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.

Can an Abstract-Random Older Woman Find a Comfort Zone?

When I logged into my e-mail today, I clicked on brainsparker (as I often do if there is nothing more pressing) This is what came up: 

“Great Things Never Came From Comfort Zones”

I found that both unsettling and soothing.  Most of the time I feel just a tiny bit uncomfortable.  I don’t quite fit it; I don’t look quite right today; My thoughts are jumbled; I put that meeting in on my calendar on the wrong day–damn!  Underlying this is my fading but still genuine love of chaos (aka, “real life”).  Just enough so that I am always a little on edge.  I hate lists (too confining), excel spreadsheets, and prefer making decisions (after some agony) based on heart rather than head.  

But it often feels as if my needs are changing.  Controlled anarchy that was fun in my 30s – two young children, multiple pets, an antique house that required endless maintenance, a demanding job – would feel unbearably complicated now.  I can’t multi-task the way I used to – and I don’t want to because it distracts me from things that I want to do (writing, knitting, and drinking coffee). 

Is it being older that makes me yearn for “flow” and the sense of being lost in one activity or thought?  Or, have I just worn myself out from years of struggling to find something that others might consider “balance”? 

I was talking to my friend Cryss today and she reminded me that both of us are “abstract-random”.  And we are still often uncomfortable, even now that we are Medicare eligible.  Julie King hints at the origins when she says that “People with this thinking style dislike dictatorial leaders, narrow boundaries, unfriendly people and competition. They also like to work on things at a high-level and can be frustrated when asked to focus on one thing at a time or to look at or share exact details” (Canadaone.com).  Ouch–too close to the bone.  But abstract-random can be creative – and creativity is what great aging is all about (at least according to gerontologist Gene Cohen).

But even now, when I am fully focused and “in the groove”, I am still a teeny bit uncomfortable because what I want is just out of reach. 

What is comfort anyway?  I dove into Google Scholar (one of my favorite places to be if I am restless), and searched for writing on “comfort zones” before the 1980s.  It was all about temperature control.  One title, “Thermal Sensations of Workers in Light Industry in Summer”, gives you a good sense of what I found.

There was a single startling exception, a 1978 article in Social Problems about women

…and cultural mandates.  The authors concluded that “comfort zones” (in quotes) were medical specialties where married professional women did not feel the derision, rejection, and hostility that they experienced as normal most of the time. 

Patricia Bourne and Norma Wikler, the authors of the study, provided the “aha” moment that I was searching for:  women who wanted it all – marriage, children, and a professional career – were rarely comfortable.   And they were me.

When I went to college in 1963, I assumed that I would marry a nice man (preferably a professor), live in a pleasant home (preferably eclectic MCM) and raise creative, smart (preferably two) children.  By 1967, when I left with my BA, I knew that I would choose a different path .  But that path was not easy.  In 1968, no woman had ever been tenured in the sociology department at Columbia University.  When I finally left that was still true.  I married, but in New York at that time, keeping your “maiden name” required a huge bureaucratic and legal rigmarole, and finding an apartment with two last names (are they living in sin?) was not always easy either.  So I took my first husband’s name.  I saw only one woman in a senior position until I was in mid-career. 

So I made choices to feel as comfortable as I could. For a while I worked outside an academic job.  I then chose to work in education rather than sociology or a business school because it was felt more comfortable.   I enjoyed my small victories and a sense that being a bit unpredictable and on the edge would bring me a little strength in a world that was not designed for women.  Yup, that meant that I tended to “sweat the small stuff” because sometimes what other people saw as small I thought of as much bigger.  Sometimes I was right, sometimes I wasn’t…

But now the comfort of feeling that I belong seems almost within reach.  When I look around at work, men and women are more able to talk about balancing family and work.  My second marriage feels, as the British say, “bespoke” and we have figured out routines that allow an abstract-random person to live with someone whose way of being in the world is more concrete. Life just feels – well, mostly comfortable. And not boring. But it is hard not to ask whether feeling more comfortable will somehow diminish me. Do great things never emerge from comfort? Does thinking or writing in a way that is challenging to me and others require discomfort?

Or, is it just a result of aging — the much quoted finding that most people become happier as they get older?  A response to the zeitgeist, where comfort becomes an essential respite from the daily bludgeoning of the national and international news? Am I finally learning lessons that most people “got” when they were much younger? Reflecting on the connection between comfort and creativity/great things raises more questions….

And, as for the thermal stuff, they still keep all restaurants, movie theaters, and offices set for temperatures that men prefer – Olga Khazan says that most women like them warmer and perform better when the thermostat is up a few extra degrees.  Women and older people (older women?) are, as one article puts it “thermally dissatisfied” – out of their comfort zone.