Reinvention: Take #10

Who knew that every time I’d sit down to write about the notion of reinvention, so strong in the retirement literature, I’d end up more bewildered than I started. That’s why I’m on my tenth try. Here’s what I do know: most articles and books about reinvention describe it as about finding a new career late in life, something novel when compared to a person’s past life, and something that fulfills a dream. There’s also a thread of reinvention tied to greater purpose, reinvention both and in and outside of work, with deeper understanding, definition, and authenticity to one’s self with an emphasis on service. Clearly, there’s enough here for more than one blog and possibly even blogs by some re-inventers (anyone out there hearing the call to share a blog with us?)

The other thing I know with some certainty about reinvention is how riled I get when I think about it for myself. Re-inventing suggests that there was some original, invented self, or, if we limit the definition to reinvention as about career, that my career path was a deliberate invention, not a marvelous amalgam of propensities, opportunities, decisions, life experiences, roads taken and not taken, circumstances beyond and under my control—although I’m less inclined as I get older to believe we have control over much of anything besides our response—and just plain luck. And this sidesteps the whole nature nurture debate, both of which surely influenced the amalgam that is this Karen.

As I sit with the idea of reinvention, I see what it is that pokes at me, scares me, if I’m being honest. It’s the idea that the current rough draft of this self and career was somehow not okay, such that I need to pursue reinvention.  Now I know that’s not the case for many who seek something new. I get it.  There are people who showed up for their lives and did what needed to be done, and now they have a chance to show up for themselves. I am completely in support of anything they decide to do in retirement, whether it’s career reinvention or a total self-reinvention. As for the scary part, well, most new things are, and surely a reinvention at age 76 implies risk.

          I like to believe that there’s something organic about who we become, that it’s neither all purposeful nor chance, rather an unfolding of who we need to be. The reason I hold this belief is that I became a teacher so I could have summers off and play golf, but also because I didn’t know what else I could become. Researchers who study vocation know that people seek vocations for which they have models. I had working class parents who wanted their children to go to college but didn’t have jobs that required college. My models of people who went to college were primarily teachers. Regardless of why I ended up teaching, it was right for me. I was painfully shy; I could barely speak in a social group of friends, I was so shy. As a teacher, I learned to stand up and speak every day, but in front of children, far less threatening, and I practiced my way out of shyness. I also have an altruistic streak, and teaching gave me an opportunity to serve.  Gradually, teaching lost its challenge and I sought more, so I went into academia. My career, as I view it, was not an invention, but an organic unfolding.

          So what does any of this matter. . . especially as I can’t untangle the reinvention question in one blog? It matters because of where I find myself, where we all find ourselves, socially distancing in what was to be a glorious retirement of new interests and ways to engage with the world. Ironically, it feels to me like the one thing I’ve held at bay, reinvention, is what I most need to be doing. Oh, it won’t be reinventing a new career or self as much as reinventing how to use time, how to stay meaningfully engaged while sheltering-in-place, where to find opportunities to serve from a laptop or a telephone. I do believe that for many retirees like myself, purpose does matter, whether it’s Big P or little p. That may even be part of the drive to reinvent, to add greater purpose to life. So how do I find it now?

          To reinvent during COVID-19 times is a challenge unlike any other. I think of Jerry Seinfeld’s comment about living with COVID-19: It’s like you’re a bird and suddenly they change your cage. You’re just not sure who you are now. On good days I believe I will find that new direction—reinvention. Words like curiosity, opportunity, and imagination inspire me as do the amazing things I see young people doing. On not-so-good days, I’m terrified I’ll be in this new cage at least two years, consuming what life I have left, searching but finding no new way of living a meaningful life, that retirement I imagined.

For the present, I find myself holding on to interests, looking for ways to keep them alive in this changed environment, e.g., learning rosemaling from YouTube videos, supporting the youth in my life, my grandchildren, which takes the place of tutoring, which I dearly loved. Is there a way to truly reinvent my newly altered retirement? I’m not sure, and I’m running out of the time it takes for an organic evolution. I deplore ending this blog with more questions than answers. . . In front of us is a changed world, and from what I read, we will not be back to normal for some time. My eyes have been opened to reinvention. I wait expectantly to see how and if it comes about. 

Condition: Provisional

https://www.flickr.com/photos/rayandbee/5915105592
The Wheel of Life
Vigeland Sculpture in Frogner Park, Oslo

As I live through this COVID-19 pandemic, one phrase keeps popping up in my mind: the human condition. To me, the human condition is our imperfection, our inability to escape suffering, and that we live in a natural world indifferent to us. I keep reminding myself and my family that we are experiencing firsthand what can go wrong in a natural world that we thought we had mostly tamed. At the same time, our culture promotes an ethic of personal responsibility, suggesting that we have an influence on what happens to us. So what does it mean to be subject to the human condition but responsible at the same time?

Take my grandfather Nils Jacobsen’s life. In 1917, before the end of World War I and another pandemic, the Spanish flu, he brought his wife, Marthe, and two-year-old son, Alden, my father, from their farm in Norway to Racine, Wisconsin, where they hoped to build a new life. The 1920 census listed them living in a rental in Ward 8. They were still finding their footing. In 1926, Nils sold the family farm in Norway, which he inherited as the eldest son, to his brother.  It appears that life was going well in Wisconsin. Times were good! 

By the 1930 census, Marthe and Nils owned a home, a sweet bungalow that’s still standing, and they listed a second son, my father’s brother. But it was the start of the Great Depression. Soon after, Marthe died at age 51, and by the 1940 census, Nils, my father, my mother, my father’s brother, and my older sister were living in a rental flat. It was World War II, and the fishing on the Great Lakes had dried up.  My father and Nils struggled to find work they could do. Nils died in 1948, a bitter old man, as my mother described him. 

Not an altogether happy tale, but I suspect most families, if they dig, can find similar stories. How much of what happened was Nil’s responsibility? Maybe selling the farm? But surely not Marthe’s death, the loss of their home, and the loss of fishing for a living. I tend not to judge him harshly. Nils and his family lived through World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and World War II. As for Nils dying a bitter old man, I’d say he succumbed to the human condition

While Nils confronted the human condition writ large, until now, my own experience has been more personal.  After my second husband, Gary, died, I struggled, literally, for years with searching for meaning about his death.  I endured guilt that I had done something to bring this outrage on us, and I believed that if I could identify what I’d done, I could atone for it—I should atone for it. When I wasn’t feeling guilty, I was asking myself about the larger karmic meaning of his death—were the repercussions in our immediate world a way of balancing the scales, so to speak? I found no clear answers. 

Being a church-goer, I decided to take my pain to the minister, Pastor Rob. Pastor Rob didn’t like the idea of karma—that I bore responsibility for Gary’s death and, thus, for my grief.  He thought such thinking was where New Agers go wrong. Instead, he told me that Gary and I, like all humans, were subject to the human condition, which includes suffering. Neither of us had caused his death and I didn’t owe any atonement. Wow! I walked out his office feeling lighter, a new freedom. I still didn’t know the meaning, and in truth, I continued to seek it, but not finding it now felt okay. My search became part of my human condition. 

Later I learned about provisional existence. Viktor Frankl wrote that prisoners in concentration camps could not see an end to their suffering.  They could see no future so they lived a “provisional existence.” Pastor Rob had given me such an existence. I found no meaning, but I could live with that, provisionally, and keep looking. Frankl said something else that resonates with me in these times, that rather than me asking for the meaning of Gary’s death, I am being questioned by life and I need to find my own answer in my own terms.  In Frankl’s words: Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life byanswering for his own life

So here I am, living in a world-wide pandemic. This isn’t the retirement I planned, stuck at home, worried about family, friends, and the world more generally. Worried about an uncertain future, are my savings withering so that I’ll be one of the people living solely on Social Security? Will we have a depression? What about my grandchildren, one in college who’s been forced to come home?  The other about to graduate into a precarious world, and there will be no celebration. I am being questioned by life, and how will I answer? 

I have choices. I can weather the pandemic, hopefully stay healthy, and go forward with what is available now.  I can support family and friends as they move forward, too. If my money’s gone . . . well, I’ll deal with that if I must.  My other choice, of course, is, like my grandfather, to grow bitter, that my glorious retirement has been denied me, that my plans have been slayed by a merciless nature. 

 Every day I take advantage of the one freedom still left, the opportunity to take a walk in the unfolding spring, oblivious to the havoc of a virus. It’s Minnesota, so it takes a while for spring to show its color, but because my life has so drastically slowed down, I linger on my walk and look for small signs of the turn towards spring.

One day I noticed tree stumps, and I walked along eagerly photographing tree stumps, which mind you, are presumed to be dead, cut off. But then I noticed that some tree stumps don’t quit easily. They make the best of things and put out new shoots of life. Now and then there’s a hollowed out-stump that couldn’t regenerate itself. But everywhere in nature there are examples of persistence. Think about those weeds we so fervently pull. 

I have my share of human arrogance, but I’m learning to accept the indifference of our world—some natural and some human behavior—it is the human condition.  But in fact, indifference is a condition all life faces, human, stumps, and otherwise. So I carry on, knowing that as I’m questioned by life, I can keep on putting out shoots, it’s on me to find my own answer. 

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Later I learned that coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management that harnesses the ability of many species of trees to put out new shoots from their stump or roots if cut down. 

Resolved. . . to Be Kinder to Myself

Sunset at Round Lake, Nisswa, MN

“What convictions survive into dotage?” asks the main character in Jane Gardam’s book, Old Filth, surely a question worthy of a blog devoted to retirement and aging. When I ask myself this question, I hear my stepfather expounding on one of his own favorite convictions—that most people are afraid and lack the courage to look hard at themselves, to admit their failures. On the face of it, this appears a wise and reasonable caution, and as a young idealistic girl who wanted to be a person of courage, I grabbed on and internalized this notion, not realizing how harmful constant self-criticism would be.

Focusing on my failures assumed the negative, that I had failed in some way, even when a different perspective might have pointed out that I had also succeeded in another way, thereby polarizing the outcome. It was either a success or a failure; there was nothing in between or a mix of results.

Casting a critical eye, which I took to be a brave me facing my deficiencies, led to many dark nights of looking back with regrets. But Parker Palmer points out “the past isn’t fixed and frozen the way we think it is. Its meaning can change as time unfolds, if we pay attention.”

My second husband, Gary Stout, loved to go to the burning bowl service at Unity church on New Year’s Eve. If you are not familiar with a burning bowl ceremony, what happens is that you write something that you want to let go of on a piece of paper and put it into a bowl where it gets burned—presto, you are done with it, ready to move on and stop fretting—notice how fretting rhymes with regretting? Gary and I also freely told each other what we thought the other person ought to let go of—ouch! It made for a lively New Year’s Eve.

So, should we face our regrets about our failures and flagellate ourselves endlessly, as my step-father maintained; let go and burn them away in a burning bowl ceremony; or, as Palmer suggests—reframe them? In the spirit of growing older and wiser, as a start, I suggest we reframe them.

My choice to reframe leads me to a highly personal story, one that I hesitate to share, but acknowledging that one way to reframe regrets is to take their power away by telling their story.

A regret I’ve struggled with for years is that I was a failure in my professorial career. I started out, as a new professor at age 50 at the University of Utah, filled with ambition, ready to set the world on fire. Instead, about a year after I arrived, my world was set on fire when my new husband, Gary Stout, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given about a year to live. I supported him, loved him with all I had, and watched him die over the next year.

His death flattened me, crushed me, rendered my ambition lifeless. The belief that I could do work that would improve schooling for the children I so had wanted to serve decayed into a hopeless cynicism. Except for a couple of bright moments, I never really got going in the traditional professor role.

In addition to being flattened, I had my stepfather’s voice, my “conviction” that I had to tell myself the truth, that I was a big fat failure. As you can guess, this truth did not have the effect of lifting me out of my despair, it only deepened it.

Then one day, another voice clamored to be heard, asking me what else I had done in my twenty years of failure. I believe I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, when I had this breakthrough. I made a list of all the other things I had done in the twenty years, deciding I would subtract my failures from this list. It was a long list—I now have it posted near my desk. It includes such things as reading great books, hanging out with loved friends, seeing my children grow into fine adults, grandchildren, a couple of flings, travel, commitment to teaching, helping students achieve their dreams. . . and so on.

Not a bad way to spend twenty years, I realized. Better yet, I had told myself the truth, looked hard at myself. Palmer says, “regret shuts life down.” I would add that it also shuts memory down, freezes it on what didn’t work instead of opening us to what did.

Ocean Vuong, in his magnificent book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, says:

History moves in a spiral, not the line we’ve come to expect. . . the past never a fixed and dormant landscape but one that is reseen. Whether we want to or not, we are traveling in a spiral, we are creating something new from what is gone (pgs. 27-28).

I’ve come to believe that to make sense of my life and my past I need to ignore the harsh voice I adopted from my stepfather and instead to not only reframe but to look again with new eyes, eyes that refuse to label good or bad, success or failure, eyes that are willing to “create something new from what is gone” by seeing the nuance and looking anew over and over.  I don’t mean the cliched “Everything happens for a reason,” but rather a willingness to be kind to myself and my past.

Which brings me to New Year’s resolutions, which I love—and I’m not talking about diet and exercise. I’m talking about resolutions that open life up, refresh it, if you will. This year I’m resolving to get passionate about making time to be at peace—maybe twenty minutes a day of meditating, doing a full body scan, deep breathing, or something like that.  All this, of course, is about living in gentle kindness with myself, seeing those spiraling memories that can dominate growing older with kind and gentle eyes. So, be it resolved—Karen Storm will make time for peace and be kinder to herself in 2020. May such kindness last forever. Happy New Year!

Everyday Artistry

Karen Rose and I were exchanging emails about the focus of the blog—she was reminding me that we promised not to give advice or promote any product.  I don’t want to promote a product, but I do tend to be preachy—it’s the teacher in me. Karen Rose stated that she wants to explore and support creativity and the arts. As I thought about her comments, I decided to make a list of everyone in my immediate circle and what artistic endeavor they might be engaged in—I even included grandchildren who by necessity should be mostly engaged in school.  Of about 21 people, 14 are engaged in some type of identifiable art. I included cooking, gardening, knitting, as well as the more obvious painting, writing, and making music.  That’s better than half, allowing for a convenience sample and the fact that any of those who aren’t observably engaged in art are perhaps doing something I don’t know about.  For example, my grandson, Henrik, a senior in high school, designs and collects shoes—is that art?

          Of those not obviously engaged in an artistic pursuit, does commitment to a sport or working towards an academic or career goal count as art? I didn’t interview my sample, and I also wonder what they might tell me if I did.  Perhaps they have an artistic interest that they would pursue if they “had more time.” At any rate, I’m led to conclude that Karen is onto something, the human draw towards artistry is quite strong. On the other hand, limiting my definition of art as something that manifests a product—a great meal, a lovely garden, a poem, a picture, etc., might miss the real artist in all of us.  As the cartoon at the top of this blog suggests, we are always creating our lives, and yes, sometimes our creative efforts go up in flames with lots of black smoke.  As Iris Dement so perfectly puts it:

          An’ my life, it’s tangled in wishes

And so many things that just never turned out right.

          As many times as I’ve heard this song, live on stage at the Guthrie for the first time, and on her CD many times after, I am stopped in my tracks by that line.  I think about all the things that “never turned out right.”  My perfect second marriage that was derailed by cancer.  My not so perfect first marriage that ended but left us with two marvelous offspring and many good memories. My ambitious career plans that never quite materialized. The fact that I told my children to never go into education, and they did, but they are doing work they value and love.  The essence of life is that we plan and plan, and then life does its thing.  There are numerous clichés about this Truth. I won’t recite them here.

What keeps us going in the face of setbacks, though, is that we always have a chance to create something new from that which never turned out right. The way in which love can prevail in spite of the mishaps of life. I am calling this Everyday Artistry.  It takes immense creativity to live.  One thing I loved about being a teacher was that I was always problem solving on my feet.  Well, I maintain we mostly live that way, too.  Some of our plans work out nicely, but mostly there are perturbations, and we work out ways to adjust. 

So how does all this inform a blog about retirement and aging?  Well, for me it means nostalgia might feel good, but moving forward and creating is essential to living.  And there’s an opportunity for artistry in everything we do.  Finding a new sport when you can no longer run; playing pickle ball instead of tennis; learning rosemaling although you’ve never been “artistic,” trying new recipes based on new knowledge of nutrition, sitting on a chair when you garden because your back can’t take it. Finding ways to show love when it seems like it’s left the room.  Some new acts are adjustments and some are exploration. It doesn’t matter, that’s what Everyday Artistry is all about and we never lose the chance to practice it.

And. . .

Karen Rose reminded me that some of us love the charred marshmallow—me included—with its middle that isn’t quite melted all the way through—the marshmallow that goes up in flames.  I say, put another one on the stick and try again. It’s all artistry.