in a restaurant when we are out with our 70+ year old friends, but not ok when we make it into a rule.

Which also reminds me that my 16-year-old granddaughter was invited to see Chicago by a friend’s grandmother.  The kids assumed that they were going to see a local production of the musical.  When they got there, it turned out to be the band  by the same name—at least some of whom are septuagenarians.  They had a blast listening to the songs that rocked our world when we were in our 20s!  Now that’s an astute grandma.

We are still part of the circus of life. So, every circus has lots of rules – they are there to govern the safety of the performers.  However, the performance needs to ensure that the audience is only aware of the magic and not what keeps the circus functioning behind the scenes.  The behind-the-scenes rules for those of us who wish to age well while “not acting like a grandma” is to pay attention only to new rules that keep us safe (if your knee suggests that a cane will keep you from falling, use it!), while ignoring the rules governing old people’s behavior that are designed to keep us invisible.  Even more, can we celebrate everyday events that suggest that we, like Mr. Brown, are growing down rather than growing up in the way that modern memes of aging expect?

I remind myself that the circus—especially Cirque du Soleil and its more modest spinoffs –  is magical because it pushes us to think about our humanity beyond our usual imagination.  For me, that will translate into more humble efforts: Getting down on the floor to play with a 4-year-old (my knees remind me that it was a lot easier with the oldest grandchild, but I can still do it).  Or remembering to have another spitting context.  Or sometimes just doing whatever equivalent of running in the rain strikes me.  I am reminded of the last lines of Brittany Spears’ song – prescient as the voice of someone who was forced to play by other people’s rules for much of her life:

Don’t stand there watching me, follow me, show me what you can do
Everybody let go, we can make a dance floor just like a circus

I guess that I am the ringmaster here….

–photo of t-shirt from The Old Ladies Rebellion

Forgiveness

For the next two blogs, we two Karen’s will focus on forgiveness. It is a part of growing older to review one’s life, and giving and receiving forgiveness inevitably surfaces.  But what is forgiveness? Here’s a psychological definition—nicely precise.

An act of deliberately giving up resentment toward an offender while fostering the undeserved qualities of beneficence and compassion toward that offender. (Freedman & Enright, 1996, p. 983).

Here’s a philosophical take, richer with the nuance implicit to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is one of the really difficult things in life. The logic of receiving hurt seems to run in the direction of never forgetting either the hurt or the hurter. When you forgive, some deeper, divine generosity takes over. When you can forgive, then you are free. When you cannot forgive, you are a prisoner of the hurt done to you. If you are really disappointed in someone and you become embittered, you become incarcerated inside that feeling. Only the grace of forgiveness can break the straight logic of hurt and embitterment. It gives you a way out, because it places the conflict on a completely different level. In a strange way, it keeps the whole conflict human. You begin to see and understand the conditions, circumstances, or weakness that made the other person act as they did.

John O’Donohue, excerpt from Eternal Echoes

Part 1: Forgiving Our Mothers; Forgiving Inter-generational Sorrow….

This blog is about forgiving our mothers — and healing.  Too many women have experienced emotionally or toxic relationships with their mothers.  We are not among them. Yet, every childhood has its scars, and many women we know trace these to their mothers rather than their fathers. 

Both of us grew up largely in the 1950s, when parenting was quite different from today. Because of the norms of the time, our mothers were more present in our lives. Fathers were out making a living. Additionally, parents had fewer resources, and children expected, at least in part, to raise themselves.  Our parents were imperfect, but in very human ways.  Both of us also raised children in the 70s and 80s, and we tried to be more attentive/better mothers, but we also made mistakes, some of which caused our children pain.  Forgiveness is what we work on, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so, in every part of our lives.  These are excerpts of our own stories.  We invite anyone who wishes to make a contribution…..

Karen Rose

The Johnson family c. 1912. Sigrid Johnson Danielson and Edward Danielson are in the middle

When I was in my late 50s, I went to a shaman – I thought of it as a kicky thing to do, and a dear friend, who is always open to alternative ways of experiencing her life, made the recommendation.  The shaman introduced himself as a psychiatrist who gave up his traditional practice to study shamanic recovery – and the experience was about as odd as I anticipated.

 I lay on a table with my eyes closed, while he was apparently dancing around me with a variety of native instruments that made subtle noises.  After several minutes of this, he stopped abruptly, and came over to speak:  “You come from a long line of unhappy women.  I can blow it out of you.”  He then put a hollow tube – was it made of bone? – near my heart and blew.  It was over.  I left, profoundly shaken but much lighter, hoping that I had not passed inter-generational sadness on to my daughters.

He was right, but I had never put the pieces together.  My two grandmothers were both, in retrospect, miserable.  Laura Rose’s father owned a sawmill on the St. Croix River in Minnesota – but drank himself and his family into poverty.  I never knew her as anything other than sour. Sigrid Johnson, from a relatively affluent immigrant farm family, was trapped in rural Minnesota with a husband and his reportedly ill-tempered father.  She and Edward Danielson (my grandfather) died in “the accident” – an apparent murder-suicide.  It was during the Depression, and their three girls were separated and dispatched to live with different distant relatives.  My mother, the oldest at 14, ended up in North Dakota—well fed and educated, but never at home.  “The accident” was taboo — neither she nor my two aunts talked about it.  According to my father, she had never discussed it with him.

Wen I was quite small I somehow understood that my job was to make my mother happy, Along with my sister, we were successful for quite a while.  She was an ideal 1950s Mommy – a good cook, active in the Democratic Party, on the board of the local Girl Scouts, happy to help with my writing, and almost always there to talk when I came home from school. When I was in high school, friends wanted to gather at my house because my mother was so welcoming.  After I left home, the weight of inherited alcoholism and untreated trauma emerged, and by the end of her life it seemed as if she was someone else – unavailable, a recluse, a non-drinker who never made peace with her addiction, and a smoker until she died, even while on oxygen.  It infuriated me to see her like that, especially when her mental illness made her largely indifferent to my children.

The shaman opened a door to forgiveness.  I slowly began to see how generations of unexamined sadness seeps through the lives of the people who are closest to us, and create pools of shared but vague disequilibrium and depression.  I am learning, albeit later in life, how to express rawer emotions in ways that bring others into my life rather than pushing them away.  Beginning to forgive my mother for what she was unable to change in her past or herself gave me a glimpse of a new kind of freedom. 

Karen Martha

In 1996, as my mother lay dying of kidney and bone cancer, in her lucid moments she agonized about the many difficulties she’d had in her life and how she had handled them. She kept saying, “I needed more time. I’m not ready. I need to fix things.”

In terms of me, her middle daughter, she felt great guilt about allowing me to be put in Taylor Home, an orphanage/home for children, when I was four. It was 1948, she was divorced and left with three girls to take care of alone. She worked days as a short order cook and nights as a bar waitress, but she could not support us. The county took her children away from her, and I’m not sure if she had choices about where we would go, but my sisters went to relatives, and I went to a home.

I suddenly found myself living in a Gothic mansion sharing a dormitory with strange and older girls, unable to see my sisters or my mother. I felt ripped from my security and at the mercy of strangers. I spent hours outdoors, sitting on a swing, twisting round and round, swinging higher and higher, waiting for someone to take me home. I was there until I started kindergarten, so about two years. My mother succeeded in getting her girls back, she remarried, and we began anew as a family.

But the story doesn’t end there, because I made it my cause to punish my mother for what she had done to me. If she tried to hug me and say she loved me, I pulled away. Sometimes I simply said, “I hate you.” She gave up, and though we lived as mother and daughter, that essential bond was never completely restored.

As my mother lay dying, she asked my forgiveness for putting me in the home. I believed I had gradually forgiven her, and I regretted that we had lost our relationship as mother and daughter. To her request for forgiveness, I remember saying, “There’s nothing to forgive. You did the best you could.” But that’s not the same as saying, “Of course, I forgive you, and I love you very much.” I never quite got to that place, and if I had the chance today, I would say that to her. I hope what I did say was enough that she died in peace.

Karen Martha and her mother, at her son’s/grandson’s high school graduation

For my mother and me, forgiveness reaches back generations. In 1924, my mother’s own mother, Ruth, “abandoned” her by dying in childbirth. My mother was four when Ruth went to the hospital to have her second baby, a brother to my mother. Ruth died in childbirth of a stroke, at age 21, and never came home. All that returned was a crying baby and a devastated father. How does a four-year-old understand this except as having been abandoned? It was a pain my mother carried her entire life. Everything about my mother can be filtered through that loss. But that’s another story.

How do you forgive someone for dying, especially when you are four? Instead, my mother carried the pain. I had the chance to forgive, and I could have made mine unequivocal. For now, I hold my mother in my heart and remember her many fine qualities. Fortunately, I have a granddaughter named after her, Margaret, whose curly brown hair, sparkling brown eyes, and effervescent personality remind me often of my mother, who did the best she could.

To be continued.

What Lies Below….

I started to think about excavation — and what it means in my life — and then I came across this poem:

Excavation

Emptying cupboards from

the pre-Homeric Classroom era,

through strata thick as Schliemann’s Troy.

I am looking for bedrock and

the world before printing

when we worked with our bare minds

— Hugh McMillan, 2015

Working with our bare minds….what a thought in this digital/technology rich world.  McMillan’s words lead me to think about all of my mental clutter, and where I might find the bedrock if I looked.  It also called me to consider how I am looking below the surface, during a time that is seriously unsettling for everyone…

We jokingly refer to our decision to be in Boulder, CO as “a Minnesotan’s idea of avoiding winter”…. A theme that came up in a previous post. Mostly true.  But, instead of returning to Minneapolis for the heady experience of watching spring emerge in the frozen northland, we knew that it would be easier and safer for us to self-isolate here.  Because of COVID, we find ourselves in Colorado for the long term, and in a rental house with a yard given over to neglect.  Since we can’t go anywhere, making a small difference in our suddenly much smaller world called us.

Dan excavates volunteer trees, sawn off but energetically leafing out due to the increasing size of their root system.  We admire each herculean effort.  Opal, our granddaughter, and I tackle the mass of weeds and grass that have overgrown the terrace.  This becomes an archeological endeavor; complete with surprises….Opal is an explorer with the fresh eye and unencumbered bare mind of a 3-year old, adept at finding little things that are hidden from this task-focused adult gardener – mostly items left in the bushes by children of previous renters.  And a stone that we turned over, with an inscription that predates the previous occupants, to complete her work.

Opal’s treasures

While she is busy, I begin to marvel at the care with which someone built in stepping-stones to the upper level and an environment for creative landscaping.  It takes prodigious effort to clear the deeply rooted weeds and grass – any less resilient but more attractive plantings have long disappeared.  There is something intensely satisfying in finding “the bones” of a once loved garden.  When I see them, I know that our small excavation is one of the things that we must be doing now, although it is much more than a summer’s project….

the old garden hardscape emerges

At the same time, I think about excavation in my other Colorado experiment – Avita Yoga.  It’s not “real yoga” (classic) or “power yoga” (sweaty exercise), but a practice focused on removing obstacles:  “The sequences help resolve limiting patterns that no longer serve us so we can remember a healthier way of being in body, mind and spirit”.  Each pose, held as long as five minutes, reveals all of the impediments that lie under my skin and muscles, and asks me to explore them, to understand rather than fight them, and to heal.  I am a healthy person and have practiced classic yoga, but it was a revelation to uncover the restrictions rather than work around them.  This is not miracle work: it requires steady practice, and I need to go deeply into unexplored places — mentally and emotionally, I am excavating my ligaments and joints.  In the process, my busy and distracting “monkey mind” becomes calm, and I feel a deep love for my physical being, including its impediments.  A bare mind becomes (briefly) almost a reality.

When I use my bare mind (ignoring the cacophony of Facebook and newspapers) the demands for justice and an end to systemic racism exploding in Minneapolis and elsewhere demand a different kind of going deeper.  It is like my first unexpected encounter with a real archeological dig in the Peloponnese, many years ago.  Most of archeologist’s work seemed to involve tediously looking for bits and pieces that, by themselves, appeared inconsequential – but eventually would restore a prehistoric dwelling (or tomb – I don’t remember). 

The call at a national level to consider how our historical injustice has bled into the everyday lives of Black people takes me into what I know of the lives of friends and their families.  Like an archeologist, I am compelled to revisit all of the (usually brief) conversations about “the talk”, “Driving While Black”, and micro and macro-aggressions, along with expressions of outrage when yet another Black person is almost casually killed. I dig up a very old conversation with a Black colleague, who said, “I told my son that if he is going to the mall he can only go with one other person and he has to wear a button down shirt.”  We didn’t need to ask why.  Nor did I need to say that my daughters, also teens, were trooping through the mall in groups of four or five.  Or another Black colleague, with a very slight build, who stated matter-of-factly that White women would often cross to the other side of the street when they saw him walking in their direction.  Closer to the surface was a conversation just a few years ago, when a White acquaintance mentioned that when they bought their South Minneapolis home in the early1960s, it included a clause that prevented them from selling to anyone who was not White.  Even more recently, a Black friend asked, with a smile, if I liked the vibrant North Minneapolis restaurant where we were lunching—she knew, without asking, that I was very aware that I was one of two White customers.  As I haul these and many other bits and pieces out of my memory and reassemble them, my bare mind acknowledges how easy it is to ignore how the pieces fit together– and how keeping the them separate has allowed me to stay mostly comfortable in my privileged life.  Like any dig, when more pieces are connected, the whole begins to emerge.

This image shows the remains of a Mycenaean palace at the archaeological site of Agios Vasileios in the valley of Sparta, Peloponnese. Image credit: Angelos Delivorias / Stavros Vlizos / Greek Ministry of Culture.
Image credit: Angelos Delivorias / Stavros Vlizos / Greek Ministry of Culture.

To some extent, personal excavation is a privilege of age. With our minds bared, we have to decide how to use them. Karen Martha and I have written about calling, purpose, and passion – sometimes sardonically, sometimes with heart.  As I look more deeply, I also have to ask:  What is the simple “next right thing” that I need to do?  If I don’t go deeper now, what will my inattention cover up? As the archeologist of my own life, what bedrock do I need to reach to become an authentic anti-racist?