Possibilities

A person standing on a balcony

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I Dwell in Possibility

Emily Dickinson 

Joachim Trier’s movie, Worst Person in the World, is about a young woman exploring the possibilities in her life looking for that one true passion. It’s a universal story line—the quest–yet as my friend and I walked to our cars after the movie, all I could think about was the line “I no longer have a future” (spoken by one of the other characters). “It’s exactly how I sometimes feel about getting old.” I told my friend. “Like I no longer have a future.” She agreed that that line had stood out to her, too.  We walked around the corner to our car, parked on a street of lovely old mansions near Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. The early spring sun brightened the landscaped lawns and melting snow. 

“Take these gorgeous homes,” I said. “I’m never going to own or live in one. Twenty years ago, I would have walked by them and daydreamed about living in one. But that’s never going to happen.”

My friend noted that one of the harder realities about getting older is the realization that the range of possibilities is shrinking, if only because we’re running out of time—not to mention that most of us have more money going out than coming in. 

A few weeks later, I visited a college with my daughter and granddaughter. I heard my daughter say, “Gosh, I wish I could go back and do college all over at a place like this.” Her wishful thinking reminded me that there’s a universality to dreaming about what might have been or what might yet happen. The fact is, however, we get only one life. She is through college, and I’m never going to own a mansion in Milwaukee. But does that mean that I have no future?

I could still move somewhere new. . . or maybe travel. Is this why we older people like to travel? We have time and we’re looking for novelty? For my husband, the fun is in the planning. He gets to run through all the possibilities. For days before we go somewhere he changes the itinerary. When I saw Frances McDormand in Nomadland, it struck me that though she didn’t have any money, she traveled and was open to possibilities, too. 

This morning I asked myself what I like best about being retired. The first answer that popped up was having the time to contemplate and work on myself (a blog will soon follow on this). Richard Rohr in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, argues that in the first half of our life, we build and identify with a persona—I’m an educator, I’m a mother. Others are policemen, teachers, professors, plumbers, community activists—however we see ourselves. We work hard to create and maintain this persona, but underneath is an authentic person. In the second half of life, however, we have time and inclination to turn inward and explore that person, who we are at our core. That’s a powerful and challenging possibility.

In a recent podcast of No Stupid Questions on NPR with Stephen Dubnar (Freakonomics) and Angela Duckworth (professor at U Penn, well known for her work on grit) take on the question of What’s so Great About Retirement? There are many good reasons to listen to this podcast (or read the transcript), but the one that stood out to me was Duckworth’s emphasis on goals or purpose:

She describes her father, a retired chemist, who upon retirement announced that he didn’t want to do anything, and he proceeded to get up in the morning, have his coffee and his breakfast, shuffle over to the love seat, sit down, take the remote control, and turn on the Weather Channel. She believes that his choice to spend his retirement this way made him profoundly unhappy (Both Karen R. and I believe she should have looked closer instead of judging him). Duckworth notes:

I have a theory of happiness, which is very simple. I think people pursue goals spontaneously at every age. Whether you’re 4 or 84, you have goals. You have things that you want to accomplish. I think, actually, the greatest unhappiness there is, is not to have goals at all. 

As soon as I heard this, I knew I was back at my favorite rabbit hole—purpose. Maybe having purpose is the way we counter the perception that we have no future other than aging. Maybe I need to stop raging about it and look more closely. Purpose, in the second half of life, may be drawn from an inner imperative. That requires the very inner work that Rohr writes about, and it doesn’t have to result in a big world changing purpose/imperative. Instead, it can be a commitment to the little p’s in front of us daily

Two of my little p’s, as you’ve heard me say before, are tutoring and rosemaling. On the surface they seem like time fillers, but I made these choices after self-examination, not because I needed a job, or wanted to pursue a career, or whatever. Tutoring reflects my joy in teaching children, of being in schools, and in observing that fascinating process called learning. Rosemaling reflects a search for my identity as part Norwegian and my love of making things. While perhaps not soul work, these two choices came from an exploration of who I am and what I love doing. And finding them screams “You do have a future right in front of you, Karen!” Maybe it’s not a mansion on Lake Michigan, but the fruits of inner work from where I stand today, are every bit as rewarding as building a career was when I was younger. It’s true, I won’t get another life, but meanwhile, having found some little p’s, I wake up most days engaged in the one I have.

A person drawing on a piece of paper

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How to Retire During a Pandemic. . . or Any Other Time

A group of people on a stage

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Rolling Stones, 2018

Karen Rose and I promised not to give advice, so don’t think of this as advice, rather encouragement.

First of all, why not retire? There’s nothing that says you shouldn’t. It’s completely your own decision. Retirement right now could make you part of the Great Resignation—and who doesn’t want to be a trend-setter? So, in the spirit of all the self-help gurus who have gone before me, here’s my list of how-to’s.

  1. Tell your friends, family, and colleagues how you want to celebrate.  You could have a bonfire or even a Zoom meeting (I’m kidding). Restaurants and bars are starting to open. It’s not impossible anymore. I like cake, so that’d be my go-to, a Danish layer cake from a bakery in Racine, my hometown, or if not available, a big white cake with white frosting from Whole Foods with vanilla flavor—you might be trying a lot of new foods when you retire, that’s one way to pass time—eat. 

If you retire in summer, you can always have an outdoor party. In fact I went to a couple last summer, and the retirees didn’t seem intimidated by the pandemic at all. And there was lots to eat—even cake.

There’s always the person that wants to go quietly. The one who rather slides into retirement; some even take it year by year, never really announcing it until they’ve completely left the playing field (E.g., KRS?) It’s not a bad way during a pandemic, or during any hard times, as everyone is busy watching CNN, the CDC, NBC, OSHA, SCOTUS, ETC.

  1. Let those feelings come forward. Maybe you’ll be relieved—you’ve had enough of working for a lifetime. You might be discombobulated—I certainly was. That first Monday morning after my drinks at the bar party—no, I didn’t get cake—left me unmoored. Should I wear jeans?  Jeans are for weekends. What time should I have breakfast? Lunch? What am I going to work on? Does my spouse have to be near me all the time? I can hear him rattling around the house. Is he always like this? When do I get to “quit” for the day—oh, I never started.  

You will have feelings. I promise!  Let them all hang out!

  1. If you live with someone, warn them. They may have had the house all to themselves, but that’s changing. Someone new will be sitting on the couch reading the morning paper, playing the stereo during the day, making lunch right when they like to make lunch. Maybe you’ll start to clean closets, throwing things out. Someone else might not be ready for this.  And are you ready?  Your close relationships will change, hopefully for the better.
  1. Don’t sweat having a purpose. This is a biggie!  I know, you’ve read all those books about the importance of having a purpose when you retire, Something to Live For, Retirement Reinvention, Purposeful Retirement, and Encore Adulthoodamong the many—but I’m here to tell you retirement is all about the unknown, and that’s what makes it both interesting and challenging. In the world of work, you needed goals. The idea was to get ahead, to strive (more about this from Karen Rose), to seek, to find. . .  to make a name for yourself, do better than meeting quotas, etc. You are done with all that. New paradigm coming your way! And you get to create it.

The Purpose experts argue that having a purpose is linked with better outcomes for aging, living longer, etc. But you’re not an outcome, a statistic. You are you, and if you don’t have a purpose, that’s just fine.  I’ve written about Big P and Little p, arguing that Big Purpose is a male oriented way to live and that there are lots of Little purposes in our daily lives—relationships, family, great books, helping out in the community, that can evolve daily. By letting go of the need to find some big, all encompassing Purpose, you can let the day’s own offerings be sufficient—and you’ll be more inclined to show up for them, because you won’t be busy searching for that big Purpose. 

If you have a big Purpose for your retirement, by all means, go for it. My take is because so many of us love our lives but probably can’t identify some big Purpose in how we live them. But then living a moral and kind life is rather a big Purpose.

Instead of worrying about purpose, resolve to be CURIOUS–like the Torstein Hagen advertising for Viking Cruise Ships. When the pandemic first hit, and we were all scared, staying home, isolating, I started daily walks—like everyone else—around the little lake by our house. After several of these walks, I noticed stumps, which had been cut off in the prime of life, had branches growing out of them; they were putting out shoots of hopefulness. I photographed these stumps and shoots and followed them throughout the spring. I saw them turn green and produce leaves. Later a friend told me about something called coppicing, a process used to manage forests by taking advantage of these persistent trees. What astonished me about this discovery was how I’d walked by it most of my life! (https://karensdescant.com/2020/04/20/condition-provisional/0)

So be easy on yourself about purpose. Maybe you’ll find one, maybe you won’t, but retirement allows you time to be with the unknown, to pay attention to the details, or, as a friend once advised me—to smell the roses.

  1. Let go of expectations! I absolutely believe that we would all live happier lives if we could let go of expectations. In the dictionary, 1) expectation is defined as the state of looking forward to or waiting for something. 2) A belief that someone will or should achieve something. Until the pandemic, retirements were full of expectations—“I’m going to travel.” “I plan on spending more time volunteering.” “Maybe I’ll take some classes.” All worthwhile endeavors, but this pandemic has certainly put us on pause.

So what recourse do we have? We could approach our new retirement lives without those expectations, instead curious and willing to engage with what shows up. You now have time to explore who you are inside and act from within rather than without, based on expectations set by others, the society, and eventually by ourselves. 

If you’re planning on retiring, go ahead. You will have a chance to approach life with curiosity, seeing what unfolds, and maybe, with that curiosity, learn more about yourself and the world around you. I wouldn’t normally turn to the Rolling Stones to talk about retirement, but their song, No Expectations perfectly sums up my idea for approaching retirement:

Take me to the station
And put me on a train
I’ve got no expectations
To pass through here again.

A retired Keith Richards

What is My Footprint?

Fillipo Pallizi, Franciulla sulla roccia

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of tim
e

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — A Song of Life

Geert Hofstede’s research suggests that striving for a life that will be noticed is fundamental to the American psyche.  And, in a big country, the longing is often equally big and broad.  From Patrick Henry to John Wayne, large and swaggering (and male) is what is noticed.  I saw myself in the narrative, but identified as a thoughtful visionary seeking a bigger world – like Pallizi’s romantic 19th c. portrait.  As I noted previously, my husband called this “International Karen” who, as frequently as possible, moved beyond contemplation to collaboration with people in other countries who also wanted to make their schools better. But, between Covid travel restrictions and a dwindling passion for experiences far from home, International Karen is coming to terms with the obvious:  the past will not be the future.  What is emerging is a different longing—to figure out how to leave smaller but still meaningful footprints.

Several years ago, some friends and I – (aka, The Retirement Biddies Workgroup) — read Sarah Susanka’s reflections on living a “not so big life”.    A well-known architect, she urges us to think about what really matters through analogies between designing a smaller home and designing a smaller life.  Some of her questions are relevant to anyone at any age:  How is what we are purchasing fitting in with what we need?  How are we using our resources?  When do we have enough?  But then, her zinger:  How have you wanted to change the world and how are you looking for related changes in yourself?  Her challenge suggests beginning with our biggest aspirations (do they come much bigger than changing the world?) and then look internally to see as if we are up to the task. 

But that question needs reframing in a life that has become radically smaller during Covid, while I am also busy considering a future that will inevitably be different from my expectations of a few years ago.  As I look at “international Karen” and cringe at the carbon offsets that I owe the world, I know that I could not go back, even if it were possible.  I pulled Susanka out of my bookshelf….

At a personal level, I have already made a commitment to a smaller life. A decade ago, Dan and I made a radical move from a rather large house to a condo, which was about the size of Susanka’s designs for a “not so big house”.  When The Retirement Biddies were contemplating the “not so big life”, Dan and I had given away many of our possessions, including furniture, books that we finished reading many years ago, and appliances that we rarely used.  We felt lighter and patted ourselves on the back, while filling every nook of our new walk-in closets.

But I was still working.  Although my home office was small, I had a bigger office at work for all the professional stuff.  The only question “not so big” question that had immediate resonance was a more thoughtful consideration of what we were buying. It was all about “the stuff.”

But now retirement-during-Covid is a reality, along with the unanticipated consequence of our decision to stay in Boulder, CO where we are engaged in a noble experiment: two people living peaceably in a 1000 square foot 1960s ranch that has only two interior doors that don’t lead to a toilet.  But this requires a different kind of decluttering.  The grand project of moving and starting over – just like those who are part of “the great resignation” or who have otherwise changed their lives in the last few years – requires a decluttering of the spirit and heart. 

The challenges are huge.  I have always been BUSY, largely with activities that are not essential. I  am easily distracted by emails or random thoughts.  I have never meditated, and have been totally unsuccessful at journaling because it requires discipline.  Since childhood, I have been unable to cope with boredom and have a long list of attractive projects that I can turn to if that awful feeling appears.  But these habits, some of which were functional when I was “busy working”, are now impediments.  In Susanka’s terms, I am unable to turn away from alluring “time clutter”. 


Clearing out the heart requires stillness – so different from concentration —  that does not come naturally.  I have taken a course on contemplative prayer.  I have read poetry out loud.  I have worked on a skill that never came naturally to me – listening to what other people are really saying rather than immediately generating a stimulating conversation.  I am even weaning myself off the computerized calendar that beeps too often, and writing out to-dos and appointments using a fountain pen.  More importantly, I am tracking a new habit – explicitly noticing, contemplating, and being grateful for something that is exquisitely beautiful, whether in nature (frost covered ornamental grass or snow on the Flatirons outside our house) or when making faces with a four-and-a-half-year-old.  And writing down a few of those things in turquoise ink.  I really love the turquoise ink. 

But what about changing the world?   I take heart in reading aloud Mary Oliver, who suggests that, at least for a poet, a large life can be inscribed through small acts: 

I don’t want to live a small life. Open your eyes,

open your hands. I have just come

from the berry fields, the sun

kissing me with its golden mouth all the way

(open your hands) and the wind-winged clouds

following along thinking perhaps I might

feed them, but no I carry these heart-shapes

only to you. Look how many small

but so sweet and maybe the last gift

I will bring to anyone in this

world of hope and risk, so do

Look at me. Open your life, open your hands.

Mary Oliver – I Don’t Want to Live a Small Life, Red Bird

To live a more open and intentional life, I need to consistently remind myself that small efforts, expanded over many committed people can make a difference in this world of hope and risk. I think of the years when I hauled dozens of yogurt containers to my office before my city started recycling – only to find out now that the containers were not actually recycled.  So, my Instant Pot and I now have a bi-weekly routine that involves yogurt making.  I find local issues that are pressing – affordable housing, unjust judicial practices, and the continued exclusion of the Native people who once owned this land – and find others who want to change them.  Goodbye International Karen:  You did good work and had fun.  Now I want to bring small gifts to the place where I live and to those I am with – and I also remind myself that large footprints in sand will be washed away.  

Welcome to the Club

The Clubhouse

I wake up from pleasant dreams that I can’t remember, but I do know I felt good in them. Slamming awake I realize that it’s still there, the reality of my life. My husband, Jim, has a chronic condition that will require care the rest of his life.  Currently, it’s acute and my days revolve around it. I eat breakfast, not only standing, but taking a bite and then doing something that needs doing before the lymphedema nurse arrives. I haven’t showered, but the dog’s been walked, I’ve tidied, and I’ve thrown a load in the washer. This is the life of a caregiver, disjointed and always on call.

I am not alone in my call to give care, indeed, having joined a club that welcomes all members. Nearly 42 million adults in the US care for elderly parents or friends, with three out of five of these, women. The average age of caregiving recipients is 68.9 while the average age of caregivers is 49. I’m outside the norm on that one. But I’m not outside the norm of a 20 hour work week for caregivers (See https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2020/05/full-report-caregiving-in-the-united-states.doi.10.26419-2Fppi.00103.001.pdf.).

I’ve been thrust in the roll of caregiver four times in my life, and each experience was completely different. Context matters, who you are taking care of matters, your life at the time matters, the malady matters, how long the caregiving will go on matters, and your attitude matters. I suspect this is just a minimal list of all the permutations. For now, let me tell you a little about how caregiving has impacted my life. Maybe others will be inclined to share their experiences.

Two thoughts dominate my internal monologue. The first is how long will this last? Will it consume my entire retirement? There’s anger behind this thought, and I don’t like that in myself. But I’m not only angry. My second prevailing thought is compassion. Someone I love is coping with pain and the knowledge that his life will never be the same, that many of his favorite ways of spending time are gone. Probably toughest of all is watching him cope with the knowledge that this recurring illness is a harbinger of the end of life.

My first introduction to caregiving was when my mother, Margaret, was dying of kidney cancer. My two sisters and I agreed to do two-week stints to help her and our stepfather. I went first. It was heart wrenching to see her in pain all the time. Her cancer had spread to her bones, and she lay, mostly moaning in pain. A strong painkiller patch deadened some of her pain, but she was also in pain about dying. “I’m not ready,” she told me. “I wanted more time.” She never talked about how she would use more time. She knew she wasn’t going to have it.

My mother lived three months from those first two weeks when I cared for her.  I never had a chance to care for her again. When I returned home, my second husband, Gary, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was to be a caregiver to him instead. Caring for my mother felt like a loving responsibility. I was to quickly learn that caring for a husband whom you love very much is a completely different experience.

Gary lived fourteen months from his diagnosis of cancer. We had a mix of good and bad times, and I never resented caring for him. During the hard times, he was extremely cross from his pain—understandable, but still difficult. During the good times, we mourned the loss of our future together. I was with him every step of the way. A part of my heart was broken when he died. A wise counselor has taught me that within the brokenness is the memory of a man I dearly loved. I can hold that memory and go forward with my own life.

Seventeen years after Gary died, I met Jim, my third husband, whose own wife had died of cancer. We were going along nicely, forgetting how life can turn on a dime. Over one Labor Day weekend, he developed sepsis and went into septic shock, almost dying. We later learned it was from a perforated ulcer. When he came home from the hospital, I was back in the club. What I didn’t expect were the demands of helping someone who’s in great emotional turmoil from the aftermath of the disease itself—depression. We muddled through, not realizing that chronic edema, a consequence of his illness, would create the ideal conditions for another bout of sepsis three years later.  

So here I am again, a fourth time, which I sense will be indeterminate. I must say it feels different. Two days ago, a nurse bluntly said to us “It’s not edema, it’s lymphedema, a different condition. And you’ll have it the rest of your life.”  She kindly didn’t add, “Get used to it,” but it was implied.

Once again, those same two thoughts haunt me—what will happen to my life? Will I be able to do the things I enjoy? Will I ever be able to travel again? And what about my writing? Rosemaling?

Then there’s that second haunting thought about his suffering and fears. I feel challenged to alleviate these and help him go forward. I also feel great sadness for him. Am I up to the challenge?

Susan Allen Toth wrote an excellent memoir, No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days,  about caring for her husband who died of Parkinson’s disease. She writes:

“So much.” I think that simple phrase could easily be the motto emblazoned on a caregiver’s shield. Love, pain, courage, endurance, loss. So much, so much.

We caregivers are a club. We don’t have to feel isolated because we are in the company of caregivers all over the world, not to mention the circle of help from home nursing services, friends, and family. And we have love, the foundation that helps us go forward no matter how uncertain the future may be. As for me, it’s early, and doggone it, I will do my utmost to take care of both Jim and Karen. If there’s one thing the caregivers club has honed in me, it’s determination!