Curiouser and Curiouser….

–          Alice in Wonderland illustration by Arthur Rackham (1907) [Public Domain

Grown-ups never understand anything or themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them (Antoine de St. Exupery, The Little Prince)

A few weeks ago, someone quoted from Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart: “Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty”.  Brown goes on to associate curiosity with discomfort:  “We have to admit to not knowing, risk being told that we shouldn’t be asking.” Later, Brown links curiosity with the perception of an information gap that we commit to closing.   I immediately bristled – internally, since it would have been inappropriate to react to the nodding of heads and pervasive affirmation in the group. 

When I was a young child – and even when I was old enough to read them myself – two of my most beloved books were Alice in Wonderland and The House at Pooh Corner.  I read them joyfully to my children – and later to my grandchildren.  What I cherish about both of them is their exploration of simple, uncomplicated curiosity.  Alice hesitates only briefly before biting, although she knows that “one side will make you smaller, the other will make you large”, while the doorknob says “nothing’s impossible.”  Pooh looks at every day as a fresh adventure, whether it is confronting the loss of Eeyore’s tail or stalking the mysterious Heffalump.  While Alice sometimes bemoans a choice she has made, she quickly picks herself up and asks another impertinent question.  Pooh, on each day’s adventure, only hopes that there will be honey involved.

Curiosity may involve a risk, but it is not something that holds either Alice or Pooh back – more than momentarily.  Eeyore reminds us that worrying about not knowing – at least more than briefly – can be a path to cynicism and depression.  I took this lesson to heart:  Be curious.  Move on with the adventures.  Don’t do anything potentially life-threatening, but assume that the jams that you get in to will be temporary.  Don’t think about the “information gap” but move toward the unknown.  In other words, nurture the impulse to try stuff, and a full range of emotions that encompasses trepidation, but also the delight that comes with doing or learning about something new.

It turns out that Brown is talking to people who feel “stuck” in a comfort zone.  She covers all the research that says that we will be happier and freer if we respond to “I don’t really know” with curiosity. We all get stuck sometimes….certainly, retirement for someone like me, who loved going to work, meant that I had to allow myself to drive past the exit for my office without feeling lost and uncomfortable!  And although many routines nurture us (brushing our teeth, eating lunch, going to bed at roughly the same time on most days), it is easy to slip into ways of thinking and habits that constrain.  But getting stuck seems to be something that we choose more and more often as we exit adolescence.  With Alice, Pooh, and Thich Nhat Han as guides, however, we see that embracing vulnerability (which Brown endorses) is not a conscious decision to endure discomfort, but a practice of anticipating novelty and adventure – of embracing childish wonder and a Beginner’s Mind.  

And then there is the spiritual side.  One version of Genesis situates our humanness in “original curiosity”:  “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit…”  Albert Einstein echoes this, suggesting that “curiosity has its own reason for existing.  One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality…Never lose a holy curiosity.”  Julia Cameron also argues that curiosity is a spiritual path rather than a cognitive decision, and that it requires habits – she suggests random writing in “morning pages”, scheduled “artist dates” to explore a new esthetic, and regular walks that have no purpose other than to look deeply at whatever is in one’s path. 

Photo by petr sidorov on Unsplash

I admit that I don’t do these as consistently as I once anticipated, but I have other habits that invoke the same opportunity to approach the world with a Pooh-like sense of wonderment.  Meditation – something that for years I thought that was beyond my capacities – clears my brain of monkey-mind, and creates space for hope that goes beyond ticking off items on the incessant to-do list.  Connecting every week with someone (or several people) who are willing to engage in authentic and vulnerable conversations about “big stuff” never fails to make me curious.

Of course, I take Brene Brown’s assertions about the benefits of curiosity to heart because it is particularly important as we age.  According to Henry Emmons and David Alter’s 9 Keys To Staying Sharp, curiosity comes only a few steps behind the basics of moving, eating well, and getting enough sleep in warding off mental decline.  Nor do I want to ignore Brown’s s admonitions against getting too comfortable and avoiding vulnerability.  If I am always afraid of falling, will I ever learn how to skip again?  However, I also note that as we age we can more easily choose to embrace vulnerability and become more playful, as long as we are willing to follow Shel Silverstein and  “grow down” (along with giving away our business attire and our mother’s china):

He got his trousers torn and stained,

He ran out barefoot in the rain,

Shouting to all the folks in town,

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

 — Shel Silverstein

LET OLD THINGS PASS AWAY (2 Corinthians, 5:17)

Or

DO NOT GO GENTLY INTO THIS GOOD NIGHT (Dylan Thomas)

Or

NEVER WASTE A GOOD CRISIS (Milton Friedman)

Photo by Peter Hermann on Unsplash

Perhaps an inevitable part of aging is looking backward, searching for meaning in the distinctive chapters of our lives. After moving past obvious markers (leaving home for college, getting married, etc.), I keep stumbling across the fact that there are periods that are less clearly marked by an anticipated beginning or a clear end.  Some of these are unpleasant: Queen Elizabeth had her annus horribililis,  Karen Storm writes about her past experience with prolonged grief, Katherine Malanga reflects on being in the middle of  figuring out the job of loving and caring for someone who is declining. 

For me, 1998 and 1999 were such a chapter.  Nothing exceptional happened that distinguishes me from other fallible human beings who experience suffering –  except that everything occurred in quick succession.

Photo by Damiano Baschiera on Unsplash

Well, to be perfectly honest, the symptoms started earlier, beginning with rocky transitions to college for my children.  The resultant stress and disagreements about how to handle myriad other issues tore at an already fragile marital relationship. By 1997, we were living together in 17th century house on a beautiful canal in the Netherlands (because we were on sabbatical) without our children (who were still causing us anxiety). 

With a lot of travel, living largely separate lives, we struggled through.  I responded by spending weekends with friends in another city and drinking Jenever (Dutch Gin, which smells a bit like rotten cabbages), straight from the freezer.

Back in the U.S.  The semi-separation became a real separation.  The children were gone.  Frisk, a beloved dog, was very old and barely able to move. My parents died, a little over a year apart.  My sister felt like my only support, but our grieving took different forms – she turned inward and to her family, and I wanted to turn outward because my family was….well, disintegrating.  I was able to briefly distract myself as International Karen — a 1999 Fulbright trip to examine the condition of higher education in post-Soviet Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Czechoslovakia and an invitation to cheer in the new century with friends in London, accompanied by bagpipes in the Royal Park in Greenwich.  I am, however, here to let you know that, in spite of the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love, treating distress by relocation is overrated.

I thought that I needed a project, and foolishly took my half of the sale of the jointly owned elegant town home and bought a “fixer-upper” in Uptown, a densely populated, just-on-the-edge-of-becoming-trendy part of Minneapolis.  The house was owned by a blind woman, who lived with two alcoholic sons and a husband who had recently entered an assisted living facility.  Her sons assured her that they were maintaining the property and redoing the kitchen.  Hah…the ring of cigarette burns on the floor outlining their beds was evidence that only dumb luck kept them from burning the place down.  I am not a very handy person – I have no idea what inspired me to take on a neglected home despite its “good bones” and untouched quarter-sawn oak woodwork in all the rooms. My friends were worried.  But I barely saw them because I spent most of my time isolating when not at work. I was a contemporary version of the Prodigal Son, who after failing to maintain my social and financial assets, wanted to go home.  Except, although I had a house, I had no real home to turn to.


Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

One day, when walking the dog, I fainted and hit my head.  No concussion, but my doctor insisted on a sleep-deprived EKG.  Now, I am a person who could never stay up all night even when I was in college…I had no idea what to do other than to rent a machine that would pinch me regularly.  At a rare social gathering, I humorously asked where I could get one.  A bit later, Dan, who I barely recognized, approached me and said that he had worked nights, was easily able to stay up, and would be happy to help.  He suggested the local all-night Home Depot, followed by a very early breakfast in the café of a 24-hour grocery store.  Putting aside every caution – I, after all, had inhaled Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar that left woman my age thinking that behind every eligible middle-aged man lurked a serial killer – I agreed.  And I thought about Carol, who was as close to an intimate friend as I had. I knew that I could cut the evening short because she got up ridiculously early and could get me to the test before 7.


When I least expected it, two people came into my life to accompany me on what turned out to be a quotidian medical adventure. A few years later, I married Dan, who never made the slightest pass or sign of flirtation during our 5 hours examining hoses, shovels, and industrial cleaning implements at the all-night Home Depot or the coffee shop.  Carol and I grew into closer friends over the years, even when our conversations were rare due to moves.  This modest, almost non-event was, in retrospect, a crack that widened and allowed me to see that things could be different.  I can only conclude that one mystery of life is that when I am experiencing the greatest turmoil, it is often a small voice that reminds me that relationships can change and heal. 

The prodigal son returned to his father’s home, but as a humbled and open person, ready to leave what he had become in order to be changed. There was no instant moment when I saw a way out, but Dan’s kindness and Carol’s support at a juncture where I felt my human frailty so intensely allowed me to see that I was not alone.  I was ready to be changed, but I needed to see that I had companions who could walk with me.

Unlike Dylan Thomas’ cry for an intense battle to grasp what joy is available, I was listening to gentler voices that recognized that chaos – what in 12 step groups is referred to as psychologically “hitting bottom” –  is often required to provide the courage to return to oneself.  I learned that it is precisely when I am in existential turmoil that I must depend on others to support me.  Milton Friedman’s assertion that  “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change”  is also time to remember John Donne:  “No (wo)man is an island.” This minimal insight has altered my life and the way I respond to those first inklings that “things are not going well….”  Instead of isolating, or throwing myself on the most immediate comfort or escape, I try to look closely for the small voices, usually of others, that remind me that I am worth saving.

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.  

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