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

Who Is the Old Lady Directing This Circus?

vintage photo

A week ago, I sat in a zoom circle organized by Jenny Antolak to reflect on a problem endemic to almost anyone over the age of 30:  We have been so busy growing up that we have often forgotten how to fall in love with our lives.  Jenny directed us to Shel Silverstein’s remarkable poem, “Growing Down”, which starts with a description of Mr. Brown, “the grumpiest man in town” who constantly hectors children to grow up, but ends up learning from them:

He got his trousers torn and stained,

He ran out barefoot in the rain,

Shouting to all the folks in town,

“It’s much more fun, this growin’ down.”

As we shared about the rules we followed in order to become successful adults, I confronted my carefully nurtured self-image as a bit of a rebel and a rule-breaker.  Sure, I made some career choices that were “risky”, leaving a plum job at Tufts University to go to a soft-money research institute, and later making a decision to detour from an obvious path to higher administrative positions in order to become a “regular” faculty member – but those were within a game where I knew all the rules and which ones I could break with no consequences.  More often I made careful and conventional choices that were “adult” and “responsible”, in marriage, in work, in friendships and other commitments.

But, while recovering from a divorce that my then-husband and I had avoided for years (those rules– “until death do us part”), I fell in love with someone who, before we were even sure that we were an item, asked me to join him in a spitting contest on the porch!  The silliness of it blew me away – as well as the utter charm of being childlike in my mid-50s.  When we married, I included in our vows his obligation to make me laugh every day.  No problem there, but on the outside, I still held on to the persona of someone who had been handed the playbook of life and had memorized it.  And I wanted to look it.  I colored my hair.  I wore eyeliner.  I bought my clothes at the American Craft Council shows, not at Macys.  And of course I had the black dress (or pants and top) to show them off.

Fast forward to retirement…when all the rules could change because we had played by the careful financial planning rules for middle-income professionals. But then there is a new script – the script for aging gracefully from the New York Times. Horrifyingly, it starts not with social skills or running barefoot in the rain, but with buying a hearing aid sooner rather than later and making sure to give up your driver’s license before, rather than after, an accident. 

Another article also triggered me, reporting that The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, has grown to more than 150,000 residents–with a 10 page list of rules governing residents.  Could Mr. Brown learn to “grow down” there, or would he be tied to an art class at 10, golf at 1, and cocktails at 5?  The behavioral rules of aging tell us where we want to live, what we should wear (read any woman’s magazine, which has hair and clothing suggestions tailored to age….), what to eat, how much to exercise, and repeatedly urge us to stay socially connected (once we get the hearing aids that allow us to…)

What happened to “When I Grow Old, I Will Wear Purple”, and Jenny Joseph’s 1992 warning that,

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

Jenny argues for joyful silliness and breaking rules precisely because we are old enough to realize that we could always have gotten away with it – but were too cautious (or forgot).

Karen Martha laughed when I mentioned this, recalling that, when she recently complained about loud music in a coffee shop, her granddaughter (who happens to be our blog’s technical assistant) looked at her and said, “you usually don’t act like a grandma, but just now you did.”  Ooph – a 2X4 to the side of the head to remind us that it’s ok to ask for a quiet table in a restaurant when we are out with our 70+ year old friends, but not ok when we make it into a rule.

Which also reminds me that my 16-year-old granddaughter was invited to see Chicago by a friend’s grandmother.  The kids assumed that they were going to see a local production of the musical.  When they got there, it turned out to be the band  by the same name—at least some of whom are septuagenarians.  They had a blast listening to the songs that rocked our world when we were in our 20s!  Now that’s an astute grandma.

We are still part of the circus of life. So, every circus has lots of rules – they are there to govern the safety of the performers.  However, the performance needs to ensure that the audience is only aware of the magic and not what keeps the circus functioning behind the scenes.  The behind-the-scenes rules for those of us who wish to age well while “not acting like a grandma” is to pay attention only to new rules that keep us safe (if your knee suggests that a cane will keep you from falling, use it!), while ignoring the rules governing old people’s behavior that are designed to keep us invisible.  Even more, can we celebrate everyday events that suggest that we, like Mr. Brown, are growing down rather than growing up in the way that modern memes of aging expect?

I remind myself that the circus—especially Cirque du Soleil and its more modest spinoffs –  is magical because it pushes us to think about our humanity beyond our usual imagination.  For me, that will translate into more humble efforts: Getting down on the floor to play with a 4-year-old (my knees remind me that it was a lot easier with the oldest grandchild, but I can still do it).  Or remembering to have another spitting context.  Or sometimes just doing whatever equivalent of running in the rain strikes me.  I am reminded of the last lines of Brittany Spears’ song – prescient as the voice of someone who was forced to play by other people’s rules for much of her life:

Don’t stand there watching me, follow me, show me what you can do
Everybody let go, we can make a dance floor just like a circus

I guess that I am the ringmaster here….

–photo of t-shirt from The Old Ladies Rebellion

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. 

The Chair: A Parable for Our Time?

I have so many friends who have confided that, since self-isolating began, their homes have never been cleaner.  They are also going through the old piles of books, the mess in the bathroom vanity, and all the almost-used-up cleaning products under the kitchen sink.  Hoarding toilet paper has given me new enthusiasm for decreasing waste and insisting on using and washing microfiber cloths rather than discarding paper towels, as well as making our own disinfectant.  Okay, we are all going a little nuts.  My point is that we are really paying attention to how we are living — how we occupy our little space in this world and how we can conserve what we have. 

Which brings me to The Chair.  The story of The Chair is, in some ways, an elaboration of my previous post on decluttering and connects me to ongoing reflections about “stuff” that both contains emotions and occupies physical space.  It raises the dogged and still unanswered question:  What will matter most when my mental fog around the current situation lifts?

To begin: In 1969, I lived in New York, with two graduate student fellowships as my husband’s and my only source of income.  As a friend said about my husband, however, “You could fall into a sewer and come up holding diamonds”.  So, while having NO MONEY AT ALL, we lived in the most luxurious home that I have ever occupied – a sublet in a Columbia University-owned faculty building on Riverside Drive, complete with doorman, polished door handles, three bedrooms-plus-study, and a parking space – a parking space in Manhattan!   But, after all, it was New York.  It was the late 60s-early 70s, and there was lots of good stuff going on for free (or nearly free).

When we moved from our first apartment to the brief Riverside Drive idyll, we brought with us a bed, a sofa (which I reupholstered – my only and not particularly successful effort of that type), a desk/dining table — and The Chair. She was a slightly bulky but stylish piece, whose Peter Max screaming orange velvet upholstery was the probable cause of her deeply discounted price at Maurice Villency (a big step up from the Door Store, which provided our cheap flat surfaces).  It was also the dog days of summer in New York,  and no one in their right mind wanted to sit on orange velvet in a marginally air conditioned pre-war apartment.  The Chair was actually a designer’s effort to make mid-century modern meet American recliner.  It was huge – big enough that we could sit in it together (sort of….).  She was the chair of choice for reading.  She was, even with orange upholstery, much more reflective of who we thought we would become than the very unprofessionally recovered second-hand sofa. 

I didn’t know at the time that The Chair would move with me through all of the chapters of my life, including a divorce and a remarriage.  Recovered three times,  her last reincarnation (a rust and gold patterned fabric that cost a lot more than I wanted to spend) ensured that it would fit in with the bold colors that Dan and I chose to set off the ocean of quarter-sawn oak trim in our 1910 “four square” honeymoon house in Minneapolis.  We loved it.  It was the chair of choice for any visitor.  Our dog, Moxie, thought that he should own it (although officially banned from the furniture) and leapt up whenever we turned our backs….

When Dan and I moved from a three-story house to a bright loft-like condominium, it never occurred to me to leave The Chair behind, although full shipping pods went to each daughter and we left a few other good pieces behind for the lucky new owner.  We knew when we moved her that she was in desperate need of another facelift.  For six years, she hung on, increasingly out of place in a loft that was otherwise furnished with Scandinavian antiques, Dan’s exquisite one-of-a-kind “art furniture” that occupied his dreams in the winter and his time in his summer shop, and handmade wood pieces from Thomas Moser’s Maine workshop, one of which I inherited from my father. 

The new dog, Kasper, loved The Chair as much as Moxie, our previous dog did.  Her arms acquired an increasing patina of permanent grime.  I shopped for fabric with our friend Laura, who held out the incentive of her architect’s discount. I couldn’t let The Chair go….and I couldn’t figure out how I could make her fit.

Then, somehow, things changed.  As I hemmed and hawed over The Chair, it became clear that she held too many memories (in addition to being huge and heavy) to carry with me as I moved into retirement.  She embodied too much past without holding a promise of what the future might bring.  And, all of a sudden, Laura said, “I know what you can do – send a picture to OmForme and see whether he could recycle it into a completely different chair”.   Omforme takes good quality old furniture and reimagines it and Laura was so intrigued with the possibilities that she used her deep dive into the online fabric sphere to score enough fabric to seal the deal.  And she loved the result so much that I gave the chair to her (she paid for the redo) – with the stipulation that I could visit.

Now, here I am in Boulder in a tiny rental house that we furnished from Ikea and Craig’s List, unable to get back to our Minneapolis loft until the “don’t travel unless necessary” recommendation is lifted.  I am trying to carve out a different life in retirement, where I live with fewer attachments to “old stuff”, whether it is a physical object or a professional persona that has become almost inseparable from what is just behind it. The world is in a frenzy, where my intense desire to reach out on Zoom to everyone who has ever meant something to me punctuates the relatively silence of our house. We have no way of predicting what will happen in the next few months, and I screen the competing voices seesawing between doom and “back to normal by fall.”

I sometimes think that I have two choices – hang on to what I have (relationships, hopes for the future…) or really try to live day-by-day, curious about what life-with-less will be like tomorrow.  But it is not easy to let go, although hanging on requires a lot of the mental energy that I could put to other uses.   And I am not even sure what is most important to hang on to. 

As for The Chair:  In this new and even more uncertain world, I am glad that you showed me that I could live without you.  So long good friend.  I needed to let you go but I won’t forget you — and I am glad that you are safe