Milestones: Just for the Young?

June is the month of milestones, weddings and graduations in particular. I had the joy of seeing a granddaughter graduate from high school, and a grandson finish college and start his first job. Equally exciting, a good friend in her late 40’s, who’d forever longed to be married, tied the knot!  Adding to the joy, I partied with family and friends, old and new. At the time, though, there was a tiny tinge to the events—if only for me. Maybe it was a negativity in me after having COVID in April, in spite of two years of taking every precaution, or maybe it was the general mood of the country with shootings and Roe v. Wade at stake. I had the sense of being a spectator to others’ joys, and I wondered, what are the milestones left in my life?

At the time, and with the support of the dictionary, I assigned a milestone as a tangible event that marks “a significant point in development.” A study at Stanford University buttressed my understanding with its list of common milestones in life up to age 74, including a getting a full-time job, starting to save for retirement, getting married, buying a home, and starting a family. It was clearly a truncated list, and worst of all, it ended at age 74, making me again question what milestones are left for my life, given that I’m 78.

My ironic inner self took over and I found myself saying things like—going into assisted living? Or memory care? In the meantime, I traded my beloved, powder blue, Bianchi bicycle for a “step-through” bike, since it hurts my hip to swing my leg over the seat. Was that a milestone—learning to make do so I can keep doing the things I love? That led to a list of “learning to live with things” like medications, cortisone shots for arthritis, support socks, bodies that are starting to give out. I was still in my bleak mood, I guess.

Then one evening I went to a bar where my son’s band, the Strolling Clones was playing—they only play Rolling Stones music, hence the name. Friends and family were there, and when we could hear each other, we somehow managed to ask Henrik, my 20 year old grandson what it was like to graduate the year COVID began and not have a graduation or open house and then to not go to college. He had missed one of those big milestones.

He told us, “At the time, it was horrible. But now I realize I didn’t miss anything. I did something different.” Henrik chose to go to a folk school inside the Arctic Circle in Norway, where he majored in Norwegian language and history and survival. Survival was the challenge, long camping trips into the mountains involving both canoeing and skiing with heavy backpacks to campsites.  Then there were the solo camping trips, dropped somewhere in the middle of nowhere and having to survive. When his year was finished, he decided to enroll in college in California, telling us he’d had enough of being cold and wet and eating boiled fish.

We all remarked that since being back, he’s a different person. Before COVID and Norway, he played video games ad infinitum, and now he seems willing and enthused even if you ask him to cut the lawn or help you move something. He’s more curious and just out there in the world. So “what happened?” we asked him. He replied, “Sitting alone at a campsite in winter, climbing mountains, swimming in icy water—it was all scary stuff, and I did it. I learned that if I just keep going I can get to that light at the end of the tunnel. And being alive is everything!”

That, and a little coaching from my Boulder, Colorado coach, led me to realize that milestones always come with challenges. Off to college away from home for the first time can be tough; that first job is not easy; and marriage—well, many of us all been there, and if you stick with it, it’s a lifelong challenge. The insights we get from these experiences are what really count.

Adapting, getting on with it, as Karen Rose wrote about in Yes! is what comes after that milestone party. Henrik didn’t get a graduation, but he crossed a social/emotional milestone, he experienced an understanding about life that changed him and moved him forward in his development, learning that he can get through the hard stuff.

Now I had a new insight of my own—a milestone, if you will. I realized that many of the milestones we celebrate and take for granted, like graduations and marriage, are socially defined, built into our culture, but, other than retirement, we don’t have such obvious ones as we age. But maybe they aren’t needed, either. We get something bigger from the accretion of milestones throughout our lives, knowledge of ourselves and living, for example. The lack of social markers doesn’t mean there are no milestones as we age. I’ll bet all of us can identify experiences that moved us forward in our development.

I love two of Pema Chodron’s four truths—how really sweet and precious our lives are and impermanence. . . the essence of life is fleeting. Studies show that older people are happier than younger—both people in their 20’s and 30’s and the middle-aged. Maybe it’s because of the social/emotional learning that enables older people to accept what is—which is also a cornerstone of emotional well-being—and to see what is as both precious and impermanent. I like to think I have milestones ahead of me, though I know they won’t be college or starting a new job or having a family. I like to think they will be deeper, inside me, as I get better at this precious thing called life.

Possibilities

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I Dwell in Possibility

Emily Dickinson 

Joachim Trier’s movie, Worst Person in the World, is about a young woman exploring the possibilities in her life looking for that one true passion. It’s a universal story line—the quest–yet as my friend and I walked to our cars after the movie, all I could think about was the line “I no longer have a future” (spoken by one of the other characters). “It’s exactly how I sometimes feel about getting old.” I told my friend. “Like I no longer have a future.” She agreed that that line had stood out to her, too.  We walked around the corner to our car, parked on a street of lovely old mansions near Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. The early spring sun brightened the landscaped lawns and melting snow. 

“Take these gorgeous homes,” I said. “I’m never going to own or live in one. Twenty years ago, I would have walked by them and daydreamed about living in one. But that’s never going to happen.”

My friend noted that one of the harder realities about getting older is the realization that the range of possibilities is shrinking, if only because we’re running out of time—not to mention that most of us have more money going out than coming in. 

A few weeks later, I visited a college with my daughter and granddaughter. I heard my daughter say, “Gosh, I wish I could go back and do college all over at a place like this.” Her wishful thinking reminded me that there’s a universality to dreaming about what might have been or what might yet happen. The fact is, however, we get only one life. She is through college, and I’m never going to own a mansion in Milwaukee. But does that mean that I have no future?

I could still move somewhere new. . . or maybe travel. Is this why we older people like to travel? We have time and we’re looking for novelty? For my husband, the fun is in the planning. He gets to run through all the possibilities. For days before we go somewhere he changes the itinerary. When I saw Frances McDormand in Nomadland, it struck me that though she didn’t have any money, she traveled and was open to possibilities, too. 

This morning I asked myself what I like best about being retired. The first answer that popped up was having the time to contemplate and work on myself (a blog will soon follow on this). Richard Rohr in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, argues that in the first half of our life, we build and identify with a persona—I’m an educator, I’m a mother. Others are policemen, teachers, professors, plumbers, community activists—however we see ourselves. We work hard to create and maintain this persona, but underneath is an authentic person. In the second half of life, however, we have time and inclination to turn inward and explore that person, who we are at our core. That’s a powerful and challenging possibility.

In a recent podcast of No Stupid Questions on NPR with Stephen Dubnar (Freakonomics) and Angela Duckworth (professor at U Penn, well known for her work on grit) take on the question of What’s so Great About Retirement? There are many good reasons to listen to this podcast (or read the transcript), but the one that stood out to me was Duckworth’s emphasis on goals or purpose:

She describes her father, a retired chemist, who upon retirement announced that he didn’t want to do anything, and he proceeded to get up in the morning, have his coffee and his breakfast, shuffle over to the love seat, sit down, take the remote control, and turn on the Weather Channel. She believes that his choice to spend his retirement this way made him profoundly unhappy (Both Karen R. and I believe she should have looked closer instead of judging him). Duckworth notes:

I have a theory of happiness, which is very simple. I think people pursue goals spontaneously at every age. Whether you’re 4 or 84, you have goals. You have things that you want to accomplish. I think, actually, the greatest unhappiness there is, is not to have goals at all. 

As soon as I heard this, I knew I was back at my favorite rabbit hole—purpose. Maybe having purpose is the way we counter the perception that we have no future other than aging. Maybe I need to stop raging about it and look more closely. Purpose, in the second half of life, may be drawn from an inner imperative. That requires the very inner work that Rohr writes about, and it doesn’t have to result in a big world changing purpose/imperative. Instead, it can be a commitment to the little p’s in front of us daily

Two of my little p’s, as you’ve heard me say before, are tutoring and rosemaling. On the surface they seem like time fillers, but I made these choices after self-examination, not because I needed a job, or wanted to pursue a career, or whatever. Tutoring reflects my joy in teaching children, of being in schools, and in observing that fascinating process called learning. Rosemaling reflects a search for my identity as part Norwegian and my love of making things. While perhaps not soul work, these two choices came from an exploration of who I am and what I love doing. And finding them screams “You do have a future right in front of you, Karen!” Maybe it’s not a mansion on Lake Michigan, but the fruits of inner work from where I stand today, are every bit as rewarding as building a career was when I was younger. It’s true, I won’t get another life, but meanwhile, having found some little p’s, I wake up most days engaged in the one I have.

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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.

Lost and Found: That “Third Thing”

My third husband, Jim, was already retired when I met him, both of us in our 60’s. We had lost spouses to cancer and were living as singles—for me, nearly seventeen years, but not so long for Jim. We had much in common and didn’t want to date for years to get to know each other, so we decided to jump right into the complexity of marriage.  “Uff da,” as we Norwegians say.

We believed we were old hands at marriage—especially me—but quickly realized that marriage later in life, like all marriages, has plenty of challenges.  They are just different ones. I began to understand, too, the importance of what the poet, Donald Hall, calls a “third thing.”

Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment.

Starting out, Jim and I didn’t have that third thing. We both had our individual families and histories, but nothing we’d created or shared exclusively as a couple. Then along came Eddie, our beagle, who showed up on our deck one afternoon in late September. At the time Jim’s dog, Happi, was dying of oral cancer. She slept peacefully most days on the corner of our couch.

I’d noticed a dog wandering in the thicket behind our house, and wondered what he was doing there, so when he showed up, I let him in, believing he had to be lost. He came in like he owned the place, and gently sniffed Happi, resting on the couch. He then took a drink of her water and settled down on the rug with a sigh. When Jim came home, we walked the neighborhood with the dog, expecting that he belonged to someone nearby. No luck, so Jim took him to our local vet and left him. The vet called later and said that using the dog’s chip, they had found the owner, and the two were reunited. Case closed; Happi died a week later.

Then came November and a call from the vet who told us that the owner didn’t want the dog and was going to take it to the pound, unless we might be interested. We were mourning and didn’t want another dog. We also didn’t want this friendly dog to go to a pound. So we took him. A week later was Thanksgiving, and Eddie—we now knew his name—made a grand entrance to our family by lifting his leg and peeing on the dining room table leg, just as we were about to eat.  An ignominious beginning, to say the least.

Over time Eddie showed his true worth. He was always a stalwart defender of Jim through his illnesses. He sometimes howled in happiness when Jim walked through the door. He also followed me doggedly (pun intended) around the house. Gradually—and finally—we found ourselves with a third thing—our family of pets, which included Thor, whom I brought to the marriage, and Tress, Jim’s cat, and of course, Eddie, with his beagle personality, the obvious linchpin. (Tress later died, and we now have a new cat, Stella.)

Jumping ahead to this September. . . we went up north to Lake Superior, on the edge of the Superior National Forest, beyond Duluth and almost to the Canadian border. A pristine wilderness, and we would be there at the peak of fall colors.

A Beautiful Fall Day–Up North

It was our first time out after Jim’s illness, finding our way back to the world. Wonderful friends had invited us to a cabin and said, “Of course, bring Eddie.”  And Eddie had been Eddie, kind and loving to everyone, and trusting that this change of venue was fine, jumping onto a red chair and settling for a nap, whenever he could.

The weekend was coming to an end. Jim was already in bed in our little guest cabin. Outside the night was pitch black; it had been raining all evening. As I got ready to climb in bed, I looked for Eddie in his red chair.  No Eddie. I looked all over the cabin, peeked under the beds, opened closet doors that he couldn’t possibly have gotten into, but still no Eddie. I woke Jim to help me search. He suggested that maybe Eddie had gotten outside. The screen door did not latch, although it made an angry retort if you didn’t manually close it.

Eddie was gone. We’d lost him and in a place immense and filled with dangers everywhere. I started thinking about those TV dramas where a child goes missing and someone says, “The first 24 hours are the most important.” So, in my pajamas, I slipped on my hiking shoes, grabbed a rain jacket and flashlight and took off down the dark road calling “Eddie, Eddie,” still traumatized from almost losing Thor only a month ago and thinking dark thoughts about our status in the universe.

Who did we think we were, venturing out when Jim was still recovering? We’d been preoccupied with having everything go well for Jim, so that his legs would not swell and pull us back into the hole of sickness we’d been climbing out of.  And now we’d put Eddie—a big part of the menagerie that made up our third thing—at risk, Eddie, who trusted us and believed in the goodness of the world.

I searched near the steep shoreline and down the two roads near the cabins.  There were a couple of hiking trails along the river, but I didn’t dare take those in the dark though I imagined Eddie sniffing his way down them, following a provocative scent, then trying to find his way back to the cabin. All the while, a wolf watching and waiting to make dinner of him. No Eddie. As I walked back, my eyes filled with tears, overwhelmed with loss—the loss of Eddie along with the loss of Jim’s health.

Imagine This–In the Dark

I walked into the cabin, knowing there’d be no sleep, just as there’d not been much sleep in the weeks before. There was Jim in the kitchen, Eddie at his feet, begging for a bite of toast. I couldn’t believe it. Eddie had found his way back in the murky, threatening darkness. 

But Eddie had never been gone at all. There was a mattress stored under the bed, and although both Jim and I had looked under the bed, we had not been able to see that Eddie had squeezed himself on top of that mattress and directly beneath the bed mattress, with barely enough room to raise his head, like being the filling on a mattress sandwich. He’d finally come out to all the excitement. Crisis averted, our boy, the linchpin of our third thing was safe and sound.

We live in a time rife with threats—to our country, to climate, to the flora and fauna of our earth, and we live with this during a time in our own lives filled with uncertainty. Having a third thing is one way of standing together among that uncertainty. Jim’s and my third thing might not be the stuff of poetry, but it is our third thing, and, like life itself, both ubiquitous and fragile. Will we someday lose Eddie, or Thor or Stella or something else we dearly love? Of course, but meanwhile we have Eddie, who found his way to our doorstep and people who love him. While I was searching for the “lost” Eddie, there he was, wedged between the mattress version of a rock and a hard place, sleeping soundly and trusting that all would turn out okay.