Guenther Krueger is no stranger to starting over. I met him back in the early 1990s when we were both working as freelance journalists. At that time, I had no idea how many times he’d already started over.
Since then, we’ve been the kind of friends who see each other once every few years at social events. It was only recently we started getting together more often, after he read a blog post (which I’ve since taken down for personal reasons) in which I wrote frankly about some of my recent life troubles. He asked me out for coffee, and I found out a lot I’d never known about him, including that he’d recently been through a difficult time of his own, which led to his most recent “start over”—with meditation.
I would not have guessed Krueger was into meditation. To the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t wear Birkies. As far as I could see, he’s always had a sardonic wit and never let things bother him much. But after what he went through a couple of years ago, meditation was what gave him a fresh start—the thing that’s allowed him to ease into retirement and enjoy it instead of fretting over it, the way many new retirees do.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Krueger’s first “start over” came when he was young, as happens for many of us. His youthful goal was to be a concert pianist but “I only lasted two weeks in the faculty of music at U of T.” He made a pretty radical career switch to nursing, where he worked in pediatrics for the better part of 12 years. He knew he wanted to work in health care and with kids, but nursing “was never really what I wanted to do.”
Then he did a master’s degree in counselling, but when he was finished, he realized he had only three real options: go on to a PhD, work for a company that was helping people get back in the workforce, or go into private practice. The first two didn’t appeal to him; the third, “I found frustrating because it would mean working with clients who could pay but had easily resolvable problems, rather than working with people with more challenging problems but who couldn’t pay.”
(Eventually, he did a second master’s, a liberal arts degree. Although it didn’t lead to a career, he does realize in hindsight that he got better and better at being a student with each degree.)
Then, in his late thirties (the mid-1980s), he realized “what I really wanted to do was write.” Like me, he started by taking a course with Vancouver’s legendary freelancer, Daniel Wood. (We might even have been in the same class.) Krueger remembers one class where the assignment was to write a query. “Daniel read it out as an example of everything NOT to do!” This is one of the things I love about Krueger: instead of taking it to heart, he took Wood’s advice, sent the revised letter to an editor, and “sold my first article on the basis of the very first query I ever sent out.”
He loved freelance journalism but, like most of us, he quickly realized there was not much money in it, so he got into reporting at medical conferences (the same type of work Claire Sower was doing), and picking up other contract jobs, too, as all freelancers do.
(“One of the things I noticed about freelancing is that nobody really understands it,” he says. “You’ll be at a party and someone will ask you what you do. You’ll say you’re a freelance writer and they’ll ask you one or two questions about what you write, not realizing that when you’re freelancing you basically write whatever pays. Then they lose interest.” I know just what he means. I’ve had exactly the same experience a hundred times.)
Around 2000, the medical reporting he was doing began to lean toward advertorial work for the pharmaceutical industry, which Krueger didn’t enjoy. “It was just what paid,” he says. Then in 2003, when he was in his late fifties, Krueger’s partner, Barry, who was then still part of the communications department [edited] at Simon Fraser University (he’s recently retired, though still in demand as a guest lecturer and performer) suggested Guenther talk to a colleague in communications about working with her on some grant applications she was writing [edited]. She was already pretty much assured of receiving a $3 million grant and suggested Krueger do a PhD there so they could work on that project together. “I thought about what I might like to do and realized I was really interested in how people cope with tragic loss,” he says. His acceptance to the program “effectively ended my freelance career.”
This is where things get really interesting for me. Other than my peers in the MFA program, I don’t know many people who are willing to start a new degree in their late fifties, much less a five-year commitment to a PhD. In his early sixties, freshly minted doctorate in hand, Krueger found his dream job on a three-year project at BC’s Children’s Hospital, bringing him full circle back to working with sick children, but in the way he’d always wanted.
Life was good, at least for a while. But in July 2014, his mother and father both died, just 10 days apart. He wasn’t close with his parents, so he didn’t expect to feel the loss acutely, and at first he didn’t. “I was the sole executor of the estate, and I treated it like I would any other project.” The whole thing was wrapped up by Christmas, and when he and Barry later went on holiday to Hawaii, he felt fine.
It was the following August, about a year after his parents died, that he suddenly started having anxiety attacks. “I’d wake up in the night, unable to sleep, and go out for a walk.” He found himself so wound up with anxiety that sometimes, in the evening, he’d go downstairs to his partner’s work space—something he’d never done in a relationship of 30-some years—and just lie down there for the sake of being close to someone who cared about him. “Barry felt badly because he wanted to do something to help, but being near him was all I needed.”
Eventually, Krueger started putting things together. He’d been through three major changes in his life almost simultaneously: the career-capping project at Children’s Hospital had wrapped up; he’d retired, which meant he wasn’t working for the first time in 50 years; and he’d been so busy with his parents’ estate that he hadn’t had time to think how he felt about their deaths. The losses had piled up, and were now compounded with a prostate issue and a hernia.
Once [edited] he realized this, he says, “I decided I had to attack the problem from all angles.” He went to his doctor to schedule surgeries for the prostate and hernia issues, started seeing a therapist to work out unresolved issues with his parents, and, on the advice of his therapist and some friends, started meditating.
Never one to do things in half measures, “I decided to read everything I could about meditation,” he says. The book he recommended to me when we got together last July was Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I promptly ordered and read it, and tried to follow Kabat-Zinn’s advice to the letter, but his eight-week program of building up to 45 minutes a day of a type of meditation he calls a “body scan” didn’t work for me.
“I don’t adhere to any one style of meditation,” Krueger says now. He doesn’t sit in a lotus posture, but lies down due to back pain (so do I). He doesn’t insist on any minimum amount of time, either. “I find that even if I sit still and focus on my breathing for as little as 10 minutes, my whole day goes better. I’m less stressed and more able to appreciate life in the moment. I’ve spent my whole life worrying about what comes next, and I’m not doing that anymore.”
Krueger’s partner recently retired and went off to Berlin to teach for four months. After his anxiety issues last year, Krueger was a little worried about how he’d do on his own for four months. “It’s been fine, and I think meditation is making the difference.”
Mid-sixties and still starting over—inspiring or exhausting? I’ll go with inspiring. Oh, and meditating for shorter periods and without doing the “body scan” is working better for me, too.