Junk Drawer

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If you’re following along with out purging process, you may be wondering why I didn’t start you off somewhere simple like a junk drawer or that closet that houses roller blades, winter clothes, wooden tennis racquets and bags full of mystery. The answer is simple: it won’t make a difference.

I’m not going for the temporary win here, I’m going for transformational.

A [more than likely misguided, but ultimately helpful] thief could enter your home while you’re at work, remove every item in that closet and junk drawer and you probably wouldn’t notice for months. When you needed a battery for the smoke alarm, probably or when you finally decide to toss that deflating exercise ball into the hungry maw of broken promises.

No. You may feel a momentary puffery of satisfaction for emptying these spaces, but you didn’t really do anything worthy of praise. Sorry.

We are working on areas that you see every day, that drag down your energy and make you want to leave town or nap until dinner. We are working with present day life stuff.

Make the junk drawer or the closet your reward after your first purge. PLUS, if you empty a drawer and a closet first, what do you think will happen?

Oh, I think you know.

You’ll have the best of intentions.  You will only put a few things in there, like holiday items and golf clubs. That is until you have company and need a quick place to stash all that extra stuff that won’t fit under the bed because you never got around to doing that because you were so busy patting yourself on the back for emptying the junk drawer and closet of things you didn’t even know you had.

So.

Peruse your shoes, paw through your clothes and remove a couple of items. I’ll bet you already know which ones. Then do a little more and keep going. It’s a lot like a new habit, it needs reinforcing. The empty space is your reward.

Then when you do need that 9 volt battery at the Autumnal Equinox guess what will happen? You’ll take 10 minutes to rifle through the drawer, throw anything away that is no longer needed, straighten up what you do need and walk away. Just like that. No ceremony, no struggle. You’ll be so pro at this you won’t even notice what you just did until you’re about to lay down to bed. And even then you’ll smile, just a little and not even share it on social media.

You’re that good.

Purging for Your Life

Tree of Life, Amazing Banyan Tree.

Did you do it? Did you come up with your goal for purging? I suppose goal is not the best word, vision is better, I think. Maybe it’s both. The goal is to pare down as much as you deem appropriate to fulfill the vision of what your life will look like, in all aspects, once you’ve reached this goal.

What’s your why? What is bigger and stronger than the sway of your stuff? That’s what we’re getting to.

I promised I would share my process, but I don’t suppose it’s much of a mystery. I have done this before: at my home, helping friends and family and readying a home or two for an estate sale. I have read blogs and books on purging, organization, efficiency, minimalism and the Japanese Art of Tidying. I have tried and faltered, stopped just short of the magic. Now I am back with new purpose; the vision of space to create and breathe and find stillness nudges me along.

The one thing I know for sure is your process will be unique to you.

Before you begin to consider all of your things – those objects that occupy space on bookshelves, hidden in drawers, in boxes in the attic or garage or *gasp*under the bed (a big Feng Shui no-no) – understand that any and all of them can stay. Please know that.

But remember your vision and goal and measure each tiny treasure against that possible future.

Also recognize that each one of these precious-at-one-time things can also be anchors, tethering you to the past, sometimes with happy memories, other times in sorrow or pain, but holding you at arm’s length from the present nonetheless.

Imagine yourself as a banyan tree, like the one pictured above. The tree is sturdy strong and content, but it can never move. Each branch has a series of roots in addition to the trunk. It is forever tied to the earth, to that one place. If you have no desire to grow, expand or create, by all means, keep all your stuff and remain blissfully stuck.

I know that my study of the yoga philosophy over the past ten years has given me a unique perspective on the accumulation of stuff and I may come across unsentimental at best and heartless at worst. I will cop to the first charge, but assure you I do have a heart. A heart that wants to be unburdened and free to create in the present. And I am not completely without sentimentality, perhaps I just lean more toward pragmatic.

There is a tenet in the yoga philosophy that I’ve mentioned before, called aparigraha. It means non-attachment or non-hoarding. If we hold onto things with a firm grasp we cannot open our hands to receive more. We stop the flow of abundance physically, energetically, emotionally and spiritually.

Ok, enough woo woo, let’s get down to business.

Sharing the entire process – that I am still figuring out for myself, by the way – would be akin to asking you to order a dumpster and throw everything away. Instead I will offer some initial encouragement and guidelines to get started, allowing for space and time, tactics that have helped me get and stay on this [mostly] rewarding track. Then later we’ll dig a little deeper.

STEP ONE:

Create an unshakable vision for your future unencumbered self. Think hard on this one because it is this vision that will fortify your resolve to keep going.

STEP TWO:

  • Clear a large flat surface. This could be a dining room table, a bed or even the floor in a room (assuming you don’t have critters – human or beast – that will curiously poke at your things and possibly wander off with them).
  • Mindfully move from room to room removing anything that does not belong there. Clothes in the living room, scissors on the entry table, etc. and place these items on that newly cleaned off flat surface.
  • Once you have swept the whole home (or the areas you plan to work on) put the items back where they belong. If there are homeless items, leave them here.
  • Clean your home. Touch everything, dust it, notice the items you’re vacuuming around, how many personal care items you’re wiping down in the bathroom, you know, clean.
  • Take a break. And maybe a shower. Seriously.
  • Now, slowly walk through each room you wish to purge with a critical eye. Remove everything you know you no longer want. Don’t linger. Don’t try on clothes or jewelry or get lost in the emotion of things, simply walk these collected items to the big flat surface, then move onto the next room.
  • Gather the following: 2 boxes, a trashcan, a stickee pad and a marker.
    • Box 1: Charity
    • Box 2: Gifts for friends or items to return – the stickee pad and marker are to label each item with the recipient’s name.
    • Trashcan: you know
  • Once your items have found their way into the appropriate box, take them. Remove them from your home, all the way, not just into the trunk of your car. Actually drive them to where you intend for them to go.

You will feel lighter.

That’s it for now. This part of the process could take weeks or months and maybe should. Please take your time with the possessions you chose to bring into your home. Some items will be tossed without a second glance, others will grip you a little tighter. Allow for the process to unfold organically for you.

Still stuck? Go back to your vision.

 

Distillation

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I’ve come to recognize this process I’ve undertaken is more of a distillation than a purge. In actuality it’s both, but it goes far beyond letting go of physical things.

It’s showing me just how powerful thought is.

We assign meaning to everything, right down to a moth-eaten 45 year old outfit for a little boy. We attach people and situations to objects. This belonged to dad. Grandma drew that when she was just 17. There’s a story for everything and we add to it so much so that letting go of the item becomes painful. But ultimately can be so freeing.

While the home, spirit and mind cleansing practice has been taking place, I’ve rubbed up against some difficult choices. Decisions I’ve made difficult. You would have no problem throwing away or rehoming a tiny glass heart with no discernible marks. But it belonged to my mother, along with various other hearts she seemed to collect. And it’s not that, ‘oh, this reminds me of mom and every positive loving memory I have of her is wrapped up in this tiny glass heart,” sentimental kind of thing, it’s more about timing. And maybe respect.

How long do I hold onto something of hers just because she held onto it and she would want me to hold on to it? When is it okay and respectable to let it go?

Writing it out makes it sound as ridiculous as the thought construct from whence it came. These are inanimate objects that we animate with stories.

But its just a thought. Something I made up about that object.

It’s not just her stuff. It can be an item I purchased myself on a whim or a gift I have received, it doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is the story. Attachment to the story.

These items we hold onto, even though we don’t love them, are weight, a burden. As I write this I am looking around my room that is in transition – again – and I could discard over 50% of the items in here. Yet I don’t. I have my mother’s Tarot cards, and my grandmother’s; I have feathers collected by me and my mother; books I think I’ll read, but may never; a desk I can’t wait to remove; a box temporarily housing all the “meaningful” altar items I think I need, most of which I will pass along; and craft supplies for projects that may or may not manifest.

It’s all thought. Just thought.

It’s also an anchor, a cord to the past or guilt or shame, sometimes love and happy memories. But attachment all the same.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all these observations, it’s just where I am right now.

Oh yes, distillation. This feels like the right course of action for me. It’s taking 500 items and skimming 20 off the top, then taking a closer look at those 480 items left and swiping 100 items off the top, then pawing through and considering 380 items and removing 80 and so on until what’s left is the best of the best, the cream of the crop, those items I love, need and from which I gain inspiration.

I could remove everything from my home except a bed, a chair, a desk, one outfit, etc. Get rid of everything in one fell swoop. But there would always be that curiosity of what I had just given up; A cord to imaginary things, ghosts in fabricated stories that would haunt my imagination. I would wonder if I let go of something I needed or wanted but didn’t realize it. And it just feels ruthless and I would miss what is being revealed as the true gift in this daunting project.

With the luxury of going slower I am able gain the wisdom of the process. I get to examine my thoughts, tendencies, emotions and memories. I get to decide. I get to grow.

My goal is not to live in complete austerity. I love beautiful things, I just want a lot less of them. I am convinced that a peaceful, expansive life has everything to do with subtraction.

By taking my time I get to touch every single item I have chosen to bring into my home and my life and let it go. Or not. Or maybe not quite yet.

It’s just a thought. And thoughts can be changed. Even let go of.

 

 

 

Giving Up

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I am in danger of letting it all go. Taking a giant energetic eraser and wiping my stuff slate clean.  Instead of a POD, a dumpster. I’m going to put all the pretty breakable things I own on the kitchen counter and let Kitty Andersen have her way with them. I’m over it.

I am in danger of quitting. Holding on to what’s left, petting it, apologizing to it for casting out its friends. I’m itching to skulk around antique and thrift shops looking for something I didn’t know I needed then squeezing it in between other items without meaning.

I am in the process of purging.

Everything is energy and everything has energy – a bit of magic formed of memories and wishes. A rock collected from the Long Island Sound. Or was it the banks of the Ganges. Maybe someone gave it to me. A tiny Buddha living among others of its kind on an altar with things that, when held individually, seem to lose most of their meaning and charm. Where did he come from?

If I don’t know where they came from how can they have meaning?

It is this energy or connection I am becoming very sensitive to. It was most telling when I was moving my altar items to a box for safe keeping whilst I hurricaned about the place. I considered every piece of preciousness and of the 253,876 items, maybe 10 elicited a knowing smile. The rest more of an exasperated sigh at my ridiculous assignment of meaning to every rock and every feather I have ever found. (More on altars later.)

I am both burdened by this stuff and buoyed by it. It brings me joy and sometimes peace and it frustrates the hell out of me.

I can tell you that being able to take my time with my stuff has been mostly a positive experience and I’m grateful to be able to do this my way. It gives me great pleasure to hand over items that have meaning to me to others that can find new life for them. But I am doing this without attachment or condition. If I personally hand a book to someone it is always with the permission to “feel free to regift, recycle or do whatever you’d like with it.”

I am, of course, holding on to some very precious things, but I am trying to make those items the exception. And I’m even questioning those things.

Because Larry and I have a few antique spaces between us I am afforded the luxury of cycling some items through and possibly recouping my initial investment or even making an extra buck or two. An old radio flyer wagon, for instance,  with peeling red paint that sits atop my (almost empty) TV cabinet. I like the addition of color and the stories of the children it must have held. One day I’ll tire of it and pass it along. Sell to someone who can make up their own narratives.

Currently my house is once again in turmoil, this seems to be the cycle. Pull everything out from its hiding place, paw through it, roll eyes, sort, toss, pile, purge. Then do it all over again. Until there are just no more hiding places. From my perch on the sofa I spy:

  • 2 boxes of CDs waiting to be delivered to new homes
  • 6 stacks of CDs yet to be sorted through (down from about a million)
  • 3 stacks of magazines (one with paint color ideas, one to be given away to a friend  and one yet to go through – a short stack)
  • 1 looming stack of books to be priced and sold
  • 3 stacks of books to go to the studio for adoption
  • 4 empty boxes waiting to be filled for Good Will (at least 50 boxes have been transported so far)

But all these piles, while causing momentary shortness of breath and heart palpitations, can be moved into their proper places – outside my home – by end of day tomorrow and I can vacuum and dust and space clear and do a happy dance until the next time.

The goal again, for me, is to whittle all of my possessions down to just what I can see, just what I love or has beautiful inspirational meaning or what is useful. And not to restart the cycle of collection and purging. But it’s in stages and steps. (More on my process coming soon.)

For now, stuff is moving out, space is being revealed. The math is working.

What’s Your Why?

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I’m always amazed when a friend starts a sentence with, “I read your blog on…” referring to something I wrote that mattered to them.

I share this with you because it makes me very happy, but also because there is a recurrent theme in these conversations: stuff. “I’m right there with you.” “What is it about stuff?” “How are you handling this or letting go of that?” “How do I even start?”

They want to know my process. Exactly.

I’ll share it, but I want to make it clear that The Process is different for everyone. The time it takes, what to start with, how to keep going will depend on you.

In addition, these friends want to know how they will feel. I can’t answer that. I can tell you I feel overwhelmed, frustrated, sad, light, elated and overwhelmed all over again. There are times that I cannot stop and other times I’m paralyzed in the middle of a room and all I want to do is sit down and cry.

It should be different for everyone. Why you are doing it what matters most.

If you have a concrete goal in mind that is driving you, or an intention for the use of the space when you are done, you will remain steadfast in your endeavor. You must KNOW clarity will come. You must TRUST breathing will be easier and petty life stuff will no longer pull you down.

Stuff is a stressor. Just add it to the list. It’s one more thing (or likely hundreds of little actual things) on your nervous system.

You must have a clear vision. And support.

It is difficult, but not impossible, to do this alone in a house full of people who roll their eyes and sigh at your crazy ideas more than should be natural.

IT IS NOT YOUR JOB TO SWAY THEM OR DO THIS FOR THEM.

For now, focus on YOU.

I encourage you to work on your why. As Stephen Covey stated, “Begin with the end in mind.”

  • What does the “end” look like for you?
  • What does it feel like?
  • What will the benefit be once your space is purged and organized?
  • What is the why that will keep you going?

Work on a ‘why’ that is so strong that you can easily explain it and rely on it to keep you on track.

If you’re struggling with the final vision, try getting at it this way:

  • What is frustrating you now?
  • How much time do you spend moving things to look for other things?
  • How much time do you spend looking for something in general?
  • How much energy do you lose when you look at your surroundings?

Imagine your space clear, open, organized. Close your eyes and edit it. Imagine your bedroom with just a bed. What else do you need? What else would you add? Maybe it’s nothing. Start with an empty room in your mind’s eye and add in (on paper or in your imagination) only what you need and what brings you peace.

The outcome you envision will be the key to your progress. If nothing is coming to you, maybe it’s not the right time quite yet. Allow it to unfold, to evolve, let it roll around in your brain.

It. Is. So. Worth. It.

YOU, are so worth it.

Next time we’ll talk strategy. For now work on “why”. What’s the point? Ponder that.

Name That Tune

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I am ridiculous.

 

In the past three days Larry and I  have gone through 5 suitcases full of CD’s – with a few cassettes – a TV cabinet stuffed with movies – some even on VHS – and started to dig into books. A little. We dropped off six boxes of media to Good Will, he set aside a box for a friend of various items and I have a rolly cart threatening to burst that I will take to work to share.

Still I sit among 300+ CD’s.

About a year and a half ago I left the PC world behind and returned to the magical world of Apple. I bought a MAC book Pro. I used MAC’s all throughout art school and in most of the creative jobs I’ve held, but when it came time to purchase my own laptop I went with the Toshiba that was a fraction of the cost. Then I was stuck in the PC loop. Finally I bit the bullet and returned to MAC. Home again.

But my music apparently went with the PC.

I had spent days, weeks, probably months uploading my CDs to iTunes on that first laptop. I thought after I was complete that I could probably just discard the CDs since everything was now in one magical place, you know, the cloud, but I held onto them anyway.

Glad I did.

In March of this year I had the brilliant idea to load nothing but yoga nidra’s onto my tiny little iPod and leave it behind for Larry while I traipsed across the globe. I’d set up the little Bose iPod player in the bedroom with the iPod docked and he’d be all set.

Except my music was gone. It was on my iPod, but gone from iTunes.

I looked online for answers. I did all the tricks recommended. Nothing. Finally I asked a friend if she’d had to deal with this issue. She had. When she switched from PC to MAC. The music she had uploaded stayed on her PC, she had to manually transfer it. My hard drive and old laptop were delivered to the dump, that wouldn’t be an option.

So. Now.

As I’m in the process of uploading and curating and creating playlists of these diverse shiny circles of music, the thought occurs to me… it took me over a year to notice my music was gone. Is it really worth the time to go back through and upload everything? Did I really miss it?

The answer is yes, mostly, I missed some. I missed my classical and jazz playlists and my crooners and blues ladies, but I am uploading almost everything. Or I had planned to.

I haven’t listened to Weezer in maybe three years. Trik Turner? What did they even sing? Is it a they or a he? Yet, there those CD’s sit. Waiting.

It’s about control. Perhaps.

I love that I can turn on the TV and search for something on cable, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix and I don’t need to house DVDs, but it still feels a little scary. And I still want some sort of structure with TV and usually I want not TV at all.

Music is different for me. I want to put on my computer what I want. I want to KNOW what’s on there. I want to CREATE playlists. I want to create STRUCTURE. Ultimately I want to CONTROL something and this seems like a safe place to do that.

Truthfully, if you were to come to my house, scoop up all my CDs up and take them with you, I’d adjust. But for a minute or two I’d search my mind wanting to know what you took. Ok, there were about 500 CD’s, what were they? I would probably actually start to make a list.

Then I would let go.

Then I would allow music to come to me. I would remember that it was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos that I loved. And anything by Mozart. And no one can set a mood like Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. I would summon up Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and maybe even Weezer. I would immediately find Melody Gardot and Madelaine Peyroux and maybe even stumble across someone new I didn’t know I needed.

Instead I grip. I cling. I control.

And I learn.

Space Clearing

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At the risk of outing myself as some sort of woo woo shaman witch psychic nut job, I’d like to talk about clearing space.

I know it may seem as if that is all I talk about in the physical sense. Removing items from my home I no longer need, encouraging you to do the same and reveling in the newly created open space.

But this is space clearing of a different kind, although it walks hand-in-hand with the removal of objects.

The space clearing I’m referring to here is energetic.

I know you sort of believe me. I know you’ve been in a room in a house that felt stuffy or thick or off. You’ve walked into a space that felt tense or one that felt open and airy. You’ve been in a space completely devoid of people yet you either want to stay or you can’t get out of there fast enough. Why?

Right now so much of my home is stuffed with the energy of memories and history. Photos, books, papers, crafting supplies, linens and memorabilia have been gone through and organized.

Yet there is still much to be done. And the shadow of all those things lingers behind.

 

 

Most recently I culled through decades of photos, some over a century old. I discarded many and have plans for the rest, but I have much more to go through before I can allow myself the luxury of playing, so I have sorted them by decade in envelopes and stored them neatly away in the hutch in my beloved guest room. Alongside the photos live old newspaper clippings, horrible artwork, a blanket that was loved too hard and some deteriorating military felt.

I have completely (re)organized my guest room. The napping room. My favorite room in the whole house. (Perhaps I’ve mentioned it before?)

Only now the air is a little heavy with all those memories and history.

Here’s where the space clearing comes in.

For years I studied Feng Shui (more new age voodoo) and the focus of this tradition is energy. Move your stuff, change your life (actually the title of a really great book as well as a truism). Energy collects in corners, under furniture and appliances. It hovers near the ceiling or behind beds and dressers; things pushed up against walls. It can be stuck anywhere.

Its removal and dispersement does not have to take on some sort of mystical ritual, but it can. And maybe it should. For me, simply vacuuming can do the trick. But this space (and I’m sure, others to come) seems to be asking for more specific attention.

A simple way to clear space is to clap. Opening  the windows and door of the room to be cleared, walking around the room clapping into corners and up near where the walls meet the ceiling helps to move stagnant energy out. Seriously. The whole time I’m doing this I am honoring the energy that has collected there. It’s not bad or good, it’s energy.

After the clapping I clean the room, dust, vacuum, straighten up and take a shower.

Test it out. Go into a room that doesn’t see a lot of action, or one that has had a particularly negative visitor, and clap, just once. Is it clear? Does the sound reverberate? If not, perhaps you’ll understand. If so, great, no work needed, maybe.

If clapping isn’t your thing, a bell or chime will work. A handheld drum is also often used. Some use sage or incense.  If you are secretly woo woo and want to explore this phenomenon, I’ll post some links for you to check out. In the meantime, wander through your spaces, get a sense of them, notice the differences in how you feel in each space. And how each space feels.

Be curious. Honor your space and the energy there.

I recommend reading up on different techniques if this sounds useful to you. Here are the promised links. Let me know how it goes for you.

  • Denise Linn  is one of my favorites. She has strong Native American approach. I love her Space Clearing book.
  • Karen Kingston is another favorite.
  • Karen Rauch Carter is the funny, awesome lady who wrote the book I mentioned above, Move Your Stuff, Change Your Life.

The Dump

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Larry and I were recently at our county’s Central Transfer Station – that’s a fancy name for dump. Larry had been before, but I had never had the pleasure. When we drove in, we stopped at the guardgate and were happily directed to the “tunnel, all the way to the right.”

It wasn’t as obvious as it sounded.

We accidentally drove down the wrong tunnel. There are three tunnels, the one on the far right was our intended destination to drop off old paint cans, chemicals and a few electronics as we continue to purge, but somehow we drove down the center lane. It was creepy. There was a giant dump truck open on the top, and it was receiving trash from a trap door, the size of a car, above it. It felt like we were on secret property, like we might get caught and questioned in this smelly, putrefying place lit sickly green by fluorescent bulbs. But no one paid any attention to us. We drove out as if we were getting away with something, quickly but calmly.

Once outside, there were people moving things from here to there, county vehicles and random pavilions and no one paid any attention to us. A left turn would take us back to our starting point so we could try this again.

IMG_7586On our second try we found the correct tunnel. It was fastidious – for a dump. There were giant signs for each type of contaminant and pallets beneath them neatly stacked with items homeowners, just like us, had placed in rows. To the right there were what looked like huge walk-in freezers each with its own warning: Flammable, Poison, Corrosive, Oxidizer. When there was no obvious place for electronics, I hailed an official looking person and he pointed further down the line. There, a large old TV was placed nearly in the way with nothing but static and the letters TVs painted on the screen in bright red.

My imagination melded Poltergeist with Ghost Whisperer and I saw the letters written in the blood of a dead man from inside the screen as a clue to his demise. Imagination is not always helpful.

The gentleman overseeing this part of the operation was neatly dressed in something like a mechanic may wear. He was affable and chatting with someone else in this trash tomb. There seemed to be a sense of pride in his work and the place was pretty immaculate – at least in this area – but still it had a stench.

I don’t ever want to go back there. But, if I am a responsible homeowner I will. I don’t expect us to have any more chemicals, but there will be paint cans and electronics and I will not add toxic waste to an already overtaxed landfill.

Do you ever fly? Have you flown over any mountains, in particular over the western United States where they are mostly scrubby and bare? You can really see how they came to be. I’m always mesmerized by the way Mother Earth has shaped (and continues to shape) herself. It’s plain to see how the mountains grew, pushed up and together by shifting plates and how they were shaped by wind and water. It’s so obvious. And beautiful.

Then flying over farmland, especially in the north-east, the earth is blanketed with a patchwork quilt of crops from small farms. Rows neatly planted, some dark green, others brown, but all planted with care. I’m always amazed by the neatness of it all.

But then there are the bodies of unrealistic milky green-blue water and endless crops of the same thing. There are landfills will tiny chimneys placed every so often, very strategically, to allow all the gasses from trash to escape so they don’t explode, I’m guessing. There are rows of buildings that house livestock and waterways cut into the landscape for irrigation where nothing is supposed to grow and to move toxic waste to, where?

I often wonder if it hurts. Mother Earth that is. What does it feel like to have so much foreign matter inserted subcutaneously? And the weird water, does that burn? Are the fields of frankencrops like eczema? Do the islands of plastic in the oceans feel like digestive blockages? Or tumors?

What have we done? And how can we do better?

This field trip was eye-opening. It’s not that I don’t know there is a copious amount of trash out there, I pass two landfills on my way south to visit friends, but that I am contributing to this at all makes me very sad. We’re recyclers (and soon to be composters) but that’s not enough. We have to be more mindful on the front end, about what we bring in. Just the other day I opted for two containers of cut up watermelon instead of the wedge I normally by. They were a bogo and less expensive for the same amount of watermelon. BUT, now I have two plastic containers that I will throw in the recycle bin and hope they make it somewhere to be melted and used again, when I could have tossed a rind back into nature.

It’s catching these things, being present while making buying decisions, that is the work. I have what I have and now that we’re digging in and purging in earnest, it’s helpful to see where we were awake and mindful and what we need to work on.

The lessons and process continues.

Gay Uncles

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I took a break from organizing and donating crafting supplies to begin the task of categorizing photos. The entire surface of the bed in the guest room is covered in boxes and baskets of photos. This room, the guest room, is my most favorite. It is decorated exactly the way I want it – simple white linens, an antique cherry night stand on one side of the bed and a filing cabinet hidden under a round top and layers of white linens on the other. The headboard is painted white-ish and gold – perfectly distressed – there is a cream colored bookcase, a dark oak hutch, white linen curtains and a dark wood chair. The art on the walls consists of bird prints and tiny pieces of original art I purchased on trips abroad. It is simple and clean (most of the time) and it’s where I go to breathe. The one room that is almost always neat and clean. I miss that feeling, so I’m digging in to unearth my little island of calm.

The photos are a mix of recent, with vibrant colors and uniform sizes and old yellowed, black and white with creases and cardboard backing. I love them all. The fresh memories and the bits of history I’m left to make up in the older ones. It’s those stories waiting to be told that I get lost in.

In these various piles there are two secrets closely held: one in a brown vinyl travel bag, the other in a tan photo album. They belong to my uncles. The twin great-uncles that I loved so dearly.

There is nothing scandalous hidden here. No pornographic images, no confessions or blackmail. The memories and photos are powerful in their simplicity. Each had many photos of the two of them together, they were very close, just standing side by side smiling for the camera. They were gay, both of them, though the opera singer would never claim his preferences. His brother, discreet, but out, would share his twin’s secrets with my mother and I after his death.

They weren’t really secrets.

The photos they left behind hold images of men seated in living rooms and kitchens, laughing, smiling, enjoying themselves. There are couples, it seems, only if the time is taken to go through them all. The same two men are standing or seated side by side with their arms around each other like “pals” on more than one occasion, in different clothes and maybe a change in hair style or length. These were relationships.

Tucked in with these photos are newspaper clippings of accomplishments of each other and their friends, their family.

What is so striking about these photos is nothing. Yet they were held in bottom drawers of dressers under winter clothes. I imagine them filling a roll of film half with these photos and the other half with shots of them with family and women so as not to arouse suspicion at the one-hour photo processing center in their home towns. Or even driving the unprocessed film far enough away. They would carefully cull out the photos and place the special ones in albums to be viewed often and probably alone or just with the subjects contained within. The other photos would be found loose in a kitchen drawer or in the envelope they came in, resting on the coffee table. Or maybe discarded.

So much of their lives were manipulated and restrained for the comfort of others. These secrets and maybe lies would ultimately undo them.

The opera singer, became well known in the opera community of New York City. He was married three times to different women, powerful artists in their own rights. I always suspected he was gay. He was just this side of flamboyant – dramatic perhaps, that was his job after all – and he never had children. Never wanted them. He was happy to be an uncle and he was an awesome one.

But his secrecy made him sick.

Ultimately the “not gay” opera singing uncle would succumb to AIDS toward the end of the eighties. He wasted away. He had denied his actual existence in favor of the persona he thought everyone wanted. And it killed him.

The other uncle lived much more quietly, pursuing the arts differently. He would work in Europe for Fortuny, then in Boston. Later he would open a lighting store, then a florist shop. He would drink and make the unfortunate decisions that come along with alcoholism. It was not easy living inauthentically. Liquor helped.

Later in life he would give it up. He met and fell in love with someone a decade younger who was sober but infected. They never had sex, he told me, but they were affectionate and madly in love. There are photos that make this obvious. Sweet, gentle images of the two of them engaged in conversation, smiling, listening.

But AIDS would take him too. They both knew it would eventually come and were as prepared as anyone can be for such profound, gradual loss.

There would be no other lovers. Instead he turned his life over to AA. For over 30 years my sweet uncle would take in people in the “the program” who needed a soft place to land for a while. He had inherited his father’s house and there were two bedrooms and a Florida room surrounded on two sides with jalousie windows and a back door. He moved into the Florida room to allow the residents of the other rooms some privacy. That’s just how he was.

The house was a very small typical Florida home built sometime in the 40s and 50s. Just one small bathroom, a large kitchen with a window over the sink with a wide sill that my great grandmother would place peanut butter crackers on for the local squirrel population, feeding some of them by hand and a living room big enough to fit an upright piano. His parents had lived in it over 30 years. He moved in with his father to help take care of him in his later years, to be sure he took his meds and didn’t drive after too many cocktails. His dad “knew” but it wasn’t discussed. His mother had passed ten years prior and she would not allow it to be spoken about. She knew too, they were her babies, the youngest of six by about 12 years. But still, you just didn’t talk about such things.

He would, much later after his beloved dog died, check himself into an assisted care facility from which he would not emerge alive. He was beginning to forget things and didn’t want to be a burden. He knew what was coming, he had seen it in every one of his older siblings, except his twin who would escape that fate by dying too young.  Less than a year after he moved out of his tiny Florida home he went to sleep and didn’t wake up. I’m pretty sure he planned it that way.

Their lives were rich, they mattered. They loved wholly and completely. They each left a legacy of art, beauty, laughter and love.

They were great, great-uncles and sifting through their photographic pasts fills my heart with compassion and sadness in equal measure for the lives they lived and the ones they hid.

 

Who Needs TV?

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This morning on the back patio while Kitty Andersen and I were sorting pine straw for craft projects (I know, my life is glamorous and magical and you wish you were me) we were found ourselves in the front row of a spectacular show.

The curtain went up to a great and brief left over rain shower when one squirrel leapt onto the winged elm branch dispatching all pooled water from recent storms from its leaves onto the tin roof.

Landing in the rubber tree a single blue jay called to his friends. First, he nattered, almost clucking, I had never heard a blue jay do that before. Then he let loose his powerful ear-splitting screech. It was this call that produced another, then another. The meeting was called to order. There was disagreement, as there always is at these things, resolution, some discussion and then eventually adjournment, but not before one attendant stomped off in a huff.

While the remaining executives were in the throes of their strategy, five squirrels rushed across the top of the fence, stage right, the first one stopping short with each one following bumping into the next, and one less than present fella tumbling to the ground. They regrouped and continued along behind the bushes, the rubber tree – we lost one to the rubber tree, seems even squirrels have squirrel moments – then on to the orange tree. All the while they chattered and giggled.

The blue jays squawked directly at the fuzzy gray mammals causing them to stop and look around while wringing their hands as if to say, “Wait, shhhh, did you hear something?” When the answer was clearly no, they continued on.

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This went on for quite some time. Kitty Andersen abandoned her sorting duties for a better seat atop the stone elephant. Not until the jays flew away and the squirrels pounded across the tin roof to the other side of the house, did she feel ready to get back to work.

Perhaps tomorrow Mr. and Mrs. C will make a guest appearance.