Is There Something Wild and Precious in All of Us?

Mary Oliver’s line, Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? seems to be quoted everywhere of late. It speaks of living a life of one’s own design, a design that unleashes the wild and precious rather than the banality of slugging through our days intent on keeping a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. It speaks of something wondrous that’s out there if we only let go of our need to conform and live from our true center, our spirit. 

Not too far into retirement I found myself often wondering what was wild and precious but dormant in me. My life was not exciting.  I moved between my own home, the library, the health club, my children’s homes, and the homes of friends, with an occasional trip out of town.  Not the stuff of wild and precious, of that I was certain. And here I was, free to find the wild and precious and live it.  

But how do I find that which lies dormant in me, that which yearns for expression in my life? Or perhaps I already have it, perhaps in the routine I’ve pressed upon my days. I suspect, however, that routine, while affording stability, suppresses experimentation about what might be dormant. . . and yet “a girl can dream.”

The dream went something like this. . .

She spent the entire summer dreaming of Wales. It made no sense, this yearning to leave her settled life, her children, her easy routine. Yet in her fantasies, it made all the sense in the world. She could start over, no, not start over but be born anew, without memory in a lush, beautiful place, where people speak in a language that she would have to learn—as a baby learns language from birth.

In August she booked her ticket.  She bought an enormous suitcase and packed it with her clothes. She told her children she was taking a long trip—how could she tell them her truth, that she sought a new land, a new beginning? How long will you stay, they asked, but she avoided the question. I’ll be back when I’m ready. . . 

The plane landed in Heathrow, not Wales. Wandering a bit felt right. Like Odysseus seeking his home, she sought a new home and an adventure on the way. Why had she brought such a big suitcase, she thought as she pulled it outside to find a taxi to the train station. What had she been thinking? But wasn’t that the point? To not think but to wander and live on the way?

The taxi driver left her suitcase on the curb, and she dragged it inside. The train timetable clicked with suggestions. Where in Wales should she go?  She settled on Llangollen—how many words have four “l’s”—“l” for living. She pulled the suitcase to the platform. She would need to drag it through two train changes, if she was reading the itinerary correctly. Maybe she should just leave the suitcase here. It was still baggage from her old life.  She could buy new clothes in Wales—Welsh clothes. But still, money was money, and she wasn’t sure how far hers would go in her new life.

The train ride was exhausting. For each of the two changes, she bounced the suitcase down to the platform and dragged it up and onto the next train. She slept when she could and stopped counting stations, staying awake just enough so as not to miss her stop. 

And the dream of a wild and precious life stops somewhere about here. . . 

Is this what it would be like? Is it real or an escape? What I wonder is whether and how we lose the will to live that which is wild and precious in service to work, family, security, and whatever else haunts us. Then, suddenly—and it seems sudden—we are retired, free but with baggage that we are reluctant to leave on the train platform, baggage that must be hauled up and down with every new step we take. And how do we reconcile baggage with possibility?

Image result for old woman with big suitcase

What Is A Death Café – And Who Would Want To Go Anyway?

A few weeks ago, Dan and I went to a Death Café – it was on a whim, because I saw it in a Barnes and Noble e-mail that I was in the process of deleting.  Also because I have been trying to live into Julia Cameron’s advice to have an artist’s date every week.  Planning anything a week ahead when I am trying to spend as much time as possible with Opal (our 20 month-old granddaughter) seems almost impossible.  She-Who-Rules has not figured out that adults are happier when the children in their lives have a regular nap schedule…in any case, why not go on the spur of the moment?

photo credit: Death Cafe

We had no idea what to expect, but showed up along with eight other people at the “Solarium” (a space with lots of windows next to the Pets section) in the back of the Boulder, Colorado B&N. Our volunteer facilitator introduced herself as someone with experience with both hospice and midwifery.  Beginnings and endings, her specialty.  We started with a brief introduction to the Death Café – who knew that this was an international movement, and that all over the globe there were other people participating in discussions about death on a regular basis.  If you don’t believe me, Google it yourself (https://deathcafe.com)– the first thing that pops up is “Welcome to Death” followed by an invitation:  “At a Death Cafe people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.”  Today, as I write this, I could attend one in St Luis Obispo or Quezon City in the Philippines.

How odd – my first thought – how can this be so popular?  Why does the idea of meeting with strangers to talk about death have meaning from Lake Forest, New York to Goteborg, Sweden (oddly, as we entered, I passed by the popular book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson).  So I sat feeling intrigued but somewhat detached, observing the people sitting in the circle with Dan and me with interest.  Across from me were three older women (in other words people roughly my age!) all looking very Boulder.  That means middle class with tiny efforts to be a bit offbeat – a purple streak through gray hair or an embroidered vest.  There was a couple who appeared to be about 50, and next to me a very large man of about the same age, who made it clear that he had come only because he was asked by the facilitator.  A rather sad looking woman in her sixties arrived late, and positioned herself slightly outside the circle, although we made every effort to rearrange the chairs. 

So why had they come?  We began by offering up our reasons, some of which (like mine) were curiosity, others because they had recently experienced a death.  One was still trying to make sense of a loss many years ago of a beloved brother; another because the passing of her sister made her aware that there was no one left in the world who knew her as a child. No one there was ill or recovering from a serious illness.  In fact, we all looked rather vital….

I opened, saying that I was coming from curiosity – wanting to try new things – and because the last year had been full of deaths and skirmishes with death for multiple friends.  By the time we finished with our offerings – what drew us, what our experiences were with death –it felt as if we were part of an intimate circle.  The feeling of instant membership was odd—I can’t think of another time when I have entered a group of strangers and felt so quickly as if I belonged.  Also, the often-noisy Judge in my head – the one that edits what other people are saying while they are just beginning to formulate their thoughts — was surprisingly quiet.  What people talked about silenced The Judge – it was as if the topic of death encouraged a level of intimacy that you would never find in other settings. 

The 50-year old man talked (at great length) about the paradox of watching his brother suffer over several years and the joy of seeing him become increasingly spiritual and at one with his life.  We talked about acceptance – one of my mantras – we talked about the experiences of being present with someone who was dying.  We talked about whether we wanted a death surrounded by loving relatives or whether, in our deepest heart, we wanted to be alone on the journey.  One woman – the only one with any apparent attachment to an image of afterlife – was very positive that she would be reincarnated – and that she would retain a great deal of the knowledge and experience that she already possessed.  No one else seemed to be certain of anything except that the idea that dying filled him or her with awe.  Only Cat, the 50-ish wife of the man whose brother had dies some years ago, said little.

So we were there for well over an hour.  Dan and I left feeling that it had been a remarkable experience.  Why can’t we find this level of connection without having to confront death?  What is it about a Death Café that promotes connections when other conversational opportunities do not?

Photo credit: Death Cafe

Postscript:  I drafted this early last spring when I was in Boulder, Colorado – escaping harsh Minnesota winter for a milder version. Looking back after six months, community seemed to surface from a collective experience that was simultaneously anonymous and intimate.  We were there for remembrance as well as being open about both the wounds and healing that we experienced individually.  If you want to be part of this, you can:  The website says, “People who adopt the model set out in our guide are welcome to set up their own Death Cafes. So far we’ve held Death Cafes in 65 countries.”  I think that I will take them up on the invitation….

Stumbling onto My Calling

I always envied my second husband, Gary, and my sister, Marylyn, because they each had a clear vocational calling. In eighth grade, Gary had to write a report about a career. As he loved to tell it, “I chose city planner because it had the word ‘city’ in it, and I wanted out of Danville, Iowa so badly.” He went on to a successful and driven career in city planning and urban development. Marylyn’s first job was shelving books at the Racine Public Library.  Within a few months of starting the job, she announced that she wanted to be a librarian. She worked summers full time at Western Printing, saving her money to go to the University of Wisconsin and become a librarian.  She reluctantly retired at age 76 from her job as head librarian at the veteran’s hospital in Florida.

          When I read Karen Rose’s piece If I Don’t Know My Purpose, Am I a Retirement Failure?I began sorting for myself the difference between purpose and calling, words that are bandied about in the retirement literature along with reinvention—all of which I believe are related. Purpose has always been nebulous to me. It’s some big thing out there that others have but I don’t.  I always wonder when I try to ascertain my purpose, isn’t it enough to keep living? But a calling is quite like it sounds, a sense, an intuition, or voice—you know, that call from the great beyond—that compels us to do something, like be a city planner or librarian or take quiche to a friend (A Soul on the Move). It might compel us to be something, more compassionate, more frugal, more generous. A call might move us towards something or away; it might ask us to commit.  A calling can also evoke a feeling of being led, being drawn ahead in some way.

I must admit that I’ve never felt a vocational calling, I definitely stumbled into becoming a teacher. After changing majors every semester in college, all the while playing as much golf as possible, I realized that if I wanted to spend my summers golfing, then being a teacher was the way to go. So I became a teacher almost by default, but the minute I stepped into a classroom, I knew I was where I belonged. You might say I “stumbled” into where I belonged.

I didn’t worry too much about having a calling after that, but when I became an assistant professor, that’s when I really wanted a calling, what the associate and full professors, who’d arrived in my estimation, said was a “research agenda,” something every professor needed to be successful. I wanted to be like them and like Gary and Marylyn. But I could never fix on either a calling or research agenda that carried me more than a few months, even though I prayed, searched, journaled about finding one, and read everything I could about careers and callings. Then I remembered advice that Gary used to give me: “When you’re stuck, throw stuff out, and see what sticks.” He had a talent for “throwing stuff out and seeing what stuck.” I eventually stopped searching and went with what showed up and seemed to stick. Stumbling along but still listening for that big voice from the sky. Looking back, I landed on meaningful projects, projects that “stuck,” with passion growing along the way.

          Then, as I’ve keened and wailed about before in this blog, along came retirement and what I call its stages:

Karen Martha’s Retirement Stages

  • Panic;   What have I done?
  • Denial     As in get re-involved in work, be a consultant;
  • Flight    There’s always travel;
  • Acceptance    See it with a new lens, and . . . dare I say;
  • Transformation   Away I go!

Right now I’m in the acceptance stage, looking at the days ahead with a new lens, a different lens than that of work, a lens that focuses on what’s going on inside me. Nevertheless, even with my new lens, I’ve not experienced a “calling” for how to use this incredible gift of time, reasonable security, and health.

In response to Karen Rose’s blog about purpose, one of the respondents wrote: we can think not just of ourselves and what gives us pleasure in retirement, but of what the world demands of us.  Many of us have the luxury of time—and perhaps we can use this luxury on behalf of something larger than personal satisfaction in retirement. She’s talking about calling with a capital C—the big call to change the world. Most of our calls, however, are as Greg Levoy notes: the daily calls to pay attention to our intuitions, to be authentic, to live by our own codes of honor (p.5). I believe Levoy is right, at least in my case, most callings are in the everyday of my life. I tutor math at the local middle school. No one asked me, I sought it out because it seemed I might be helpful—it came from within. I am learning rosemaling—I’ve always liked to make things. Now I have time, and I’m writing, this blog and other pieces. Not the big C, but it all feels right.

In a way it goes to purpose, because I’ve come to see purpose, at least for me, about living as authentically as I can and doing the soul work that supports an authentic life. Purpose notwithstanding, I’ll never stop hoping for a big C calling. Meanwhile, I’m stumbling—no, that’s not fair—lightly tripping along in the acceptance stage, seeing my days and life with a new lens, open to “what shows up.”

I don’t ask for the full ringing of the bell. I don’t ask for a clap of thunder. A scrawny cry will do. —Wallace Stevens

Sticking with What Works or Starting Anew?

Catching a Big Fish at Post Lake, Wisconsin, about 1955 (looked big to me)

I remember as a child waking up in the morning to a day fresh and new, filled with possibility. Something exciting was waiting to be discovered, maybe just around the corner. All I had to do was get dressed, scarf down a bowl of cereal, and walk outside. Sometimes I rode my bike around the neighborhood, looking for something interesting. Other times I’d try to find a friend to join me. I’d walk to my friend Carole’s house, and from the street, I’d call “Oh, Carole.” If she could play, she came outside and off we’d go inventing on the way. If not, her mother opened the door and said, “Carole can’t play right now.” In that case, I’d wander to the park or go home and read a book of my choosing. I was between five and ten when I experienced my life this way, the unadorned curiosity of a young girl.

          Idealized, of course, but I remember that time seemed to stretch on forever (especially when I was bored at the end of summer).  Bored or not, I didn’t look outside myself for something to do, rather, I acted from within, indulging my moods and curiosity. My notion of work was uncomplicated, something imposed by adults, “Practice your clarinet, finish your homework, do your chores.” It was before I learned that work was ubiquitous to living, any and all work, jobs, housework, yard work, volunteer work, and meaningful work, however it is defined. I had not yet assimilated the byproducts of work, productivity, success, and accomplishment, as guideposts for adult life.

          I remember telling my son, out of college and frustrated because he couldn’t find a job, “don’t worry about it. You won’t escape working. You will spend basically your whole life working.” At the time, I believed that the necessity of work had absolute power over my life, what I called the “tyranny of work,” because I saw work, too often, as something that needed to get done. I’d lost the inner direction that had, as a child, given so much impetus to my daily living. I didn’t see my work in context, as a necessary part of life but also, if completed purposefully, as an expression of my authentic self. I had not yet come face-to-face with the question of what life would be like without work—retirement, if you please.

And Then It Came. . .  Retirement

          On December 11, 2015, I retired at age 73. I woke up that first Monday, after the retirement toasts at the bar on the previous Friday, feeling that overnight the ground had become unsteady. I was prepared to shower, get dressed for work, fight the traffic, and get a good parking space, but there was nowhere to go. I knew I could sleep in, hang out in blue jeans. . . but then what? Unlike my fellow blogger, Karen Rose, I had not taken a phased retirement. I simply decided that it was time to step aside for someone younger with fresh enthusiasm. I worked on soft money, and I was tired of chasing it. As for getting “busy with something that looks a lot like work,” (Falling from Grace, posted 7/8/2019) I thought it would be easy. Finally, I would have the time to sit at my desk doing the creative writing I’d longed to do but had put off throughout my life.

My Facebook posting with the caption:  This is where it ends. . .

Writing, however, didn’t happen. Ideas suddenly went dormant. Rather, I spent three months having panic attacks until I read a book about how to overcome them. But overcoming them wasn’t the same as addressing the root cause. That little girl who once welcomed a day of possibilities had lost the ability to not only see those possibilities but also to act on them. I was caught in the conundrum of living from within or living from the cultural and societal norms that describe work—I’d fallen from grace and had no idea how to catch myself. . . .

Part 2: One Big Step for Karen-Kind                                           

I shared my angst about adapting to retirement with friends—and I mean “adapt.” I saw it more as forced obsolescence. Friends said to find a new routine.  Do the things you’ve been putting off—like cleaning closets. Find a new direction. I bought into it and muddled my way into a sort of routine, cleaned my desk in lieu of the closets, and started searching for that new direction. I grew a ponytail—I’d never had long hair. It was something I could accomplish.

          I started tutoring fourth graders in math at my local school—I wanted to be productive, feel useful, and there’s nothing as regenerating as being around ten-year-olds. I taught a couple of classes as an adjunct professor, and I joined a research project in my field as a consultant. Writing ideas resurfaced, and I found myself at my desk again. Whew, finally those panic attacks waned. I was in safe territory—work ( I cut off the ponytail).

          Then, as life will do when you’re ready for it, I was thrown a curve, albeit a pleasant one. My husband and I and Karen R. and Dan went on vacation to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, Texas http://texascowboypoetry.com/. For two days we were immersed in a culture different than upper midwestern city life. A culture of cowboys, in boots, bolo ties, Ariat shirts freshly pressed, creased jeans, and wide belts with polished silver buckles, standing for over an hour reciting new and classic poems. These poems were about life on the range, around the campfire, under the stars, and the meaning of life when everything slows down and you feel the immensity of our world beneath that naked night sky. Corny poems, sometimes, but poignant, nevertheless, and framed by the big questions we all grapple with—is there someone who watches over us? What is the meaning of our time on earth? Do our lives matter? Turned out, there was more to cowboy poetry than campfires.

          Thinking about the poetry gathering on the plane home and later as I went about my routine of teaching and tutoring, a glimmer of something started to break through. Experiencing the cowboy culture reminded me that there are multiple ways to live and know the world. I was living retirement like my former work life, with never-ending assignments where productivity ruled. I was judging my life through the lens of work, and that’s why I had found retirement wanting, a time for panic, and a need to find something, anything, new to do and quickly.

          I’d crossed that demarcation between work and retirement, and I’d found it painful, so I kept trying to go back to what I knew and had valued for some fifty years—working, doing something meaningful in the eyes of the world. Yet available to me was the life of that young girl who awoke every day to possibilities, unless, of course, I chose to clutter it up with the detritus of those fifty years of working. I realized that I didn’t need to “find a new direction.” I was free to have no direction. To wake up and follow my curiosity. To read a book of my choosing.  To call a friend and hang out at a museum. Even to go to Wales and live (something I’ve dreamed of doing). To sit on the deck and stare at the stars, unless of course, the mosquitos got me first. The point was, I didn’t need to have an agenda, unless that agenda was relearning how to be this person who allows the day to unfold as it wants to. Retirement wasn’t so much the end of work as it was a challenge to “start anew,” to just be and to awaken with curiosity about what the day will bring, and to rediscover the joy of that young girl, which, hopefully, is still in me.

From Anthem

So mornings now I’ll go out riding
Through pastures of my solemn plain,
And leather creaking in the quieting
Will sound with trot and trot again.
I’ll live in time with horse hoof falling;
I’ll listen well and hear the calling
The earth, my mother, bids to me,
Though I will still ride wild and free.
And I ride out on the morning
Before the bird, before the dawn,
I’ll be this poem, I’ll be this song.
My heart will beat the world a warning—
Those horsemen will ride all with me,
And we’ll be good, and we’ll be free.

Buck Ramsey