BEGIN AT THE END?

Planning is only the ego’s decision to be anxious now. ~Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself

Beginning with the end in mind is, for many people, the 13th commandment.  It is the second of Franklin Covey’s “7 habits of highly effective people”  and assumes that we need to be goal directed.  One business consulting website, for example, argues that each person needs to be able to articulate what they want but also:  What is the purpose of what I’m trying to achieve? What outcomes do I want? Why are these outcomes important/valuable?  While it appears that we are being asked about our principles, the underlying message is that effective people lead their lives according to one or more value-driven plans. But I don’t have such a plan and I never have had one.  So where does that leave me? 

Of course my assertion that I lived a goal-free life is an overstatement.  One example:  I knew early – before college — that I wanted to work with people in other countries.  I had no firm idea of what that would do for me but felt a persistent curiosity about places where assumptions about “how we do things around here” were different.  So I worked tirelessly to find opportunities, especially those where someone else might foot part of the cost.  My efforts worked out well:  I met many people who are still important to me and never felt that my time in strange airports and out-of-the-way countries was wasted.  But the goal of becoming what my husband calls “International Karen” was vague, guided by questions about what I might learn and how that might change me.  It required instinctive rather than logical responses to opportunities. Being curious helped when I accepted (for instance) an out-of-the-blue invitation to review a teacher education program in Azerbaijan, a country about which I knew almost nothing (another “I work for airfare” opportunity).   Paul Coelho asserts in The Alchemist, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieving it”.  But every encounter increased my questions and my longing rather than a sense of closing in on a goal. 

Longing for something (like becoming  International Karen) is not the same as having a goal.   A defined “end in mind” has some clarity, but longing is, for me, often shapeless and imprecise, shifting with accumulating experiences.  And that has become more so as I get older. 

I still long to live in another country (again) but need to balance that against the fact that Dan, whose company consistently grounds and delights me, does not share that longing.  I have a persistent fantasy about a tiny home in Georgia O’Keefe’s scrubby New Mexico landscape, with its unique amalgam of Gringo, Spanish, and Indigenous cultures, but am reminded that living hours from good medical care is unwise, much less coping with the an off-the-grid lifestyle and the lack of neighbors.  I play with more realistic versions of one aspect of this longing–silence and a particular kind of nature–in a glamping version of Nomadland.  Then I remember that I want to spend more time with my grandchildren, who are neither silent nor located in New Mexico. 

In other words, the inherent dilemmas between the experiences and relationships that I want are increasingly apparent.  As my wise older friend Larry often said, “I can do almost anything I really want, but not everything I really want.”  Longing is an element of my primal need to keep reshaping my life, balanced against other realities. I must keep examining my longing and what it is telling me….it is a voice speaking to me rather than having an end in mind.  I may long for multiple, incompatible futures, knowing that they express something of my heart’s desire.  But I only need to think about the more near-term future, which may mean trading off Nomadland in New Mexico for Christmas with family in Boston.  But longing is also never satisfied; there is no end to most of my dreams.  When I published my first book, I didn’t achieve an end – instead I peered into a whole new world in which I could think about and use words in ways that would give me pleasure (and maybe do something for others as well).

There is another, but decidedly non-Covey approach that is increasingly appealing as I (finally) exit an intellectually and spiritually engaging career.  I hinted at this when I wrote about my friend Barb’s work on choosing joy as a key to successfully negotiating the last 1/3 of life.  In my mid-70s, I am aware that realizing longing—turning it into a goal and a plan–is constrained by the unknowability of what the future holds and how that might reshape what I long for.  But I can choose which emotions I want to experience regularly.  Joy may be a bit exaggerated for someone who is Swedish-American to the core, but I can consider the meanings that the word evokes in me:  Happiness.  Flourishing. Engaged. Useful and not used up.

The past two years made it apparent that the next step is often revealed by unanticipated (and even unwanted) “opportunities”.  Most of us existed with a simple hope that a year-and-a-half of chaos and inability to plan for anything, including dinner with friends, would end. But it is complicated. In the waning phases of my paid work, someone recommended that I become a life coach.  Intrigued, I did my homework and consulted with friends who combined coaching with their research and teaching.  Seemed like a no-brainer and clearly a plan:  I could develop a small life coaching “business” as part of my retirement.  But I have not, in part because of COVID, in part because we moved away from my networks, and in part because I found opportunities to use what I learned in ways that that I did not anticipate.  I am not interested in being an entrepreneur.  Do I feel that I have been unable to achieve something I wanted?  Absolutely not:  Instead, I see the many ways in which coaching has just become part of how I live in relationship with others.  It changed me without becoming a goal.

I am beginning to understand that my inchoate and often unarticulated curiosity, imbricated with  longing and constraints,  conspire to help me to define “opportunity” more nimbly and make choices guided by something that is more instinct than intellect.  I admit that my mostly goal-free and mostly “successful” life has been a gift – and  try to appreciate the last lines of Robert Frost’s poem, Acceptance (which I will never fully live into):  

Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.

iStock Photo

How Did I Ever Get Here?

Photo of our national secular church….and public square — by Jacob Creswick

I was recently asked to talk about my experience with church and the public square, and I immediately said yes – I am always up for talking.  But then I panicked and could not imagine what I would say.  After several days of muddled thinking, I realized that I need to start with where I have been before I can talk about where I am.  For me, that is increasingly a response to questions about what I think, and I wonder if that is part of getting older….

As a child and young adult, I was unchurched.  My parents, who were both raised as Lutherans – one grandfather was a Lutheran minister – had me baptized. Their story goes “we walked out of church, looked at each other, and said ‘why did we ever do that’”.  I have no memory of attending a church with them, either as a child or an adult.  In other words, church was not an embedded experience, apart from episodically attending a Methodist Sunday school with my elementary school friend, Mary Lou. I had nothing to rebel against.

Photo by Duanu00e9 Viljoen on Pexels.com

I was also anxious because I have always considered myself a lackluster participant in the public square.I went to a small liberal arts college in the 1960s, and activism was part of the social and educational experience. About 10% of my peers were arrested in a civil rights demonstration when I was a freshman – I was not among them because I had stayed back to study. After graduation, I was humbled by the ways in which so many of my classmates figured out how to continue that activism to visible acclaim. Among my peers were a well-known environmentalist, a defendant in the anti-draft “Dr. Spock Trial”, and the founder of a non-profit litigating cases in support of women’s rights. Still others obtained top positions in national journalism.

By those criteria, a decision to become a sociologist who focused on education for the less advantaged seemed small potatoes in terms of being active in the public square.

Back to church….

When my children were young, I attended a Unitarian church in Lexington, MA, which was acceptable to my un-synagogued but Jewish husband.  It was less a spiritual than a socio-historical experience because I loved just being in a 200-year-old building whose first minister was Ralph Waldo Emerson.  And I liked the people. I began seeking a different relationship with church only as I entered recovery from alcoholism, where I encountered my spiritual self with a group who shared their experience, strength and hope on a weekly basis. 

I was impressed with an old-timer’s anecdote: When he whined ”I don’t know what my Higher Power wants me to do”’, he got a simple answer: “All your Higher Power wants from you is to not drink and be a decent person”.  Recovery gave me a space to seriously consider Teilhard Du Chardin’s statement that we are all spiritual being who are having – or suffering – a human experience.  I also met Dan, raised casual Congregational, who was with me on my path.  So, in my late 50s I started attending a liberal church. There are many ways in which in which the “spiritual but not religious” seek self-understanding and value-based action in a world that often seems meaningless.  For me, all my disparate efforts to enact those – yoga, meditation, volunteering, recovery meetings – gave me a taste for something that church has fulfilled. 

For me, church is the one institution that consistently brings together three important threads of my human experience: developing an inner spiritual life that helps me to challenge instinctively self-centered reactions, creating a supportive and caring community of thoughtful seekers, and carrying the wisdom of spirit and my values into the world in order to make a difference.  The latter is important to me because it means thinking about the public square based on collective reflection rather than individual preference – in other words, taking others into account.  The balance between these three elements of my church experience has varied over time, and I know that the weight different people bring to those basic human human challenges varies a great deal.  But, for me, a church must be all three to feel that I really belong – I could get reflection and community in my 12 step groups and finding places that need extra hands to help solve the world’s problems is easy, but nowhere else do I find a dynamic connection among them.

But what about the public square – making a difference in the world, aka purpose?   I have learned as a member of the churches that I have belonged to that (a) it is ok not to be an elected official, the founder of an organization, or a trailblazer in visible social equity initiatives; (b) I am obligated to look behind the invisible curtain that hides the possibility of something new, and (c) showing up where I am needed is often enough.      

I can admire the Jimmy Carters of this world without feeling inadequate, but I do have a responsibility to use my time and talents as an advocate and support to those who are more visibly out there.  In other words, now that I am almost retired, I can show up when showing up is important.  Dan found a quote by Wendell Berry that summarizes how I think about what I need to do to bring my values into the public square:

We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world.  We have been wrong.  We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption:  that what is good for the world will be good for us.  And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.

― Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace

And I am also reminded that what I think of myself is not always what others see in me.  A decade ago, I was at a retirement event for a seasoned administrative assistant.  We were joking about what we wanted on our tombstones (good retirement party conversation…) and I claimed, “Tart of Tongue and Heart of Gold”.  The retiree looked at me and said, “Oh no – it should be ‘She Supported Women’”.  All I did was show up and advocate when I was needed. But  I also reflect on Richard Rohr’s observation that we show up when we are called to do so – and that is nothing to boast about, but simply listening for the voice that calls. 

A Journey To Gratitude

Guest blog by Lynne Sarnoff Christensen

Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual; you have an obligation to be one.”

~Eleanor Roosevelt, American Humanitarian (1884-1962) 

Photo by Lynne Sarnoff Christensen

Let me tell you a little bit about myself.

I am a my own individual. I have had an incredible journey. I made it through my teenage years in the 60’s and am a proud survivor of college, experienced in the early 70’s. I lived through driving my dad’s car through the back of the garage wall and being rejected by crushes I didn’t have the courage to pursue. I drove while under the influence of being stupid and yet had the tenacity to align myself with personal intentions and move forward.

Through all of the “My purpose in life” conversations I have had with whomever would participate, I never really realized, that I hadn’t embraced one damn thing. Waking up in the morning was my start, but I had no idea as to what I was going to do with “that”. I soon came to realize that once my thrill of the moment was gone, do to a lack of purpose and vision, I moved on to another. My goals were of a short reach, constantly changing once achieved, a distant memory. My determination was beaten down by boredom. I needed objectives: purpose, passion, and perception.

Jump forward a few decades, I was blessed with a 10 pound 3 ounce bundle of joy and that was the beginning of my attention to gratitude. I was 42. My personal “snooze alarm” was going off and he was truly my gift.

Mentioning quickly and respectfully, that I was diagnosed with breast cancer when my son was 7, I was soon to realize that my purpose had shifted slightly and deepened along with an embraced passion and heightened desire to live and be bold as I have always done,  but now with a sharper vision. I wanted to create a trajectory worth reaching and one that was attainable. I had plenty of time to be with myself, observing my son all while creating a vision of my recovery, to be the best of situations. I felt a strength like no other. I became aware that I was empowered by an energy that made me aware of things I never took the time to be present for.

Gratitude was the foundation for my healing and wellness. When I visited my place of gratitude, I became calmer, less stressed and more keen to what I needed from myself and what I needed for that boy of mine. Created by this experience was a heavy weight, forcing me to slow down and take time to define a total purpose in life. How was I going to live was first and foremost. What was I going to do with this indescribable second chance at life? How was I going to achieve being the best mentor for my son without defining his path yet embracing it? Through the grace of gratitude, I can be at my best.

I have come to the conclusion that my purpose in life is to make an impact on others through my art and my voice. As vast as that may sound, it was a start for me. It was my canvas. I began to read books that would help me to gain focus. Books that directed my personal faith without directing my religion. I searched for something clear in definition, clear in pursuit clear in…purpose. It was my true soul and spirit that I was raising the bar for, for I had to be true to myself before anyone else. I needed to be empowered and dedicated to my conviction. It is with a clear definition, that I gained direction. I am grateful for where I am in life, as my own individual and engage others in recognizing their potential through my art and my words.

If we can think and act with a direct mindset, (which for me is sharing the essential need for gratitude) and take charge of our need to believe we can make a difference, then we truly will.

Throughout this journey I practice and recognize gratitude. It is the foundation of my calm as it is being the foundation of all my relationships. It is a connection to my experiences and to my influencers that have supported me. It is an expression of thankfulness and appreciation to people that have fostered me through to the next part of my journey. It is a peaceful place to rest.

photo by Lynne Sarnoff Chrisensen

I took a step back with the work in my pottery studio, to create a series of bowls simple and yet persuasive. I wanted to share how important gratitude can be. By creating these bowls, it allowed me to engage others with the ability to express gratitude towards others. I created a message of “why” in hopes of people understanding the need to express and share this emotion. I watched my son follow this direction with me, explaining that if I don’t try to make a difference with this emotion, then I will fall short of influencing others as an individual. I needed this vehicle to connect.

I wholeheartedly believe that gratitude can catapult us gently into a place of appreciating what we have, what we can accomplish and who we are. Gratitude can create a calmer culture to live within and grant us approval to accept differences, viewing them through a different lens.Would I have ever embraced the serenity of gratitude had it not been for the obstacles that arrived on my path in life? Would I have recognized it and honed in on the potential gratitude comes with? My spiritual connection is solid because I am so grateful…SO grateful.

Sharing the need to embrace gratitude by shifting our mindsets just a few degrees, is my way of making a difference. As an artist, woman of conviction, mother and individual, I have this obligation.

We are not here to simply exist. We are here to experience and contribute to the art of being the individuals we have become. To be fully present for myself allows me to be fully present for others.

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Lynne Sarnoff Christensen’s bio is in the guest blog section on Karens’ Descant

What Lies Below….

I started to think about excavation — and what it means in my life — and then I came across this poem:

Excavation

Emptying cupboards from

the pre-Homeric Classroom era,

through strata thick as Schliemann’s Troy.

I am looking for bedrock and

the world before printing

when we worked with our bare minds

— Hugh McMillan, 2015

Working with our bare minds….what a thought in this digital/technology rich world.  McMillan’s words lead me to think about all of my mental clutter, and where I might find the bedrock if I looked.  It also called me to consider how I am looking below the surface, during a time that is seriously unsettling for everyone…

We jokingly refer to our decision to be in Boulder, CO as “a Minnesotan’s idea of avoiding winter”…. A theme that came up in a previous post. Mostly true.  But, instead of returning to Minneapolis for the heady experience of watching spring emerge in the frozen northland, we knew that it would be easier and safer for us to self-isolate here.  Because of COVID, we find ourselves in Colorado for the long term, and in a rental house with a yard given over to neglect.  Since we can’t go anywhere, making a small difference in our suddenly much smaller world called us.

Dan excavates volunteer trees, sawn off but energetically leafing out due to the increasing size of their root system.  We admire each herculean effort.  Opal, our granddaughter, and I tackle the mass of weeds and grass that have overgrown the terrace.  This becomes an archeological endeavor; complete with surprises….Opal is an explorer with the fresh eye and unencumbered bare mind of a 3-year old, adept at finding little things that are hidden from this task-focused adult gardener – mostly items left in the bushes by children of previous renters.  And a stone that we turned over, with an inscription that predates the previous occupants, to complete her work.

Opal’s treasures

While she is busy, I begin to marvel at the care with which someone built in stepping-stones to the upper level and an environment for creative landscaping.  It takes prodigious effort to clear the deeply rooted weeds and grass – any less resilient but more attractive plantings have long disappeared.  There is something intensely satisfying in finding “the bones” of a once loved garden.  When I see them, I know that our small excavation is one of the things that we must be doing now, although it is much more than a summer’s project….

the old garden hardscape emerges

At the same time, I think about excavation in my other Colorado experiment – Avita Yoga.  It’s not “real yoga” (classic) or “power yoga” (sweaty exercise), but a practice focused on removing obstacles:  “The sequences help resolve limiting patterns that no longer serve us so we can remember a healthier way of being in body, mind and spirit”.  Each pose, held as long as five minutes, reveals all of the impediments that lie under my skin and muscles, and asks me to explore them, to understand rather than fight them, and to heal.  I am a healthy person and have practiced classic yoga, but it was a revelation to uncover the restrictions rather than work around them.  This is not miracle work: it requires steady practice, and I need to go deeply into unexplored places — mentally and emotionally, I am excavating my ligaments and joints.  In the process, my busy and distracting “monkey mind” becomes calm, and I feel a deep love for my physical being, including its impediments.  A bare mind becomes (briefly) almost a reality.

When I use my bare mind (ignoring the cacophony of Facebook and newspapers) the demands for justice and an end to systemic racism exploding in Minneapolis and elsewhere demand a different kind of going deeper.  It is like my first unexpected encounter with a real archeological dig in the Peloponnese, many years ago.  Most of archeologist’s work seemed to involve tediously looking for bits and pieces that, by themselves, appeared inconsequential – but eventually would restore a prehistoric dwelling (or tomb – I don’t remember). 

The call at a national level to consider how our historical injustice has bled into the everyday lives of Black people takes me into what I know of the lives of friends and their families.  Like an archeologist, I am compelled to revisit all of the (usually brief) conversations about “the talk”, “Driving While Black”, and micro and macro-aggressions, along with expressions of outrage when yet another Black person is almost casually killed. I dig up a very old conversation with a Black colleague, who said, “I told my son that if he is going to the mall he can only go with one other person and he has to wear a button down shirt.”  We didn’t need to ask why.  Nor did I need to say that my daughters, also teens, were trooping through the mall in groups of four or five.  Or another Black colleague, with a very slight build, who stated matter-of-factly that White women would often cross to the other side of the street when they saw him walking in their direction.  Closer to the surface was a conversation just a few years ago, when a White acquaintance mentioned that when they bought their South Minneapolis home in the early1960s, it included a clause that prevented them from selling to anyone who was not White.  Even more recently, a Black friend asked, with a smile, if I liked the vibrant North Minneapolis restaurant where we were lunching—she knew, without asking, that I was very aware that I was one of two White customers.  As I haul these and many other bits and pieces out of my memory and reassemble them, my bare mind acknowledges how easy it is to ignore how the pieces fit together– and how keeping the them separate has allowed me to stay mostly comfortable in my privileged life.  Like any dig, when more pieces are connected, the whole begins to emerge.

This image shows the remains of a Mycenaean palace at the archaeological site of Agios Vasileios in the valley of Sparta, Peloponnese. Image credit: Angelos Delivorias / Stavros Vlizos / Greek Ministry of Culture.
Image credit: Angelos Delivorias / Stavros Vlizos / Greek Ministry of Culture.

To some extent, personal excavation is a privilege of age. With our minds bared, we have to decide how to use them. Karen Martha and I have written about calling, purpose, and passion – sometimes sardonically, sometimes with heart.  As I look more deeply, I also have to ask:  What is the simple “next right thing” that I need to do?  If I don’t go deeper now, what will my inattention cover up? As the archeologist of my own life, what bedrock do I need to reach to become an authentic anti-racist?