Belonging….Young and Old

My friend Kathryn recently asked me to write a forward to her newest book on the importance of place and belonging in schools.  Using vignettes culled from decades of trying to understand the experience of children who don’t feel as if they belong in school, she stitches together a story about what adults can do to change that.  As I thought about children and belonging in school, I could not help but connect their experiences—good and bad—with my own.

–image courtesy of K.A. Riley

Kathryn does not define belonging, but her descriptions suggest that young people have a fundamental need to feel that they are in a psychologically safe space.  The drawing above, one of the most evocative in book, makes clear the devastating effects that feeling excluded have on identity.  Joe Murphy has said for years that the first goal of any school must be to weave an invisible cord between a caring adult and each student, so that if the child begins to be pulled away, the adult will know and figure out how to draw them back in.  In other words, personal connectedness is key to safety and belonging.

Woven throughout Kathryn’s book is an imperative:  Educators must be attentive to the experiences that each young person brings with them because children, like adults, need to be known and understood to feel that they belong.  A child who recently immigrated from a war-torn country may gratefully acknowledge that physical safety is fundamental to his feeling of belonging in school, while another whose family experiences routinized racism will need a different form of care to feel safe.

But there is another message, also reflected in Tupac Shakur’s evocative poem, A Rose that Grew from Concrete:  The communities in which young people live deserve the same compassion and understanding.  And belonging can be inseparable from physical place – a sense of being rooted that goes beyond positive relationships and comfort inside a particular school building.  Shakur’s poem is a metaphor for finding resilience in community, and for more attention to all places as a source of individual identity that support social and emotional development.

While contemplating the stories of young people that Kathryn collected, I could not help but think about how belonging also colors my life – and how questions about “where I belong” have come up in so many post-COVID conversations with others.  Dan looked up the other day and said, out of the blue, “we skated through COVID” – no one that we know even got very ill.  But we were in Boulder for a warmer winter close to family when the world shut down and we stayed.  We felt safer and more connected because we were in a “pod” with a daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild, which meant that we were not alone.  We had zoom connections with groups that we were already part of, so we felt engaged – even surrounded — by others.  Of course, we missed hugs, but we were ok and as safe as anyone could be during a global pandemic.

By the time that the 2020 election heated up, however, we had to acknowledge that the passage of time meant that we had effectively moved from Minneapolis, without really planning to do so.  We registered to vote in Colorado.

I keep thinking about  my reaction to Brian Friel’s Home Place, which I saw 14 years ago at the Guthrie Theater.  While the play is ostensibly about racism and class as English rule begins to erode in Ireland in the late 19th century, the dominant narrative is not what stuck.  Instead – then and now — It was that the English owner of The Lodge at Ballyweg kept referring to his real home as a place in Suffolk– where he had not lived for decades.  In other words, where you live is not always where you feel that you belong

And although Dan and I are reasonably content, we were uprooted from Minneapolis but are not rooted where we are.  This feels like a big deal because we are getting older, and like the plants in our garden, we need water, sun, and time to thrive in a place – and we know that this is probably our final chance to find a home. 

The last time I made a major move, from Boston to Minneapolis, I was just over 40.  I had always belonged to groups that were tied to place and space – in Boston, I floated between different jobs but I “belonged” with a close-knit “moms of young children club” and a sister close-by in a house that I loved.  I felt understood and rooted.  When I first landed at the University of Minnesota, I immediately decided that my itchy desires to try new things could be easily satisfied there – in other words, I found a professional home place.  But I changed houses, churches, book groups, and preferred grocery stores on a regular basis.  Now I have not been in Minneapolis for 18 months, during the trauma of COVID and the murder of George Floyd — and am retiring.  I don’t feel that I belong in a city where I lived for over 30 years – I miss the close friends whose lives have enriched mine over the years, but it feels as if the city and I have both changed.  Although Colorado is where I live, it is still not a home place. Everything from the gorgeous scenery to the strange weather feels slightly foreign.  The awe when I look at the Flat Irons each morning (finally, the view that I always wanted) is real, but it still doesn’t fully engage my heart. And, having lived a very circumscribed life during the COVID shutdown, I still have to use Waze to get anywhere but Target.

I am vaguely envious of friends who do have a home place and a sense of roots that connect people and a place to which they always return:  the couple who has Thanksgiving (and an extended vacation) with friends in the town where they lived after they first married; the middle-aged children who go “home” to their parents and old friends on a regular basis; others who spent a substantial sum renovating a house that they cannot imagine leaving because most of those they love the most live in the neighborhood.   The exquisite feeling of knowing that you belong someplace can be visceral…when it connects all the elements that I saw in Kathryn’s description of young people and belonging.

My friends who have a home place take it for granted and cannot imagine what life would be like without that touchstone.  I take for granted the fact that at various times in my life, I have experienced the psychologically safe space and personal connectedness elements of belonging that the children talk about even though I may not have them both today.   This leads me to wonder whether there is a rooted element to belonging for some people, but for others belonging is more fluid and situational.  In my case, generational wandering and relocation has been the dominant narrative of the Seashore clan ever since my father’s family left their tiny, rocky “home place” in Småland as immigrants to the U.S. in the 1860s.  Yet others from my great grandmother’s side, who came from Sweden at the same time, cannot imagine living anywhere but southern Minnesota and attending 4 generational family reunions each year. Are  some people simply more likely to need belonging and place, while others are sustained with the availability of safe spaces and satisfying relationships?



Martins own this ragged edge

stitching sky peat water cloud

where land weds salt.

Cobalt ripples draw

The sun joyful

Through a mackerel sky.

I scan the gloss of deep

feel the sea   cradle this isle

these crofts   this past

— Fiona Scott

Woe Is Me

I found this on Google, and it's the exact picture Aunt Selma had.

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This is exactly how Aunt Selma’s looked!

Karen Martha’s Take on Should I Stay or Should I go

June 14, 2020

Next to the bathroom door in my Aunt Selma’s house was an embroidery with a cross-stitched house and below it the saying: Let me live in the house by the side of the road and be a friend to all. (Actually, as you can see from the picture above, it said a friend to man, but over the years, I’ve revised it to a gender-neutral ending.) I have always imagined myself aging into a tiny woman, living in a nondescript house with overgrown bushes in front, doling out cookies to the neighborhood children and wisdom to their young mothers, and being a friend to all. In short, I wanted to age in my home. I didn’t think about marriage or any complications. It would be just me, in my own modest home, like Aunt Selma.  

Needless to say, things haven’t quite turned out this way. Here I am in south Minneapolis, near our lovely Minnehaha Creek Parkway, lakes, and hiking and bicycling paths. An abundant, green landscape greets me every morning—who would ever want to leave (It’s easy to forget winter in the midst of summer)? I’ve moved over 40 times in my life and putting down roots has been a pleasant surprise to me. I’m not sure that I believe this is the place, but it’s a good place overall.

I also live with a husband, so though I might be called tiny, and definitely aging, I’m not alone to hand out my cookies and wisdom, and truthfully, he’s much better at being a friend to all. Where I live, at least for now, is a decision we made mutually.

Idyllic as our home may sound, gradually our response to it has changed. The gardens that surround every corner of our yard, while giving us a lovely view from our windows, shout at us to get outside and weed, thin the overgrown phlox, and trim the bushes. Gardening, especially in the spring, weighs on us. Last spring the downstairs flooded, and we had to get new flooring. Then the aging air conditioner quit and had to be replaced. . . and the house needs paint. I could go on and on, but anyone who owns a house knows that there’s a price to pay, in sweat and money.

Meanwhile, our friends have moved from their houses into low maintenance townhomes, and in the case of our best friends, out of the Twin Cities, taking a piece of our hearts with them. So, we began to ask, what about us?

That’s when the serious discussion about moving began, much like Karen describes in her piece Should I Stay or Should I go?. Jim, my husband, gets wanderlust just about every morning, and he solves it with a long walk and a stop at the coffee shop—even during COVID. But periodically—I haven’t calculated the length of the interval—he ratchets it up and wants to move completely. When he mentioned moving again this May, at first I benignly ignored him and waited for him to cycle back to staying here.  But he didn’t. I started to listen and examine my own feelings.

Having an over-developed left brain, I immediately researched how to make decisions. I knew there were lots of formulas out there for processing information, but I didn’t know that there’s also a literature that says we older folks aren’t as good at it as younger people are. To quote: Aging may affect decision performance in more complex decision situations. The bright spot is that older people do well with decision making about that with which they have experience—in fact, we’re very good at drawing on our experience—and I am an expert in moving. 

So as not to compromise our decision-making performance, I copied down a list of questions from Forbes, not a perfect list, but somewhere to start so we wouldn’t be swept away by our feelings of loss and life moving forward for others but not us. I was determined that we would make a rational, as opposed to an emotional decision. The questions were helpful: How will you fill your days? Who will you spend time with? What is wrong with where I call home now? And, of course, Can I afford to move? They spurred a terrific discussion, and I recommend them to anyone considering a move after retirement.

It turns out that my vast experience in moving is not helpful because decisions in the past were largely career or family related. This decision has nothing to do with career or where we want our children to go to school. Instead, one factor alone permeates all decisions made in retirement—AGING. And we are learning that as we go. We ask ourselves: Will a move be largely lateral, meaning, we may want senior or assisted living within less than five years. What about one level living? Bad knees run in my family, and I have inherited that weakness. The questions pile up—How much space can we manage? How much space away from each other do we need and can we afford? How close to our children do we want to be? 

After considering many questions that we can’t completely answer, the decision for us comes down to a strong emotional pull—the need to feel that we are not living as though we’re getting ready to die. How to do that can mean different things to people. Some want a more communal setting because they want to stay engaged with others. Some want to garden, woodwork, own multiple pets, golf, or all of these. We want to move now for the adventure of it, the newness, the novelty of learning about and adapting to a new environment. We don’t know how long we have. I don’t know when my knees will give out, and Jim doesn’t know when his health issues will escalate. But meanwhile, if we want to live life to its fullest, living with fewer house-owning responsibilities seems like a start. So off we go!

July 15, 2020

A week ago we got a quote about painting our house.  We looked at each other and said, “Have we made a decision about moving?” We had our answer.

A Soul on the Move

            . . . the ground at my own feet. . . 2019

“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.” 
― Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

Given that I’ve lived at least 39 places in my 75 years, I felt compelled to write a sequel to Karen Rose’s piece, Should I Stay or Should I Go, especially since I usually pick the “go” choice. Moving seems commonplace to me, what people do.  But when I listen, I realize that not everyone is on the move. I’ve had neighbors and friends tell me they’ve lived in their houses for 20, 30, 40—since the beginning of time—years. Because I can’t speak to that experience, and, since right now I’m obsessed with doing my own soul work, I decided to think about moving in soul work terms, or, as Wendell Berry calls it, my spiritual journey.

          One of my mother’s favorite stories about me was how, even as a young child, I liked to run away. I’d go missing and she’d find me way around the block.  My recollection is that I wasn’t trying to be naughty; I truly wanted to see what was around the corner.  My son had the same proclivity.  When he was about four, though instructed to stay in front of the house, he would invariably ride his Big Wheel to the gas station around the corner, where I’d find him watching the comings and goings of a busy filling station.  My explanation for our curious natures is that it’s genetics, starting with my paternal grandfather, Nils Jacobsen, who left Norway in 1888 at age sixteen to come to the US. I like to think that he, too, wanted to see what was “around the corner.”

          Early in my life, as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, my moves were to find a room I could afford.  Everyone moves around at that point in life.  My tendency to move as a strategy to solve life problems started later, with my first husband, always looking for an affordable and better place, big enough for two children, and located in the same school district.  We moved ten times until we were able to afford a house. Our children, at ten and eleven, had lived somewhere new just about every year of their lives.  After our divorce when our children were grown, I started graduate school and moved again and again, always to find a better place within my means, which wasn’t much. Soul work at that point was building a new life.

          Building a new life to me meant having a fresh start in a new, clean house—no cluttered drawers, dusty shelves, moldering food in the refrigerator—not to mention, unpleasant memories. As Robert Louis Stevenson puts it, “The great affair is to move.” I’m not surprised that after retirement people consider making a move. Retirement, fundamentally, forces one to start over, to reconsider all the choices made over the years, including where to live.

          To be a professor, one has to move upon graduation. I was all in for that requirement. Upon graduation, I moved for a job and adventure, off to Utah and a new life with a new husband, Gary. We would hike in the mountains, ski, and explore the southwest. It was travel rolled into a career move. But then something changed.

          Our second year in Utah, Gary was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a year to live, if he was lucky. About eight months into his last year, I had a tremendous urge to move “home”, back to the Twin Cities. I found a posting for a job in Minneapolis, applied, and was hired.  I persuaded him that we needed to move; he died four months later in the Twin Cities.

          Although we’d bought a house for me to have when he died, I immediately started looking for a new place to live.  And there it was, the need to keep moving had become almost a pathology. See what was around that corner.  It had to be better than sitting alone in the house where Gary had died, facing my grief.  And move I did, first to a condo that I lived in less than a year, then a house, then to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Lehigh University, all in the space of four years. . . another travel adventure combined with a job change.  I sold it to my now married children as “exploring the east coast.”

          I moved to Bethlehem in June of 2001, and on September 11th, our country was attacked. Planes crashed in Pennsylvania, the Twin Towers in New York City, and the Pentagon. All felt too close. I was alone in a strange city, and I couldn’t reach my children because the cell phone lines were overwhelmed. On that afternoon and days after, I longed for “home,” someplace solid, with familiar ground under my feet. I had learned that in an emergency I would never be able to get to my children quickly. I lasted five years in Bethlehem, spending a good deal of time wanting to move back to the Twin Cities. Yes, I explored the east coast, and I made many friends, but I needed to belong somewhere, a place close to my children and grandchildren. I moved, back to the Twin Cities.

          I bought a townhome I didn’t particularly like, thinking I’d stay there a short time and move on. But then came the Great Recession. The housing market crashed, and I couldn’t get out of my townhome. Everyone else liked it and my friend, BetsAnn said, “Make it into a place you like. Don’t just sit there and complain.” I did, and I stayed there over eight years—almost a record for me—and I became attached to it.  I even looked forward to going “home” at the end of a day.

          In 2013, I remarried, and Jim and I bought a house together, which we’ve lived in for five years. This spring I had the urge to move. I insisted my husband look at townhomes with me.  We looked and concluded that our house suits us and our relationship, and we decided to stay put. Our children live in the Twin Cities, so we don’t have the pull to be near family. Our next move could very well be our last, and we’ll wait, like Karen Rose suggests, until it just feels right.

          But how will I handle my need to leave, to see if there is anything better around the corner? I’ve learned that I have a wanderlust that bubbles up whenever life gets uncomfortable. The lesson that I move to run away has not been easy to learn—39 domiciles attest to that. It means doing the work of my soul—confronting my seemingly logical reasons to move and seeing them for what they are—boredom and low level anxiety, the sense that something isn’t right, covered by a veneer of wanderlust.

          The other day I made my usual circle of the neighborhood, first to the co-op, then the library, from the library to Kowalski’s for a gourmet touch to dinner, a stop at the ATM, and finally home. How comfortable it felt! What I used to believe was boring—staying in the same place—has changed to belonging. That evening I biked the Minnehaha Creek Parkway. Living here long enough has allowed me to know the creek at both low and high levels, in winter under new fallen snow, in spring, raging as the ice gives way, and during summer, when it meanders under a lush canopy of green.

          As for “should I stay or should I go,” my first impulse is to say GO, move.  I am Nils’s granddaughter after all.  But staying in my last two homes has opened me to something else around the corner—the dynamic of neighborhood, the way a calm or raging creek invites me into my own movement and change. This isn’t an advice blog. The only thing I can say for certain from my experience with losing a husband and 911 is that being near family counts. The decision to move, while it may seem straightforward when the reasons are financial or job-related (and even those have nuance), is complicated, especially so with the emotional, physical, and family considerations that come with getting older. Maybe the best we can hope for when sorting things out is Karen Rose’s wish that “a place (will) just speak to me and tell me where to get off.” Meanwhile, for now, for me, I am in a place where I can finally, “learn to be at home.”

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.

David Wagoner, from Collected Poems 1956-1976

Don’t we all long for the sense of place that David Wagoner’s poem describes?  A place where you belong, that reinforces your sense of being “right sized” and in tune with your surroundings?  

That is what I do not have….

Last December, I discovered that my friend Jane was leaving her condo overlooking a small lake just outside Minneapolis.  She sold all the carefully curated furniture (including a fireplace that she had recently installed) and moved to a house in Florida with her new-ish partner Dave.  Boom. A Minnesota native, Jane was not much of a traveler and had season tickets to every theater, orchestra, chamber music or other event in the arts-rich community in the Twin Cities.  In other words, this was not an expected next chapter in her retirement story. At least I didn’t expect it.

Then yesterday, I chatted with Susan, who confided that the 9 weeks she and Bob spend in Puerto Vallarta were just too long – ‘I feel so disconnected – Bob loves it, and would stay longer.  We compromised so that next year we will stay for 6 weeks and come back for a few. Maybe go away again for a couple of weeks on a road trip with the dog to see the kids.’ Disconnected in Mexico…..but looking forward to long summer weeks in their remote and rather primitive cabin in Northern Minnesota – Susan’s “happy place”.

Another couple, long-time Minnesotans, recently moved back into their house, remodeled to suit the vision they had when buying it decades ago.  It sits on a large city corner lot, where they are responsible for shoveling two long stretches of sidewalk. Even when we visit them in the glory of early fall, the house’s steep front entry invokes fears of slipping – and I fast forward to hospitals stuffed with elderly people with pneumonia and broken hips.  But for our friends, an adventuresome trip or two a year in a warmer continent (including lots of hiking), is enough. They never seriously discussed any other options than the major remodel….

What about Sue, who lives in a spectacular three-story mountain home in Colorado, but whose husband is tired of plowing the driveway and dreams of a tripped out Mercedes Sprinter and a couple of years on the road while they are still in great health? (Wait!  Even though they have no children, the dogs are still young…and where will they all live when life on the road gets old?)

As Joe Strummer and Mick Jones put it in The Clash’s famous lyrics:

Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know…

We and our friends are all vigorous in our mid-60s to mid-70s. Not wealthy, but also not strapped.  We can do almost anything we want to — but not everything (and long ago redefined our fantasies to fit our budgets).  Blessed with the freedom to move or be “snowbirds” who fly away in the winter, we all have different stories that dance around the question of where and how to live once we are not tied to a job.   

Although I still have a year to work part-time, Dan and I have off-and-on been grappling where we want to be forever (or what seems that way). The dilemma of moving-or-staying may seem particularly acute for Minnesotans who, although a tough bunch, are mostly willing to admit that winter is challenging.  We love Minneapolis – the arts, friends, lakes within walking distance, good government, and fun restaurants on every corner – it is truly glorious seven or eight months of each year. But, as we say, there are two seasons: winter and road repair. (A local ice cream, Nicollet Pot Hole, memorializes the tire-busting crevasses that emerge every year after the incessant freeze-thaw of hard winters.)  

The question of staying or going is only partially a byproduct of weather.  We are living out the consequences of the tendency of better educated and more affluent Americans to wander.  Like many of our friends, Dan and I lack real roots. Our parents lived far from where they were born; we moved away from our parents.  My daughters and grandchildren live in Massachusetts and Colorado; Dan’s closest relatives are in Nebraska and New York. Easy enough to get to for planned visits, but not for Sunday brunch or occasional babysitting.  We have no role models (except Dan’s mother, who lived by herself and bought a new car at 92) and worry about creating mid-life drama for our loved ones if we age-in-place. We have vicariously experienced how frequent plane flights to deal with emergencies take an emotional and financial toll on friends in their 60s who are caring for parents in their 80s who live far away.  There is always an independent retirement community with affiliated health care. I AM NOT READY FOR THAT – I don’t want to live in an age-ghetto.  We will think about it again when I am 80!

That leaves us with the explicit or implied dilemmas faced by my friends.  Move to New Mexico, which is cheap-ish and has all four seasons, but requires starting over with friendships and community?  Split time between Boston-Denver-Minneapolis (none of which is a winter paradise), but feel a bit disconnected everywhere? Spend a few weeks away from deep winter (while postponing the issue)?  We have been through all of the options and none fits perfectly.  

Dreaming about alternative life styles is a playful “imagine a different future” activity when you are 25-35-45.  Now, we want to live each day to its fullest, and evaluating the many patterns of staying-going feels like a waste of time.  Why can’t a place just speak to me and tell me where to get off? Like a merry-go-round, the scenery changes and then I realize that I have been here before….