Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — A Song of Life
Geert Hofstede’s research suggests that striving for a life that will be noticed is fundamental to the American psyche. And, in a big country, the longing is often equally big and broad. From Patrick Henry to John Wayne, large and swaggering (and male) is what is noticed. I saw myself in the narrative, but identified as a thoughtful visionary seeking a bigger world – like Pallizi’s romantic 19th c. portrait. As I noted previously, my husband called this “International Karen” who, as frequently as possible, moved beyond contemplation to collaboration with people in other countries who also wanted to make their schools better. But, between Covid travel restrictions and a dwindling passion for experiences far from home, International Karen is coming to terms with the obvious: the past will not be the future. What is emerging is a different longing—to figure out how to leave smaller but still meaningful footprints.
Several years ago, some friends and I – (aka, The Retirement Biddies Workgroup) — read Sarah Susanka’s reflections on living a “not so big life”. A well-known architect, she urges us to think about what really matters through analogies between designing a smaller home and designing a smaller life. Some of her questions are relevant to anyone at any age: How is what we are purchasing fitting in with what we need? How are we using our resources? When do we have enough? But then, her zinger: How have you wanted to change the world and how are you looking for related changes in yourself? Her challenge suggests beginning with our biggest aspirations (do they come much bigger than changing the world?) and then look internally to see as if we are up to the task.
But that question needs reframing in a life that has become radically smaller during Covid, while I am also busy considering a future that will inevitably be different from my expectations of a few years ago. As I look at “international Karen” and cringe at the carbon offsets that I owe the world, I know that I could not go back, even if it were possible. I pulled Susanka out of my bookshelf….
At a personal level, I have already made a commitment to a smaller life. A decade ago, Dan and I made a radical move from a rather large house to a condo, which was about the size of Susanka’s designs for a “not so big house”. When The Retirement Biddies were contemplating the “not so big life”, Dan and I had given away many of our possessions, including furniture, books that we finished reading many years ago, and appliances that we rarely used. We felt lighter and patted ourselves on the back, while filling every nook of our new walk-in closets.
But I was still working. Although my home office was small, I had a bigger office at work for all the professional stuff. The only question “not so big” question that had immediate resonance was a more thoughtful consideration of what we were buying. It was all about “the stuff.”
But now retirement-during-Covid is a reality, along with the unanticipated consequence of our decision to stay in Boulder, CO where we are engaged in a noble experiment: two people living peaceably in a 1000 square foot 1960s ranch that has only two interior doors that don’t lead to a toilet. But this requires a different kind of decluttering. The grand project of moving and starting over – just like those who are part of “the great resignation” or who have otherwise changed their lives in the last few years – requires a decluttering of the spirit and heart.
The challenges are huge. I have always been BUSY, largely with activities that are not essential. I am easily distracted by emails or random thoughts. I have never meditated, and have been totally unsuccessful at journaling because it requires discipline. Since childhood, I have been unable to cope with boredom and have a long list of attractive projects that I can turn to if that awful feeling appears. But these habits, some of which were functional when I was “busy working”, are now impediments. In Susanka’s terms, I am unable to turn away from alluring “time clutter”.
Clearing out the heart requires stillness – so different from concentration — that does not come naturally. I have taken a course on contemplative prayer. I have read poetry out loud. I have worked on a skill that never came naturally to me – listening to what other people are really saying rather than immediately generating a stimulating conversation. I am even weaning myself off the computerized calendar that beeps too often, and writing out to-dos and appointments using a fountain pen. More importantly, I am tracking a new habit – explicitly noticing, contemplating, and being grateful for something that is exquisitely beautiful, whether in nature (frost covered ornamental grass or snow on the Flatirons outside our house) or when making faces with a four-and-a-half-year-old. And writing down a few of those things in turquoise ink. I really love the turquoise ink.
But what about changing the world? I take heart in reading aloud Mary Oliver, who suggests that, at least for a poet, a large life can be inscribed through small acts:
I don’t want to live a small life. Open your eyes,
open your hands. I have just come
from the berry fields, the sun
kissing me with its golden mouth all the way
(open your hands) and the wind-winged clouds
following along thinking perhaps I might
feed them, but no I carry these heart-shapes
only to you. Look how many small
but so sweet and maybe the last gift
I will bring to anyone in this
world of hope and risk, so do
Look at me. Open your life, open your hands.
Mary Oliver – I Don’t Want to Live a Small Life, Red Bird
To live a more open and intentional life, I need to consistently remind myself that small efforts, expanded over many committed people can make a difference in this world of hope and risk. I think of the years when I hauled dozens of yogurt containers to my office before my city started recycling – only to find out now that the containers were not actually recycled. So, my Instant Pot and I now have a bi-weekly routine that involves yogurt making. I find local issues that are pressing – affordable housing, unjust judicial practices, and the continued exclusion of the Native people who once owned this land – and find others who want to change them. Goodbye International Karen: You did good work and had fun. Now I want to bring small gifts to the place where I live and to those I am with – and I also remind myself that large footprints in sand will be washed away.