Woe Is Me

I found this on Google, and it's the exact picture Aunt Selma had.


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This is exactly how Aunt Selma’s looked!

Karen Martha’s Take on Should I Stay or Should I go

June 14, 2020

Next to the bathroom door in my Aunt Selma’s house was an embroidery with a cross-stitched house and below it the saying: Let me live in the house by the side of the road and be a friend to all. (Actually, as you can see from the picture above, it said a friend to man, but over the years, I’ve revised it to a gender-neutral ending.) I have always imagined myself aging into a tiny woman, living in a nondescript house with overgrown bushes in front, doling out cookies to the neighborhood children and wisdom to their young mothers, and being a friend to all. In short, I wanted to age in my home. I didn’t think about marriage or any complications. It would be just me, in my own modest home, like Aunt Selma.  

Needless to say, things haven’t quite turned out this way. Here I am in south Minneapolis, near our lovely Minnehaha Creek Parkway, lakes, and hiking and bicycling paths. An abundant, green landscape greets me every morning—who would ever want to leave (It’s easy to forget winter in the midst of summer)? I’ve moved over 40 times in my life and putting down roots has been a pleasant surprise to me. I’m not sure that I believe this is the place, but it’s a good place overall.

I also live with a husband, so though I might be called tiny, and definitely aging, I’m not alone to hand out my cookies and wisdom, and truthfully, he’s much better at being a friend to all. Where I live, at least for now, is a decision we made mutually.

Idyllic as our home may sound, gradually our response to it has changed. The gardens that surround every corner of our yard, while giving us a lovely view from our windows, shout at us to get outside and weed, thin the overgrown phlox, and trim the bushes. Gardening, especially in the spring, weighs on us. Last spring the downstairs flooded, and we had to get new flooring. Then the aging air conditioner quit and had to be replaced. . . and the house needs paint. I could go on and on, but anyone who owns a house knows that there’s a price to pay, in sweat and money.

Meanwhile, our friends have moved from their houses into low maintenance townhomes, and in the case of our best friends, out of the Twin Cities, taking a piece of our hearts with them. So, we began to ask, what about us?

That’s when the serious discussion about moving began, much like Karen describes in her piece Should I Stay or Should I go?. Jim, my husband, gets wanderlust just about every morning, and he solves it with a long walk and a stop at the coffee shop—even during COVID. But periodically—I haven’t calculated the length of the interval—he ratchets it up and wants to move completely. When he mentioned moving again this May, at first I benignly ignored him and waited for him to cycle back to staying here.  But he didn’t. I started to listen and examine my own feelings.

Having an over-developed left brain, I immediately researched how to make decisions. I knew there were lots of formulas out there for processing information, but I didn’t know that there’s also a literature that says we older folks aren’t as good at it as younger people are. To quote: Aging may affect decision performance in more complex decision situations. The bright spot is that older people do well with decision making about that with which they have experience—in fact, we’re very good at drawing on our experience—and I am an expert in moving. 

So as not to compromise our decision-making performance, I copied down a list of questions from Forbes, not a perfect list, but somewhere to start so we wouldn’t be swept away by our feelings of loss and life moving forward for others but not us. I was determined that we would make a rational, as opposed to an emotional decision. The questions were helpful: How will you fill your days? Who will you spend time with? What is wrong with where I call home now? And, of course, Can I afford to move? They spurred a terrific discussion, and I recommend them to anyone considering a move after retirement.

It turns out that my vast experience in moving is not helpful because decisions in the past were largely career or family related. This decision has nothing to do with career or where we want our children to go to school. Instead, one factor alone permeates all decisions made in retirement—AGING. And we are learning that as we go. We ask ourselves: Will a move be largely lateral, meaning, we may want senior or assisted living within less than five years. What about one level living? Bad knees run in my family, and I have inherited that weakness. The questions pile up—How much space can we manage? How much space away from each other do we need and can we afford? How close to our children do we want to be? 

After considering many questions that we can’t completely answer, the decision for us comes down to a strong emotional pull—the need to feel that we are not living as though we’re getting ready to die. How to do that can mean different things to people. Some want a more communal setting because they want to stay engaged with others. Some want to garden, woodwork, own multiple pets, golf, or all of these. We want to move now for the adventure of it, the newness, the novelty of learning about and adapting to a new environment. We don’t know how long we have. I don’t know when my knees will give out, and Jim doesn’t know when his health issues will escalate. But meanwhile, if we want to live life to its fullest, living with fewer house-owning responsibilities seems like a start. So off we go!

July 15, 2020

A week ago we got a quote about painting our house.  We looked at each other and said, “Have we made a decision about moving?” We had our answer.

Resolved. . . to Be Kinder to Myself

Sunset at Round Lake, Nisswa, MN

“What convictions survive into dotage?” asks the main character in Jane Gardam’s book, Old Filth, surely a question worthy of a blog devoted to retirement and aging. When I ask myself this question, I hear my stepfather expounding on one of his own favorite convictions—that most people are afraid and lack the courage to look hard at themselves, to admit their failures. On the face of it, this appears a wise and reasonable caution, and as a young idealistic girl who wanted to be a person of courage, I grabbed on and internalized this notion, not realizing how harmful constant self-criticism would be.

Focusing on my failures assumed the negative, that I had failed in some way, even when a different perspective might have pointed out that I had also succeeded in another way, thereby polarizing the outcome. It was either a success or a failure; there was nothing in between or a mix of results.

Casting a critical eye, which I took to be a brave me facing my deficiencies, led to many dark nights of looking back with regrets. But Parker Palmer points out “the past isn’t fixed and frozen the way we think it is. Its meaning can change as time unfolds, if we pay attention.”

My second husband, Gary Stout, loved to go to the burning bowl service at Unity church on New Year’s Eve. If you are not familiar with a burning bowl ceremony, what happens is that you write something that you want to let go of on a piece of paper and put it into a bowl where it gets burned—presto, you are done with it, ready to move on and stop fretting—notice how fretting rhymes with regretting? Gary and I also freely told each other what we thought the other person ought to let go of—ouch! It made for a lively New Year’s Eve.

So, should we face our regrets about our failures and flagellate ourselves endlessly, as my step-father maintained; let go and burn them away in a burning bowl ceremony; or, as Palmer suggests—reframe them? In the spirit of growing older and wiser, as a start, I suggest we reframe them.

My choice to reframe leads me to a highly personal story, one that I hesitate to share, but acknowledging that one way to reframe regrets is to take their power away by telling their story.

A regret I’ve struggled with for years is that I was a failure in my professorial career. I started out, as a new professor at age 50 at the University of Utah, filled with ambition, ready to set the world on fire. Instead, about a year after I arrived, my world was set on fire when my new husband, Gary Stout, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given about a year to live. I supported him, loved him with all I had, and watched him die over the next year.

His death flattened me, crushed me, rendered my ambition lifeless. The belief that I could do work that would improve schooling for the children I so had wanted to serve decayed into a hopeless cynicism. Except for a couple of bright moments, I never really got going in the traditional professor role.

In addition to being flattened, I had my stepfather’s voice, my “conviction” that I had to tell myself the truth, that I was a big fat failure. As you can guess, this truth did not have the effect of lifting me out of my despair, it only deepened it.

Then one day, another voice clamored to be heard, asking me what else I had done in my twenty years of failure. I believe I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, when I had this breakthrough. I made a list of all the other things I had done in the twenty years, deciding I would subtract my failures from this list. It was a long list—I now have it posted near my desk. It includes such things as reading great books, hanging out with loved friends, seeing my children grow into fine adults, grandchildren, a couple of flings, travel, commitment to teaching, helping students achieve their dreams. . . and so on.

Not a bad way to spend twenty years, I realized. Better yet, I had told myself the truth, looked hard at myself. Palmer says, “regret shuts life down.” I would add that it also shuts memory down, freezes it on what didn’t work instead of opening us to what did.

Ocean Vuong, in his magnificent book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, says:

History moves in a spiral, not the line we’ve come to expect. . . the past never a fixed and dormant landscape but one that is reseen. Whether we want to or not, we are traveling in a spiral, we are creating something new from what is gone (pgs. 27-28).

I’ve come to believe that to make sense of my life and my past I need to ignore the harsh voice I adopted from my stepfather and instead to not only reframe but to look again with new eyes, eyes that refuse to label good or bad, success or failure, eyes that are willing to “create something new from what is gone” by seeing the nuance and looking anew over and over.  I don’t mean the cliched “Everything happens for a reason,” but rather a willingness to be kind to myself and my past.

Which brings me to New Year’s resolutions, which I love—and I’m not talking about diet and exercise. I’m talking about resolutions that open life up, refresh it, if you will. This year I’m resolving to get passionate about making time to be at peace—maybe twenty minutes a day of meditating, doing a full body scan, deep breathing, or something like that.  All this, of course, is about living in gentle kindness with myself, seeing those spiraling memories that can dominate growing older with kind and gentle eyes. So, be it resolved—Karen Storm will make time for peace and be kinder to herself in 2020. May such kindness last forever. Happy New Year!

“I’m 64, Should I Give Up Trying To Be Successful?”

Believe it or not, this is a real question, posted to the Quora feed.  What followed in a response was a post by a young woman about her father.  The upshot of her comments was:

He taught me that you can always succeed if you believe you’ll succeed.

So believe in yourself. I know that’s cheesy, but I’m currently in class with a 74-year-old woman who’s getting her psychology degree after being a housewife for 45 years. My dad was five years from retirement, and then worked an entry level job. People start over at all stages of life. If they can be a success after so long, then anyone can.

This was apparently a hit with the readers, garnering 2,700 likes and 64 shares when it appeared in my inbox.  But, if you read through the heartwarming story, her father “started over” when he was 50.  Life looks different at 64.  Or 74.  

But back to the question:  What does it mean “to be successful” much less “giving up” on trying to be successful? 

“To be, or not to be?  There is consensus that Hamlet is talking about enduring the pain of his life versus the calm of death.  But (for me) “being” is more than merely “living” and one of our biggest jobs in moving from living to being is to consider success more deeply.  I like to use the Tarot to understand this work – and to remind myself of the stories that I want to tell myself and others.

Juggling with Joy in Early Adulthood — When I was in my 30s, what I wanted most from my life was to experience my young children’s development and maintain a modest professional profile (which meant a job doing something that I liked).  In other words, success was measured primarily by short-term joyfulness and maintaining a do-able balance between family and work.  It was all about balance….and dancing a little while doing it.

Fast-Forward to My Mid-Forties: Craftsmanship…The kids’ needs were less immediate and they were busy with friends and school.  I, on the other hand, was experiencing external “success” at work, with increased ego-stroking responsibilities and annual reviews that placed me among the “exceeds expectations” group in all of the areas associated with being an academic (the three-legged stool of teaching-research-service).  I focused on skill and artisanship at work.  At the same time, my life was not in balance.  I traveled a lot, focused on my own learning, and believed (incorrectly) that my family needed me (or even wanted me) less.  Without thinking too much about it, these external markers increased in importance over the next decade.  While the focus on skillful work resulted in lots of tokens to hand on the walls of my office, this card does not exude joyfulness….

image

A Slow Crush..My success contained the seeds of failure. While busily crafting at work, I gradually became accustomed to before-and-during dinner drinks, which allowed me to relax and avoid thinking about my marriage or the daily challenges of parenting teenagers.  Work was challenging but manageable, but not the emotions and preferences of other human beings.  I managed to hold on to the external trappings of success but lost personal direction and Shakespeare’s “not to be” became an increasingly attractive option.

One of the consequences of depression is a generalized sense of meaninglessness — what better a definition of being unsuccessful?  I looked OK on the outside, but the image captures the way life felt on the inside.

Comfort and a Different Success? Twenty years later, my life had changed radically again, with a new (and peaceful) marriage, a position within my work as an “elder stateswoman” whose job was to nurture the development of others, and grandchildren.  This Tarot card represents the abundant fruition of success and a life finally almost back in balance.  I think that in this image I am both the older person on the left and the woman on the right, in conversation (with a student? My husband?).  Bridget, my oldest grandchild, is tugging on my dress, while beloved dogs wait to be petted.  Who could ask for more in this life?

This redemptive card is part of the story of dancing while juggling, honing a craft, and ignoring relationships and self.  But, in my mid-60s, much life remained. 

Becoming New Again? So success (or failure) has meant very different things to me over the last 40 years.  Of course I cannot know what further success might look like – it is easy to tell a story after the fact, but predicting anything is a challenge.  And rather than hoping for “success” I have to keep reminding myself that I am likely to find a gift if I am willing to accept the mystery and not try to force the future. 

To return to the Quora post, what appealed to me about the story that the young woman told was not that her father founded a successful business in his 50s.  Rather, it was that he was willing to take a risk:

He said ‘I don’t think I can make this work anymore. I might have a chance if we move….Within a month, we left New York and drove 16 hours down to Georgia.

I am not sure where I will find my psychological or physical equivalent of Moving-to-Georgia.  But, I hope that I will wake up one day, and have a similar insight.  And be willing to act on it – with abandon and “wise innocence”, like my favorite Tarot card. 

The Fool has found something lasting – a “successful” understanding of joy that emerges from deep inside, seemingly for no reason at all. But he is also embracing adventure — more than willing to take a new risk.

Good News or Bad News: A Matter of Perspective

“The good news is this is the last time you will ever have to experience this procedure.”  Those were the words that lingered in the air as my physician, Angelina, left the exam room.  You would think I would be happy to hear her statement. The truth is I think the prep work is disgusting.  Not to mention the flexible camera lurking around in your body attempting to detect abnormalities or disease.  Colonoscopies are no fun, period.  Yet, that is not what really bothered me.  When Dr. Angelina left the room, I begin to ruminate on the meaning behind her words.  “What is she really saying?”  My internal critic was ready at hand with an answer. His snarly voice shouted in my ear “I think she is trying to tell you in another ten years your life will be irrelevant, or possibly over.  You are definitely on your own.”

Undoubtedly, Dr. Angelina had no idea how her words landed with me.  They triggered many repressed fears that I wasn’t even aware of, yet somehow they had taken up residency in some compartment of my mind.  Now that door was unlocked and stood wide open accompanied by Charlie the naysayer, my zealous critic. “Face it, you are much older than you would like to believe”.

I have always thought of health is a private topic, one in which I’d would prefer to keep that way.  Particularly when other well-intentioned beings alert me to the fact that I am getting older.  Even my nine-year-old grandson, Auggie, takes great pleasure in reminding me of my age. Especially since he has finally come to the conclusion that indeed I am older than his father.  When he was three, he was quite certain it was the other way around. This was due to the fact he believed his father was much smarter than I am; therefore he must be older. Since then, he has discovered the truth. He now knows I am older than his father. Somehow in Auggie’s eyes I still know less.  How can he have it both ways?

I remember the first time I read the British children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit. It was in children’s literature class when I was in college.  At the time, I didn’t relate to the passage where Margery Williams reminds her readers through the voice of the Skin Horse “By the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But those things don’t matter because you’re Real. You can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” I fell into the category of those who didn’t understand.  I do now. 

Today, I find I’d like to hold onto Mark Twain’s saying that “Age is an issue of mind over matter.  If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Societal norms often tell a different story. These norms account for why people in an older age group feel they experience isolation and discrimination. I believe it is because they struggle with their identity.  They find themselves wrestling with a loss of personal status, loss of power and control, influence and regard.  Real or unreal they all feed into the subtle formation of limiting beliefs.  Many don’t have the skill set to turn limiting beliefs into expanding beliefs thus they get layered on top of one another. Eventually they are overpowered with beliefs that keep them stuck.

Twain is right — it is mind over matter.  However, he forgot to say it isn’t easy.  It takes commitment and the willingness to create a healthy lifestyle, beliefs, habits, and expectations.   

For me, I believe the only way that can happen is when I don’t allow the naysayers in my life to get in the way.  I don’t listen to my critic or people in my life who attempt to indoctrinate me into their lifestyle, their beliefs, their expectations.

Perhaps it all starts each morning when I look in the mirror.  I can ask the person peering back at me:  Who and what do I want to see or be today? What can I explore, rediscover, or investigate?  I think I’d much rather live in that world, the world of wonder and hope even if like the Velveteen Rabbit my joints are loose, and some days I do feel a bit shabby.