Looking for “More”

November 15, 2016

“Who are these people?” That’s the question I asked myself upon leaving my fiftieth high school reunion dinner one Saturday evening last month.

I went to a small country day school in Connecticut, starting at age four and ending at age 18. I was one of thirty-eight students who graduated on a sunny Friday morning in June 1966. Such a small number allowed us to believe we knew each other pretty well by the time we were handed that diploma. But, really, at age 18 how well do you know anybody? How discerning can you be?

We each had our own page in the Class of 1966 yearbook. As was the custom, we wrote long, gushy love notes to each other on our own page of each others’ yearbook. We promised to stay in touch.

But we didn’t. We had more important things to do–grow up, figure out our life purpose, have our heart broken and repaired, and discover what’s right and wrong. Career, family and community took center stage.

Fast Forward Fifty Years
In May of this year I was reminded that my fiftieth high school class reunion was slated for the first weekend in October. Even though the Alumni Office would send out one or two notices during the next six months, no one else was going to take the time to round up my classmates unless a few of us made the concerted effort.

Having organized lots of groups over the years, I identified three classmates who wanted to join me in planning our reunion. This entailed finding lost classmates, divvying the class list among the four of us and calling folks to stir up interest. One classmate who had been a librarian used her sleuthing skills on the Internet to find those without contact information. She found one classmate from his daughter’s wedding announcement in The New York Times and helped me confirm another’s death by locating his daughter in San Francisco.

The initial calls surprised me. Conversations averaged 45 minutes, and that was with people I hadn’t spoken with for 50 years. When I got off those calls, I was excited and hopeful. People who expressed doubt and reluctance about coming back for reunion at the beginning of the call said they would give the idea serious thought by the time we hung up.

The Planning Process
When we started, the planning committee met on the phone every two weeks. We were serious. In addition to calling classmates, we had to identify a restaurant for our Saturday night dinner. It took more than one try, but once a restaurant was found and our reservation was locked in, we could focus on making sure people came.

I created e-mails to gin up interest. I asked a few classmates to write about their favorite teacher, describe a memorable moment, and/or share why they wanted to attend reunion. I asked for current photos of those who contributed, so folks would recognize them when reading the article. Thanks to the Internet, I added cartoons, pictures and a relevant blog one guy wrote about attending his fortieth.

“We Got the Best We Could.”
The reunion was a two-pronged event: A lunch at the school on Friday and a dinner at a restaurant on Saturday. Out of 33 living classmates six attended the school lunch on Friday and 11 attended the dinner. This may not sound like much, but statistics would probably deem it a success.

One woman who attended the lunch delayed her winter sojourn to Florida for a week so she could join us. Out of the 11 who came to dinner, five of us were from out of state. One classmate arrived home in New Jersey on the morning of our dinner after taking the red-eye from Seattle to Newark, retrieved her dog from the kennel, and then drove to Connecticut to be with us for our 6:00 PM start time. That afternoon another drove from Massachusetts and two more from Rhode Island. All of them save the New Jersey classmate were driving home after the dinner.

Without our calling, cajoling and corralling our classmates, it’s highly unlikely there would have been any reunion. What touched me the most was learning two classmates who deemed each other best friends in high school had had no contact for 50 years. At the dinner they pledged to resume their friendship. As one classmate on the planning committee put it, “We got the best we could.”

So, Where Did I End Up?
In short, I was not where I wanted to be. Sitting at a long table with access only to the people on both sides of me and the one in front of me was not ideal for mixing with everyone who attended. The man across from me spent the better part of the evening proudly telling me and the woman to my left how many houses, boats and cars he had acquired through the years. For some reason this conversation dragged on and on. The woman to my right was consumed with the conversation to her right.

Usually I can talk easily with people I meet, but that evening I found myself disinterested in the conversation and too exhausted to interject my own stories. No one cared enough to ask. Dazed, I couldn’t figure out what had happened. After all the calls, e-mails and planning meetings, I felt disconnected and disappointed. Who were these people anyway?

Once home, I separately shared my disappointment with my doctor and my meditation teacher. Both had experienced the same phenomenon with old friends–lonely, empty connections. And then my minister made it exceedingly clear in her Sunday message, “When you open the spiritual door in your life, there is no going back.”

I opened that door in the early nineties, and assumed that most people I knew came with me. Not so. I went to my reunion looking for a connection with my childhood friends. I guess that’s why I unwittingly left home in the first place—looking for rewarding connections. Lovely as my adult classmates are, we are in different places today where my connection to them is tenuous and no longer needed. I wanted “more” from them and this experience. I learned this is not where “more” resides.

Ask the Question

September 7, 2016

Years ago I was having no luck in the relationship department.  A divorce by the time I was 29 and then several failed relationships followed me well into my forties and early fifties.  I kept telling myself, “I am a nice person. Why can’t I have a decent relationship?”

My blurred vision obscured the fact I was the one constant in each equation.  Years of psychotherapy wrested the cataracts from my eyes so I could see the role I played in every choice and action I made.  If I was going to progress and move beyond my hamster-wheel of failed relationships, I had to ask the question, “What was/is my role in all of this?”

Extracting those cataracts wasn’t easy.  In fact, making sense of what propelled me to choose Mr. X or continue with Mr. Z, felt like scraping wallpaper off a wall.  Issues like self-worth, abandonment and neediness had to be identified and explored for me to understand why things hadn’t worked out.  Of course, wading through all of this was painful.  Oh, my gosh, very painful.

Who Makes The Decision?

Recently a friend of mine shared her relationship blues.  This made me reflect on my own vertiginous past.  Only when I discovered I was the decision maker of my life did I see things differently.

My friend had broken up with a man after dating 10 months.  They had gone back and forth ending it several times.  Finally my friend told herself and him, “This is it!  I am DONE!”  She called it “OVER!”

In this day and age when texting is the premiere way of communicating, he decides to send her a text.  In fact, a complimentary one.  Being polite and not wanting to appear insensitive or rude, she feels obliged to send a thank you.  He returns the text.  She responds and soon the entire exchange turns ugly once again.

Now, you may be scratching your head and asking, “What went wrong?”  It’s easy to make a judgment here.  She told him it was over.  He writes her.  She responds.  However, if it were truly “OVER” for her, why did she respond to the text?  Because when she responded, she chose to continue the conversation.

The Could-Have-Been Moment of Truth

This is where it can get confusing.  By responding, did she somehow want to continue the conversation?  Even though she wanted to end it, perhaps she wasn’t ready to do so.  There were many good parts to the relationship.

When she was deciding whether to respond could have been the moment of truth, had she asked herself, “What am I doing?  Why am I doing it?”  What if she had taken time to understand her own feelings?  A part of her loved what they had together and didn’t want to let it go, but another part of her most definitely did not and was ready to sever the tie.

How can she best be true to herself?  Only she can answer that.  To get the answer, she is best served to take time to sift through her feelings about the relationship in order to understand “What am I doing?  Why am I doing it?”

The Grand Scheme

When we take the time to understand our choices and behavior, we learn why things unfold as they did and do.  We more clearly see our role in each relationship.  We begin to see the red flags when they pop up.  Instead of pushing them aside, we pick them up when they appear and examine why they appeared.

We can be more objective and begin to choose more carefully with whom we spend time and share the vulnerable parts of ourselves.  It’s all part of the grand scheme of life—learning and evolving.  Let’s not only ask the question; let’s take time to explore our feelings and discover the answer.

No Response is A Response

October 21, 2014

Have you ever written someone an e-mail message asking a question and never gotten a response?  Or left a voice mail message requesting a call-back?  I can answer a resounding “Yes!” to both.  In most cases the person I am writing to knows me.  We have been friends or had a business relationship, and he or she has never expressed dissatisfaction regarding our connection.  This kind of communication roadblock drives me crazy.

I agree we’re all bombarded by texts, e-mails and voice mail.  No matter what, I still think I merit a response.  One therapist I went to a long time ago, when I was bemoaning a man I was dating who hadn’t called me back, told me the scoundrel had answered me.  It’s called “No Response” or as Greg Berendt and Liz Tucillo so aptly titled their book He’s Just Not That Into You, The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys.  

I must be delusional, because I thought those people I wrote to or called were into me enough to write or call me back.  I thought they were into me enough to open and read the e-mail I sent, but my best friend informs me they probably deleted it before opening it.  That shocked me.  And, of course, it could have even gone into their Spam folder.  This saddens me more than I am willing to admit.

Why Be Sad?

But, why be sad?  Perhaps one reason is that I gave more meaning to a relationship than it was due.  I feel deeply enough about the interactions I have had with a person that it feels worth holding onto.  In the past I credited myself as a good judge of character.  I thought I knew when a particular relationship was worth my time and energy.  Lately, though, that’s all changing.  Relationships I considered close are not so close.  People’s interests are shifting.  Demands on our time are relentless.

I keep thinking there’s more to it.  When people don’t respond to e-mail messages I send just to them, I start questioning the nature of the relationship.  Somewhere along the way a judgment was made and I wasn’t in on it.  The other person has moved onto other things more tantalizing, fulfilling, and worthwhile, or new demands, even a crisis, may have usurped their time.  He or she no longer sees the need to pump energy into our relationship.  Here’s what’s so disconcerting:  The decision probably wasn’t conscious or arbitrary.

It reminds me of a buffet.  The buffet’s first course has been well picked over and now a second, more delectable course replaces it.  Those people I wanted to hear back from have gotten up to get the second course.  Meanwhile, I’m still eating the servings I loaded on my plate from the first.  I’m not ready to return to the buffet table for the second course.  Or worse, the helpings I took when the first course was served were just too big.  If I had taken smaller portions, I could have gone back for the second round when the others did.

Decision by Others

What troubles me the most is other people’s decision to move on without some sort of closure, without informing me things are changing and what we have will be different from what we had.  This makes me remember the day I came home from school (I was ten) and learned my father had left our house on a stretcher by ambulance.  A neighborhood friend, someone I wasn’t even that close with, told me she had witnessed his departure.  No one told me this would happen.  How could someone else I didn’t even know that well see what I should have seen?

My father hadn’t been feeling well all summer and couldn’t join me for Father’s Day at day-camp.  He was beginning to spend a lot of time in bed away from his medical practice as an obstetrician/gynecologist.  Unbeknownst to me, he was diagnosed with cancer and it was progressing.  Occasionally other doctors would come to the house to see him.  Since I knew these doctors as my parents’ friends, I thought the visits were meant to give support, not to diagnose the progress of his disease.

Things started changing.  Out of the ordinary gestures became routine.  Instead of my mother driving us to school, one of my brother’s classmates picked us up each morning.  People brought casseroles to the house.  Friends stopped by for no apparent reason.  Relatives started showing up.  I thought I heard people whispering, but no audible sounds were heard.  Something was being said, and I knew deep-down it wasn’t good.

Time to Move On

My mother made decisions that affected my two brothers and me.  She took us twice to visit my father during the four weeks of his hospital stay.  The second and last visit was the most disturbing.  One part of his hospital bed was tilted so he appeared sitting up.  An oxygen tent–something I had never seen before I walked into his room–encased him.  I remember he was lucid and carried on a normal conversation, but nothing about the visit was normal.  I couldn’t hug him, kiss him or snuggle up to him.  He was untouchable.  I didn’t understand it.  I was ten, unable to ask questions or figure out what was going on.

On October 13, 1958, my father died.  I knew my father was ill, but I didn’t know he was dying.  No one informed me his situation was so dire.  How could this have happened?  What happened?  If only I had known, perhaps I could have done something about it.  I would have written him letters that might have consoled him.  Or I would have asked to visit him more.  Perhaps I could have been a participant, rather than a side-lined child.  More importantly, perhaps I could have prepared myself for a loss that has colored my entire life.

Those same feelings of being a side-lined child surface today when people don’t answer my e-mails, calls or letters.  I am aware something is no longer as it was, but no one told me what that is.  People are so busy.  Finding the time to let me know that a situation or a level of relationship has changed is not their priority.  I can ask.  I can keep sending e-mails or make repeated calls, but when the answer is “No Response,” I must remember what my therapist said long ago, “No Response is A Response.”  I must somehow come to terms with the silence, accept what is, and let it go.  I know it’s time to move on and be open to what presents itself to me now.

A Drawer Full of Bracelets

September 26, 2014

I had been working with a client for two days when we gathered all her bracelets together and put them into one drawer.  It measured about 14″ long, 10″ wide and 6″ deep.  One drawer with these dimensions would surely hold all her bracelets, but it didn’t.  We had to move to the drawer below it to handle the overflow.

How man bracelets are we talking about?  Maybe 200, 300, I don’t know.  What kind of bracelets?  Bangles, charm, ones with elastic, plastic, glass, semi-precious stones, gold, silver, oh, so many!  Delicate, clunky, colorful, tasteful, quiet and tinkling.  If the bracelets were candy, you could satiate your sweet tooth for years to come.

The Excess Made Me Ponder

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I left my client.  In fact, it’s troubled me.  If those were my bracelets, I wouldn’t be able to remember what I had.  They would have to be in some order for me to see them and to choose which one(s) I would wear.

We had simply consolidated them.  They had been scattered throughout her bedroom.  Because they were now jumbled into two drawers, my client would have to “paw” through them to find the bracelet she was looking for.  In the process, she might come across one she had forgotten and probably pull that one from the pile, losing interest in her first choice.  If she were determined to find a particular one, I suspect it would take precious time to find it.

The excess made me sad, and, please forgive me, but I have made a judgment. No one needs this many bracelets, not even Lady Gaga.  Jewelry is an easy thing to purchase.  Earrings, bracelets and necklaces are portable.  You don’t need a truck to cart them home.  Once you’ve paid for the merchandise, you can slip these pieces into your purse or pocket and off you go.  What, I wonder, inspires my client to buy so many and so often?  Perhaps it is that sense of instant gratification.  Or the fun of feeding her “guilty pleasure” to have a new piece of jewelry to “jazz up” her outfits.

There is More to This Picture

My client told me she likes to dress up when she goes to work.  Her clothes, jewelry and shoes are all part of a picture she enjoys composing every workday morning.  For her, putting together outfits is like artwork, and the fact she can create a unique and different picture every day is important to her.  I respect her desire to look good and her ability to tap into her creativity.  Still no one needs this many bracelets to feel as creative as Picasso.

Jewelry and all the other materials we clothe ourselves with are—in a word—a cover.  These external items, some of which are beautiful, can distract us from something more important—our inner self.  When we preoccupy ourselves with stuff, be it jewelry, clothing, cars, or stacks of paper, we lose sight of this inner self and the balance required to lead a healthy life.  We choose to look outside ourselves, where our ego’s voice can be heard loud and clear.  We compare ourselves with others, coveting what others have and judging ourselves, which causes unrest and anxiety.

My client lives in a state of distress.  How do I know?  I’ve worked in her home.  Home is a reflection of one’s inner spirit.  When clutter litters the home, it sends the message that something is out of balance.  In my client’s case, something is seriously out of balance.  It wasn’t just an abundance of bracelets, but also clothes, shoes, purses, and books.

In her seminal book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, Karen Kingston lists the many ways clutter can affect us.  Here are a few:

  • Clutter can congest your body.  My client has digestive issues.
  • Clutter can cause disharmony.  My client’s husband wants the clutter gone as soon as possible.  He openly criticizes her and finds her clutter intolerable.
  • Clutter can make you feel ashamed.  My client never invites friends over to socialize.  There’s just no room to do so.
  • Clutter can cost you.  My client does little, if any, cooking.  Most meals are eaten out.

Why Does My Client Have Clutter?

I don’t know and I cannot guess.  What I do know is that something deep within is troubling her, something that requires a cover-up.  Kingston writes, “Usually it is loneliness, fear of intimacy or some other buried emotion which feels easier to submerge in clutter than to cope with.”

Whether we ignore all the stuff we acquire, neglect taking good care of it, or immerse ourselves in the maintenance or orderliness of our stuff, we are choosing not to deal with our own inner issues.  All this stuff becomes a shield, which blocks our way to facing our fears and living a balanced, healthy life.

Life in my client’s apartment had become intolerable.  She could no longer see the way out of her clutter.  It took courage to invite me to cross her threshold.  All that stuff she considers valuable was strangling her most precious possession–her inner self.  If she didn’t get help, she would succumb.

My working with her was an important first step.  If she continues, and that is a critical part of this de-cluttering work, she will transform her life.  I’ve witnessed life-changing transformation in clients who were committed to releasing their clutter.  They literally create space for new and wonderful changes to present themselves in their life.  Job promotions, improved health, revitalized marriages, and even an art exhibition that was years in the making are examples of those changes.

It is my clients’ personal transformation that keeps me doing this work.  If you need or someone you know who needs help creating a home for the heart, and if you live in the greater Washington, DC, area, consider taking my Consciously Clearing Clutter class.  The fall session is starting on October 8, 2014.  It can open doors you never thought would open for you.

Find Another Lover

August 15, 2014

“Find another lover.”  The late Adolph Ceasar spoke those words at a Smithsonian lecture I attended 30 years ago.  They came ringing back to me this morning.

For those unfamiliar with Adolph Ceasar, he was one of the voices behind the memorable catch-phrase, “The mind is a terrible thing to waste” for the United Negro College Fund.  A powerful actor in films, such as A Soldier’s Story and The Color Purple, Ceasar won recognition when he was nominated by both the Academy and the Golden Globe for best supporting actor in A Soldier’s Story.  While filming his last film Club Paradise, he suffered a heart attack and died shortly thereafter at the age of 53.

I remember he spoke these words with such clarity and fervor, “If your lover leaves you, find another lover.”  I knew he was right, but embracing his advice is another story.  How do you do that?  After you’ve shared such intimacies with another, it feels like your heart has been ripped out of your chest and only a hollow cave remains.  If the breakup is recent, some of us can barely hobble out of bed in the morning, let alone eat, dress and brush our teeth!

I am a believer that loss should be grieved.  Picking up the next day like nothing has happened after a meaningful relationship has ended is not a wise idea.  It’s called denial.  Your feelings must be acknowledged and felt; otherwise you carry them with you wherever you go.  You can pretend you’re fine, but anyone who’s the slightest bit aware picks up on the malaise that swarms around you.  Then you attract the rescuers and repel the more grounded.

Why Remember Adolph’s Words Now?

Why have Adolph’s words come back to me this morning?  You’re going to laugh!  I am grieving the loss of my morning boot camp–an exercise program with a certified trainer four mornings a week.  I had been religious about participating in this boot camp for the past year and a half.  At 5:45 AM I would get in my car, turn on NPR, and listen to this guy who talked about the latest technology trends during the 10 minutes it took to drive to the gym or park, depending on the weather and season.  In early July my boot camp program abruptly ended.

A workout program is hardly a lover, but the lover metaphor can be applied to anything you’re committed to.  Boot camp gave my day structure.  It was the impetus to get me moving.  If you are anything like me, I do not love to exercise.  Walking, yes, but push-ups, lunges, planks, and kettlebell swings, spare me!  Only under the surveillance of a trainer am I willing to subject myself to these kinds of exercises.

In my advancing years, I realize how important it is to move and take care of my body.  Boot camp ensured me that I was at least doing the minimum to keep myself limber–oiling the knees, tightening my underarm flab and staving off the fat that can’t wait to wrap itself around my hips.  Going to the workout room where I live doesn’t cut it.  Learning to use the different machines, adjusting them to the proper weight so I don’t kill myself, and deciding how many reps are demands I just don’t want to deal with.

The Trainers and My Workout Partners

And what about the relationships I developed there?  No, they may not equate to that of a lover, but they remain an important component of the whole experience.  I got attached to the trainers.  They were of such a high caliber.  One, in particular, always amazed me.  She would exercise along with us, counting the reps out loud at the same time.  Meanwhile, I could barely talk as I huffed and puffed my way through each exercise.  The hour was entirely planned with diverse activities, always leaving enough time to stretch and wind down at the end.  Each day had a focus:  cardio, legs, upper body, etc.  It was impressive.

Of course, let’s not forget my fellow compatriots!  Together we groaned, sweated and supported one another.  By the time this gig wound down, only four of us remained.  We knew who wouldn’t be there on Mondays, who was away visiting her parents, or who had a working breakfast or week-long conference to attend.  I would miss them when they couldn’t attend and be delighted when they returned.  Although I didn’t know them well, they all were a part of my morning routine.

The Racquetball Player and the Parking Lot Attendant

Initially I had joined this boot camp in 2004 and consistently sweated my guts out for five years.  Every winter we worked out in one of the rooms of a gym.  To get there we passed racquetball courts where the same guys played week after week.  One man would always say hi and ask how we were.

Due to illness, I had to withdraw in 2009.  I didn’t have the energy or stamina to do the exercises.  So, when I returned in February 2013, the same guys, a little grayer with the occasional ACE bandaged knee, were playing their routine racquetball game.  The same man remembered me and enthusiastically welcomed me back.  I never knew his name, nor he mine, but he made my visits to the gym that much sweeter.

Whenever I left the underground parking lot, I was required to give my ticket to a parking attendant.  Always with a smile at that crazy hour of the morning, she would wish me a good day.  I so enjoyed that one heartfelt minute we exchanged with each other.  Hearing how her weekend went or agreeing how cold it was created a caring connection.

My Time to Find a New Lover

In June my favorite trainer decided to relinquish the boot camp.  She had found more stable, lucrative employment elsewhere and passed the baton to another trainer.  After two days the new trainer discovered the arrangement wasn’t going to work.  She informed me by leaving a phone message and wishing me a “blessed life.”  With the flick of a dial and a quick “Dear John” voice mail, the relationship ended.

Nearly six weeks have passed, and I know it’s time for me to find a new lover.  Like most people who’ve suffered a breakup, I am resistant.  I know, however, I must get out there and explore the options.  I’ve grieved enough.  My clothes are beginning to fit snugly.  My love-handles are gaining ground.  Adolph was right.  If I follow his advice, I won’t have to buy a new wardrobe.

 

Develop a Good Forgettery

August 11, 2014

My friend Lynn (not her real name) is strong-willed and whatever she sets her mind to, she does.  I have known her for 30 years.  About six years ago she had a fall, which confined her to a wheelchair.  In and out of assisted living and rehabilitation residences, she had had enough of residential living and set her sights on the house where she lived before the fall as her next and last destination.

Her house is the one where she returned to live with her parents after her second divorce, approximately 40 years ago.  Not long after her return, her father was killed walking down a neighborhood street by a hit-and-run driver.  Years later, her mother battled cancer in a hospital bed in the dining room.  She later succumbed in a nearby hospital.  The house held a lot of sad energy.

It was not conducive for a wheelchair-bound person.  So, before she moved in, she had an extensive ramp installed at her back door and a lift from the first floor to the second floor.  There is no bathroom on the first floor and the washer and dryer are located in the basement, accessible only by stairs.  It is essential for her to have help if she is to live in a clean, healthy environment.

Welded to the Past

I know Lynn better than most.  We have shared our victories and vulnerabilities consistently throughout the years.  She listens with great understanding to the questions I grapple with. I listen to hers.  I respect her opinion and find comfort in the constancy of our friendship.  Lately, though, I am frustrated, at times even angry, with Lynn.  She has forgotten how powerful she is.  Instead of moving forward with life, she seems to be making a “too comfortable niche” for herself in the past.

During the past few months she requested my help by going through her papers, photos and clothes and advising her on what to keep.  I have worked with her for more than 20 hours, and in my estimation we’ve made little progress.  She remains firm in her choices:  Ten-year-old bank statements must be kept.  Books that haven’t been read in 20 years and more than likely never will be must be kept.  Gizmos and tchotchkes she doesn’t know what to do with must be kept.  The dining room has become a warehouse of bags and containers storing memorabilia she feels she must keep but doesn’t look at.  From my perspective, it feels like she has welded herself to the past.  To hell with the present!  The future be damned!

The Conundrum:  To Hold On or To Let Go?

I have thought long and hard about this conundrum:  Her hiring me to de-clutter and her vice-like grip on her clutter.  It’s not easy living in a wheelchair, and I have the utmost respect for her determination to live independently.  Working with another disabled client helped me understand Lynn better.  I started noticing his references to the past when we talked.  It gave me pause.

Both clients are in their eighties.  Both had successful careers.  Both were more able-bodied in the past.  Lynn traveled the world.  Even with “bad” knees, she climbed the Egyptian pyramids.  She ducked to safety when terrorists bombed the Rome airport.  She’s been in every state in the union except two.  She found great joy, excitement and freedom in her travels.  From today’s wheelchair perspective, the past looks rosy and the present grim.

What about Now?

If Lynn wanted, she could still travel.  She would need an aide and it would take an amazing amount of effort, but she could do it.  She keeps thinking someday she will make it to those two states she missed.  In the meantime, she chooses to surround herself with stuff of the past–her very own composition of clutter.

Clutter is dense, sticky energy–filled with memories that cloud the mind, fog our vision and suffocate our energy.  It slows us down.  It blocks our way.  It keeps us glued to those memories and averts our gaze away from the present moment, the only moment where our power resides.  Eric Butterworth in his book Spiritual Economics nailed it:

We should not try to get fulfillment from past successes nor be bound by past failures.  Consider people such as Lincoln, Churchill and Edison.  They respected their minds too much to clutter them with thoughts of failure or bitterness.  They had good ‘forgetteries.’  So if there be any virtue or praise, think on these things, file them in the memory mind and forget the rest.  Develop a good forgettery and you will find yourself with an amazingly good memory too, for the two conditions are indissolubly linked.

Our Power is in the Present

Lynn has forgotten her power is in the present–in her choices of how she spends her time, who she hangs out with, and where she chooses to go.  It’s not in all that dusty, musty stuff.  It’s not in those bittersweet memories she clings to.  What keeps her in this mode of stuckness?  Fear.  Fear of letting go of things she believes constitute her identity.  Fear of breaking the boundaries of her disabled life.  Fear of no longer claiming she is a victim.  Fear that she will be more alone than she is with all her clutter.

Stripping away the clutter makes her feel vulnerable.  The protection it gives her is an illusion.  She wants it because it’s tangible.  It’s something she can hold and tell herself, “Look, I accomplished this.  I had these friends.  My mother loved this ring.”  In contrast, what if she chose to make new friends by joining a group at her church?  What if she found a place where she could exercise with professional help?  What if she arranged for a drive in the country?  Her power is in the now–not in the paper, gizmos or clothes.  Only Lynn can decide what’s best for her.  Only Lynn can change how she sees her stuff and ultimately herself–a powerful woman who happens to use a wheelchair to get around.  Only Lynn can make these changes now.

Are We Owners or Stewards?

November 22, 2012

‘… But we never really own anything, do we?’ he (Vianello) asked, looking directly at Brunetti.

‘I’m not sure what you mean, Vianello.’

‘Think about it, sir. We buy things. We wear them or put them on our walls, or sit on them, but anyone who wants to can take them away from us. Or break them.’ Vianello shook his head, frustrated by the difficulty he had in explaining what he thought was a relatively simple idea. ‘Just think of da Prè. Long after he is dead, someone else will own those stupid little boxes, and then someone after him, just as someone owned them before he did. But no one thinks of that: objects survive us and go on living. It’s stupid to believe we own them. And it’s sinful for them to be so important.’

–From the novel Quietly in Their Sleep by Donna Leon

I recently got hooked on Donna Leon mysteries. They take place in Venice with Commissario Guido Brunetti as the protagonist aided by his sergeant-assistant Vianello. In the above excerpt, the two sleuths have just emerged from visiting Mr. da Prè, “a horrid little man” who lives and breathes his collection of snuff boxes. Vianello is commenting on da Prè’s obsession. This brief exchange between Brunetti and Vianello made me wonder, “Are we owners or stewards of our things?”

So much emphasis in this twenty-first century society of ours is placed on ownership.  If we don’t own a car, we strive to own one, at least in areas where public transportation can’t get us to where we want or need to go. The mark of a successful, middle class American is ownership of his/her own home. And what about our clothes, furniture, businesses, and investments?

Who is Responsible?

I’ve grown up thinking the items I possess are items I own. I am responsible for housing, using and disposing of them, but maybe this discussion about ownership is limited to people over sixty, people who have had to dispose of their deceased parents’, spouse’s, relatives’ or friends’ possessions. When my mother died, I simply assumed ownership of her possessions. I was 42 and didn’t think beyond this point.

After her death, I held a yard sale for many of the items she had and I couldn’t use. Who are those people who bought her linen tablecloth and napkins, her chafing dish, or her cookbooks? What are they doing with them now? Are they taking good care of them? Have they relegated them to boxes in the back of a closet—or, worse yet, ended their life by throwing them away?

When I was younger, in my thirties and forties, I would never have admitted I am a serial owner of things. So focused on my own life, why would I think about who would take ownership of my stuff after I am gone or that my stuff has a life beyond me? I know that’s why wills and last testaments exist. They perpetuate the illusion we are all owners of our stuff, but the more I think about it, I see myself as a steward. I am simply the overseer of my possessions.

The Leadership Metaphor

The metaphor of leadership comes to mind. For me, the mark of a good leader is a smooth transition. He or She plans for the next person to assume the role of leader-successor, so business can continue as usual. Changes do occur with new leadership, and under good leadership they are usually accepted and not resisted. Without a plan or good leadership, breakdown can devolve into chaos.

I see a parallel when it comes to my stuff. Do I identify who I want handling my stuff? Are there certain items like my car or condo I want particular people to have? Do I inform my designated heirs while I am around or do I wait until the will is read? It comes down to whether I am willing to relinquish my sense of ownership.

And if I don’t have a plan? Relatives I haven’t designated or disinterested parties like the State come in and deal with my stuff. What does it matter? I am gone. Actually I believe it matters. Being a good steward, I need to let people know the plan—my plan on who gets what and how stuff is best handled. The more decisions I make, the fewer decisions others have to make. A definitive plan reduces conflict.

A Subtle Shift

Since this owner-steward distinction is new for me, I haven’t tested it out. When I engage in my next de-cluttering project, will I make different decisions being a steward, rather than an owner?

For example, I have been struggling with letting go of a doll and her wardrobe for years. It was a gift from my father, who died when I was 10. Operating under the illusion that it holds a special tie to him, I remain locked in indecision. If I let it go, I fear I will lose that special tie. It’s a false belief, I know. Nonetheless I use it as my excuse to keep holding on to the doll and all her dresses. Ever since I received the doll, I considered myself its owner.

Now, five decades later, maybe I can shift my role from owner to steward. If I am a good steward, I can exercise authority on how to get it to the right and perfect next steward. My term as doll-steward has expired. Someone else who can love the doll and her outfits needs to assume the steward role. Perhaps this subtle shift from seeing myself as an owner to a steward will allow me to let go. I am hopeful it will.