Letting go of the stuff that drags you down

When I went home to look after my father in late 2013, I was reminded that I’ve been leaving a trail of stuff behind every time I move. A closet in my parents’ home was full of crap from my apartment in Halifax that I’d never even thought about going through, that I didn’t even realize they still had. Heck, there was even stuff from my childhood. My brother took the contents of that apartment, including my items, into his own home after my dad died, so now there’s this little pseudo storage unit of my junk lingering around, taking up physical space in someone else’s house.

I’ve had a storage unit in Ottawa since late 2011. At the time, I wanted a place to keep the bulk of the stuff I thought I might need or want in the future so that I could move relatively unencumbered to my new rented room. My goal, I thought (I still think), was to become more portable, to be able to travel more lightly. I had plans to go through everything and eventually eliminate the need for a storage unit at all, to truly start travelling lightly.

That never happened.

I hadn’t changed how I functioned, how I shopped and gathered and collected stuff, I’d just removed it all from my immediate view and cleared out space to be filled up again. And so I started gathering more stuff at my new nearly-empty room. It was a different kind of collecting and gathering — smaller items, items I actually used and enjoyed, though more of them than is practical. (Stationery supplies, including specialty notebooks and fountain pens, were — and to extent still are — a particular weakness.)

The weight of everything, the pressure of this desperate need to fill this hole in me with stuff, eventually felt like it was killing me. Somewhere deep in me, I knew I needed to make an even bigger move if I was going to have any hope of surviving. And so I made the sudden decision to quit my job and use the last of my money to move across the country. Like a drowning person, desperately grasping for anything to hold onto to pull themselves out, I grabbed onto the thought of this big change and held on for dear life.

Again, I had planned to weed through everything and only keep what was going to come with me. But there were large, bulky items (like my mother’s paintings) that just wouldn’t have shipped easily, and there were limits to how much I could actually bring or ship to me. And I just ran out of time and energy. So I threw everything I couldn’t bring with me into the storage unit with plans to come back the following year to get it all shipped out to me. (I made sure to bring the things I truly didn’t want to risk losing, like my cat’s ashes and the Tupperware container of my parents’ ashes, with me. Even with eight suitcases, I still left so much stuff behind. It’s a little mind boggling to actually think about.) I haven’t lived in Ottawa in two years now and, if I’m honest, I was not likely to ever have been in a position to ship everything out to me or to store it once it was up here. But I still kept paying for the unit because I just couldn’t let it all go.

Then, in July of this year, my contract job here ended. I should have expected it, planned for it, but I never do. While I am able to collect EI while I job hunt, it is not enough to pay for this storage unit. That was luxury I couldn’t afford when I need to pay rent and other more immediate and necessary bills.

The storage company was so nice, so willing to help — they were even willing to deliver ALL of my stuff to someone else in Ottawa so that I didn’t lose it. But, honestly, I’m kind of relieved that I didn’t have the means to take them up on that offer. While there are things that it annoys me to lose (like the bottles of ink in formulations they no longer make) and things that are irreplaceable (like my mother’s paintings and afghans), I desperately needed to have this not be constantly on my mind. (And shifting it all over to another location would just keep that worry alive. I have a storage unit here that is more than enough worry for me, and it really just exists so I would have some place to keep my belongings should I ever be at risk of becoming a bag lady.)

I asked them to pass on my email address to whoever wins the auction — I’d hoped to explain the value of some of the items in the unit (they might as well get as much as they can for it, and I’d hate for them to throw out something that could make them money and make a collector happy) and perhaps one day arrange to have the things like the genealogy notes sent to me. (The unit contained an eclectic mix of tarot decks and crystals; a ridiculous number of notebooks, fountain pens, and stationery supplies; old journals, hard drives, and backup DVDs; out-of-print technical writing and grammar books; memorabilia for an Australian soap opera; all of my genealogy notes and other personal papers; paintings by me and by my mother as well as artwork prints from other artists; afghans and a quilt made by long-dead relatives; and tchotchkes from my childhood. While there is probably some completely worthless junk there — I was doing to pretty broad dumping of stuff on the day of my flight — whoever got this unit should easily make up whatever they paid for it and then some if they take some time.)

I never heard from the buyer, but I got an email from the storage company a few weeks ago that they have a small box of “personal effects”. A friend who still lives in Ottawa picked that up for me and will be shipping it to me in the next couple of weeks. I have no idea what it contains — it almost certainly does not contain any of the items I was hoping it would contain, like old journals, but it apparently does contain a bunch of photos.

What’s funny is that the day after I told the storage company to let it go to auction, I had a sudden money windfall of almost exactly what I owed for the unit. I *could* have called them back to reclaim the unit, but that windfall was much better spent paying other bills I was behind on. (And the sudden windfall would not have helped the fact that I just couldn’t afford the monthly payments and I would have ended up in the same place in a month or two.)

Other than the friend who picked up the box of personal effects, no one I know knows that I’ve lost the storage unit. Most people wouldn’t really care. And the people that would care wouldn’t understand why I let it go. (They didn’t understand how I could be OK with unloading most of my possessions in 2011, either.) They would mourn the loss of the paintings and other sentimental items. They wouldn’t understand that I didn’t want anyone to fix this, that I wanted this finished. I can’t afford to owe anyone financially or emotionally to keep this thing going.

And I can’t keep leaving these piles of my stuff all over the place, like a breadcrumb trail leading back to where I started when I need to be looking forward.


Goal-setting and the zen of being in the now

Jeb Corliss recently posted on his Facebook page:

“Try not to think short term. Try to think where you want to be in 5 years and make plans on how to really get there. What kind of training do you need to do? What steps need to be taken? What do you need to sacrifice? If you focus you will get there so be very careful where you decide you want to be. The old saying be careful what you wish for because you might just get it is very very true…”

If you were to have asked my mother while she was alive what one of the most trying aspects of having me as a daughter was, I suspect she’d say it was that I wasted my “talents”. I’m a dabbler at heart. A Jill-of-all-trades with no real urge to be a master of any. And if I’m good at something, if I have a talent for it, then I reach the point of being done with it more quickly than if I were pursuing a skill or task in which I had little native talent. Art, writing, music, math, languages…whatever. I try it, show promise, and then move onto something else. Very ADD.

There was a time in my life that this aspect of my personality was upsetting to me as well. Why was I wasting so much of my life, frittering away precious time that I could have been spending accomplishing goals. Yada, yada, yada. Over the last several years, though, I’ve come to be very comfortable with this. (Possibly more comfortable than is healthy, but that’s a thought for another post.)

The world is full of affirmation-laden, goal-oriented, browbeating self-help gurus and life coaches who make it clear that you are not living up to your potential if you’re just going with the flow. You need to strive to be a better you. The you that you are at this moment just isn’t cutting the mustard.

Life doesn’t need to be goal-oriented. Sometimes it’s just about the experience.

That is the true essence of the concept of living in the moment.


What is the story that I want to tell?

I was reading through the early posts on this blog today. It’s been almost nine years since I started writing here. In many ways, I’m very much the same person I was then, with many of the same faults and frailties that I had then. But in other ways, I’m very much a completely different person, in ways I would never have anticipated nine or ten years ago.

I’ve lived here for over 20 years now, longer than I’ve ever lived consecutively in one town/city in my entire life. I don’t know what that means. I always thought of myself as a transplanted Maritimer, but I’ve now lived here almost as long as I lived in Nova Scotia in total and as long as I lived in Nova Scotia after we moved back from British Columbia. I’ve been almost five years without my mother, four years without my cat, and one-and-a-half years without my father. I am a different person now than five years ago, but closer to the person I was when I was five.

I’ve spent decades telling a story of me that is not really the story I want to tell. A story of sadness, chaos, clumsiness, daydreaming, and absent focus. What is the story I want to tell? What parts of me do I really want the world to see, to know as “me”? What do I want the story of me to be during the latter (finer?) part of my life?

The Last Time…

A last reminder

“Call Dad @ 3PM on Monday”

“Call Dad @ 7am on Wednesday”

Those notes to myself are still stuck to the wall above my bed, tucked into the top of one of my favourite pictures of one of my favourite “people”.

“Call Dad @ 3PM on Monday” Monday, September 2, 2013. The next day, he was going to be prepping for his surgery on Wednesday and didn’t think he’d want to talk to anyone. So we had a long chat — about nothing, about everything — this one last time.

“Call Dad @ 7am on Wednesday” Wednesday, September 4, 2013. A quick call after I got home from work on the day of his surgery, to wish him well, to tell him I loved him before he headed off with my brother to the hospital.

Two-and-a-half weeks in the hospital, during which I fought other callers, visitors, pain, and drugs for time to talk with him. Our conversations were short and sad and so very heartbreaking. Then a week at home, where I still fought other callers, visitors, pain, and drugs for time to talk with him. (I went home at the end of September, to look after him while we waited for home health care to kick in, but he passed away only a couple of short weeks later, at 9AM on October 16, 2013. )

Today would have been his 77th birthday. And not a day goes by that I don’t wish I had more time to talk to him, about nothing, about everything.

You don’t ever think that the last time is the Last Time. For anything.

Compassion and judgement

On April 28, a terrible car crash occurred in Surrey, BC, in which an entire carload of people (all part of the same family) were killed.

The driver of the other vehicle, which by all accounts had to have been going at a very fast speed, was hospitalized. Immediately, people began speculating about the cause of the crash. Not just speculating, but rushing to judgement. He was speeding and running red lights because he was reckless, or drunk, or stupid. Whatever. People felt justified in condemning him without any actual knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the accident.

The man died a week after the crash while being operated on for a brain tumour that no one, including the man himself, knew he had. Blood tests have since shown that he was not under the influence of anything at the time of the crash, and now the realization that this brain tumour could have contributed to the crash is making people rethink their earlier judgements.

Why, as a species, do we do this? Make snap judgements about people and situations based on our (usually very limited) knowledge at the time? This is how lynch mobs begin, you know.

The short of it is that we don’t ever know the full story behind any event. We’ll never know what crap is or has been going on in someone’s life up to that point, why someone might be driven to do something.

Shaken, not stirred

Haven’t felt a significant earthquake myself here in Ottawa since the one I wrote about in June 2010.

Was trying to get a nap in after working all night and felt this vibration go through the springs of my mattress, like a huge truck convoy going past the house. When it went on too long, I decided to get up and check online. Twitter for the win!

According to the Earthquakes Canada site, they’d initially said it was a 4.8 near Braeside, ON, but now they’re reporting it as a 5.1 magnitude quake 21 km NE of Shawville, QC, at 09:43. The page for it is at http://www.earthquakescanada.nrcan.gc.ca/recent_eq/2013/20130517.1343/index-eng.php.

The USGS page for the event is at http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/eventpage/usb000gxna#summary.

Be sure and report it if you felt it at both places. (Both pages offer questionnaires to fill out for just that thing.)

Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely

When I was recovering from my pulmonary embolism in early 2000, I slept sitting up in a cushioned rocker chair. As always, Maci slept with me, in this case on a pillow tucked between the side of the chair and my chest so that he wouldn’t be lying with his full weight directly on my chest. (It became our standard way of sleeping right up until shortly before his passing.) During that recovery phase, I played one song almost exclusively on my Walkman: The Backstreet Boys’ “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely“. At the time, there was something about the “hard to breathe” part in the first verse that caught my attention, since I couldn’t.

Show me the meaning of being lonely
Is this the feeling I need to walk with
Tell me why I can’t be there where you are
There’s something missing in my heart

In the years after that, my singing of this chorus became one of the things that would bring Maci to me from wherever he was in the apartment (“Viva Forever” by the Spice Girls was another) and so it is inextricably tied up with my memories of him. The words are so much more poignant now that they were back then.

It’s been three years now since my mother started to wrap up her time in this world and two years since my beloved boy started to wrap up his: I miss you both more than I can possibly describe, every day, and I’m still wondering why I can’t be there where you are.

A very good place to start

“So…you mentioned ‘epic’ in your last post. Care to elaborate?”

Oh, yeah.

I should probably explain that.

And why I know this time is different.

(I know…how many times have I said that. I have journals and diaries going back decades that attest to my high failure rate at making any lasting changes in any aspect of my life. So why is it different now?)

After my last Maci-related posts here, I drifted in apathy and sadness and nothingness. Slept a lot. Ate more. Wallowed endlessly. Got further out of control in pretty much every aspect of my life.

Cut to November 9.

That was the day that I decided I needed a new start — an extreme new start.

[I grew up in a household full of wonderful clutter. The difference between that home and mine is that my mother was neat and tidy by nature (where I’m messy and lazy) and so our houses were always charming and homey in their clutter. And my mother was a serial collector — giving away the contents of one collection when another was started — rather than a hoarder.

When my mother died, my attitude towards “stuff” began to change. You can’t take it with you, and if I were to die, there was nothing I owned that anyone would struggle to (or want to) keep — at best, things to be sold off to get rid of them; at worst, they would just be tossed out. If it wasn’t making me happy to have it around me, then why keep it? My attachment to my “stuff” was weakening, but the situation I was in was overwhelming.]

Trying to fix things while staying put where I was wasn’t working for me. It was long past time for a change.

“Portable” became my new mantra.

I put in my notice on my apartment and found a room to rent in someone else’s house. Rented a small storage unit and a mail box.

I threw away most of my belongings, and I do mean “most”, including almost all of the books that I’d been desperately holding onto for decades, every piece of furniture I owned, my television, and most of my computer equipment. (I know — it seems a waste to have thrown out so many functional and usable items, but ultimately that excuse has been keeping me from decluttering properly for years and if I held onto things now long enough to sell or give them away, I’d never be free. It had to be a quick and clean break and that meant throwing things away while I could.)

I couldn’t manage to do it all myself — not because I was holding onto things, but because I wasn’t in the best shape or health and trying to do this huge a job on my own while working 12-hour shifts was hard. So I hired the 1-800-Got-Junk guys. Unfortunately, one completely-packed-to-the-rafters truckload and many personal trips to the dumpsters later and my apartment still looked like a squat. That’s when I realized that I’d never finish it if I stayed, so I cut and ran before the new year. One of these days I’ll get a bill from the landlord for the final clean up. And that’s a small price for the sense of relief that doing a runner brought.

So now I live in a rented room in a house with dogs and a small yard. My phone and my Internet are mobile and contract-free. My electronics are all portable. The only furniture I own is a new twin mattress set. Everything else that is here with me is in a half dozen plastic storage containers. My small storage unit is severely underutilized and contains pretty much only those items that I wanted to keep but didn’t need with me: my mother’s paintings, my technical writing and other reference books, photos, my guitar, some tarot/oracle card decks, and some papers I didn’t have time to sort through. If I were to lose it all tomorrow, I’d be disappointed but not heartbroken, and that’s very liberating.

I live closer to where I work so I’ve virtually eliminated my taxi addiction and I’m walking more. I’m working on cleaning up my finances and my health. I’m coming out of my hermitage and beginning to actually interact with the Real World in ways I’ve avoided for over a decade. I’ve returned to the spiritual quest I paused years ago. And I’m working out what phase II is going to look like.

I am still very much a work-in-progress. I don’t know where this is going, but I’m no longer afraid and no longer hiding. And that’s a very good place to start an epic journey.

We interrupt this interruption…

I need to live with nothing fixed
Don’t tell me what’s gonna happen next
I’m alright, I like the way this feels
Leave behind all the things I miss
The next stop isn’t where you think it is
‘Cos tonight I’m riding off the rails […]

The end is where you hope you never say
“I coulda done it better”
I’m gonna keep what counts
and throw away what doesn’t really matter
And I wanna die on the highest high

(McFly, “The End”)

I started writing this blog back in August 2006 as I was heading into a full-blown mid-life crisis. The years since then have been rocky — ups and downs and sideways turns and rolls that never quite amounted to anything I’d hoped for. The expected mid-life crisis certainly never really materialized.

This is the year.

I don’t know the shape of my future, but I know it looks unlike anything I ever imagined.

It’s going to be epic.

The cremains of the day

Forgive me if I’m wallowing a little today.

I finally decided to open the box containing Maci’s “ashes” to extract a small amount of them to place into a simple urn pendant that I’ve had for several weeks. It was far more emotional than I thought it would be.

At the time that I had to make the decision to euthanize Maci, there was no room in my head for anything except the most basic of decisions. First, the Big Decision. (No, no more suffering; let him go.) Do you want some time to say goodbye? (No, I want you to wake him up so I can take him home and never let him go again, but that’s not really one of my choices, is it.) Do you want his ashes returned? (Of course. Duh.) Yes, please. Would you like a wooden box or a ceramic urn? (Oh, god, a ceramic urn is going to lead to me Dust Bustering Maci up off the carpet at some point in the near future.) Wooden. Most definitely wooden. Nameplate? What? Yeah, whatever. Do you want to take the carrier home? (Oh, god, no. No, I don’t. I have to leave, before I give into the urge to run back in, scoop him up, and spirit him away.)

It was all over so quickly and in such a haze. In hindsight, I’d wished I’d asked for a clipping of hair, or a paw print. Something recognizable of him. But it was too late when I thought of that. Hell, there are a lot of things I wish I’d done that day that I can’t go back and do over.

I was touched, when I picked up his remains a few weeks later, to discover that the crematorium thought of what a grieving pet owner would want without even being asked. The box itself was placed in a lovely black velvet bag embroidered with the words “Until We Meet Again at the Rainbow Bridge”, and then placed in a white “Thinking of you” gift bag with blue tissue paper.

"Gift" bags from crematorium

The velvet bag also contained a little card with Maci’s name on the front. Inside the card was a paw print and a little bag of clipped hair fastened to the card with a heart-shaped pin.

It all made a potentially difficult moment so much easier than it could have been.

Several days after I picked up the package, I opened up the bottom of the box for the first time. I’d never seen cremains before. All I knew is what I’d seen on TV shows and in movies, where you see some hapless person knock over the urn containing Aunt Martha’s ashes and they scatter all over the floor. They always look like cigarette ashes — grey and fine — and so that’s what I was expecting. I didn’t expect (though I probably should have if I had really thought about the process) them to look like large-grained sand, like the sand you put at the bottom of an aquarium. Only a few non-white speckles, no ash at all. Just the ground up remains of the bones and other hard elements of the body. Everything else, it would seem, pretty much vaporizes.

I don’t look at them too closely, though, in case there is still something there that is recognizable. I’m not sure I could handle that right now.

Such a small amount of remains to mark the huge hole in my life left by his absence. Should be…more.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

(W.H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”, 1938)


Maci's pendant urn