Lost and Found: That “Third Thing”

My third husband, Jim, was already retired when I met him, both of us in our 60’s. We had lost spouses to cancer and were living as singles—for me, nearly seventeen years, but not so long for Jim. We had much in common and didn’t want to date for years to get to know each other, so we decided to jump right into the complexity of marriage.  “Uff da,” as we Norwegians say.

We believed we were old hands at marriage—especially me—but quickly realized that marriage later in life, like all marriages, has plenty of challenges.  They are just different ones. I began to understand, too, the importance of what the poet, Donald Hall, calls a “third thing.”

Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment.

Starting out, Jim and I didn’t have that third thing. We both had our individual families and histories, but nothing we’d created or shared exclusively as a couple. Then along came Eddie, our beagle, who showed up on our deck one afternoon in late September. At the time Jim’s dog, Happi, was dying of oral cancer. She slept peacefully most days on the corner of our couch.

I’d noticed a dog wandering in the thicket behind our house, and wondered what he was doing there, so when he showed up, I let him in, believing he had to be lost. He came in like he owned the place, and gently sniffed Happi, resting on the couch. He then took a drink of her water and settled down on the rug with a sigh. When Jim came home, we walked the neighborhood with the dog, expecting that he belonged to someone nearby. No luck, so Jim took him to our local vet and left him. The vet called later and said that using the dog’s chip, they had found the owner, and the two were reunited. Case closed; Happi died a week later.

Then came November and a call from the vet who told us that the owner didn’t want the dog and was going to take it to the pound, unless we might be interested. We were mourning and didn’t want another dog. We also didn’t want this friendly dog to go to a pound. So we took him. A week later was Thanksgiving, and Eddie—we now knew his name—made a grand entrance to our family by lifting his leg and peeing on the dining room table leg, just as we were about to eat.  An ignominious beginning, to say the least.

Over time Eddie showed his true worth. He was always a stalwart defender of Jim through his illnesses. He sometimes howled in happiness when Jim walked through the door. He also followed me doggedly (pun intended) around the house. Gradually—and finally—we found ourselves with a third thing—our family of pets, which included Thor, whom I brought to the marriage, and Tress, Jim’s cat, and of course, Eddie, with his beagle personality, the obvious linchpin. (Tress later died, and we now have a new cat, Stella.)

Jumping ahead to this September. . . we went up north to Lake Superior, on the edge of the Superior National Forest, beyond Duluth and almost to the Canadian border. A pristine wilderness, and we would be there at the peak of fall colors.

A Beautiful Fall Day–Up North

It was our first time out after Jim’s illness, finding our way back to the world. Wonderful friends had invited us to a cabin and said, “Of course, bring Eddie.”  And Eddie had been Eddie, kind and loving to everyone, and trusting that this change of venue was fine, jumping onto a red chair and settling for a nap, whenever he could.

The weekend was coming to an end. Jim was already in bed in our little guest cabin. Outside the night was pitch black; it had been raining all evening. As I got ready to climb in bed, I looked for Eddie in his red chair.  No Eddie. I looked all over the cabin, peeked under the beds, opened closet doors that he couldn’t possibly have gotten into, but still no Eddie. I woke Jim to help me search. He suggested that maybe Eddie had gotten outside. The screen door did not latch, although it made an angry retort if you didn’t manually close it.

Eddie was gone. We’d lost him and in a place immense and filled with dangers everywhere. I started thinking about those TV dramas where a child goes missing and someone says, “The first 24 hours are the most important.” So, in my pajamas, I slipped on my hiking shoes, grabbed a rain jacket and flashlight and took off down the dark road calling “Eddie, Eddie,” still traumatized from almost losing Thor only a month ago and thinking dark thoughts about our status in the universe.

Who did we think we were, venturing out when Jim was still recovering? We’d been preoccupied with having everything go well for Jim, so that his legs would not swell and pull us back into the hole of sickness we’d been climbing out of.  And now we’d put Eddie—a big part of the menagerie that made up our third thing—at risk, Eddie, who trusted us and believed in the goodness of the world.

I searched near the steep shoreline and down the two roads near the cabins.  There were a couple of hiking trails along the river, but I didn’t dare take those in the dark though I imagined Eddie sniffing his way down them, following a provocative scent, then trying to find his way back to the cabin. All the while, a wolf watching and waiting to make dinner of him. No Eddie. As I walked back, my eyes filled with tears, overwhelmed with loss—the loss of Eddie along with the loss of Jim’s health.

Imagine This–In the Dark

I walked into the cabin, knowing there’d be no sleep, just as there’d not been much sleep in the weeks before. There was Jim in the kitchen, Eddie at his feet, begging for a bite of toast. I couldn’t believe it. Eddie had found his way back in the murky, threatening darkness. 

But Eddie had never been gone at all. There was a mattress stored under the bed, and although both Jim and I had looked under the bed, we had not been able to see that Eddie had squeezed himself on top of that mattress and directly beneath the bed mattress, with barely enough room to raise his head, like being the filling on a mattress sandwich. He’d finally come out to all the excitement. Crisis averted, our boy, the linchpin of our third thing was safe and sound.

We live in a time rife with threats—to our country, to climate, to the flora and fauna of our earth, and we live with this during a time in our own lives filled with uncertainty. Having a third thing is one way of standing together among that uncertainty. Jim’s and my third thing might not be the stuff of poetry, but it is our third thing, and, like life itself, both ubiquitous and fragile. Will we someday lose Eddie, or Thor or Stella or something else we dearly love? Of course, but meanwhile we have Eddie, who found his way to our doorstep and people who love him. While I was searching for the “lost” Eddie, there he was, wedged between the mattress version of a rock and a hard place, sleeping soundly and trusting that all would turn out okay.

Purpose Notwithstanding … Show Up

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A deep sigh of contentment, I’m in the world of exploration, ambition, and dreams. Time feels limitless. 

In actuality, I’m doing a Zoom meeting for the first class of OLPD 5501: Principles and Methods of Program Evaluation, the class I’m teaching this semester. Evaluation should be front and center, and it is, but, as the students one-by-one introduce themselves, inside I’m feeling all the positive anticipation of young people. Some describe their purpose for taking the class as exploring a new subject. Others are fulfilling ambitions, finishing their coursework for a degree. All are dreaming of possible futures. It’s incredibly energizing.

Coming back to my real life, I recall Richard Leider’s Annual Purpose Check-up in his book, Something to Live For. He suggests that yearly, retirees, who’ve found that something to live for, do an inventory that assesses how they are doing at living with purpose.

I wonder how my students would respond if I asked them about whether they are living with purpose. Their lives are filled with the a priori purposes of age and circumstance—getting an education, finding a partner, having a family, finding a rewarding career, if possible. They are driven by both internal and biological forces. Though some might be aware of a larger purpose, I suspect most are busy living.

I remember being one of those students—at least four times in my life when I worked on degrees to follow my own ambitions and dreams all while intent on getting married and having children. As far as purpose goes, I didn’t give it much thought beyond living a good life with family and doing something I enjoyed. Life was full of chances to grow—up, hopefully. Like everyone, I had good times, not so good times, new friends, old friends, losses and opportunities, career ups and downs. When something didn’t work out, I latched onto another way to keep going forward. What is salient here, I believe, is that time never seemed to be an obstacle. I didn’t worry about running out of it and there never seemed to be a lack of opportunities 

But it turns out, time does matters. We age. I turned 70. At 72, I retired. I was ready to retire. I was tired of the grind (note the word “tired” in “retired”). Nonetheless, retirement felt new—and as my history demonstrates, the new has a pull on me. 

At first in retirement, time expanded. Retirement removed a huge pile of obligations from my days, months, and years. I read books like Leider’s and Cohen’s The Creative Age.

But one thing was different, that amorphous concept called the future started to feel finite. At first the reminders were physical, a sore knee or hip, that slightly slower pace walking, a diminished desire to run up steps two-at-a-time, all of which reminded me of a changed and aging body, with limitations.

Then came the contextual changes of a smaller life. My world shrank. Colleagues from work no longer included me in after hours parties. I searched for personal interests to replace work interests. The books I read about retirement pushed the idea of having a purpose. Like Karen Rose, in her blog, If I Don’t Know My Purpose, Am I a Retirement Failure?, I worried about finding one. Looking back, I realized my most fervent purpose had always been raising children with career intermingled. The thing about retirement and aging is that those two centering purposes, family and career, diminish in importance, and I had to rethink about what might replace them.

Leider’s emphasis on purpose is grounded in research that says people with purpose live longer, happier lives. If you search Google for “purpose” and “goal setting,” you get the idea that without these, your life is meaningless. However, purpose, with its concordant striving, implies that what’s present is not enough, I am not enough unless I have a purpose for my life complete with short and long term goals. But I am not a program or a business! I am a human being, both faulted and perfect at the same time. 

Purpose also implies always looking ahead, managing what is to come by setting in motion actions that achieve goals, manifest purposes. But life is messier than that. To use a personal and admittedly extreme example, when my second husband and I married, we set in place actions to have a vibrant marriage complete with fulfilling and dynamic careers that would serve others—we had Purpose(s). But then he got terminal cancer, something worse than messy. Coming home from the hospital, after being given his diagnosis, I remember thinking, “I must show up.” Showing up, doing what needed to be done and giving love on a daily basis became my way of being in the world. 

After my husband died, I searched for purpose in my career, almost as a substitute for the purposes that died with his death. I read books about finding your purpose, The Purpose Driven Life. I prayed for a purpose like he and I had had. It seemed like my search became the purpose. During my quest, time inexorably moved forward. I retired with never having found that clear purpose for my career.

Upon retirement, I found myself doing that sort of life review that involves making meaning of the events of one’s life. Then I remembered the showing up commitment. It was one of those light bulb moments—like the truth was always there only I was so busy searching for purpose, I couldn’t see it.

Showing up is how I want to live. One might argue that “showing up” is a purpose, but I believe it’s more a way of being in the world. It means letting go of that driven search for purpose and goals and instead asking yourself, “What gives meaning to my life today?” and then showing up.

Picture by Lisa Congdon.

Circling Back (Way Back….)

Photo courtesy of cousin Kristen Seashore (Keeper of Tradition)

It makes no sense to talk about Christmas trees or holiday dinners in the middle of January.  But we are doing it anyway because this strange December season made both of us – in different ways – visit our role as “elders” in keeping connections with the past alive, even when nothing was normal….

Holidays as Liminal Space….[Karen Rose]

From the time I was a child in the early 50s, my mother would always remind me that our Christmas Eve dinner “would keep me Swedish for the rest of the year”.  That didn’t make me face the pickled herring, bonddost, lutfisk, potatiskorv, bruna bönar, rödkål, and risgrynsgröt med lingon with delight….The bread and the cookies were ok.

Yet, after my parents died two decades ago (when we were finally free to find substitutes for the dreaded lutfisk), my sister and I maintained the food traditions.  The beans were often crunchy, good korv was hard to find, none of our kids liked pickled herring and my brother-in-law made great julekage with a sourdough starter and extra cardamom!  For all these violations, not much changed. 

But my kids are now in their 40s.  They didn’t like this food much and my grandchildren like it even less.  Nor did they (by that time, American mongrels with a mixed ethnic heritage) feel a need to “keep Swedish for the rest of the year”.

So, as I entered December 2020, it felt as if everything could change because everything had changed.  I vowed that our tiny “family pod” would have a normal American Christmas, putting up the tree before Christmas Eve and maybe baking lots of new kinds of cookies.  I was ready.  Until a week before Christmas, when I started thinking about my parents – both third generation Swedish Americans – who knew only a few words of Swedish but who felt an intense desire to honor all who had come before on this one evening. 

For my parents, it wasn’t really about food – it was about being in a brief liminal space where we could feel close to our ancestors in their small Småland farm houses, acknowledging all that they had given us.  It was like The Day of the Dead transported to Michigan-in-December.

I started feverishly making lists of what we could find (or substitute).  I baked.  I gave Dan a recipe for limpa and asked him to do his best.  Some of the old recipes, in feathery handwriting, were inaccessible.  I researched Swedish websites to duplicate things as best I could.  We produced a meal that would keep me Swedish for the rest of the year – and that prompted daughter Erica to demand that we visit as soon as we could.

Opal (age 3 and, only about 30% Swedish) ate a bit of everything except the herring. It was liminal, seeping into the future, drawing from the deep past.  That is what ancestors are supposed to do, and it is my job, even if I didn’t ask for it.

Karen Martha:

          This year we bought a tree before Thanksgiving (I have never bought a tree before my birthday in early December), thinking we would have an entire month to feel the holiday spirit during a time when spirit seemed needed—the pandemic and ongoing election concerns.

          Nevertheless, isolation loomed over the holidays, no friends or family would be coming over to share in the festivities, so “who cares,” I thought. I couldn’t bring myself to decorate the tree. Then one night, sitting in the living room listening to Radio Deluxe’s Thanksgiving weekend program, I heard Irving Berlin’s I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For” and Let There Be Peace on Earth. I remembered my parents and the trees of my childhood—fighting with my sisters over who got to hang which ornament or to open the new package of tinsel. The wonders of music. I found myself singing and decorating the tree.

No one saw the tree but my husband and me. I walked past it many times a day and soon found myself pausing to say “Namaste,” I bow to you. I wasn’t bowing so much to the tree but to the memories evoked by the ornaments. Even though no one would see the tree, I felt a sense of responsibility for preserving the web of relationships represented by the simple ornaments collected over nearly fifty years of family history. Isolation was not a reason to abandon tradition.

          My ties to the larger world changed with retirement, but that change opened an opportunity to engage in other ways. We older people with our experience in the world, are both keepers of memories and of knowledge, understanding and wisdom. We share these gifts whether by creating a Swedish Christmas in Colorado or by decorating a tree in Minnesota, the little p’s—purposes—that give our lives continuity from generation to generation.

          After Christmas, whenever I greeted the tree with Namaste, I promised it one more day in the spotlight. Soon it started dropping needles, signaling it was running out of the energy it had stored when rooted in the soil. It was time to give it back to the earth and time to put my ornaments away, time to give the past a rest and circle back to that which roots us all, our talents and interests, however expressed in work or retirement, but most of all, our webs of relationships.

And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

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.