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

Hand It Over!

A chance, that is. . . for a career in whatever drives someone. In my case it was education, being a teacher. When I entered teaching in the early ‘70s, jobs were scarce. I was lucky to get a job at the local school teaching two hours a day—no one wanted a job that breaks up your day and doesn’t pay much. But it allowed me to ease into teaching after being a stay-at-home mom. I was much younger than the teaching staff at my school; I was filled with liberating ideas, too, like having students call me by my first name, and playing rock music during home room. The culture of my school quickly put me in my place, but I persisted with my “new” ideas about how to support learning. When my low group math class out-performed the middle group at the end of the year on standardized tests, I earned a new respect from my colleagues.

I stayed in education my entire career, first as a classroom teacher, then as a professor, next working on a drop-out prevention program, Check & Connect, and finally as an evaluator for something called reflective practice for nurse home visitors. What a span, and from the vantage point of looking back, I loved it all. But as I hit my 70’s, I became increasingly aware that my passion was moderating and changing. I didn’t go to work with the fire I had once had. Let me say that as a teacher, by Friday afternoon, I was spent. I needed two days to recuperate, but by Monday, I was once again ready to take on the challenge. I’d lost that ability to bounce back, but I saw it in others. A young woman, Angie, with whom I worked on Check & Connect; Ann, a new Ph.D. in evaluation, my partner in the reflective practice evaluation; my own daughter who lived and breathed evaluation. It was time. Time to . . . 

Pass the baton to the new professionals. When I first grabbed the baton in that parttime teaching job, it was light, easy to carry. But by retirement, that baton was heavy, made of intractable human problems like babies getting poor nurturing from chronically depressed mothers; homeless kids, kids with great potential who drop out, persistent gaps in learning—I could go on and on. From my vantage, which might be colored by the fact that my “time is more gone than not,” passing the baton was my rite of retirement. I would pass it to the next runner, the Angie’s and Ann’s full of knowledge, training and inspiration, waiting expectantly to grab the baton and run with it.

Yet I still want to run at least for a while or maybe as long as I can. I haven’t given up on ameliorating the problems, but I’ve changed how I want to run. My way of running suits where I’m at, mostly retired with new interests. I continue to teach an introductory evaluation class, hoping to inspire others to enter the field, and I tutor fifth and sixth graders in math. In my tutoring I work with great teachers who use smart boards and videos and classroom techniques that are the result of years of educational research. I learn from them. But they learn from me, too, because I have teaching strategies from years of practice and study in the field. We are a team and respectful of the knowledge each brings. 

A picture containing text, person, indoor, group

Description automatically generated

Salient is Cattell’s theory of intelligence. Cattell posited two types of intelligence, fluid and crystallized. Fluid is strong when we’re young. It allows us to problem solve, innovate, and think abstractly. It goes down through age—but doesn’t disappear. Crystallized is our accumulated knowledge that we acquire through life.

Think young teachers with their new approaches working together with the seasoned tutor who has accumulated knowledge about how to teach math to struggling students, a win-win.

Older people do know things the young do not. But if that’s true why did I reach a point that passing the baton seemed the right thing to do? It was a combination of two realizations. First, fluid intelligence does count, at least when you are younger. I saw new Ph.D.s with fresh ideas for solving those wicked problems. Second, in seeing that, I believed that they deserved their chance. I’d had mine. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work and that I didn’t have a wealth of experience to bring to the work. Instead it was because I saw an eagerness in them to take on these intractable problems, while I was eager to try my hand at deferred dreams, like writing and rosemaling. 

So, I passed the baton and retired. In passing the baton, I moved on to a different race, one with an accelerated pace but a wide-open track of new adventures. And like most finish lines in life, even in retirement, it’s always shifting. I love the vision of a finish line that keeps changing, moving forward, whatever stage of life one is in, whatever track one is running on. 

A green sign with white text

Description automatically generated with low confidence

Purpose Notwithstanding … Show Up

A picture containing text

Description automatically generated

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.

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.