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.

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.

The COVID Canon

There I was, thinking I had my retirement all sewed up.  I was learning rosemaling—I who had never painted a thing in my life had found my people!  Three days a week I was tutoring fourth graders in math—I had also found some little people to nurture and who would tell me the truth about life in plain and simple language—Don’t run in the hall,” and “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

And then it hit.  The Pandemic!   Exciting at first, we were going back to 1918. Who doesn’t want to make history? After all, my paternal grandparents and father took a boat from Norway to the US during the pandemic, and they did okay. What’s the big deal? And if Anne Frank could hide in an attic in Amsterdam and write a classic memoir/diary about it during WWII (which we should all reread by the way), I could certainly buy two weeks of groceries and stay home.

I was teaching at the time, so I hastily put my class online. I decided that I’d need to bake bread—like 2 million other Americans—and used the only two packets of yeast I had for the first two loaves, then waited 8 weeks for a two pound package of yeast from Amazon. By then I was happily going to the store and buying bread again. Toilet paper was still dicey.

I could go on and on about adjusting to the pandemic.  Suffice it to say it was a scary adventure at first, then it began to get tediously scary, and now it’s a way of life, equally scary. So what happened to the glorious retirement I was working on?  Well, I’m still retired and for now at least, checks still get deposited into my bank account, and I haven’t gone under financially yet. The garden bloomed, and the weeds thrived. At first I told myself, “You’ve got this. You’re an introvert.  You don’t need other people.” But I realized I could sit in front of the computer or TV or in a chair reading only so many hours a day.  I missed my people, especially my little people.

It was a good summer for exercise, though. Got out on that bicycle way more than in other summers.  But winter is coming. That will be its own challenge in Minnesota. And we dare not book a trip to Florida, a hot spot of Corona Virus.

By now, dear reader, you’re probably saying “Blah, blah, blah, Karen.”  So, I’ll cut to the chase, as they say—why do they say “chase?” Here are my new rules for retirement during COVID, the COVID -===================dfgggggggggggvgv Canon, the first rule of which should be Keep your cat off the keyboard.

The COVID Canon

1.Teach your pets to know their place. You’re not staying home all the time to spend more time with them.  They need to get over that assumption. You aren’t going to throw the ball endless times in the house just to keep the dog happy, and you definitely will not be giving them treats to shut them up (I’ve had trouble keeping that one). 

2.You have only one purpose—TO STAY ALIVE (although the cat may think it’s to feed him). All the good retirement books advise us to “find our purpose.” For the first time this is finally clear to me. I don’t want to get this nasty virus, I’m 76 and I hope to someday be 86.  Knowing my purpose is very freeing.  No more having to find meaning in my life beyond wearing a mask, social distancing, and staying home.

3.All rules about TV are off.  You can have it on during the day and no one will accuse you of becoming an old person glued to the TV. And your kids won’t know unless you tell them—assuming they are staying away. Besides, who knows, you might be watching the Minnesota Orchestra, lectures, or National Geographic—expanding your mind.  Better yet, you could be watching our two candidates for president—there’s nothing like a good horror show.

4.Falling asleep in front of the TV is also allowed.  Who’s going to see you?

5.Long stringy gray hair is now permitted.  For men, you can have that ponytail you always wanted and that your wife said was ridiculous. And two days beard. . . well, you might be able to pull that off. And women, you, too, can have that ponytail you always wanted. . . which everyone said was too young a look for you.  Who gives a rip!  As for me—self-styling has reached a new low, but no one sees me. I might even take the mirror out of the bathroom.

6.Getting dressed still counts—now this is a tricky one. I still like to clean up, pick the matching earrings, accessorize!  But my husband. Eew. Not sure I should even admit this, but I have counted how many days he’s worn the same shirt. These matters can be grounds for fighting, and I suggest if you’re a couple that you negotiate standards for changing clothes. But then, now that it’s autumn, you can always sleep with the windows open.

7.The rules about doing something useful in retirement have changed—although how, I’m not sure. As for doing something meaningful and useful—the point of retirement—well, you’re not going to travel, unless you know something I don’t know or have a death wish; so the number one dream of retirees has been taken down a notch. Although you could buy an RV and do a John Steinbeck Travels with Charlie sort of thing.

You can still take a class—online, of course.

Maybe you could write your memoir, or a BLOG—what a great idea!  A blog about retirement—in the pandemic.

But then, if all else fails—all rules about TV are off.

8.Finally, the super big rule—do whatever it takes to outlast this pandemic! As a famous poet said, If winter comes, can spring be far behind. (This is the MN state mantra).  How about To the victor belong the spoils?  Or All things come to those who wait. Whatever platitude works for you.  Finally, dear readers, I ask you. . .