Condition: Provisional

https://www.flickr.com/photos/rayandbee/5915105592
The Wheel of Life
Vigeland Sculpture in Frogner Park, Oslo

As I live through this COVID-19 pandemic, one phrase keeps popping up in my mind: the human condition. To me, the human condition is our imperfection, our inability to escape suffering, and that we live in a natural world indifferent to us. I keep reminding myself and my family that we are experiencing firsthand what can go wrong in a natural world that we thought we had mostly tamed. At the same time, our culture promotes an ethic of personal responsibility, suggesting that we have an influence on what happens to us. So what does it mean to be subject to the human condition but responsible at the same time?

Take my grandfather Nils Jacobsen’s life. In 1917, before the end of World War I and another pandemic, the Spanish flu, he brought his wife, Marthe, and two-year-old son, Alden, my father, from their farm in Norway to Racine, Wisconsin, where they hoped to build a new life. The 1920 census listed them living in a rental in Ward 8. They were still finding their footing. In 1926, Nils sold the family farm in Norway, which he inherited as the eldest son, to his brother.  It appears that life was going well in Wisconsin. Times were good! 

By the 1930 census, Marthe and Nils owned a home, a sweet bungalow that’s still standing, and they listed a second son, my father’s brother. But it was the start of the Great Depression. Soon after, Marthe died at age 51, and by the 1940 census, Nils, my father, my mother, my father’s brother, and my older sister were living in a rental flat. It was World War II, and the fishing on the Great Lakes had dried up.  My father and Nils struggled to find work they could do. Nils died in 1948, a bitter old man, as my mother described him. 

Not an altogether happy tale, but I suspect most families, if they dig, can find similar stories. How much of what happened was Nil’s responsibility? Maybe selling the farm? But surely not Marthe’s death, the loss of their home, and the loss of fishing for a living. I tend not to judge him harshly. Nils and his family lived through World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and World War II. As for Nils dying a bitter old man, I’d say he succumbed to the human condition

While Nils confronted the human condition writ large, until now, my own experience has been more personal.  After my second husband, Gary, died, I struggled, literally, for years with searching for meaning about his death.  I endured guilt that I had done something to bring this outrage on us, and I believed that if I could identify what I’d done, I could atone for it—I should atone for it. When I wasn’t feeling guilty, I was asking myself about the larger karmic meaning of his death—were the repercussions in our immediate world a way of balancing the scales, so to speak? I found no clear answers. 

Being a church-goer, I decided to take my pain to the minister, Pastor Rob. Pastor Rob didn’t like the idea of karma—that I bore responsibility for Gary’s death and, thus, for my grief.  He thought such thinking was where New Agers go wrong. Instead, he told me that Gary and I, like all humans, were subject to the human condition, which includes suffering. Neither of us had caused his death and I didn’t owe any atonement. Wow! I walked out his office feeling lighter, a new freedom. I still didn’t know the meaning, and in truth, I continued to seek it, but not finding it now felt okay. My search became part of my human condition. 

Later I learned about provisional existence. Viktor Frankl wrote that prisoners in concentration camps could not see an end to their suffering.  They could see no future so they lived a “provisional existence.” Pastor Rob had given me such an existence. I found no meaning, but I could live with that, provisionally, and keep looking. Frankl said something else that resonates with me in these times, that rather than me asking for the meaning of Gary’s death, I am being questioned by life and I need to find my own answer in my own terms.  In Frankl’s words: Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life byanswering for his own life

So here I am, living in a world-wide pandemic. This isn’t the retirement I planned, stuck at home, worried about family, friends, and the world more generally. Worried about an uncertain future, are my savings withering so that I’ll be one of the people living solely on Social Security? Will we have a depression? What about my grandchildren, one in college who’s been forced to come home?  The other about to graduate into a precarious world, and there will be no celebration. I am being questioned by life, and how will I answer? 

I have choices. I can weather the pandemic, hopefully stay healthy, and go forward with what is available now.  I can support family and friends as they move forward, too. If my money’s gone . . . well, I’ll deal with that if I must.  My other choice, of course, is, like my grandfather, to grow bitter, that my glorious retirement has been denied me, that my plans have been slayed by a merciless nature. 

 Every day I take advantage of the one freedom still left, the opportunity to take a walk in the unfolding spring, oblivious to the havoc of a virus. It’s Minnesota, so it takes a while for spring to show its color, but because my life has so drastically slowed down, I linger on my walk and look for small signs of the turn towards spring.

One day I noticed tree stumps, and I walked along eagerly photographing tree stumps, which mind you, are presumed to be dead, cut off. But then I noticed that some tree stumps don’t quit easily. They make the best of things and put out new shoots of life. Now and then there’s a hollowed out-stump that couldn’t regenerate itself. But everywhere in nature there are examples of persistence. Think about those weeds we so fervently pull. 

I have my share of human arrogance, but I’m learning to accept the indifference of our world—some natural and some human behavior—it is the human condition.  But in fact, indifference is a condition all life faces, human, stumps, and otherwise. So I carry on, knowing that as I’m questioned by life, I can keep on putting out shoots, it’s on me to find my own answer. 

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Later I learned that coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management that harnesses the ability of many species of trees to put out new shoots from their stump or roots if cut down. 

Big P, Little p, or What I Make of It All

The ubiquity of retirement “experts” telling seniors they need a purpose borders on tiresome. Hammering about purpose as necessary for giving meaning to life seems quite male to me, a sort of Big P (and I don’t have to tell you what else begins with p). It’s as though the adjustment to retirement converges on this one construct—Purpose—as a solution. But what if my way of adjusting to retirement is constructed from my web of relationships, interests, opportunities, family, etc? What if it’s not only ONE big purpose that drives me and helps the world, but a series of small day-to-day purposes, little p’s. To me that would be a more female way to consider the idea of purpose.

Trying to scrub the Big P notion out of my mind and come to what gives me meaning led me to recall three women whose careers I’ve followed closely, probably because they are writers, but also because their lives took such different paths where purpose is concerned: Rachel Carson, Carolyn Heilbrun, and May Sarton. I’ve listed them in the order that they entered my life, because recalling them in that order has helped me form my idea of Big P, little p. 

I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota when I read Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. I remember reading it during those big lectures of 300 or more students in biology, underlining it frantically; reading it whenever I had a break in my day; carrying it everywhere with me.

Carson, a woman with a Big P, believed that the rampant escalation of chemical use in our environment was harming the biosphere—she called these chemicals biocides. Carson wrote much of Silent Spring while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer.  She kept her illness quiet because she thought if the chemical industry knew, they would claim she had a personal vendetta in writing the book.  In fact, her entire career of nature writing culminated in this book. Sadly, Carson died of her cancer two years after the book was published.

As an idealistic freshman, Carson inspired me to want to do something big that would make the world better; I think we all hold similar aspirations at that point in our lives.  My direction turned out to be marriage, family, and teaching school, most of which kept me busy enough that I didn’t pause often to reflect on whether I was changing the world. I kept putting one foot forward—after all, aren’t raising happy, well-adjusted children and educating the young gifts to the world?

Many life events and years later, I encountered the Kate Fansler mysteries, written by Amanda Cross, a pseudonym for Carolyn Heilbrun, a professor at Columbia, and the first woman tenured in the English department. 

At the time, I was working on my Ph.D. so reading mysteries by a professor had special appeal. Later, during my MFA studies, I ran into Heilbrun again, this time in her book, Writing a Woman’s Life. Then, as I reached my late 60’s I encountered her a third time in The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. This was the book that held my attention. The prologue is essentially an argument for life being over at 70.  She notes, “is it not better to leave at the height of well-being rather than contemplate the inevitable decline and the burden one becomes upon others?” She also states, “I was—and am—one of those for whom work is the essence of life.” And that I think is where she sold short the possibilities life affords. Heilbrun committed suicide at age 77 by taking a sedative and putting a plastic bag over her head. She left a note that read, “The journey is over. Love to all.” 

I read about Heilbrun’s suicide mid stroke on my exercycle—She really did it. She meant what she said. It took me days to process her suicide.  I even wrote about it in my application to the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. Heilbrun had much to live for, a loving husband and family, grandchildren, good health, a successful career, respect, etc. It made no sense to me to define one’s life solely in terms of work, which I presume she did.  Once she anticipated a decline in the Big P of work, she wasn’t willing to construct a life that included both some, though less, Big P and also more of the many little p’s of everyday living. She was and still is for me a cautionary tale about nurturing both curiosity and flexibility.

Which brings me to my last admired female writer, May Sarton. I know Sarton primarily through her journals, which many critics believe to be the best of her 53 books, most of which are novels and books of poetry.

Starting with I Knew a Phoenix, published in 1959 until her last journal, At Eighty-Two, published in 1997, two years after her death, Sarton chronicled aging, isolation, solitude, friendship, building and loving a home, relationships and more. What stands out for me is that although Sarton started out with the Big P of an ambitious writer, she matured into a person who accepted, albeit with regret, that her work was not considered part of the literary canon of her time, and she went on to cultivate the many little p’s of her life. Her journals charm with details of daily life: ordering bulbs for the garden; walks with her beloved dog, Tamas; visits and long talks with lifelong friends; keeping a lively correspondence, sometimes with complete strangers; and following the antics of her various cats and neighborhood critters around her secluded house in Nelson and later on the coast of Maine. These were the small p’s of the solitude she captured in her journals into old age. I keep a Sarton journal next to my bed and read some every night before turning out the light.

I’m not writing to criticize anyone who has a Big P in their life. No way, it’s a gift. I myself will always sustain a passion for teaching and writing, the stuff of Big P. But I am arguing that a web of little p’s has the substance of a Big P and of a life well-lived. A few days ago, I woke up excited to attend my grandson’s senior speech—before the Corona Virus put a lock on outside life.  I had an exciting small p purpose for my day. Now, as I recall the day with my family, the speech, the cheers, the hugs, the brunch after, I realize that while the search for a new Big P to enliven retirement has been, for me, akin to finding a four-leafed clover in my lawn of Creeping Charly, most days I have little p’s everywhere. I walk my dog around a lake that changes with the seasons; I have lively lunches with friends; I enjoy dinners and vacations with family. My latent Big P for writing and teaching will always be part of me, and meanwhile, every day has something to savor, right until the moment when my cat walks across my face before settling at my feet for the night.