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?

Belonging

(Benbecula)

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

The Pandemic in Six Word Memoirs

The Pandemic in Six-Word Memoirs As collected by Carla Wilks, guest blogger.

Borrowing from the six word memoir form, our guest blogger, Carla Wilks, asked friends and relatives to send her six word memoirs about the pandemic. These are shown below. Karen Rose notes that anyone of these could be epitaphs on a tombstone marking the end of the pandemic.  Enjoy and then add your own!

Alone time is good, short term. (CM)

Stay home, no vacation, wash hands.  (CS)

2020 Wake-up call: COVID, racism, wildfires.  (KS)

Missing friends but got a cat.  (KR)

The cat wants us to LEAVE.  (JC)

Cooking, cribbage, ponytail, gazebo visits.  (CW)

Time freedom excites, stimulates.  Zoom obligates.  (KU)

Singing to dogs.  We run again.  (JC)

So glad we have a dog.  (MW)

I’d rather not talk about it. (TM )

Missed prom, graduation, friends and Milwaukee.  (MW)

New shovel, new gardens, new plants.  (JW)

Summer of Dave, Fall, Spring, Summer!  (DW)

Coffee, walk, text, pizza, wine, repeat.  (KW)      

Should I be social or responsible?  (AW)

Next door with kiddos and coffee.  (EW)

I met some new, amazing people.  (AW)

Work and play – hours become blurred.  (JW)

Child welfare became even more difficult.  (SW)

My online clinical experience was tedious.  (MR )

Enjoying yoga pants, commute and introversion.  (BW)

New workload-overwhelmed.  New granddaughter-overjoyed.  (JW)

Add your own below

Retirement During a Pandemic

Garden in July

In the middle of July 2019 I announced my intent to retire at the end of June 2020; nearly one year in advance.  Some people thought that time frame a little excessive.  Would I not be considered a lame duck for the entire year?  What would this mean for my ability to lead?  Yet I know my boss, the Superintendent of Schools, appreciated the long lead time.  I was a department Director for a school district and sat on the Superintendent’s cabinet.  This gave him plenty of time to find a replacement. 

I had a plan for winding down my time in the school district.  Get as many projects as I could completed (or at least underway) before I left.  And start helping my husband with his business.  Things were moving along nicely.  I was very productive at my job while also helping my husband deliver in-person workshops around the state on weekends.  I was a little overwhelmed but feeling good. 

Then came March 15, 2020.  That was the day the Governor of Minnesota announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state was going into lockdown and school districts would start planning for distance learning.  Students’ last day of in-person school would be March 17.

That changed everything. For everybody.

For me, as a school district employee, that meant stopping everything I was doing and refocusing on distance online learning and childcare for essential workers.  It meant many daily meetings (virtual, from home), onslaughts of emails, sifting through pages and pages of Department of Health and Department of Education guidance that changed daily, checking in with my staff, checking in with others in my field, all while still trying to move some projects forward with the hope that school would reopen in the fall.  It also meant that my husband’s in-person workshops (and therefore his business) came to an abrupt halt.  Not that I would have been able to do them anyway – I had to work on weekends as well. 

This went on for three and a half months – right up to June 30.  Then on the morning of July 1, I woke up to – nothing.  It was jarring to say the least.  Don’t get me wrong – the weight of the stress lifted from my shoulders made me feel I was floating on air. I was happy to shed that weight.  Yet I pride myself on being productive and I didn’t have any idea what to do. 

Do – it’s a small word with a huge amount of baggage attached to it – at least for me. Does gardening count as doing? Does reading a book count as doing? Does cooking meals count as doing? Does going for walks count as doing? Does sitting and contemplating my life count as doing? Does it count as doing if I’m not earning money?

That last question gets to the heart of my dilemma.  I have been a consistent earner since I got my first job at age 15, nearly 47 years ago. I took only four weeks off for each of my kids. I’ve never been laid off.  I work; I earn money. That’s how I see myself. That’s been by design.  My dad died leaving my mom a widow at age 53.  She had not worked for pay since she was pregnant with me. Even though he left her with enough money to take care of herself, it hit me that it might not have been that way. What if he hadn’t left anything, and she had not been able to take care of herself?  I vowed that I would ALWAYS be able to financially take care of myself and my family.  I was 23 years old.  And I fulfilled that promise to myself.  The problem is I didn’t make any promises for what I would do in retirement.

It’s taken me nearly three months to start cutting myself a little slack.  After all —we are in COVID times. The retirement life I visualized is not viable —at least for now.  It’s time to start visualizing something different and, possibly even better. We are in a period of flux where things are changing for everyone. I can use this time to my benefit.

The concept is called liminal space. “The word “liminal” comes from the Latin root, limen, which means “threshold.” The liminal space is the “crossing over” space – a space where you have left something behind, yet you are not yet fully in something else. It’s a transition space.”  (Alan Seale, Center for Transformational Presence)  This time of pandemic could be considered a very long liminal space for me, and for everyone else.

It’s time to leave behind the idea that I need to earn money for money’s sake. Financially, my husband and I are in a good place.  Between my pension, his Social Security and our savings, we can take care of our basic needs and then some.  (Although I will admit that we need to earn money if we want to live an exciting life of travel – when we’re able to travel again.)

It’s time to explore what it would look like if I were truly doing something I loved to do.  That means trying new things and further exploring familiar things. And it means shedding old ideas of what it really means to be productive and unpacking the word “do.”

When I was 23, I didn’t think to make a promise to myself for what my life would look like when I retired.  And why would I?  It was so far into the future.  Now the future is here. One of my favorite sayings is “When is the best time to plant a tree?  20 years ago.  When is the second best time?  Today.”  So today I make a promise that I will open my mind to the possibilities of what an actualized life really means for me.

The Many Sides of Forgiveness

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

Joni Mitchell

I miss my friend, Ed. I miss watching Ed make sushi rolls with his large fingers. He rolls them slowly while talking lovingly about Japan where he grew up and where later he was head of an international school. I miss sitting on his deck and discussing children’s learning—the importance of activity. I miss visiting schools with him and teaching children to make Origami cranes. Most of all, I miss his friendship, which I once believed would last forever.

Something happened, but I don’t know what. After a mutual friend died, Ed stopped talking to me. I tried to connect over and over, but he barely acknowledged me. It’s been at least fifteen years now since we’ve shared a friendship. I’ve asked myself again and again: What did I do?  How can I atone? I know the reason might be within him, but unless we both value the friendship enough to talk, I cannot address my part.

Ed embraced many Japanese cultural beliefs, including the belief that folding 1000 cranes strengthens the chance that a wish will be granted.  Sadako Sasaki, a girl in Hiroshima exposed to radioactive fallout from the atom bomb when she was 2 years old and who developed leukemia at age twelve, set out to fold 1000 cranes so her wish to live might be granted. The story says that she died before she finished and that other school children finished for her. There are shrines to Sadako all over Japan and in other countries. She has come to symbolize innocent victims of nuclear war.

This June, in a pandemic malaise, when I was longing to talk to Ed to see what he makes of it all, I decided to fold 1000 cranes for him as a symbol of the value I held of our friendship. Perhaps when he opened the huge box of cranes all strung together, he would know how much it meant to me, still means to me. Maybe my wish for a dialogue would be granted. I calculated that I’d need to make six a day to be finished by the end of the year. I’ve been folding them ever since.

Not even halfway there yet!

Not too long into the folding, it occurred to me that I am folding in the hopes of repairing a friendship with someone who has shunned me. Do I really want such a friend?  And I started asking myself deeper questions. What changed between us? What was my role in it? Does he recognize a role that he might have played? If I had answers to these questions, would there be a common ground for apologies from either or both of us? And is reconciliation even possible?  These are not easy questions to answer. It might be easier to simply move on.

Which brings me to forgiveness. . . Karen and I have focused on forgiving others, but what about people in our lives that might hold pain that we’ve caused? I know that when I divorced my first husband, I hurt him deeply. He wanted the “’til death do us part” promise kept, and I could not give him that. He did not remarry and maintained that he held our marriage as sacred. He has passed on, and I wonder if he ever forgave me.

We celebrate the healing that occurs when we forgive someone, but there’s an internal healing in recognizing and facing our own transgressions.  I don’t recall telling my first husband that I knew I’d hurt him or that I was sorry for causing that hurt—I was sorry, although not for divorcing. At the time I needed to save myself. It took me a long time to come to terms with the loss that each of us experienced, but once I did, I changed my behavior from angry and resentful to compassionate—not in a patronizing way but as an equal, as a human being acknowledging that life isn’t easy, and we don’t always get what we want. Once I felt his pain, I stopped seeing him as the person who’d imperiled our marriage, a vital step in forgiveness. And then the next step, which was seeing that I, too, needed forgiveness. I have come to believe that at times something is out there that needs forgiving, and both parties created it and own it—a wound that needs healing.

          Human pain is human pain. We have all felt it. It may be pain inflicted by others, knowingly, unknowingly, or as fallout from a decision one or the other makes because she must. To effect any forgiveness, both parties must open themselves to remorse—If I could do it over, I would do it differently; regret—I’m sorry about my part in what happened between us; and reconciliation—I will work to have our relationship go forward.

          As I fold my cranes and think about Ed, I realize that in shunning me, he loses, too. We could have supported each other in grieving the death of our friend; we could have continued our work to better children’s lives; we could have shared the last fifteen years over numerous glasses of wine and sushi. Both of us lost a friendship. I continue to hope that that friendship can be restored, through forgiveness if needed. Meanwhile, I will continue to fold my cranes.