My Own Personal Baggage

One thing that happened to me and my brothers in the last few months is that we all agree that we don’t want to leave our children with so much stuff. It has been a lot of work. We have given up most of our weekends to manage this job and we all walked away committed to clearing out our own attics and garages. It’s a process. It goes on and on. It’s easier to get stuff than it is to get rid of it. There are layers of memories and emotions attached to things. If we let go too fast, we might find ourselves empty, listening to the echoes we’ve created in our frenzy to avoid the heaviness of materialism.

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This is the torture that wakes me up at night. I open my eyes and see my books, mythology and psychology and women’s studies books, that I am struggling to release into the world so someone else might learn from them. I see them several times a day. I let them go a little more each time I see them.

Holding on to my books is my way of remembering what I already know—that I’ve learned a lot and that I have a lot to share. But looking back, it might have been just a temporary distraction for me, going to school, immersing myself in this subject or that. Learning became my therapy. Now, 16 years later, I’m still holding on, maybe wishing I could go back for a while and do it all over again, differently. 

But that is the past. I can’t change it. Only learn from it. I know it’s time to let go. Move on. Be who I am with all that history and knowledge and attachment. Let someone else fill up with the stories and fantasies and other people’s pain sitting on my bookshelf. It’s time. 

*****

The Day Will Come When None of This Stuff Will Matter Anymore

I know this. I am a logical person, and really don’t care much for “stuff.” I like simplicity and space and freedom. But, in the middle of the night, when my thoughts are not complete or rational, I start to see all the stuff that clogs up the garage and the hallway, and, now, the dining room table. I’m convinced someone will want this stuff, so I put it on Craig’s List and fourteen yard sale sites on Facebook. One or two things have sold thankfully. But now it seems like it is all just sitting there, holding me hostage.

Yard Sales Over. Time to Seriously Let Go.

The weather has wreaked havoc on our good intentions this Fall. Three times storms have invaded the space we put aside to sell things. It’s obvious. Yard sales are only good for wasting time on a Saturday when you want to make enough money to go out to lunch later. I’m done with that. Time for the faster, more karmic way of downsizing. Give it away. Here’s a list:

Ugg Boots, LL Bean Boat Shoes, Mikasa china, God knows how much crystal and fake crystal, lots of Native American collectables, carved wall hangings from Indonesia, brass vase from India, bowls, cups, pans, more books….If I made a complete list it would go on forever. 

Most people do this in the Spring. I’m kind of weird that way. I need to clean my house completely before the cold weather sets in. I figure, if I’m gonna be inside for four months, I might as well know that the corners and closets are clean. I guess it’s a Virgo thing. But that has served me well in this process. I like order, symmetry, and structure. You can’t have that with too much stuff cluttering up the edges of your world. No problem…emotionally. It’s the physical stuff that slows me down.

So, here’s the final lesson: Do this while you’re young. Your body can handle all the bending and lifting and breathing in dust. Then don’t buy anything you don’t really need. I guarantee, this will provide you with a carefree life. You will make better decisions, have better relationships, and, heck, you will probably lose weight—figuratively and in reality. Let go now. Your life depends on it!

Mama’s birthday

Facebook has a way of keeping the past alive. Today, in the midst of my personal grief process, it reminded me of a post from five years ago. It was from my mother. Here’s what she said,

“Theresa, Thank you for my

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beautiful birthday card. You were the first. Trouble is, birthdays just remind one that they are getting older, lol. 77 is old!”

She was still “herself,” back then as far as I could tell. I was in California and had not seen the dark times that she was entering. She must have been feeling her age, mentally and physically. But she never forgot to say thank you. And she never forgot to send me a card for my birthday. Ever. And I moved around a lot.

If my mother was still here I would say a few things to her. Like this, “Please don’t be afraid of everything…No one is going to hurt you,” Or, “You are a good person. God loves you.” Or, “Thank you for always remembering my birthday. Even though I don’t make a big deal of it, my heart smiles when I see your birthday card in the mailbox. I know you spent time looking at hundreds of cards so you could find just the right one. I know how much you love me, and I love you just as much. I could not ask for a better mother. I love you.”

I could go on.

She would be 82 this year. Is that old? I’m not so sure. What is old? Does it have to hurt so much?

I’m glad she is not hurting any more.

The Dilemma of Family Heirlooms

Honestly, I had already been trying to help my mother “go through stuff” for three years. She did well, letting go of things that were obviously of no use or that someone else could put to better use. I knew the final clean up would be somewhat of a nightmare when the time came. It was. On top of funeral arrangements—“My funeral is all planned and paid for,” the realization that it was not paid for, or planned; cutting six huge pine trees that were encroaching on the neighbor’s property, and all the shocked relatives who came from various parts of the state—we methodically went through her things. My brothers and I worked together every other weekend during the summer, giving up our lives in order to bring closure to hers. It was painful, tiring and emotionally draining.

I prefer not to go through that again, but as I said earlier, she collected things, angels, saints, books, cards, kitchen gadgets, and more food than anyone could eat in five years, plus all those file drawers of internet articles on politics and the dark future of this country. I had to stop reading at one point. But I understood more fully why she was so fearful and angry. Her country had changed dramatically. Her church had changed dramatically. Her friends had mostly abandoned her to her misery. All she had left was her family, and, of course, we were all busy with our lives….It’s a lesson we have to learn over and over again.

People disappear if you don’t pay attention. She was gone. Her things remained. My brothers and I attacked her stuff with both tenderness and aggression. We felt she was watching with a slight smile on her face. She knew we knew what was really important.

At first I said I didn’t want anything that was hers. “I’m trying to get rid of stuff myself. I don’t need anything else.” But there were exceptions. We had talked about it many times in the last few years–who gets what, and what belongs to whom. She had an onyx ring and a sliver bracelet that she always told me was mine after she died. She said my grandfather made them for her and thought it appropriate that I be the next one to wear them. When she knew her time was near, and before she stopped speaking, she gave them to me, “so no one else takes it.” At that point, I felt a responsibility to take these things, to take care of these things.

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One day she opened up her jewelry boxes, of which there were many, to me and my daughter. With hand gestures and facial expressions, she told us to go through them now. We did. We separated out the costume jewelry from the fine jewelry, claimed a few things for ourselves and put the rest away. Then when the time felt right, we shared it with the cousins and grandchildren. Everyone got something if they wanted it. Some were simply not interested. I still have three of her jewelry boxes with jewelry I will never wear. It’s mostly gold, and for some reason I have never liked gold. A woman came to the yard sale this past weekend and said she would love to see it. “My sister got all my mother’s jewelry.” I thought it was fate that she had come that day. I said yes, then called her back later and said no. I’m not ready to let it go just yet.

No one knows another person until they go through their stuff. And that brings me back to my journey toward simplicity.

*****

It’s a Process…

I have come to realize that we let go of our loved ones little by little, day by day, not all at once. Holding on to their things might be a way of holding on to them for just a little longer. I needed to wear that old crocheted sweater a few more times, and hold that copper and brass crucifix, and look at those antique pink juice glasses in my own china cabinet. I needed to read her journals, as much as I could anyway, so I would understand more deeply who she was. I still have those things even though I don’t “need” them. Part of her is there, in those few possessions, so that part of her is here with me.

So, while we continue our personal purge, my mother’s things have merged with my things. The longer I have them, the less I need them. I will keep some of her stuff for a while longer, creating my own suffering in the name of my attachment to her. A “heavy duty” oak dining room set quickly becomes another thing to just donate somewhere. Her sweaters are still in a box in my storage shed, waiting for their next body to warm. All that crystal, and fake crystal, has yet to see the light of day in my house. I’m not sure if it will live here. I’m not ready to adopt it just yet. But I can’t just let it go, not just yet.

There are a few “things” that feel emotionally heavier than others. Those solid wood antique Colonial chairs that we sat in while we were growing up are still a slight burden to my heart. I’ve looked at them, sat in them, remembered the hot, sweaty nights in SC, eating chicken and canned vegetables, watching my father finish his dinner with cornbread and buttermilk topped off with raw green onions like it was chocolate cake. I waited for him so I could wash his dishes. He took his time.

Those chairs contain both safety and misery. Someone will use them one day, oblivious to the history that makes them seem more solid and substantial. I’ll let them go when my heart is ready. For now, they are in limbo with me and my broken memories.

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Attachment comes and goes. I keep reminding myself, it’s not the stuff that matters. It’s the memories. But sometimes it is the stuff that matters. I would not have had that memory without possessing those chairs. And now, I can let that memory go when I’m ready. Just like the chairs.

Saving and Purging

img_20181112_164753993-2095457933.jpgMany years before she died, my mother gave me the responsibility of saving her writing. I said I would, being a writer myself. I did, mostly. She helped a lot of people with her Ezine articles on “starting over.” She became an expert on navigating the pain and emptiness of divorce and loss of a spouse. I saved those things, along with her “morning pages,” which must have helped her maintain her own sanity while helping others.

But I could not justify holding onto the poison she had allowed herself to swallow from the tv and the internet. She had become a victim of the fake news/us-and-them/op-ed media. I believe she was brainwashed into believing things she would have laughed at in her younger years. Facebook and Fox News kidnapped my mother and turned her into someone I did not know. She became even more fearful and negative and angry than I ever thought possible. It was the anger that disturbed me the most. She taught us to love and accept everyone, no matter the color of their skin or the country they came from. We are all immigrants, she told us. Yet, by the end of her life she was standing in line with those who wanted to “get rid” of all the “aliens” and “non-believers.” If I could’ve had one more conversation with her it would have been about this. My question would be, “What would Jesus do?” I don’t think she would have had an answer.

Purging her office was a way for me and my brothers to remove the mental torture from her life, even after her death. We needed to do that so we could remember who she really was underneath all that negativity. It was painful and exhilarating at the same time. There were countless bags of paper poison and negativity taken to the dumps–too toxic to recycle. Hopefully by now it has decomposed and merged with the mud and garbage that it always was anyway. We had been tip-toeing around her “collecting and saving” and worrying and warning for way too long. We needed this purge as much as she did.

No Worries, Finally

My mother taught me a lot of things–how to cook, clean, and sew as well as how to be a decent person in this world. Being the only girl, I always knew I had a place in the family. Being the oldest, I always knew I had to be the responsible one. So, I was. Confident and responsible.

My mother also taught me a few things that I had to unlearn. Like how to get my ego needs met by taking care of other people. This became a destructive tendency for me, but I was lucky enough to get it under control in my late 20’s. My mother never learned how to stop being the compulsive care-giver. It was as if she thought that was how she could get into heaven. She opened her home to anyone in the family who needed it. She cared for her friends at church and in her divorce care group. She would always listen to other people’s problems, and she always had some advice, appreciated or not. She knew that she knew how to help and could not help herself when someone else needed help. As I said earlier, she lost herself in all that caring.

Another lesson to be unlearned, still in progress–living in the past and the future. She had the twin curses of guilt and worry in abundance. I now know that guilt is about the past and worry is about the future. What about now? This is something I work on constantly, but a little progress makes a big difference in how you live your life. I refuse to ruminate on the past. I try to learn my lessons and move on. Concern for the future is my unwelcome inheritance from her. I don’t worry so much now but I do plan and dream, and I like to know what’s coming. But that’s me…I’m still here, and I still have an opportunity to grow and learn.

My mother seemed to have an actual “worry gene,” which she inherited from her mother and grandmother, and who knows how many others before her. As far back as I can remember, fear dominated my mother’s life. She could not turn it off. She worried about everything, even when she learned the Serenity Prayer, she never figured out that “wisdom to know the difference” part.

One of the first things we did when she was no longer aware was to disarm the alarm to the front door. She would have had a moat around the house, complete with crocodiles and a draw bridge if that sort of thing was possible. Instead she got an alarm system which we all understood but still complained about. She had barricaded herself inside her cluttered home with tv’s blaring in every room, computer always on, Facebook always notifying her that someone had posted yet another doom and gloom scenario. She could have used some therapy, but the opportunity never presented itself gracefully. So she suffered.

Wait. Where are we going?

I’ve taken a side road from attachment to this topic because I think it is related in a convoluted way. Fear is an attachment to safety and security. It is an assumption that things are predictable, that nothing changes unless you want it to. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Change is inevitable. Everything, every person, changes. It’s the nature of…nature. Without change we would shrivel up and die. The only thing constant is change. I think she might have told me that when I was young. All those alarms, all that clutter, all the noise from the television, that was there to keep her safe, free from danger, free from change. It didn’t work. Her resistance to change created profound suffering, for her and for us.

A couple days after she passed, my daughter and I went to the beach and made an “altar” for her. “No Worries,” was written in the sand, surrounded by seaweed and shells, and was eventually washed away. I hope she saw it and understood.

Death as the Great Stop Sign

img_20180619_185601944517720.jpg     Attachment to stuff is one thing; attachment to people is something all together different and much more complex. We all have our roles in the family system. My mother was the second eldest of her siblings, the keeper of the important family belongings, as well as the moral thread that was woven generations ago before she was even born. She took this role seriously. She felt it was her duty to teach us how to be better humans and she had an undeniable impact on us and her community.

In May of this year, at the age of 81, she left us and her responsibilities behind. It was fast and shocking to us all. She wasn’t in great health, but she also wasn’t on death’s doorstep. She had plenty of aches and pains and unexplained body issues. But her spirit was strong and determined. She was profoundly disappointed in the state of world affairs and carried her fear of the future around with her everywhere. Life in general had become a struggle.

On Good Friday she had a stroke. Within weeks she lost her ability to speak coherently. Her thoughts became jumbled and frustrating, and eventually she stopped trying to communicate verbally. She has always been a fearful person, but now she could not express those fears, so we had to read her facial expressions and body language. We all got a crash course in empathy, like it or not.

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Six weeks after the stroke, she took her last breath, peacefully, at home, surrounded by all her angels and family members. When a person dies, those closest to them realize how important they were, and what a big hole they left. My mother was described as the “hub of the wheel,” both of her family and in her church. She was a driving force in many people’s journeys toward happiness and self-awareness. She was always ready to listen and offer advice. She cared. But she lost herself in that caring. She ignored her own needs and focused on everyone else as if her life depended on it.

Finally, in those last few days, as her body shut down, she seemed to find her way back to her deepest self. Her face relaxed, her skin softened, her eyes looked beyond what was in front of her. She became less interested in what was happening here on Earth. I imagine she spent most of her last days praying, talking to God, and waiting to be reunited with her loved ones.

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The last week of her life, we sat with her and watched as she gracefully raised her hands up into the air, as if she could see the cloud-lined pathway into Heaven. She had angels and butterflies all over her house—paintings, ceramic statues, wind chimes, pins and pendants, and hundreds of cards with pictures of delicate winged creatures : angels and fairies and butterflies. They represented freedom and new life to her. We made sure to put as many of these symbolic images near her bed as we could so she would be comforted. In the end, they all came alive and welcomed her into her version of Heaven. Finally, the suffering was over. No more fear. No more worries. No more danger. She was finally free of her attachments to this world.

And we were left with our unfinished thoughts and conversations, and with a house full of memories and things. As her life on this earth came to an end, our journey through what was left of her had just begun.

*****

Attachment: A Small Whisper in the Ear

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but downsizing is a good lesson in attachment. After giving up all his worldly belongings and heading to the forest to seek enlightenment, the Buddha concluded that attachment is the #1 cause of suffering. (Actually, it’s ignorance of attachment that is the cause, but that gets complicated.) Basically, the more we get, the more we want. Enough is never enough, until you realize that it is. Then you enter a different phase of suffering—freeing yourself from all your attachments. This is an ongoing process for us humans as we get older and wiser, and realize how little we need to be happy. 

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As a person living in this world who understands attachment, still I am convinced that someone will want this table or that set of dishes, or those antique chairs, and that they will want it enough to give me some money. But money is not the issue. Value is. How do you let go of things that aren’t yours? What did that ring mean to her? Where did that table come from? Why did she have so many office supplies? It’s forcing me to face my own shadows. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The road goes on and on…

Wow. Who knew that downsizing could take so long? Six years after starting this journey, we are still navigating a small sea of stuff. But now, we have added another layer of stuff—my mother’s. It’s not terrible, but it could be. Sometimes I wish we could have a devastating hurricane or tornado so it would all just blow away and I wouldn’t have to make all these choices. But that is the easy way out. Just this morning Sam said, “Getting rid of stuff is ten times harder than accumulating it.” Too bad we had to learn that the hard way. 

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Where my car would go if there was room.

We have had two yard sales since September, in between storms. We sold lots of little stuff, nothing big or heavy, or “worth something.” Both times it was a lot of work. My feet and legs hurt for days afterwards. Each time, we found more stuff, so nothing seems to have moved. There are boxes, and boxes of odds and ends in our garage. Little room to walk or park a car. Bikes with flat tires, tools, blankets, leather, chairs, bits and pieces of dreams and intentions long dead and forgotten. The spiders love it. They have thrived in this musty, cardboard and plastic environment. We move their houses, and they build new ones overnight. They are resilient and don’t really care about our stuff. They just carry on, weaving their webs and laying eggs. I wish it was that easy for us humans.

Competition: Who needs it?

“Let go of Competition, Expectation and Judgment.” YogaFit mantra

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Competing for Space

This image looks peaceful and natural. but just beneath the surface, there is strong competition for food, water and space. Every gardener knows that plants are capable of invading when left unchecked. The most aggressive become the most prolific. Survival of the fittest is proven here. The same is true in the animal world. Competition is a necessary life skill. If you don’t compete, you will not survive. Is the same true for people? I’m not so sure.

For me, competition is not in my nature, at least not obviously. I usually refuse to compete. Not that I can’t stand losing, because I am just fine with that. I always admit when I’m wrong, or in over my head, or simply can’t do something. I’m just not a competitive person. Maybe because I have never had to be competitive. Oldest, only girl, no need to fight for my place in the family, I have always felt good enough. When I was in school I was happy with B’s, never needed A’s. When I got A’s, I wasn’t too impressed. My parents expected me to be strong, smart and mature. So I was.

When I started practicing yoga my lack of competition became more of a practice, less of a certainty. I recognized an emotional tightness when I was training and saw some young, thin woman doing a pose gracefully and without any hesitation or real effort. Of course, my thought was “Why can’t I do it like her?” I learned to let go of those kinds of  thoughts. I didn’t put pressure on myself to look like her, or do it like she did. No problem. I don’t need to know how to do a  perfect headstand, or an arm balance anyway. Giving up? Or setting boundaries? Just not interested.

So, I can truly say that competition is simply not an issue for me. I tell new students that yoga is not a competitive sport. “We all come in with different bodies and histories, and no one will ever be just like us. So, we must learn to listen to our own bodies and minds, and adapt our yoga practice to meet our needs, not the needs of the person next to us.”

No big deal. But some people simply can’t take that road easily. That’s why we call it a practice. We practice listening to our inner voice and physical sensations and re-teach ourselves how to find our center, over and over again. Sometimes, when the center is too far lost, judgment becomes the driving force.

And that is the next thing to let go…