DOWNSIZING YOUR LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

One of my friends, Rachel, is trying to get her 94-year-old mother, Blanche, to clean out the house she’s lived in for 45 years. She’ll be moving from a big house in Long Island, NY to a small apartment in an independent living facility in Portland, OR. That’s where Rachel, Rachel’s two daughters, and Rachel’s brand-new granddaughter live.

Blanche is a ‘collector’ to put it charitably. She doesn’t like to part with anything. She has literally hundreds of paintings, many by her late husband, on the walls and floors of every room as well as in storage in her large basement. She has almost as many photos and photomontages and old holiday cards crowded onto every wall and piled on every flat surface in the house. Then there are the piles of books and papers literally everywhere. Rachel found a file cabinet with tax returns from the 1960s.

An example of a cluttered room

The problem is that everything is precious to Blanche. She feels that the house and its contents represent her life and she has trouble getting rid of anything. To me, she seems overly attached to the physical objects, which only represent the memories of the past. I’m not sure how the move will go because Blanche has not yet accepted that her smaller accommodations will not hold everything she insists she needs.

Another example of ‘stuff’ on every surface

This got me thinking about what I would do if I had to downsize dramatically. What would be important to me to keep with me? A good portion of my memories are in my photo albums. These start with my grandparents and go through my mom’s life, my early years, and my life with my kids. But the albums stop in 2002 when I married Tom. My kids were 22 and 17. My phone has most of the recent photos and I have boxes of photos that have not yet been put into albums. I can be happy with my mish-mash of photographic memories.

Some of my photo albums

I’m also lucky in that I have written a lot of biographical material over the years and I’ve collected my writings into binders. For 40 years I’ve written humorous, rhyming poems commemorating birthdays, anniversaries and father’s and mother’s days. My early poems were ostensibly ‘from’ my young son, David, so they documented his early years and his relationships with his family and loved ones. Then I started doing poems about the birthday person and I branched out into major events like Bar Mitzvah’s and weddings.

But my major biographical opus is my collection of blogs for Serendipity that tell my family history starting with my grandparents’ early years. I documented stories from my parents’ lives, my childhood, and my kids’ childhoods into the present day. I also wrote blogs about relationships that shaped our lives and I arranged the blogs in a sort of chronological order. I ended up with a 370-page document that I am very proud of. I have given copies to both of my children so they will always have their family stories close at hand.

Because I have so many of my cherished memories saved in photographic or written form, I think that I could pack my ‘life’ into just a few boxes. I’m not really attached to my furniture – except for a beautiful, custom made kitchen table embedded with sea glass and a matching sea glass mobile. I do love some of my chatchkis, particularly my glass and paperweight collections and a few things from my mom and grandmother. But I could live with just a few of them, decoratively placed around my living space.

So I don’t think I’ll drive my kids crazy if I ever have to leave my home and move to a smaller place. I’ve already condensed my past into manageable form.

However, my jewelry is another story!

WHO SAID LIFE IS FAIR? – Marilyn Armstrong

With shock and grief, I hear the wailing of betrayed youth. They have made the awfulest Big Discovery.


Life is unfair.


You work hard, perform brilliantly yet wind up bruised and forgotten. Then again, you might find yourself famous, rich, and covered with honors. It’s not cause and effect, though we like to think it is … until the economy, health, or other people betray those beliefs.

The younger me knew — with 100% certainty — that work, talent, ambition and determination were magic. The older me learned you can do everything right, follow all the rules and then some, and it still doesn’t work out.

bankruptcy

I did it all. I worked hard and with more than due diligence. I smiled when I wanted to snarl to keep that critical positive attitude. I was creative. I gave it my all.

I did okay, but while I worked hard and put in overtime, I watched the suck-ups, second-raters, and those who worked cheaper if not better, move past me. I came in early and stayed late while they went to meetings and took long lunches. If I’d gone to more meetings, would that have changed the outcome?

Somehow, I doubt it. I can’t be someone I’m not, though I sure did try. It’s out of my hands. I’m a passenger on this bus and it’s a long ride ahead of me (I hope).

Former belief: Play by The Rules, give it your all. You are bound to “make it.”

Current belief: Do the best you can and hope for a bit of luck and a boss who really likes you. Oh, and a company that won’t go bankrupt before you get paid. If not, enjoy life. It’s the only one you’ve got.

We tell our kids if they do it all right they will get that pot of gold. We don’t tell them that work sucks. Most of their bosses will be morons who know less than they do and have less talent.

But we also were right. They will earn a reward: the satisfaction of knowing they did their best. It’s a big reward. Everyone can count on it and no one can take away.

We have to try. If we succeed and for a while, we get a piece of the good stuff, at least enough to feel it wasn’t a waste of time, that’s great. For some, it just doesn’t happen. Bad luck? Wrong attitude? Crappy economy? Not quite enough talent?

And you have to know that trying may not be enough. You also need talent and luck and good timing.

Sometimes, you need a better agent.

I no longer believe in inevitable triumph. There’s always a chance you’ll make it to the top and it’s fantastic if the magic works. For me, realism has replaced optimism. Everyone’s best achievement is living up to our best self. If this also turns into a success, I’ll wear your t-shirt. If not, this is an achievement no one can ruin. You can’t control the world, but you can control yourself.

Life’s a roller coaster. You’re up and then you’re down. Screaming, crying, laughing … you go where the rails take you. Life will surprise you and sometimes a loss becomes a winner and will give you moments of unimagined joy.

Rejoice when times are good, but if you must, cope with the darkness. You can learn a lot in the dark.

MY OLD NEIGHBORHOOD – Marilyn Armstrong

I grew up in a semi-rural nook in the middle of Queens, New York. The city had surrounded us leaving a tiny enclave walking distance from the subway.

The house was more than a hundred years old. It had been changed by each family who had lived there, so much that I doubt the original builder would have recognized it. From its birth as a 4-room bungalow in the 1800s, by 1951 it had become a warren of hallways, staircases and odd rooms that could be hard to find.

96-Holliswood1954

It sat at the top of a hill amidst the last remaining mature white oaks in New York, the rest having fallen to make masts for tall ships. The shadows of the oaks were always over the house. Beautiful, huge and a bit ominous. Some of the branches were bigger than ordinary trees. I remember watching the oaks during storms, how the enormous trees swayed. I wondered if one would crash through the roof and crush me.

I was four when we moved into the house, five by summer. When the weather grew warm, I was told to go out and play. Like an unsocialized puppy, I had no experience with other children, except my baby sister and older brother and that didn’t count. Now, I discovered other little girls. What a shock! I had no idea what to do. It was like greeting aliens … except that I was the alien.

First contact took place on the sidewalk. We stood, three little girls, staring at each other. First on one foot, then the other, until I broke the silence with a brilliant witticism. “I live up there,” I said. I pointed to my house. “We just moved here. Who are you?” I was sure they had a private club into which I would not be invited. They were pretty — I was lumpy and awkward.

Oak woods

“I’m Liz,” said a pretty girl with green eyes. She looked like a china doll, with long straight hair. I wanted that hair. I hated mine, which was wild, curly and full of knots. She gestured. “I live there,” she pointed. The house was a red Dutch colonial. It had dark shutters and a sharply pitched roof.

A dark-haired, freckle-faced girl with braids was watching solemnly. “I’m Karen,” she said. “That’s my house,” she said, pointing at a tidy brick colonial with bright red geraniums in ornate cement pots on both sides of a long brick staircase. I’d never seen geraniums or masonry flower pots.

“Hello,” I said again, wondering what else I could say to keep them around for a while. I’d never had friends, but something told me I wanted some. We stood in the sunlight for a while, warily eyeing each other. I, a stranger. I shuffled from foot to foot.

Finally, I fired off my best shot. “I’ve got a big brother,” I announced. They were unimpressed. I was at a loss for additional repartee. More silence ensued.

“We’re going to Liz’s house for lemonade,” Karen said, finally. Liz nodded. They turned and went away. I wondered if we would meet again. I hadn’t the experience to know our future as friends were inevitable.

Summer lasted much longer back then than it does nowadays. By the time spring had metamorphosed into summer, I had become a probationary member of The Kids Who Lived On The Block. I did not know what went on in anyone else’s house. I imagined the lights were bright and cheerful in other houses. No dark shadows. No sadness or pain except in my scary world where the scream of a child in pain was background noise, the sound of life going on as usual. Behind it, you could hear my mother pleading: “Please, the neighbors will hear!” As if that was the issue.

Across the street, Karen’s mother was drinking herself into a stupor every night. The only thing that kept Karen from a nightly beating was her father. He was a kindly older man who seemed to be from another world. As it turned out, he would soon go to another world. Before summer was ended, Karen’s father died of a heart attack and after that, she fought her battles alone.

Three friends

October 1952

In the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, battles raged. Liz’s father never earned enough money and their house was crumbling. It legally belonged to Liz’s grandmother. Nana was senile, incontinent and mean, but she owned the place. In lucid moments, she always reminded Liz’s dad the family lived there on her sufferance. Where I imagined a life full of peace and goodwill, there was neither.

A lovely neighborhood. Fine old homes shaded by tall oaks. Green lawns rolling down to quiet streets where we could play day or night. I’m sure the few travelers who strayed onto our street, envied us.

“How lucky these folks are,” they must have thought, seeing our grand old houses. “These people must be so happy.”

I have a picture in my album. It’s black and white, a bit faded. It shows us sitting in Liz’s back yard. I’m the tiny one in the middle. A little sad. Not quite smiling.

We envied each other, thought each better off than ourselves. It would be long years before we learned each other’s secrets. By then, we’d be adults. Too late to give each other the comfort we’d needed as we grew up. Lonely in our big old houses, all those years ago.

TAKING THE REST OF THE WEEK OFF – BACK ON THE WEEKEND – Marilyn Armstrong

This is the kind of busy week we all bump into. Usually, I try to set up schedules with posts in advance, but I’m tired. I’ve been pushing to try to get everything that needs doing done before the snow flies. I finally realized I can’t do it. It’s not because I’m unwilling or uninterested.

I’m tired and I can’t keep pushing this hard. Cooking, cleaning, writing, photographing, processing, editing … and maybe even sleeping (!) — I need time. I need a few days to get stuff done. I can’t sit at the computer all day and still manage the rest of the week. So, until Saturday, I’m dealing with the rest of my life. Or trying to.

Tomorrow is Garry’s dental work. The first of two days, actually.

There’s something for every taste

Thursday I have nearly a whole day while they figure out what to do with my Pacemaker. It will need its battery replaced soon. Whether to switch to a new (non-metal) Pacemaker or keep the current one is up in the air. New or old, they are internally identical (no major progress on Pacemakers, in case you were wondering). Plastic or metal, they are no different, so it’s a matter of “convenience.” Mostly mine. On the upside, there are a lot of tests they can’t run if I have a metal one and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

I can’t get an MRI with a metal pacemaker and there are many airport issues. Except I’m not flying anywhere. There’s some question of whether or not Medicare would pay for a replacement anyway since there’s nothing wrong with the one I have. Personally, I’d like a thinner one where I can’t feel the wires — and not have to panic in the presence of magnets. Sometimes, when I walk past my refrigerator that has all those magnets on it, I wonder if I’m going to accidentally turn my heart off.

Friday, Owen’s moving in. Right now, he’s moving out all the trash in the basement. For the FIRST TIME EVER, all the junk will be GONE.

Oh, joy! I do need to check for a few long-missing items. I have a feeling they are in big cartons at the back of the basement behind all the rest of the more recently added junk. All my old writings and my copy for the ceremony of “Fall of Sauron” day are in the very back — assuming they are still readable.

I may want to dump most of it, but there are probably a few things worth keeping. Or they will so embarrass me I will race to the dumpster with them.

So I’m just going to take the rest of the week off. See if I can clear out the mountain of email. Get some sleep. Buy groceries as we’re running a bit thin in the freezer.

I think my contractor will be starting work next week and I think (I hope!) my granddaughter has found a guy to paint the doors. Meanwhile, I’d like to enter winter without holes in the exterior walls of the house.

WHAT TIME IS IT? – Rich Paschall

Does Anybody Really Know? by Rich Paschall

What is the most valuable thing you have? Do you think it is your house? For most people, a house will be the most expensive thing they purchase in their lifetime. Personally, I do not own a house, so this definitely is not it for me. Considering the amount of rent I have paid over the decades, I may have paid for one, however.

Is it your automobile? Certainly the costliest possession I have is the car that takes me around town and to my “day job.” Many people spend quite a lot on an auto. I saw a Corvette at the Chevrolet showroom recently while I waited for my modest Malibu to be fixed. Even though I thought it might be interesting to drive the Corvette just once, I wondered who would spend almost 90 thousand dollars on a two seat auto? It is not your practical car for errands or camp trips.  It does show you have a lot of money.

How about jewelry? There are some pieces of jewelry that cost more than the house I am living in. I guess if you are a rock star or high paid athlete you may think you need some expensive “bling.” Odell Beckham Jr. made his Cleveland Browns debut wearing his 350,000 dollar watch. Yes, I did mean to put in that many zeros. That will surely let all of us know he has a BIG NFL contract.

None of the above, however, is the most valuable possession any of us can have. What is it? You may have guessed the answer already by the title above. It’s time. I don’t mean it is the ability to tell the time with a 350 thousand dollar Richard Mille luxury watch, or a cheap Timex for that matter. I mean the quality and quantity of time itself. We don’t know the time, because we don’t know how much each of us has. No watch will show us that.

And I was walking down the street one day
A pretty lady looked at me and said her diamond watch had stopped cold dead
And I said
Does anybody really know what time it is (I don’t)

My roomie likes to ask me why I never did this or that, and I usually respond that I never had the time to do it. Many of us put off trips and various experiences with the thought that we will do it another time. “I am too busy now,” you might think. But then later in life you discover that time has passed you by and you will never get to a certain restaurant, make a particular trip, observe a special event. Life has turned into a series of “Time Passages.”

Well I’m not the kind to live in the past
The years run too short and the days too fast
The things you lean on are the things that don’t last
Well it’s just now and then my line gets cast into these
Time passages

Often I will parcel out my time in small increments, as if I am accomplishing a lot by doing many things. I will work all day and get home around 6:30. I will work outside until it is almost dark, weather permitting. I will come in and eat and do the dishes. After that I will check my computer for email or ebay sales. Then if I think I have the time, I will designate an hour for watching television. I am usually up each commercial to do something. Then I set up the coffee maker, count out my pills for the next day, organize for the morning and …uh, oh. It’s past my bedtime.

No matter what I am working on the clock on the wall or on my phone or on my computer always creeps in to tell me I am behind schedule.  You can not escape the clock, no matter how hard you try. By adulthood it is just part of us. It started when we were kids, I guess, because we had to be home by 5 or home by dark or home by curfew. In an era before cell phones, when we did not have watches, this time related deadline was tough. Now it seems tougher.

If you like to sit and relax and just clear your mind you may find it hard to do. If you are trying to meditate, let’s say, you may still find yourself peeking at the clock.  In fact you may find yourself some morning thinking you “Should have tried to do some more” but “Feeling like I ought to sleep.” Soon you could be sitting crossed legged on the floor, trying to see if it is 25 or (twenty) 6 to 4 (AM).

In the end what do all the minutes of your life add up to? What do all your experiences mean? Where do all the time passages go? Does anybody really know?

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?

How about love?
Measure in love
Seasons of love

PROVOCATIVE QUESTION – CONTROLLING OUR LIVES – Marilyn Armstrong

Fandango’s Provocative Question #40

And so the question is:

Control is an illusion. It’s what we all believe we’ve got until our life takes a sharp turn and hits a big rock or slides into the ditch. Crash.

All of your firm beliefs that nothing can stop you doesn’t help because there are things — many things — that can stop you.

I love when people tell me nothing can stop them, that whatever they want, they can get it. All they have to do is want it enough. I don’t argue with people who talk like that. They believe it and who am I to argue?

I’ve hit a lot of rocks, ditches, sharp turns. I’ve had my “life vehicle” battered to wreckage. I learned, painfully and slowly there is a time to put down the reins, look in the mirror and face reality. Even when it isn’t what you want.  There comes a time to give up trying to control your world and go with the flow. To find a better path.

Your perfect, beautifully controlled life can turn upside-down in a split second. For others, it’s slower. For me, it was at the pace at which bones and joints calcify. I refused to pay attention to the wreckage of my spine. It was mind over matter. I was strong. I could make it work, no matter what.

Good idea. But mind-over-matter only takes you so far. Major life changes do not happen in an afternoon. True they can occur in one messy crash … or they can take over bit by bit over decades. I found a great doctor who told me something I had heard before but had hoped there was another answer.

He said: “Your back has got you through this far. It’ll take you the rest of the way. Pain control, gentle exercise. Recognize your limits. Don’t do anything stupid. No car crashes. No falling. No lifting.”

No horses, no hauling. Got that. And of course, this was before all the heart surgery, which further eliminated the likelihood of any of these perilous activities. So. I’m not doing anything stupid.

Okay, I’m not doing anything very stupid. Maybe only a little stupid. And nothing that will break anything that isn’t already broken.

There’s no moral to this story. It’s life. If you don’t die young, you will get old. Which means unless you are exceptionally lucky, parts of you will hurt. Whether or not you are in a position to help fix the hurt with surgery, exercise, physical therapy, or medication? It depends on what’s wrong.

The only thing you cannot plan is a life over which you maintain full control. No one gets that.

We all have some control, but ultimately, no one has full control. Ever.

When life throws you a curve, you have a choice. Spend your time fighting for something you can’t be or do — or with a bit of grace, find your way to being whoever you are now, in this time and place.

Not winning all the battles doesn’t have to be tragic. That is where you have some control. You can view changes as a challenge or as a catastrophe. How you see them is up to you. Pretending they aren’t there can be calamitous.

Reality is not the worst place to live. Life is full of weirdness, lies, and illusion, but going face-to-face with the truth can be uplifting. You don’t have to give up living. You do have to learn to live a life that works. For you.

SHARING MY WORLD WHILE SAVING OUR HOME – Marilyn Armstrong

Share Your World — 9-10-19

What’s the first thing you’d do if you won the lottery or came into a huge fortune? 

Repair my house!

Which decade do you think had the best sense of style?

During the 1960s and early 70s I loved the long, loose blouses and bellbottom pants. I love the fringes and tie-dyed colors. I loved that anyone could wear anything and it was fine. It was the style-less styles.

Even for men, you could wear wide lapels or narrow ones, wide or narrow ties. Flowers and plaids. Just about anything. Right now, clothing is okay, but it’s pretty dull.

July 1963

Everyone is in style because how wrong can you go with tee shirts and jeans?

Would you rather be half your height or double your weight?

Half my height would make me shorter than the Duke. I’m only five foot one at this point. At twice my weight, I’d be unable to move.

So sorry. Neither!

If you wanted to get away from everyone totally, where would you hide?

I could stay home. Nobody comes to visit us here anyway.

What do you do that you love?

It used to be blogging. Right now, nothing feels special. I’ve been sick enough to not even get out of bed today. I can’t remember the last time I couldn’t get out of bed when I wasn’t in the hospital. It’s only Monday, but it feels a lot later than that!