Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God. (1 Peter 4:10)

Archive for January, 2014

Downsize, Simplify — and, Yes, Cry…Not Necessarily in That Order.

Photo: Isn't it the truth:

This page showed up in one of my calendars last week. Since we already have established that I am something of a “change junkie,” Dr. Einstein’s words seemed particularly on point.

Talk about change! I am getting ready to sell and move out of the house that Tom and I built. Since the house I am moving into is a bit smaller, and since I (we) accumulated a LOT of stuff over the years, the time has come to mercilessly downsize and sensibly simplify, especially when it comes to possessions.

We purchased this house — a manufactured home — the day after 9/11. By that time, we had been married almost 8 years, and this house was the first thing we had put together literally from the ground up. We picked out everything together, right down (or up?) to the roof shingles, which we both loved for the flecks of blue color against the brown background. When we moved in, we were absolutely on the same page: everything we moved in a day had to be unpacked and put away that day. Once we had a bed and a coffeepot, we couldn’t wait — we started sleeping there. And we downsized and simplified, but as I have learned in recent weeks, there was a lot that neither of us could quite bear to throw out at the time.

We did a lot of living in this house, and we did a lot of loving here, too. We faced life-changing events, both wonderful and catastrophic, together in this house. And he died in this house, with me holding him. It was the first place and the only place that we truly made for ourselves together. And now it will become someone else’s home.

I’ll be moving to the “cottage” that Tom bought back in 1993, just before we got married. I bought the place back from his sons this past June, and when I walked back in the door I knew I was home — the same feeling I had the first time Tom and I walked into the place to look at it in July of 1993. It’s been christened “Sparky’s Place,” also known as “my little house in the woods,” and the feeling of peace and contentment I have when I am there is indescribable.

And it is about 2/3 the size of “the house Tom and I built.” So downsizing and simplifying are in order. I practiced at this process 18 months ago. Shortly after Tom died, part of my grieving process that I still don’t fully understand involved a burst of almost insane energy and restlessness. I cleaned out closets and dressers and cabinets, reorganized, and (I thought) downsized significantly. All of Tom’s clothes and shoes went to the Lansing City Rescue Mission; I shredded obsolete records to the tune of 7 large trash bags full of shredded paper; and still, when I embarked on my current project to move up north, I found that I still had Way. Too. Much. Stuff.

I’ve been taking on one area at a time, and I thought I was sailing through it. Today’s project: clear out my closet and dressers, get rid of all the clothing and other things that I never wear or use. I thought, “Show no mercy!” I thought it would be a relief to relieve myself of these excess things.

Then I found the first stash of birthday, Sweetest Day, and Valentine’s day cards. I set those aside, not at all sure I could get rid of them. Then I found the second stash — sympathy cards and cards from my retirement. So I sat down and took both stacks, and started looking through them. It was a nice warm fuzzy to revisit those retirement wishes and expressions of sympathy — and then into the trash bag they went! I realized that I don’t need the cards to remember that people cared about me and what was going on in my life at that time. And frankly, I will probably never see or hear from a vast majority of those people again. That’s how life happens. We connect with people for a time and for a reason; sometimes, great friendships develop, and those are the select few that we continue to make a part of our lives. I don’t need the cards to make that happen, either.

It was the birthday and Sweetest Day and Valentine’s Day cards that got me. As I looked through those, two memories came very powerfully to me. The first was that for all of our 21 years together, Tom and I could never get it straight whether we observed Sweetest Day. Our first year together, he got me a card and gift, and since I thought Sweetest Day was the ultimate Hallmark holiday, I had nothing for him. The next year, having learned my lesson, I got him a card and a little gift, and he had nothing for me. You can imagine the discussion — but it went on that way for the rest of our lives together.

Tom was amazingly good at picking out cards, and I always knew that he had spent some time and had carefully selected the card and verse. That’s why the Valentine’s Day cards really got to me. As I read through them, I could finally hear his voice again — something that has escaped me for the whole 18 months he has been gone — and through my tears, I had to laugh as I heard him say, in my mind, “Get rid of it!” I found one card that summed up beautifully the way he loved me, and kept it. That card brought the second powerful memory: The way he would say, sometimes just out of the blue, “I love you, Abb — I love you more than you know.” And he did.

All the rest of the cards, I got rid of. Into the trash bag they went, and out to the curb it went ,since today is trash day.

Painful? Yes. Yes, it was. But if I expected this process of downsizing and simplifying to be without pain, I should have known better. Life happens, and pain and tears are part of it. Fortunately, they are only a part. You see, I went right on to have a good hearty laugh as I got rid of dozens and dozens of pairs of old socks and even older unmentionables. My closet and armoire are next. I expect I will find some memories there, too.

The lesson? Very simple, for me: It’s that the essence of what I’ve grieved for lives deep in my heart. It isn’t tied to the things, and it isn’t tied to the cards. It’s tied to my soul, and it will always be there to bring a tear, a laugh, a moment of joy — not necessarily in that order. Thank you, Mr. Einstein — I will keep moving and thus maintain my balance!

Life As Response

It is time to move away from the grief theme, although I may return to it in the future as needed. Remember, this blog is about life, which happens “not necessarily in that order.” Today, the theme is around living as a response versus living as a reaction.

In my teen years (age 14-19), I pursued a religious vocation, entering first the “aspirancy” and later the postulancy and novitiate of a wonderful religious order, the Sisters of Christian Charity. Those were, of course, formative years. I still have dreams, occasionally, in which I find myself back in the convent, torn between the desire to live out that commitment and the fear that I have (again) made the wrong decision. I still have many wonderful — and sometimes painful — memories of my time there, and the education I received — academic, spiritual, and emotional — had much to do with the person I have become.

Over the years, I told my story of “jumping over the wall” as reflecting my strong individualism; the nuns did not have room for someone so uniquely me, I said. The nuns wanted me to become something other than what God had made me in the first place. And those statements aren’t necessarily false; they just don’t tell the whole story.

It took me many years and much reflection — and a few reunions with old classmates — to finally understand what lay behind that final conversation with the directress of novices. She wanted me to know that I could stay and succeed but that I was going to have to do something differently; I responded that I did not think I should strive to become a different person than the one God made me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret my life, not the years I spent in the convent and (for the most part) not the life I’ve lived since then. But I’ve come to realize that what actually happened, what made it impossible for me to stay there and succeed, was that I was living in reaction rather than in response. My life was about doing the daily activities of an aspiring religious, because those were the activities of an aspiring religious. I followed the rules because they were the rules of religious life. I participated in the rituals and ceremonies because they were the rituals and ceremonies of religious life. The actions themselves, rather than the reasons for doing them, seemed to be at the core of life.

Sister Judith, with whom that final conversation took place, saw and understood that I was missing the vital spark — the spark that comes from living one’s life in response to something greater than oneself, rather than simply reacting to the expectations one is shown. I don’t know whether she was not quite able to explain fully what was missing, or whether I cut her off at the pass with my answer. I do know that within a very few days of that discussion, my mother had wired funds for a train ticket, I had packed up everything I owned in that world, and I was saying goodbye to my friends and sisters before heading for the train station in a pastel plaid skirt and white blouse that had been found for me.

Once home, I quickly re-entered “the world,” as we used to call everything outside the convent gates, and when my first desire, nursing school, proved to be out of my reach, I found myself an office job and started my “new” life.

I like to think that over the nearly 50 years since then, I have learned at least a little about a lot of things in life, and perhaps a lot about a few things in life. But I believe the most important thing I have learned is that living a life of response is vital to peace and foundational to any sort of success.

Living a life of response, you see, starts with a choice of what I will respond to. Living a life of response involves listening for something outside my own will, desires, and reactions. Living a life of response involves making conscious choices based on that listening, rather than reacting to what life puts down in front of you and using that as a reason (dare I say  excuse?) for the outcome.

When I think about interpersonal relationships in terms of a life of response, a new clarity dawns. When I live out of reaction, it’s all about me — what does another person’s behavior, attitude, action do to me, mean to me? Whether it hurts me or makes me feel good, my actions are reactions to that “what about me?” way of living.

When I live out of response, it’s all about the other person. What does another person need? What does another person’s behavior, attitude, action tell me about them? How will my response be received? And my actions then grow out of my response, not out of what’s in it for me.

When I think about events in terms of a life of response, the clarity grows. One really cannot respond to an event, because events have no real life of their own. One can only react to them. So, if I choose to live a life of response, I must find that larger-than-me something that I’m going to listen to, and use it to choose, in turn, how I will behave. And again, the life of response stops it from being all about me and pulls me out of myself. Events do not shape me; events alone

Back to my convent days: Had I understood that my perceived vocation required me to live a life of response, rather than a life of reacting to rules and conventions, my life over the past 40+ years would have been quite different. That’s indisputable. What is unknowable is what my life can and will become, as I put new insights to work and respond to something much greater than me. That’s a work in progress, and today I can only imagine!

Change Junkie?

One of the posts making the rounds on Facebook yesterday was this quote attributed to Zig Ziglar:

Miserable people focus on what they hate about their life. Happy people focus on what they love about their life. 

I was not able to verify the attribution; sources also suggest Sonya Parker as the source. The quote appears on Ziglar’s Facebook page as a picture with the text repeated in the accompanying post. As frustrating as it can be to verify attribution online, that is not my point; but I had to mention it for the sake of accuracy.

What is important about this quote is what it does not say: that being miserable or being happy is at its heart a matter of choice. When I was my husband’s caregiver, I was often happy and sad in the same moment, in the same breath. But miserable? Never. And that is my personal experience, from which others may or may not choose to extrapolate for themselves.

The heart of the matter: choices, choices, choices. I could have focused on all the difficulties with which those final weeks were fraught — and they were many. I could have focused on the fact that my heart was breaking every day, because I was going to lose him. I could have focused on how unfair it all was — that I was spending my first months of what was supposed to be “our” retirement doing very unpleasant things and preparing to say goodbye to the other half of “us.”

Instead, I chose to focus on how fortunate I was to have the ability, strength, time, and yes, inclination to provide the care he needed. I chose to focus on where he was going, rather than what we were going through. I chose to put all my energy into the things I could control, and I chose to tap into my strengths while I peered through the maze around me into the future.

Did that make me a “Pollyanna”? Was I simply ignoring the inevitable, sugar-coating the harsh reality? I don’t think so. Another quote I remember from a conference many years ago (and I have no idea who said it): “Optimism is not Pollyanna thinking.” That is, optimism as a chosen way to view the world and its events is not a mindless cheeriness that ignores reality. Rather, optimism is a choice to view reality — in all its sometimes hard brilliance — in terms of the potential for a positive outcome. Then it becomes easier to see how one’s choices can not only influence, but bring about, that potential.

So, as an optimist, I counted what I was doing as a privilege, and I understood that what was coming would lead both my husband and me into a new and different kind of future. It would be for him a future that I could imagine but not fully see, and for me a future that I would need to shape and to put my own mark on. And the lesson in the midst of all that?

Being sad — grieving — does not necessarily involve being “miserable.” It does involve suffering and pain, but I think being “miserable” implies that an abject state of continued suffering must inevitably continue without relief — and that’s where I think one’s choice of focus becomes material.

Several years ago, I delivered a workshop on tools for managing change at a personal level. In the course of the workshop, I asked participants to tell of a significant change they had experienced recently, and after a few examples involving jobs and diets and the like, a woman shared that her mother had died a few weeks earlier and that this had wrought change she just didn’t know how to deal with.

I was unprepared for the example, but it certainly fit the focus of the workshop: building tools to manage change that comes at us without our permission or choosing. The group discussion that followed started me thinking about death as a sort of ultimate change, and about whether it was a change that could be managed in some way. As I came face to face with my husband’s death, I realized that the same tools I had taught for managing other changes — especially the idea of making conscious choices about attitudes and actions — might help me though this change.

It was hard work. It still is hard work. It involves not giving in and just letting grief happen — although there are times when sadness is overwhelming, survival requires a choice to believe that it is temporary. And that profoundly changes how we experience sadness.

Choices, choices, choices. I am probably a change junkie, because with the sense of power that conscious choice gives me, I really actively seek change and feel restless when there is no change on the horizon. What I love about my life changes, so my focus is constantly changing too.

So bring it on, life: bring on my fix. Bring on the changes.

Reflections On a Year, Lived…And Then Another

How long does grieving take? Of course, there is no single, simple, or obvious answer to that question. Does it take a lifetime? Probably not, at least in its most intense form. Can it be done in 6 months? A year? Two years? Maybe. Maybe it just gets easier but never really quite ends. I don’t know yet. And a word of caution: It’s so easy to consider my own experience, and extrapolate that to the universe. Grieving has its commonalities among people, but it is probably better known for its way of being unique to each person. It would be as wrong to say that my experience should be everyone’s, as it would be to say that no one can learn from another’s experience.
My husband died in the early morning hours of July 1, 2012. He died peacefully, and I was at his side, blessed to share his last hours and commend his soul to God. Tom had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer the day after Christmas, 2003. He achieved an 8-year remission by undergoing intense radiation therapy and quitting cigarettes. And during those 8 years, he lived life his way; we lived our lives together the way we wanted to live them. In the fall of 2011, it became apparent that the cancer had begun to grow again, and during a two-week hospitalization over Christmas and New Year’s that winter, we learned that it had spread so that his prognosis was measured in months. Further treatment might have bought an extra month or so; he decided in favor of quality of life, and so he lived those last six months as he had the previous 8 years: his way. I counted it as a privilege to be with him during those months.
I met Tom in 1992, about 10 weeks after his wife had died of lung cancer. He was not done grieving yet, but he was ready to have someone in his life. From the day we met, we were together — until the day he died. My own experience is quite different; if I have learned anything in 18 months, it is that I am not ready to have a new partner in my life.
I wrote, on December 31, 2012 — six months after Tom died:

Things happened in 2012 that I would not care to go through again…and yet I would not trade a minute, not a second, of those experiences nor would I have wanted to miss them. They are part of who I am now, and I am different from how I thought I would be at this time in my life.

I retired from work at the beginning of the year, knowing that my husband’s prognosis was limited, and I participated so fully in his decision to ignore that fact that at times I almost believed in a future that my intellect knew was not going to happen. Tom never really owned up to the fact that he was dying; once he assured himself that I was going to be ok, the subject was closed. It is a great challenge to provide end-of-life care in those circumstances. Certainly, our plans for my retirement began to take a different form.

I really thought that my retirement would matter more…to other people as well as to me. What I find interesting is that it doesn’t even matter that it didn’t end up mattering all that much. I have not once missed working, and (as I planned and fervently hoped), the ranks closed behind me and life did not change all that much. That is as it should be, and there are no regrets at all. I understand much better that saying that no one goes to their grave wishing they had spent more time at work.

Life sped past at a rapid pace, leaving little time to reflect. While I would never wish Tom a life of prolonged pain, I could only reflect, after it was all done, on how little time I really had to get it right…to care for him and ease his transition. Before I felt I really had the chance to get things right, I was already saying goodby, and then missing him. And that mattered. It still matters.

It is truly a revealing experience to look back on the year and think about what mattered. My road trip and visits with family mattered, and continue to matter. My return to my Catholic roots matters. My relationship with my daughters and grandchildren and great-grandson matter. My friends and volunteer work matter. My grief, in its own way, continues to matter, because it is made of who I am at the same time that it is changing me.

Because of the things that happened in this year, I am changed forever, and what matters to me has changed too. I like to think that I did the best job I could with what 2012 handed me, although much of it still brings tears when I think and remember. I think, too, that I am ready for whatever 2013 is going to bring. Tom told me how proud of me he was. His wish, on one of the rare occasions we talked about this, was that I would go on and live “my” life. Admittedly, that takes me in different directions than our life together took us. I am not always sure of my steps…two weeks ago I had myself talked into selling this house and moving to Lansing, and now I can’t quiet fathom why I wanted to do that! A friend of mine who also lost his spouse this past summer said that he had wrapped his life up in her, and that was how he wanted it…and now it is hard to see the future. My brother, who also lost his wife this past summer, says much the same. And I see and understand that…my life for those 20+ years was totally wrapped up in Tom, and that is what I chose and wanted. It mattered! And for all three of us, 2013 will be the time that we begin to see the future that each of our loves want for us. As painful as it is that this future does not include their physical selves, the lives we wrapped around them would be in vain if we do not begin to see and embrace and build the future that is ahead of us.

As I close out a year in which both terrible and wonderful things happened, a year in which I learned how some things matter quite differently from what I thought, and a year in which I learned something about how tough I am (and am not), I have learned some things: the grief process cannot be rushed or even set to a timetable; pain will insist on being fully experienced and will have its way; people will surprise you with their ability and willingness to love you through it; and even though sometimes you are entirely too close to your emotions and at others may feel quite separated from them, the fact is you can and will survive.

Here’s to 2012 for the moments I would not trade, no matter how painful they were. And here’s to 2013 for the new opportunities and fresh experiences it will bring. I look forward to watching one great grandson grow, and to welcoming a new great grandson in just a few weeks! God is good.

And now, another year has passed. My new great-grandson arrived on schedule in February, 2013. Now I have two beautiful little boys who know me and who I love with all my heart; yet it is someone else’s job to raise them.

I tried dating for a few months and found that it wasn’t as much for me as I had thought it would be.

And I found, as anniversaries rolled around, that they were easier than I thought they might be. The anniversary of his death; his birthday; our wedding anniversary — all passed without great pain. The pain came with remembering the day — Father’s Day, 2012 — when it became clear in an awful way that the end was beginning; the pain came with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, when I found myself missing him even more than the year before. And I survived it. Again. Not always gracefully; Father’s Day found me indulging in far too many glasses of wine as I tried to avoid or kill the pain. And I found myself retreating from the world over the holidays. I spent Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day with family, but was glad to return to my solitude at day’s end.

I made some big decisions in 2013, and in doing so found that I was still a little rocky when it came to trusting my own judgment. Back in 1993, just before we married, Tom had bought this cottage in northeast Michigan, and we thought it would be our retirement home. At a point in his illness, we determined we couldn’t do it justice, and he turned it over to his sons. This past June, they decided they were ready to sell it, and when they asked if I was interested, I couldn’t wait to get the deal closed. By the end of June, it was mine. Funny, I never doubted this decision for a moment! When I got up here, finally, near the end of July, it was like coming home. I had forgotten how much I — we — loved this place.

When I was here, I didn’t want to go home. I would sit here and decide to make it permanent; then I’d head back to my other house and change my mind. Each time I was up north, though, the pull got stronger. Even when I had to have a new septic tank and drainfield put in, and even when I had the replace the furnace, the pull got stronger. And finally, in November, I made my decision. This place — Sparky’s Place — is now home, and I am in the process of getting the house downstate sold, and moving all my remaining possessions up here.

What finally tipped the scales? The simplicity of it all. The peace and contentment I feel when I am here. The need to change as a means of recovering from grief. I realized, as I moved between the two houses, that it wasn’t so much the house downstate that held me back; it was the comfort of being among things I have there. And those can come with me.

And so, 18 months after Tom’s passing, I am here in the place we used to enjoy together. This is home now.

And as I did a year ago, I say: Here’s to 2013 for what it taught me about not drinking too much wine, about trusting my heart, and about remembering even when it hurts to do so. And here’s to 2014 for new adventures, new experiences, new friends, and some quality-time visits with family both here and where they live.

I am loving life and living “my” life, just as Tom wished — and doing it “my way.” He’s proud of me, and it’s ok that that is still important to me.


I finally recognized a few days ago that I have a “thing” for pens. I buy pens whenever I am feeling stressed or anxious. I buy pens when I am embarking on some new project. I buy pens when I don’t really need them.

Let’s face it. I buy pens when I see them.

The fact that Tom liked to do his crossword puzzles with a red ballpoint pen simply gave me an excuse to buy a lot of them. I found 15 of them when I cleaned out one of my office drawers.

As I continue my “simplify and downsize” project in preparation for moving up north, sorting through the seemingly endless supply of pens of all kinds has caused me to take a moment to ponder and reflect. You see, I have always loved pens and paper. Even after I realized that I can write faster and better using keyboard and computer, I still found that when I really need to write, pen and paper work best.

 And as I begin to sort the pens out, I found it unthinkable to just throw them away. We are talking about literally dozens of pens, which I cannot and will not ever use — but I like having them. Just not ALL of them. Some of them have to go, right?

The rule is that each pen gets one chance to write. If it doesn’t write, it goes in the trash. If it writes on the first try, it stays. For now.

I think it would be far too scary to examine why, exactly, I have this affinity for acquiring and keeping pens. And paper. I have at least four reams of various writing papers, not counting a modest supply for my printer.

A writer’s soul in a pack rat’s body. I suppose I should count my blessings, that it is only pens and paper … and cords. I have thrown out a lot of cords, and only the ones in unopened packages are going in the rummage sale bin.

Don’t judge me. I’ll bet everyone has at least one thing that they love to acquire and collect…and that they have trouble getting rid of.

But what am I going to do with my collection of coffee mugs?

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