Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Living Lightly

Some memories are painfully vivid years later -- among them the task of cleaning out the homes of my parents and Aunt Molly after their deaths.

My parents were hoarders, especially in their later years. There were rooms in their 1,000 square foot home that were filled with junk: old newspapers and magazines, clothing, inexplicable collections of old wax honey containers and mismatched shoes, wadded up towels, scattered tools -- all of it chewed by the rats that scampered relentlessly underfoot and overhead. I had often offered to help my mother clean many times over the years and she always shook her head with a combination of fear and shame. Their lives and their home were chaotic. After they died, our cleanup took more than a year and was, in a word, horrifying.    

In contrast, Aunt Molly's house -- about the same size -- always looked immaculate and inviting. But after she died, we found that her closets, garage and attic were bursting with treasures, trivia and collections of a life fully lived. There were wonderful discoveries -- like the trunk with the first pictures we had ever seen of her long-dead parents, the grandparents we never knew, and a collection of love letters that reassured us that she had known love and passion in her life. But there were also challenges -- like roll after roll of fabric for all the drapes and clothes she never made. We donated it all to a young costume designer. But there were things that were impossible to donate and that brought us to a screaming point.

Once, when the realtor selling her house asked Bob and me to remove all the furniture from the house on a few hours notice, pull up the carpet and swab the foundation with bleach to remove all traces of her surly and incontinent nightmare of a cat named Sugar, Bob and I had a mutual meltdown trying to navigate a cat-pee soaked sleep sofa out of her den. At one point, the couch became wedged in the narrow hallway. We dropped it and burst into tears, sobbing and screaming and embracing each other before we took a deep breath and carried on.

When we look back, we can't help but think ahead to our own demises and what will be left behind for family to sort through. And we've decided to try to give them a break by lightening our lives right now.


  • We've designated Saturdays for going through the house, one room at a time, to throw away or donate what no longer seems necessary. It's amazing, when we think about what we chose to move with us from Los Angeles four years ago, and how little we needed some of it. It feels good to begin to let go.

  • For the things with meaning, artifacts of our lives and of previous generations, we've already made plans to pass the relics on. My brother Mike brought the subject up during a visit  last month when he and his family were briefly back in Los Angeles from their main home in Bangkok. He asked me if I would consider parting with family pictures, Aunt Molly's television scripts and other mementos that mean a lot to all of us. And we made plans to transfer these treasures sometime in the next year or so when he would fly in to Phoenix and drive back to L.A. with me in a car filled with boxes of memories. It makes sense: both Mike and my sister Tai are younger and have children who may someday treasure these items -- or not. But photos can be scanned and shared and become a part of the larger family story.

  • We've lined up charities that will take clothing and furniture that we may part with now or leave behind in years to come.

  • We've decided that our feline family will decrease, over time, by attrition, that there will  be no more kittens in our future. We may, at some point, volunteer to foster kittens and cats for a rescue organization. But adoptions? I don't think so. We hope -- in a way -- that we will outlive our beloved pets. But just in case we don't, we've discussed plans for their continued care by family or by a major pet rescue organization, realizing that this will be made easier if we do not add to our pet population in the meantime.
  • We're proceeding slowly with some things -- the handwritten books I wrote when I was six, letters from my mother and Aunt Molly when I was in college, my first Valentine. It is all being scanned and photographed for future reference and there will come a day when I no longer feel the need to run my fingers over these actual treasured objects and will let them go, too.

It's interesting, this letting go. It seems to be a trend of sorts, with several neighbors also talking of selling artifacts or giving these away to family sooner rather than later so it all falls into the right hands.

Life feels lighter with cleaner closets, less cluttered shelves and family relics headed elsewhere. There is a momentum that feels life-affirming and immensely freeing.

We feel better with less. And our loved ones are thanking us already.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Retirement in Perspective: The Fourth Anniversary

How could it be?

It's the fourth anniversary of my retirement. How could it be so long since I walked away from my desk at UCLA -- when the memories are still so vivid?

How could we be looking at our fifth blazing summer here in rural Arizona?

How could time be flying by so fast?

And yet....the time has brought a changing perspective of life in retirement.

It no longer feels like an open-ended vacation, but regular life.

Arizona no longer feels like an exotic vacation destination, but home.

I have fewer illusions, whether they be of recapturing lost youth or creating a circle of close friends here.

My weight is not going to melt off without more effort, more vegetables, more exercise, less wishing.

And knowing your neighbors -- as I longed to do in the anonymity of our former suburban Los Angeles neighborhood -- does not always make them friends.

And one can be as happy or as unhappy in a lovely new home as it was in the old one.

Life, with all its ups and downs, discoveries, disappointments, joys and sorrows, goes on at an alarmingly rapid pace.

And yet, my prevailing sentiment on this fourth anniversary is gratitude.

I'm grateful that, despite the impact of the financial crash on our savings and those of so many others, we had the resources to retire anyway.

I'm grateful that, four years after retiring, both Bob and I are still healthy and active, still intellectually curious, still delighting in the time to pursue our passions for learning, for his music, for my writing.

I'm grateful for the good friends I have made here and, especially, for the old friends whose love has endured through the physical distance between us.

I'm grateful to be doing work that I love, to have another book coming out from a major publisher next fall, to have another chance to pursue a career that has meant so much to me for five decades.

We have no guarantees. I have friends who have not yet been able to retire or whose health has failed just as they were poised to pursue long-deferred dreams of travel and volunteering. Sometimes life changed in a minute. And in a day or a minute, life could change irrevocably for any of us.

But today life is grand. And I'm so grateful for every minute!