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.

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.

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.

Is Your Trunk Unlocked?

March 15, 2012

I love reading novels.  They introduce me to ways of thinking I hadn’t yet explored or probed deeply enough.  Why characters act the way they do broadens my understanding of human behavior.  They—authors and their characters—help me to be more compassionate.  In certain situations I catch myself being judgmental.  That catch allows me shift my perspective from anger or hurt to appreciation.  I am not always successful in the moment, but I find myself arriving at a place of greater understanding sooner than in the past. 

Thoughts about Strength, Security and Things

Recently I finished reading The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.  Early on in the novel Blake introduces Emma, a newlywed married to an up-and-coming doctor in the small Massachusetts town of Franklin in the early 1940s.  Blake shares Emma’s reflections now that she is married.  One passage caught my attention because my work with ALIGN, A Unique & Integrative Approach to Clutter & Balance, is all about why we keep the stuff we feel we must to feel secure.  Here are Emma’s thoughts about strength, security and things:

She had always thought that having a house would be a source of great strength, like a trunkful of memories one never unlocked.  Her own family’s house had been sold along with all its contents, except for some photographs and the child’s christening set of silver and her mother’s little seed-pearl wedding ring, which hung loosely off the third finger on Emma’s right hand.  She had wondered sometimes where the things had ended up.  She didn’t begrudge her great-aunts’ decision—she had lived off the proceeds, as they reminded her, after all—but sometimes she wondered whether she might feel less lonely, somehow less anonymous, if, when she woke in the morning, she opened her eyes and saw the same bureau her father had, for instance.  Or, even less grand, used the kettle her mother used to boil water for their junket. 

I suspect Emma’s reflections mirror many of our own.  Think back to the house or houses you grew up in.  Did those homes give you a sense of security?  Not all of us can claim they did, especially if family dysfunction overwhelmed us, but many of us can. 

A Trunkful of Memories

Blake’s simile—having a house is “like having a trunkful of memories one never unlocked”—spoke volumes to me.  Emma’s family’s house was inhabited by her and her parents, people (I’ll assume) who loved Emma.  The house was a structure that held the many items they used and perhaps treasured. 

Since her parents were no longer alive, Emma’s memories of what transpired in her family’s home held meaning.  The illusion of having a house and her parents’ possessions inspired feelings of comfort, safety, and a sense of family.  Blake underscores this point by suggesting Emma might not feel so lonely if she could wake up to her father’s bureau or see her mother’s kettle.  She believes those items could comfort her.  They might resurrect a feeling of security within her. 

The Illusion of Security

Those feelings, however, are an illusion.  My own story supports this fact.  When my mother died, I carted a huge truck load of her stuff from Florida to Virginia and put it in storage.  I thought I could keep her alive by holding onto all that stuff.  Like Emma, I thought I wouldn’t be so lonely, now that I had her stuff.  But, my resistance to “unlock the trunk” overshadowed any comfort I could gather from holding onto my mother’s possessions.  I visited the storage unit twice in the nine years I rented the unit. 

For years I didn’t understand why I couldn’t address my mother’s stuff.  My storage unit had become a “trunkload of memories I never unlocked.”  If I unlocked it, I might have to confront my mother’s death and the loneliness it inspired.  No one ever loved me the way my mother did, and no one will ever again.  Her death meant I had to learn how to mother myself.  The grief that her death caused was swimming in and among all of her items I so neatly locked in storage.  Emptying the unit meant rupturing its containment.

Only after nine years—a number that means completion—was I able to unlock the trunk.  Somehow I knew I could face the grief and finally take the necessary action of deciding what to do with all the stuff I had stored. It meant touching each and every item and placing them in the appropriate pile—keep, donate or discard.  Many of those items held a memory I had to say goodbye to.  In some cases, I relived an experience, which I often found exhausting.  Sibling rivalries, adolescent struggles, and childhood achievements became the stew I stirred as I worked my way through her stuff.  This was my way of dealing with my grief—piece by piece.

How Little Are We Without Our Stuff?

Blake’s next paragraph gives us clue as to why we don’t unlock our trunks.  Emma’s husband has gone to volunteer his medical services in London in 1941, the height of the German blitz.  She finds herself alone in her husband’s and now her house.  She had just heard a radio report from London about a boy in the blitz.  Here is what Emma thinks:                   

But here—she sighed—out there and upstairs, there was nothing of hers.  She felt for the first time in her life the danger of other people’s things—how they might erase her if she weren’t careful.  A sob caught at the bottom of her throat.  It was that report on the boy in the blitz; she leaned toward the coffee table to get her cigarette case.  The report had reminded her of being little, that was all.  She lit the cigarette and drew in a deep, long drag. 

The question that comes to my mind is “How little are we without our stuff?”  Do we need to keep it to secure our sense of identity?  It’s easy to say, “Oh, no!” but then take a peek inside your home.  How much stuff do we need to conjure up the past?  Aren’t the memories inside—not outside—us?  A T-shirt, teacup, or textbook won’t bring the past back.  In fact, all that stuff weighs us down and keeps us from opening fully to the present.

Unlocking a trunkful of memories might feel scary and not worth the trouble.  I beg to differ.  All that stuff from the past—physical and mental—keeps us from tapping into our deeper, more creative self.  There’s a goldmine down there inside us, but it’s probably buried under our past.  It’s time we unlocked our trunks.  I’ve opened mine and I don’t regret it!  You won’t either!