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 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

If I Don’t Know My Purpose Am I A Retirement Failure?

Photo credit:  Ian Schneider

When I was in my 50s, I gave my mother (who was 30 years older) a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.  She was in a funk, battling a tendency toward untreated depression, and I thought it might help her.  Of course, I hadn’t considered some underlying reasons why that was a poor idea (she was an avowed atheist and often frustrated by her generation’s limited expectations for what women would do outside the home).  My inappropriate choice was based on the title, which implied that everyone already has a purpose and our job is to accept and live into it.  My mother didn’t read it, so I feel only a smidgen of regret at the gift.  But I think that I was dead wrong….

Here I am, almost as old, inundated with a drumbeat of blogs, and aphorisms that urge me to FIND—REIGNITE–CREATE a purpose-driven life, which is typically described with an almost sexual PASSION at the center.  A sampling from the web includes: 

  • “Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire”
  • “Life – seize it and make it amazing. Discover your passion. Take chances. Follow your dreams. Today is the day. Don’t pass it by”
  • “There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
  • “The things you are passionate about are not random. They are your calling.”

Books extolling this certainty for later-in-lifers proliferate –now is the time to find that passion!  Directly or subtly, effort is at the core:  How to find your passion after you retire.  As one website, 60 & Me suggests, now is the time for people to become more purpose-driven and more passionate – and probably do something that looks like work (paid or unpaid):

“The overlap between what you are good at and what you are paid for is your profession. On the other hand, what you are paid for and what the world needs is your vocation or calling.  The point where what you love overlaps with what the world needs constitutes your mission. Then lastly, the combination of what you are good at and what you love is your passion.”

THIS QUOTE EXHAUSTS ME, in part because I had to read it three or four times to understand it.  MOREOVER, IT MAKES ME FEEL BAD ABOUT MYSELF. Not only do I have to have purpose and passion – I need a mission and a vocation in my retirement!  I have no idea where to start with this….

There is a dark underbelly to the mandate of finding purpose at all life stages.  I have a colleague, quite brilliant, a wonderful administrator who effortlessly makes things happen within a large bureaucracy, is exceptionally kind, and who suffers from a sense that her life is not meaningful because there is no focused PURPOSE at the center, nothing that DRIVES her daily work.  She feels that she is not enough.  Her work life lacks passion. Or focus. Or certainty.  Or something. 

I don’t blame Rick Warren, although producing a book that has sold 30 million copies provides impetus for others to adopt his words (but not his meaning).  Warren’s work focused on finding purpose by living fully into beliefs and a community shaped by a particular set of virtues and principles.  It has less to say to the self-motivated individual who tries to self-actualize through individual striving.  His title was highjacked.

So, back to age, retirement, and a redefined “purpose”. I find comfort in some ideas that I have come across, most of which involve making purpose more “right sized” in our lives rather than the driver of happiness and fulfillment.  Dmitri Pavluk talks about self-actualization, which includes insight (think of the Buddha!), awareness and clarity (look around; be observant!), and connectedness (Yay! Other people) – and, yes, something called purpose.  In other words, purpose can only be understood in the context of a whole life that has both inner and outer expressions. The elements that he defines as self-actualization are related, fluid, and inseparable.  We change.  We grow. Life does not always happen on the schedule that we had in mind. 

Mark Manson, whose blog often addresses questions of personal meaning, says it more simply:

So when people say, “What should I do with my life?” or “What is my life purpose?” what they’re actually asking is: “What can I do with my time that is important?”

I couldn’t make my mother happy, but I know that she adored her family and made my high school friends want to come over to our house because they felt so welcomed.  She exposed me to eggplant in the late 1950s, when no one else in Ann Arbor knew what an eggplant was, much less how to cook it.  She enjoyed living in several foreign countries during her adult life. She taught me not to stand on the sidelines when an important political question is on the agenda.  I am not an atheist, but her questioning of EVERYTHING has been an invaluable model for me.  I remember her (when not severely depressed) as “right sized” and adventuresome. 

When I look at Ian Schneider’s photo above, what I see is visual irony:  How often do passion-purpose lead us to a place where all we can (metaphorically) see is our tired feet in a featureless landscape?  That sense led one of my internationally recognized colleagues to retire earlier than he had planned.  However, a year later, as we checked in at a casual breakfast, he described his choices about how to spend his time—to read and think, explore awareness and joy of nature, create new connections with his wife –with a sense of gleeful gratitude

In the end, isn’t caring for a precious asset – time – at the core of purpose?  I can do the most important and meaningful things that are available today.  And tomorrow.  And stop worrying about BIG PURPOSE AND PASSION.  …To be continued….

A Soul on the Move

            . . . the ground at my own feet. . . 2019

“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.” 
― Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

Given that I’ve lived at least 39 places in my 75 years, I felt compelled to write a sequel to Karen Rose’s piece, Should I Stay or Should I Go, especially since I usually pick the “go” choice. Moving seems commonplace to me, what people do.  But when I listen, I realize that not everyone is on the move. I’ve had neighbors and friends tell me they’ve lived in their houses for 20, 30, 40—since the beginning of time—years. Because I can’t speak to that experience, and, since right now I’m obsessed with doing my own soul work, I decided to think about moving in soul work terms, or, as Wendell Berry calls it, my spiritual journey.

          One of my mother’s favorite stories about me was how, even as a young child, I liked to run away. I’d go missing and she’d find me way around the block.  My recollection is that I wasn’t trying to be naughty; I truly wanted to see what was around the corner.  My son had the same proclivity.  When he was about four, though instructed to stay in front of the house, he would invariably ride his Big Wheel to the gas station around the corner, where I’d find him watching the comings and goings of a busy filling station.  My explanation for our curious natures is that it’s genetics, starting with my paternal grandfather, Nils Jacobsen, who left Norway in 1888 at age sixteen to come to the US. I like to think that he, too, wanted to see what was “around the corner.”

          Early in my life, as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, my moves were to find a room I could afford.  Everyone moves around at that point in life.  My tendency to move as a strategy to solve life problems started later, with my first husband, always looking for an affordable and better place, big enough for two children, and located in the same school district.  We moved ten times until we were able to afford a house. Our children, at ten and eleven, had lived somewhere new just about every year of their lives.  After our divorce when our children were grown, I started graduate school and moved again and again, always to find a better place within my means, which wasn’t much. Soul work at that point was building a new life.

          Building a new life to me meant having a fresh start in a new, clean house—no cluttered drawers, dusty shelves, moldering food in the refrigerator—not to mention, unpleasant memories. As Robert Louis Stevenson puts it, “The great affair is to move.” I’m not surprised that after retirement people consider making a move. Retirement, fundamentally, forces one to start over, to reconsider all the choices made over the years, including where to live.

          To be a professor, one has to move upon graduation. I was all in for that requirement. Upon graduation, I moved for a job and adventure, off to Utah and a new life with a new husband, Gary. We would hike in the mountains, ski, and explore the southwest. It was travel rolled into a career move. But then something changed.

          Our second year in Utah, Gary was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a year to live, if he was lucky. About eight months into his last year, I had a tremendous urge to move “home”, back to the Twin Cities. I found a posting for a job in Minneapolis, applied, and was hired.  I persuaded him that we needed to move; he died four months later in the Twin Cities.

          Although we’d bought a house for me to have when he died, I immediately started looking for a new place to live.  And there it was, the need to keep moving had become almost a pathology. See what was around that corner.  It had to be better than sitting alone in the house where Gary had died, facing my grief.  And move I did, first to a condo that I lived in less than a year, then a house, then to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Lehigh University, all in the space of four years. . . another travel adventure combined with a job change.  I sold it to my now married children as “exploring the east coast.”

          I moved to Bethlehem in June of 2001, and on September 11th, our country was attacked. Planes crashed in Pennsylvania, the Twin Towers in New York City, and the Pentagon. All felt too close. I was alone in a strange city, and I couldn’t reach my children because the cell phone lines were overwhelmed. On that afternoon and days after, I longed for “home,” someplace solid, with familiar ground under my feet. I had learned that in an emergency I would never be able to get to my children quickly. I lasted five years in Bethlehem, spending a good deal of time wanting to move back to the Twin Cities. Yes, I explored the east coast, and I made many friends, but I needed to belong somewhere, a place close to my children and grandchildren. I moved, back to the Twin Cities.

          I bought a townhome I didn’t particularly like, thinking I’d stay there a short time and move on. But then came the Great Recession. The housing market crashed, and I couldn’t get out of my townhome. Everyone else liked it and my friend, BetsAnn said, “Make it into a place you like. Don’t just sit there and complain.” I did, and I stayed there over eight years—almost a record for me—and I became attached to it.  I even looked forward to going “home” at the end of a day.

          In 2013, I remarried, and Jim and I bought a house together, which we’ve lived in for five years. This spring I had the urge to move. I insisted my husband look at townhomes with me.  We looked and concluded that our house suits us and our relationship, and we decided to stay put. Our children live in the Twin Cities, so we don’t have the pull to be near family. Our next move could very well be our last, and we’ll wait, like Karen Rose suggests, until it just feels right.

          But how will I handle my need to leave, to see if there is anything better around the corner? I’ve learned that I have a wanderlust that bubbles up whenever life gets uncomfortable. The lesson that I move to run away has not been easy to learn—39 domiciles attest to that. It means doing the work of my soul—confronting my seemingly logical reasons to move and seeing them for what they are—boredom and low level anxiety, the sense that something isn’t right, covered by a veneer of wanderlust.

          The other day I made my usual circle of the neighborhood, first to the co-op, then the library, from the library to Kowalski’s for a gourmet touch to dinner, a stop at the ATM, and finally home. How comfortable it felt! What I used to believe was boring—staying in the same place—has changed to belonging. That evening I biked the Minnehaha Creek Parkway. Living here long enough has allowed me to know the creek at both low and high levels, in winter under new fallen snow, in spring, raging as the ice gives way, and during summer, when it meanders under a lush canopy of green.

          As for “should I stay or should I go,” my first impulse is to say GO, move.  I am Nils’s granddaughter after all.  But staying in my last two homes has opened me to something else around the corner—the dynamic of neighborhood, the way a calm or raging creek invites me into my own movement and change. This isn’t an advice blog. The only thing I can say for certain from my experience with losing a husband and 911 is that being near family counts. The decision to move, while it may seem straightforward when the reasons are financial or job-related (and even those have nuance), is complicated, especially so with the emotional, physical, and family considerations that come with getting older. Maybe the best we can hope for when sorting things out is Karen Rose’s wish that “a place (will) just speak to me and tell me where to get off.” Meanwhile, for now, for me, I am in a place where I can finally, “learn to be at home.”