Losing Thor and Finding Belonging

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The adventure began when I realized at dinner that I’d not seen Thor all day. It was 7pm. I knew he’d come home when he got hungry. After dinner I went outside to water the flowers, expecting him to rub against my leg, as he does when I show up in the garden, his secret domain. No Thor. I checked the closets—he’s notorious for walking out from some place we don’t know exists in our house. Again, not a sign of him.

When I acquired Thor from the Humane Society as a kitten, I’d promised myself that I’d take exceptional care of him. He was the first cat I’d chosen myself, not given to me by someone needing to get rid of a cat. Because of that promise, I had to find Thor before bed. I started walking the neighborhood calling him. My neighbor to the south offered to help, but I worried that he wouldn’t come to her. He was by nature skittish of other humans. 

By bedtime, no Thor. I reluctantly searched the thicket of trees behind our yard, “Thorrrrrr. . . Thorrrrr.” But no Thor embraced my legs, only mosquitos and unidentified bugs.

I was worried. I made one more perusal of the neighborhood, calling softly, so as not to awaken anyone. I went to bed, hoping that he’d be at the door by 1am, and I’d let him in, give him a treat and sleep well. 1am, 2am, 3am—no Thor and no sleep. I was up by six, roaming the neighborhood, calling his name. I knew it was bad. He ALWAYS comes when called, and he doesn’t stay out all night, a patterned behavior I’d reinforced.

Thus began my search. A part of me believed searching was futile. Our neighborhood is defined by a lake. I walked around that lake that first morning at 6am. And I continued to search nearby blocks all day.

I read websites about how to find a missing cat, listed him on the missing pets website, and created a poster, as the sites advised. I printed over 100 posters, bought a stapler at Ace Hardware, and plastered the neighborhood with them.

Then it started, my neighbors, most of whom I don’t know except by sight, sent texts telling me they were sorry and would keep an eye out. A young man who heard me call Thor, said he’d alert his grandparents, retired neighbors whom I’d never met. The next night I met them, and they told me they’d scoured the shoreline for Thor.

The third evening, a woman phoned and said she saw a grey cat at a neighbor’s house. She offered to wait until I could get there. I jumped in the car and raced to the location, a block from Minnehaha Creek Parkway and five blocks from my house. Could he have gone so far, lost, and heading in the wrong direction? 

When I met the woman and her husband, they walked the neighborhood with me, calling Thor’s name. This part of the Diamond Lake neighborhood is filled with traditional, pricey homes with landscaped gardens. I traipsed the alleys, and I saw people enjoying the summer evening with friends. A few acknowledged me and said they’d keep an eye out. No Thor, however.

I was now too tired not to sleep, and I was also racking up mega points on my Fitbit, walking the neighborhoods. South of our house is 60th St., the demarcation between Richfield, a first ring suburb, and Minneapolis. The street also marks a change in the neighborhood, with the Richfield neighborhood peopled with Hispanics and tiny starter houses. I got the same helpful reception in that neighborhood, “Oh, your cat is lost? I’ll keep an eye out. Put some food out and something he likes to cuddle.”

Sunday morning: Day four. Thor was probably gone for good, since I knew he’d come when I called if he heard me. I’d allowed him to be outside, and he had always stayed close to the house, but something had probably scared him, and he’d gotten confused. I sadly took responsibility.

I decided to do laundry, knowing there was nothing else to do. By the laundry room, I heard meowing, and thought it was our other cat, Stella, who’d been following me everywhere since Thor had gone missing. This meow sounded different, soft, more like Thor’s. I walked into my husband’s office, pried open a sticky pocket door to a closet we never use, and guess who ran out? Thor! I screamed, breathless with happiness. I couldn’t believe it. I’d checked that closet the day he went missing, and I’d been downstairs many times. Why hadn’t he made a peep, or come out the first time I checked? Thor went right upstairs to his bowl and commenced eating. Only a cat can be locked in a closet four days and not come out a hopeless neurotic. 

The ending is happy. A few days later as I walked around the neighborhood taking down posters, a little boy I’ve never met asked me, “Has Thor come home yet?”  I told him yes, and I walked on realizing what a remarkable experience of belonging to a neighborhood I’d had. Other neighbors sent texts asking if Thor was back yet. People cared. People offered to help. People walked with me when I was searching. People commiserated when they saw me calling “Thorrrrr.”

Karen has written eloquently about belonging, but losing Thor made me find belonging. I normally feel like an outsider—it’s my personality; I’m more of an observer than a participant. But in this neighborhood, for four days, I was an insider. I felt connected to others by the common experience of loving and losing a pet.

I learned that belonging is two sided and requires effort to engage as much as having others invite you in. I’d been on a quest. I‘d walked the modest neighborhood south of me and the pricey neighborhood to the north, and in both places, people cared. It wasn’t about our differences but about our attachments to what we love. I reached out, engaged and people engaged back. Losing Thor, however briefly, taught me that if I reach out, there’s a world out there that will respond, and I can belong. 

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No Need for These Anymore

It Started as a Chat Between Friends…..

Two years ago, Dan and I took a grandparent trip to Paris and Normandy organized by Road Scholar. Aside from the pleasure of experiencing the world through 14-year old eyes, I became curious about the origins of Road Scholar, a non-profit organization committed to “knowledge seekers and explorers, united in the belief that lifelong learning is a vital part of overall well being..” Clicking on the Our Story tab in their website reveals that it started with a random conversation when two people at the University of New Hampshire were musing about the Scandinavian folketshusen that provide community-based adult learning and the value-for-money of youth hostels. Although it has evolved from its bare bones, learning-focused approach to travel for older people, it is still a non-profit that incorporates scholarships for those whose finances don’t accommodate much travel. 

This got me thinking about social entrepreneurs, or people who come up with new ideas whose purpose is making a difference rather than making money.

Last year I had the chance to catch up with my old friend Jan Hively, as she reappeared in Minnesota after giving a workshop at the Saging International Conference.  We were at a reception in a restaurant where I knew almost no one, although I felt as if I ought to know almost everyone because they were all roughly my age, long-time residents of the Twin Cities, and were in education or the helping professions.  Hmm…. Is this more evidence that my life is littered with missed opportunities for networking with interesting people?  Almost everyone that I talked to (once I managed to scrape myself out of my modest introversion) were (1) semi-retired or retired from a first career and (2) starting something new – often with others in the room – where doing good rather than making money was the goal.  In other words, I was in a crowd of what I could only call social entrepreneurs.

When you google social entrepreneur, however, you get a different view….the first links are degree programs in business schools and lists of successful social entrepreneurs who are also making money.  Now I have nothing against making money while doing good, but when you click on Forbes articles, you get a prominent definition that adds something new:  someone who uses business skills to solve social problems.  Those were not the people I met, few of whom had a background in business or were particularly interested in commodifying social good. 

It was not hard to find nuance when I probed my Google search more deeply.  The deep thinkers at Stanford University have come up with the insight that entrepreneurship “connotes a special, innate ability to sense and act on opportunity, combining out-of-the-box thinking with a unique brand of determination to create or bring about something new to the world.”   They go on, noting that entrepreneurs attempt to ““shift economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.”  What comes to mind are, of course, microloans to women starting small businesses in developing countries (which have proven remarkably effective in promoting gender equity)l  or the Global Soap Project that recycles semi-used bars of hotel soap to improve health in underdeveloped areas.

But what are economic resources?  Like most people, my first thought goes to money.  Then I quickly channeled Jan Hively again…

I have known Jan, an exuberant role model for successful aging, since the 1990s, when we worked together on programming and outreach for the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. At that time, Jan, who was in her late-60s, was completing a doctorate looking at the contribution of older people to the well-being of rural communities.  Her work, which demonstrated that the unreimbursed labor of older people was critical to maintaining villages and small towns, whether as volunteers in school or at the library or babysitting for grandchildren so that their parents could hold down several jobs.  Jan drew on her work to create a Minnesota Vital Aging Network – which is now an international movement dedicated to grassroots engagement of older people in their communities.  Almost as if she were addicted to staring new initiatives, Jan went on to found SHIFT! , (an organization that provides support to boomers who are seeking employment, looking at retirement, or finding community), the Pass It On network, which is focused on peer learning for older people, and the Life Planning Network, which links professionals who support vital aging and provides professional learning opportunities to them.

Each of these organizations is non-profit, most operating on volunteers; none seem to genuinely meet Stanford’s definition because there is no significant monetary financial “yield”.  They are grassroots, locally organized and maintained, and are committed to growing interpersonal community as well as “doing good” and measurable economic value.  They are distinct from the business skills driven model and “yield” because they are, at their core, part of a challenge to redefine aging from inevitable but increasing diminishment (the current dominant and ageist perspective).  She, and other social entrepreneur “of a certain age” focus on how shared wisdom promotes a common good. 

Not everyone can be an older social entrepreneur with global impact (like Jan) but everyone can find a way to contribute to grassroots social cohesion. The premise – than small local actions can lead to large consequences – is particularly relevant for people who have more time than money.  People like me. Who knows how many new initiatives began at that reception, where everyone these was drawn to the vision of being part of that entrepreneurial social movement?