Change, Masks & Humankindness

How many Presbyterians does it take (you may have heard this one) to change a light bulb??

C-H-A-N-G-E???

I get to repeat this, having been a Presbyterian for about sixty years and being intimately familiar with our reflex opposition to change. However. The global changes of the past 14 or so months have given an entirely new meaning to things like the trauma of switching a word in some obscure hymn.

With the baby steps we are now taking into the New Normal, some of it looks pretty abnormal. We – I, at least –  created an interim sort-of normal and adjusted to it for a year. Wasn’t that normal? But now it does not feel normal to do normal stuff because we declared it not-doable for all those months of the old normal. 

The #1 case in point is the Mask Issue. Early on, I found masks to be a giant bother: hot in the sunshine, uncomfortable oftentimes, and impossible when trying to communicate with someone hard of hearing. Not to mention the regular panic over having forgotten the mask when already a half-mile out on a walk or – heaven forbid – about to enter a Walgreen’s. In my building, one could be sent unceremoniously back to one’s apartment if unmasked in any public space, although eating and drinking were indeed allowed once public spaces opened up. But still, masks remain the rule. They can be quirky, funny, political, decorative; Brian the concierge quickly turned them into fashion statements by appearing in matching mask and tie sets (he has five in all.)

But now. The CDC says it’s fine for the fully vaccinated to go maskless outdoors. Some governors agree. Some governors are thinking it over. Some governors still think Donald Trump is president and everything is a hoax anyway: virus, masks, vaccine, you name it, it’s all just a hoax, 580,000+ U.S. dead people notwithstanding.

There’s only one universal truth:

We need to be VERY kind to one another. We’re all on the same planet, and in the U.S. that includes people who are going to keep wearing masks for a very long time and people who absolutely refused to wear masks and now are more or less validated. And definitely unmasked.

Recently, while walking in a super-trendy area of San Francisco, about a mile from my home (which is in a good but hardly trendy area itself) I had my mask hung over my left ear while eating an ice cream bar. I was overtaken – within a few feet, certainly not a proper social distance – by an attractive, well-dressed white man who appeared to be in his 50s or early 60s. He was fit, maskless – and angry. As he strode alongside we both slowed (or, he slowed to match my already-slow pace) and he glared into my eyes.

“I thought we don’t have to wear masks outdoors,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, with a disarming smile that did not disarm him, “I just keep mine handy, in case I want to go into a store or something.”

“Ridiculous,” he said, as he began to walk ahead. Which was my clue to let it drop. But still seeking to disarm I added, “Maybe we’ll all avoid getting the flu!”

“The hell with it,” he threw back over his shoulder. “I’m getting the flu. I’ve had it with this expletive, expletive, expletive.”

So much for friendly passages.

I worry about the fact that this guy and thousands with similar sentiments and temperaments will continue to co-exist (and walk the streets) with mild-mannered sorts like myself. I think we need to find ways to avoid both shouting expletives and making inane comments that provoke others to shout expletives. Could we plaster the country with posters to this effect:

AHOY, MASK-WEARERS: You haven’t been vaccinated, and are being extraordinarily considerate of the rest of us. You have compromised immune systems and must be super cautious. You have terrible cold sores disfiguring your mouth. Thank you for wearing that mask!

AHOY, ALL UNMASKED : Happy to see your smile. Isn’t it lovely to emerge from the dark days. Thank you for being fully vaccinated which I’m sure is true.

TO EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE: Let’s just cut each other a LOT of slack until the world turns fully right-side-up again.

Remaining masked doesn’t have to mean I’m a snob, or a Democrat, or a generally bad person. Being unmasked doesn’t have to mean I’m a threat to your health, or a Republican, or a generally bad person. Several billion masks have been manufactured or created since early 2020 and it’s going to take a long, long time for them to go away.

In the interim, maybe we could take a collective deep breath. And try smiling.   

Mob Violence – Is it here to stay forever?

A TALE OF TWO CENTURIES

Her name was Joyce Almeida. An 18-year-old student, she was killed instantly by one shot through her lung. Joyce had been on the edge of the downtown crowd with her parents, who had fled for cover behind their car and at first failed to notice Joyce’s soundless collapse onto the pavement. One man in uniform, though, was seen at the exact same time, on horseback, galloping away but firing behind him in all directions at the crowd of mostly civilian men, women and children.

A sadly familiar story today. I was stunned to discover it, reported in a familiar script, in a letter written by my mother to my father on November 1, 1923 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

In the midst of digging through files of documents, mostly letters, that remain un-sorted even after countless moves and major downsizes, surprises keep showing up. On the date of this letter my parents were not yet engaged – that would happen the following spring, and they’d marry on November 18, 1924 – so where my father was is a mystery; probably just somewhere else in Porto Alegre. Phone calls were rare; notes and letters were the preferred means of communication. My mother had been in Brazil a little over a year, under the auspices of the Methodist church; her job involved teaching music and folk dance to preschoolers and young children while also teaching English at all age levels. She and her roommate Mary Sue lived in the girls’ dorm of a school that housed students from elementary grades into the equivalent of junior college. I think neither of them were trained to deal with protest mobs.  

“I ran a couple of blocks,” my mother wrote, “to catch up with the Red Cross people.” The Red Cross people had come to notify them of a student being wounded, but given the name Joycelina; moments later the two young teacher/chaperones realized it might be Joyce. “She had gone with her family to welcome Setembroio the Minister of War from Rio. The mob lost itself while he was making his speech and firing began. A stray shot struck her in the lung and killed her instantly. All this we learned later at her home.

“Immediately then Mary Sue and I went to take home the few other externs who were here. All we have is a great deal of hearsay centered around a core of fact. It seems now, after things have quieted down, that 50 or more people were wounded, a number fatally, and one rumor says 18 killed.

“Of course the children were all very much frightened. Before going out, Mary Sue talked to them about the need for calm, and of the comparative safety of the college compared to other places. They took it all very well and after dinner settled down quietly to sewing – after calmly taking a collection to send flowers to Joyce. Only Mary Sue and I went to the Almeidas. It is very sad. Mr. Almeida looks so crushed. Igaleilita’s dress was still spotted with blood from the wound.

“Yet with all this the people continue to move to and fro on the street just as they have been moving to the cemetery all day. The federal soldiers have taken charge, and they have asked for an Estado de Sitio permission from Rio. Things are apparently quiet now – 10 PM. The school children went to bed calmly. Mary Sue and I are really more nervous than they – after the stress of going to the Almeida house and then carrying the news to many of the school mates. I folded up all the costumes of the ‘May Festa,’ to have come off on Tuesday, and laid them away.”

Photo by Terri Windling

My mother – a ferocious seamstress who could whip up a dress or costume in minutes – had started “May Festa,” a May Day celebration that continues to this day. It involved all-day singing and dancing and unfortunately had been scheduled for a few days after the shooting. “Joyce was to have a new white net dress for the festa,” my mother wrote – “and it was her shroud.”

The discovery of this century-old letter is fascinating on more levels than I can count: some things change; some never do. But it’s tempting to reflect on the similarity of mob violence whatever the century, and the difference of news reporting in the days before TV (or effective radio, for that matter.) Possibly the biggest difference? News transmission via pen-and-ink paints pictures of a singular sort. My mother’s letter concludes:

“Strange – Mary Sue and I sat taking coffee instead of dinner, and discussed the use of the basement of the other building in case of necessity – of barricading the spaces between the pillars at the back – you don’t think about being afraid when you are actually in it. Most absurd of all, I loaded the revolver – in case we should have trouble on account of absence of police.” I am satisfied that my mother never fired a gun in her life.

No amount of internet searching can confirm the details, so please don’t consider the above to be historical fact. Some things I don’t know – the correct name of the Minister of War, what the riot was about, how the students and families coped. But some things I do. My parents exchanged letters every day they were apart (a LOT of days) throughout their long and happy marriage – 1924 until my mother’s death in 1970 – and this story fits with their lives in Brazil and the low-key but thorough communications they exchanged. I am struggling over what to sort and what to keep, but I believe this story contains truths worth keeping.

Brazil’s history is not unlike our own – various European countries conquered and abused the indigenous people for centuries (beginning in the 16th.) The young Republic was established in 1889 and its democracy is still fragile. We’ve had better luck holding off dictators and autocrats than have the citizens of Brazil, but recent years have shown us all – north and south of the equator – how easy it is to distort or snuff out the Voice of the People.

Let’s hear it for the Voice of the People. Surely there’s still time to set things right in THIS century.      

A Jury of Our Peers

CHAUVIN’S – – AND OTHER JURIES

Twelve of our fellow citizens quietly did their civic duty in Minneapolis. Beginning March 29 and ending April 20 they listened to more details of a terrible crime than most of us could handle. They debated among themselves for what had to have been one very long day before delivering the verdict that former police officer Derek Chauvin was guilty of murder.

Sometimes the system works.

I would not have traded jobs with one of those jurors for any 5 minutes of the weeks they gave up to be good citizens, but I appreciate them beyond measure. And I am somewhat in awe of their simple ordinariness. Despite all the pundits and politicians and earnest activists laboring for justice, in the end it was the hard work of twelve committed citizens that offered this small celebration of democracy at work.

They were: A 20-something white man, a chemist. A 20-something woman of mixed race with a policeman uncle. A 30-something white man, a financial auditor. A 30-something Black man who immigrated to our country 14 years ago. A 50-something white woman, a health care executive. A 30-something Black man who writes poetry and coaches youth sports. A 50-something, motorcycle-riding white woman. A 40-something Black man who lives in the suburbs. A 40-something multiracial woman who works as a corporate consultant. A 50-something white woman, a nurse who’s worked with Covid-19 patients. A 60-something Black woman, a grandmother who said, “I am Black, and my life matters.” A 40-something white woman who works in the insurance industry. A 50-something white woman who volunteers at homeless shelters. And a 20-something, recently married white woman, a social worker. Any one of them might have been you or me, and I wonder if we’d have done as good a job. Or if we’d have found a way to avoid giving up a month of our lives for this job.

Over my very long life of trying to be a good citizen I’ve been in countless jury pools and served on a dozen or so juries in Virginia, Georgia, Florida and California. Never one deliberating anything like this. I did serve on one murder jury at which I found myself weirdly sympathetic to the defendant. He said he didn’t mean it, it wasn’t his fault. But I’m afraid the guy did commit murder and in the end we reached a unanimous conclusion to that effect. He went to jail for many years but I suspect he’s out by now. Most of the cases I heard, on one jury or another, had moments of boredom beyond belief, usually thanks to attorneys who seemed enamored of the sounds of their own voices, but I never dozed off. I fudged a little once to escape the jury pool for a corporate case that was predicted to last six months. I was so furious about those corporations ready to disrupt the lives of all those good citizens over an issue they should’ve settled themselves that I could not have remained objective about anything.

Armand Roy for Pixels

Almost exactly ten years ago I wrote a blog about what turned out to be my final jury experience. The attorneys were making their final pitches to a whittled-down group from which the jury was being chosen.

Here’s what the deal seemed to be: A woman had been abused by a guy. It wasn’t rape; it seemed to be everything else. Kidnapping with intent to commit rape. Attempted rape. Even attempted arousal for purposes of who knows what. The trial, if the judge’s overview was any indication, would turn on who you believed, and how far is too far. In the 1950s, when I had my own trials (physical/emotional, not judicial) with date rape/workplace rape of this exact sort, women had little power and less choice. Today it can come down to who has real power and who has real choice. Did she really go somewhere with him willingly? Did she say No? Did he listen?

Sorry guys, unless she’s 6′ tall and outweighs him by 40 pounds, I am going to lean toward the lady. What I wanted to say was: “You do not want me on this jury.” Handily I was caregiver for a disabled husband; I begged hardship exemption. Because I soon aged out of the Report-for-Jury-Duty lists, that was my last chance at this particular exercise of good citizenship.

But thank heaven for the good citizens who gave up a month of their lives to form a jury of Derek Chauvin’s peers. As for their decision, “I don’t see how it could have been otherwise,” one observer famously remarked, “but I know it could have been otherwise.”

(Wo)man’s Best Friend in Pandemic Times

Photo by Daniel Frank on Pexels.com

One more strange thing during the dark days of Pandemia was my sense, much of the time outdoors, that I may have been the only person in San Francisco without a dog. Crossing the dog play area while doing my par course thing at Mountain Lake Park, skirting the similar space in Lafayette Park, or walking along any of San Francisco Bay’s limitless varieties of woods and beaches – I have felt acutely dog-less. Despite having had and loved a long list of family canines; I am currently without. And in recent times that has seemed particularly unseemly.

“You want to know how to stay busy in a pandemic?” my daughter Sandy said to me, early on; “get a puppy.” Scooter had joined her household as lockdowns were just beginning. Although theirs is a multi-dog household that leans toward rescues, Scooter was chosen because he was a purebred Catahoula Leopard Hound, and in a sense a replacement for Blue. Actually, no creature could replace Blue, who had been at my son-in-law’s side for 17 years before succumbing to cancer and the vicissitudes of very old dog age. In one of his countless obituary remembrances someone wrote, “Blue taught all the dogs at the lake how to be dogs.” But eventually Scooter, a multicolored Catahoula with one brown eye and one blue, was chosen to join the family.

While I was a continent away from the growing Scooter, I followed his progress throughout the pandemic on Facebook and on countless videos as he learned (more or less) where to dig or not dig, what to chew or not chew, all those niceties of canine upbringing that are far easier to watch online than to teach onsite. But they kept me entertained and Scooter’s family busy.

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Ringo at rest in the garden

Two other dogs close to my heart were central to pandemic survival for their human moms and, by extension, me. Unlike young Scooter, Ringo and Delilah are both certified old dogs. I am partial to old dogs. This is partly thanks to my excellent late husband Bud’s book Old Dogs Remembered, but also because, well, we understand each others’ aches and pains and geezerly stuff.

Ringo, 14, whose official name is Ringo Dingo Django Durango, or RD3, was not partial to me in his youth. He customarily started barking about the time my car entered the driveway, and didn’t stop until he had sniffed and grumbled for at least five minutes. But we soon became cordial acquaintances, and by his middle-age and my confirmed geezerhood we were fast friends. One of Ringo’s primary daily occupations is patrolling the exquisite rose garden spilling down the hillside from his home. The back-breaking daily work involved in keeping the roses, fruit trees and other flowers flourishing perhaps doesn’t require Ringo’s attendance. But I’m satisfied that his company helped get my friend Margaret (the Ringo-namer and chief gardener) through the pandemic and constantly able to post beautiful photos of blooms to get me through.

But briefly back to Scooter. Sadly, Scooter went way too far in providing diversion from the pandemic. Several months ago, just before his family was heading back to the east coast from a winter vacation, Scooter went missing in the Wyoming forests near Jackson. No amount of searching, calling, whistling or pleading to the canine gods could get him to appear. So the family went mournfully home, finally accepting, at the end of the four-day drive (drives with large dogs take time) that he was likely dead of hypothermia in the sub-zero snows. Hypothermia, we all agreed, would not be that terrible because you fall asleep before you die. (Please don’t try to clear that up with scientific fact; it’s a comforting thought.) But the next day came a report of a Scooter sighting.

Thus began the most exhaustive search and rescue operation in this reporter’s long history of tracking operations of every sort. After flying back to stay with generous friends, Sandy took to getting up at 5 AM in order to ski out and fry bacon on camp stoves in areas where a sighting was thought to have occurred – the smell of frying bacon being something most of us, including dogs, as it happens – find worth following. No luck. She left articles of family clothing inside comfy kennels in the snow. Game cameras positioned near foodstuffs got some excellent photos of foxes – but no Scooter. Flyers were posted. Rewards offered. Drones flew around the forests to no avail. Even with the remarkable assistance of a Boise-based nonprofit called Ladies and the Trap, whose fit and determined volunteers devote themselves to finding lost pets and reuniting them with their humans – no luck.

Scooter

In the end – or perhaps it’s still the late-beginning, or the middle – no one knows Scooter’s whereabouts but Scooter himself. Unless he has a secret admirer and protector. His family has settled into a three-possibility resolution: He did indeed die, quickly and relatively painlessly, of hypothermia in the Wyoming snow country. Or. Someone took him in and began to love and care for him; someone unaware of (or uninterested in) the microchip beneath his skin or the rewards posted for his return. Or. He will, one day, mysteriously reappear. Stranger things have happened, say the Ladies who Trap – and others.

And meanwhile, all along there has been Delilah the Wise. Delilah lives in Southern California with her family, which fortuitously includes my cousin Jan (we have Virginia roots; cousins extend in Virginia to the 7th in-law generation at least.) Jan, a comedian, keynote speaker, comedy writer, and author, was available – thanks to the virus cancelling every gig she had lined up – to help Delilah find her voice.

So. “Good morning, everyone! Delilah here,” said Delilah, brightly, on a regular basis, via Facebook and thanks to the miracle of modern video-manipulation. “I hope you’re enjoying the day.” (Or words to that effect.) Delilah was consistently anxious to get us all through the darkest days. Early on (3/26/20 to be precise,) this was one of her suggestions:

“Today we’re going to play a new game! It’s called Guess What’s in That Zip-Lock Bag in the Freezer! All you do is dig wayyyy back into the back of the freezer and pull out all of the zip-lock bags. So far, Jan has found one full of orange stuff, and another with, umm, chicken bones? Just eat whatever is in it! Enjoy your dinner and relax. Let me know how it goes.”

Thus did Delilah get us through week after tedious week. Sometimes it would seem even too much for Delilah herself – at which point she would scramble to the end of the sofa and commence digging a hole all the way to China. At last report, she had not yet made it through, but if a virus variant returns she may get there. Delilah, who her family says is perhaps a “pugzu” – some sort of pug/shih tzu mix rescued years ago from the Burbank Shelter, is somewhere around “12-ish” in dog years. With age clearly comes wisdom.

The author with Delilah

So with apologies to playwright John Patrick, to whom the original version is first attributed:

The pain of the pandemic surely made us think; what else was there to do? Thought makes us wise. And wisdom – especially the wisdom of old dogs – makes life bearable.  

This essay also appears on Medium.com

You can’t quite find the right words?

Photo by Aamir Suhail on Unsplash

RECOMMENDATION

Someone you know has just lost a spouse, a parent, a child? A friend is going through a difficult divorce? Perhaps you know a family member of one of the 550,000+ Americans who have died of Covid-19 since the pandemic upended our lives?

You need this book.

Dana Lacy Amarisa, who spent decades as a marketing writer in the tech world, was long  empathetic with fellow humans in all of the above categories. As it happened, in those same years she suffered unimaginable losses herself. It was definitely the hard way to learn, and the long way to edit and rewrite; but Amarisa has just released a book that answers the stumbling- block question encountered by 99% of those listed above: “I just don’t know what to say . . .”

Amarisa’s little book – it measures four by six inches and is less than a half-inch thick – is titled Condolences Pocket Guide: What to Say and Not to Say to Grievers. Most of us have, at some point in time, managed to say the abominably wrong thing, or – worse – stayed silently absent because we didn’t know the right words. Now there is a guide to fixing that problem forever.

In spare language throughout the book Amarisa mentions her own losses. An infant daughter. Amarisa’s father’s death soon afterward. An eight-month-old son later lost. Divorce. Emergency surgery and a broken hand. Those experiences first taught her about the pain that can be inflicted by the wrong words, or by silence, as well as the comfort that the right responses can bring.

But Amarisa puts herself in our shoes and walks along. “Using pat condolences,” she writes, “is like trying to put out a house fire with a squirt gun. And grievers resent us when we do this.” Or – “Grievers need our heart. Unfortunately, most common condolences give grievers our mind instead.” Snippets of very good advice begin the short chapters in these ways. “Don’t push, insist or advise. Let them tell you what they need, and let that be enough.”

Condolences Pocket Guide manages to avoid the pitfalls of many “advice” books (the genre doesn’t quite apply) in never getting preachy or cloying or accusatory, or going in all those other directions that can quickly turn us off. Instead, it sticks closely to specific, recognizable situations and speaks without inflection. To help you avoid missing the point it also features thumbs-up or thumbs-down graphic illustrations throughout.

Amarisa covers the spectrum of grievers and condolers: what to say (and not to say) to kids, to casual acquaintances you run across in public, to someone whose loss is many months past. Ensuring its accuracy, Condolences Pocket Guide was written “In consultation with Dr. Alan Karbelnig, PhD Psychology and Dr. Carlos Bush, MD Psychiatry.”

It may be the collective grief we have all experienced since the pandemic hit. Or it may be having had one president utterly unable to express empathy followed by another president exquisitely adept in reaching into the hearts of his fellow humans. For whatever reason, it seems unlikely that anyone today wouldn’t identify with at least a few of the situations addressed in this compact little guide. But grieving and potential responses have been a dilemma since about the time civilization started trying to be “civil.”    

In 2003 this writer published an essay on Beliefnet.com – then in its early days as a nonsectarian spirituality website – titled But I don’t know what to say. I remember being fairly pleased with it (I am easily pleased, especially if it’s something I wrote) although a copy does not seem to have survived. Subsequently I sent my agent a carefully crafted proposal for a 10-chapter, 60,000-word book on interacting with those who’ve suffered losses. The outline and proposal for that tome do remain in my files, along with a brief agent-client correspondence littered with phrases like “marketability” and “limited audience appeal.” I will look back on this as having been ahead of my time (the kindest way I have of looking back.) But I am now happily shredding the whole folder.

Dana Lacy Amarisa has said it all in 74 small pages.    

This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com

When your insurance company ruins a good day

“We’re calling about your claim,” the pleasant voice said; “about the hit-and-run collision you were involved in on March 17.” This is a really bad way to start your day. While I was still catching my breath the pleasant voice mentioned my car rear-ending the other car but then leaving the scene of the crime.

I knew, of course, that I’d not been in any collisions recently – the last being over a year ago when a 16-wheeler turned right from the center lane as I was turning right from the turn lane. The 16-wheeler won that one. But as my reaction had been swift; only the front of my car and the rear portion were demolished while I managed not to get demolished in the driver’s seat.

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This is critical back story to the current episode: I lost my beloved, snazzy green 2000 Volvo S40. It was immediately replaced by a slightly less snazzy silver 2001 Volvo S40 with about 100,000 fewer miles and with my bank account about $4,000 lighter.

But my new old car was thoroughly repainted and sort-of like new, and my learning curve (I’ve declared myself too old to deal with gadget-filled computerized new cars) remained flat.

Hearing one’s insurance representative declare you were involved in a hit-and-run collision is, nevertheless, unsettling. I assured him they had the wrong car, that I didn’t think I’d even driven anywhere that day. That my trusty Volvo S40 lives in a locked garage in a building with 24-hour security and really doesn’t go out rear-ending other cars without my permission.

Would this not have been a good time to say, “Oh, sorry; we’ll fix that”? I felt so. Instead, I was referred the “the adjuster of my claim.” Then I was asked to make a recorded statement, after which I was asked to email photos of my car from all sides. Which I did. Thanks to its having been all painted and spiffed up when I bought it, the little silver auto was quite emphatic about being without a scratch. I, though, was not undamaged. Beginning with the spike in my blood pressure from the original call, continuing through a trip to the garage to make sure I wasn’t crazy, recording my statement which felt like pleading innocent in a court of law and doing a photo-shoot in the garage – there went my day.

Eventually I received a copy of the “pending” file with assurance that it would soon be “settled” and nothing would appear on my record. It noted that the Vehicle Identification Number of the car involved didn’t match my car’s VIN, and – by the way – the car involved was green, so clearly not my car. This is “actually quite common,” the adjuster assured me, which was not reassuring in the least. Since no one seemed inclined to answer my emailed questions, I finally called the adjuster to ask.

The accident happened in Oakland, across the Bay from San Francisco and you couldn’t pay me to drive across the Bay Bridge. None of the streets in Berkeley or Oakland make sense to me any more, and BART does. How did the other insurance company (the one covering the car that was rear-ended) get my insurance information? “Oh, the driver of the other vehicle probably wrote down a license number one digit off, or something; that happens all the time. We were just doing our job.” Would it not have been simple to check the VINs and immediately know the car involved was not my car? “A lot of times we do not have the VIN on file . . . We were just doing our job.” I wanted to check out my now secret suspicion that my old car had somehow been put back together and sold to a careless driver in Oakland, but by this time I did not want to hear once more that my insurance company – which will remain nameless here to avoid further damages – was just doing its job. Does its job not involve trying not to drive its clients nuts?

Apparently not.

Downsizing: The incredible lightness of being

Photo by Ann Nekr on Pexels.com

On moving from a four-story, century-old Edwardian into a 1600-sq-ft condo eight years ago I wrote a lengthy feature for the local newspaper (The New Fillmore, May 13, 2013) titled “Lessons Learned from Downsizing.” It drew editorial applause and a bunch of affirmative comments. But it seems not to have sunk in all that well.

I am back in the downsizing business. This time around it is partly a matter of trying to get organized, but despite the donating/tossing/selling/shredding activities of 2013 I am once again (or still) overwhelmed with Stuff. You don’t have to be a Marie Kondo drop-out to know how quickly Stuff can overwhelm. (I applaud every KonMari success story out there, but frankly never got past Step One.)

Here is the Big Truth: downsizing is good for the soul. Whether it’s moving from a 4-story Edwardian into a 3-room condo or reducing a tall pile of photo albums into one small box, there is a lightness akin to joy in the afterglow.

Photo by Max Vakhtbovych on Pexels.com

Looking back on it, there was some pretty good advice in my 2013 article. But as it ran to something over 5,000 words I’ll spare you the whole thing. (Digital copy on request.) I itemized its wisdom in eight lessons learned, which included: Treasures are your enemy; and The Fast-Disposal Plan: put it on the sidewalk with a large sign taped to it reading FREE. Also, even eight years ago much of what is cluttering up the planet (and our lives) could be digitized and made to disappear.

Downsizing is probably good for the soul at any age. What’s your teenager going to do with that wall of blue ribbons from hockey games or dressage events? Maybe one Little League trophy could be representative of the other 57 after the other 57 go to the Goodwill? Or wherever the trophies of our youth go to die. And that, of course is the other half of the Big Truth: wherever our souls go when we leave planet earth, our Stuff remains.

Award-winning (multiple major awards at that) author Ann Patchett confirmed my theory of the Big Truth – this writer uses any crafty means of mentioning herself and Ann Patchett in the same sentence – in a recent, reflective article in The New Yorker. Letting go of an old manual typewriter was particularly problematic for Patchett, as it was for me. She had several more of these treasures than I, and solved the problem by keeping two that had maximum meaning and giving another to a delighted eight-year-old. I solved mine by giving Pearl the Pert Pink Portable to my daughter, in whose family room it is respectfully, somewhat regally, displayed. Although Pearl will live forever in my heart for getting me through college and launched into my literary career, she is undoubtedly happier on display in a room of constant socialization than on my dark closet shelf. (Patchett noted the tendency to anthropomorphize our treasures.)

Back to the issue of departing souls and remaining Stuff. “I was starting to get rid of my possessions, at least the useless ones, because possessions stood between me and death,” Patchett writes. “They didn’t protect me from death, but they created a barrier in my understanding, like layers of bubble wrap, so that instead of thinking about what was coming and the beauty that was here now I was thinking about the piles of shiny trinkets I’d accumulated.”

Pearl the Pert Pink Portable

Disposing of the shiny trinkets, along with the ancient documents and the favorite jeans from the 1980s and the shelf of folded paper bags – there’s an unwritten law about getting rid of paper bags that came bearing bottles of wine or small gifts? – and even beloved manual typewriters is a liberating act. If the disposer has begun to realize that he or she may, in fact, die some day, it is liberating to the extreme. With every drawer-cleaning comes lightness.

I may die? Worse things have happened. At least no one will have to curse my ghost while clearing out this junky drawer.

When my beloved mother-in-law died I remember flying to Detroit with a sense of dread about dealing with her house and the trappings of 93 years. My husband was her sole survivor. But nobody had had to tell Isabel Johns to downsize. We would find in a drawer one carefully folded, tissue-wrapped sweater. In a closet, perhaps several dresses and two pairs of shoes. In the pantry, the barest minimum of canned goods and a broom clipped to the door. There were no mysterious piles of documents and receipts, no dusty boxes of unidentified photos, no collections of sermons written by her Methodist preacher husband of fifty-plus years – worthy though a few of the hundreds might have been. In lieu of Stuff, Isabel left only the enduring memories of a life well lived. And a lightness in the afterglow.

This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com

The Beauty of Storytelling

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

 “There is no greater agony,” wrote Maya Angelou, “than bearing an untold story inside you.” Over the past, agonizing year, more than a few of us tackled our inner agony by telling our stories. Not for fame or fortune, just for the joy of telling that untold story. 

Everybody has a story. This is an argument for storytelling, along with a few suggestions about how to tell your own.

I have just finished (you might have figured something like this was coming) a collection of stories for my children and grandchildren, thanks to the help and persistence of an interesting website called StoryWorth.com. This is a totally unpaid plug. Other sites may also be great, among them StoryCatcher, StoryCorps, Ancestry and MyHeritage.com; I just happen to have landed with StoryWorth and haven’t tried the others. Consider this anecdotal – but enthusiastic.

My enterprising daughter purchased – with my advance consent (an important detail) – a StoryWorth account for me over a year ago; that’s how long I’ve been working on this project. In the end there is now a collection of stories – as close to a family history as this family will come – about their parents and grandparents. But it is also about great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, far-flung cousins; cities and towns; quirks and foibles that inhabit the past. I would have given all my worldly goods for someone to StoryWorth my own grandparents.

How to start? The value of enrolling in a program of some sort is that the storyteller gets both guidance and a constant nudge. StoryWorth sent a weekly question such as ‘What were your grandparents like?’ or ‘How did you get your first job?’ or ‘What did you read as a child?’ When I later realized I could write my own questions I invited my children to submit their own. Surprise, they didn’t send any softballs. How about ‘What was the biggest challenge you faced growing up?’ ‘How did you handle it?’ But questions and nudges help get stories told; the challenges thing is in my collection.

Stories need not be just for families. Every cause you support, every job you’ve done or place you’ve lived weaves itself into history, just as all of us become a part of history in the process of passing through. And history is nothing but a collection of stories.

Storytelling also may just be good for the soul; what’s good for the story might be balm for the teller.

Among young people, storytelling is the great introductory ploy. It’s the way high school students break the ice, the way nonprofits build community among their supporters; in my MFA program (University of San Francisco, Class of 2000) we spent the summer session writing an autobiographical narrative – telling our stories – that launched us, both individually and as a community of writers, into the semi-rarefied atmosphere of graduate study.

In senior communities, encouraging people to tell their stories is increasingly seen as a way to bring meaning – and joy – into often lonely lives. For those not inclined to type their stories there is a growing supply of voice recorder apps, and there is the old-fashioned tape recorder which can record stories that then can be digitized. So it seems one is never too old (and seldom too young) to benefit from telling one’s story.  

Today looks like a good time to start.