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.

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.