Grim News Inspires Gratitude

It’s been a week of unusually bad news. Not the “what did Trump do now” kind of news; not the “volcanic eruption kills 500 in a small village in….” kind of news . This was the week that two famous people who seemed like they “had it all” chose to commit suicide.

I was not an avid fan of Anthony Bourdain, altho’ I liked his Parts Unknown tv program whenever I watched one of the episodes.  I knew nothing about his personal life but I enjoyed his on-the-edge philosophy and his omnivorous gusto. Kate Spade wasn’t really on my radar much either because I am not a person who pays much attention to fashion. I do remember my 16-year-old son (now 35) telling me that some of the girls in his high-school class (of some means) were infatuated with the brand. I knew nothing about her personal life either.

This morning while indulging in my favorite pastime…reading the New York Times at leisure… I delved into the news coverage about their recent deaths.  I wanted to know “why.” From what I read, it seemed that Bourdain was chasing demons for much of his life. But he kept that darker side from the public, and wisely so. He was enormously talented, energetic, irreverent and driven…not an easy way to live. He seemed to  channel much of his angst into whatever work he appeared to be doing at the time.  That approach seemed to work, most of the time. And then it didn’t.

Kate Spade was equally talented in a very different way and also very driven.  A person who “came out of nowhere” to make her stamp in the world of fashion and then became rich is,  by definition, a taste setter and go-getter. Although her life seemed almost “normal” in comparison to Bourdain’s edgy journey,  she, too, seemed to channel her hyper-energy into her work. And she also chose not to share her dark side. Until she did.

While sitting on my patio on a gorgeous sunny day,  I contemplated what I could learn from their deaths. What I came up with was “gratitude.” I have had no more joy or no fewer challenges than the next person. My 35-year-old daughter has suffered five open-heart surgeries and is now struggling to make sense of her life; my 36-year-old son who had cancer at 25 and now has a promising career,  is now struggling with his partner to have a child. I had fourth-stage metastasized cancer and am lucky enough to still be alive and cancer-free three years later. My husband, who is in better health, works hard to be a good provider. Together we have achieved a certain level of material comfort in our lives, but it did not come easily. Both of us came from working-class families who did not have an education beyond high school, so we were pretty much on our own when breaking through middle-class boundaries. Our journey through life has had some extremely challenging moments, but there have been rewards along the way.

I am extremely grateful for the life I now have. I am grateful that there were treatments available for me and my children that were not available in the past, and have enabled us to continue to live full,  meaningful lives. I am grateful that after a long struggle with unsatisfying work,  I was able to land a job as a teacher in my mid-40’s that offered me the opportunity to save for the future and purchase a comfortable home. I am grateful that I live in a very beautiful spot on the North Shore of LI near where I lived as a child, a place that allows me to enjoy my love of nature in the nearby wetlands and woods. I am grateful that despite my mounting physical annoyances I can still take a walk around the pond in my local park or a vacation in Europe. I am grateful I can still read to my heart’s content as that has always been one of my favorite indulgences. I am grateful that I have cultivated lifelong friendships that continue to sustain me as life becomes more challenging.

In full disclosure, my own life has been a struggle of sorts. I battled severe depression in my late twenties and did not have the resources or support I needed at the time. There was a year in my life that I had such anxiety I suffered from acute insomnia. But I am one of the lucky ones. I fought my way through it, married and had children and a career.

Antidepressants have been part of my life for a long while and will probably continue to be necessary for the remainder of it. I am not ashamed of that fact, but wish I had access to them sooner. I also wish that Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had the same outcome I have had. But just as their lives were more “successful” than mine and had more impact than mine, clearly their demons were more powerful than mine and they succumbed.

Today I feel sorrow for those who struggle with mental illness and eventually are overwhelmed by it and a deep sense of gratitude for my simple, ordinary life.

What I Learned from Our Yard Sale

We have too much stuff. Our basement is packed and so is our attic. All of us are “savers” but we each have our own preferences. My husband is into anything electronic: old tvs and radios, broken computers and printers, earphones, etc. He also saves every can of paint he’s ever used, as well as every piece of wood of any size or shape. I am into books, objects of sentimental value like maps, photos, dishes, Native American culture and clothing that I will wear again some day:-) My daughter is a craft person, photographer, nature lover and collector of West Coast memorabilia and archaeological artifacts. My son is a film cinematographer, book lover and world traveler. He collects artifacts from all the places he has visited; he also has boxes filled with baseball cards, Magic cards, and other obsessions he was into as a young boy.

All this saving and collecting has finally led to us feeling overwhelmed and frozen by the sheer magnitude of what we need to do to “undo” our bad habits. But this weekend we made a start. Although there were a hundred other things I would have rather been doing, I understood that for my daughter’s mental health (she lives with us currently), and all of us really, we needed to start the process of decluttering. She has begun to feel anxious about the prospect of dealing with all this stuff after our demise.

So, start we did. She and I spent a couple of afternoons in the basement, sorting out what we would attempt to get rid of. Then I had to clean up certain items to make them more saleable. Next my husband had to clean out the garage to make room for the yard sale items to be stored. Finally, on Friday, we moved everything that we wanted to sell into the garage so it could easily be moved outside the next morning.

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It took about an hour to get everything set up the next morning, including putting out two signs at either end of our street. (We intersect with a busy road.) We were all ready to go. We waited….and waited….and waited. For about 2 hours, no one showed up. Then we had a trickle, but no bites. At about 2:30 it was beginning to get too cold to sit around waiting for customers, so we began to slowly put things back into their boxes. We made $3 on our first day, leaving us $1 short of the $3.99 we spent on the yard sale sign. Not a good day!

Sunday arrived. Still hopeful, we again put everything out while I went around lowering the prices on many items in hopes of selling them more easily. A few customers did finally show up. One bought a baseball for 25 cents; another a soccer ball for 50 cents. We had almost broken even on our expenses. I basked in the pleasant sun while reading the Sunday NY Times.

Just when I was about to give up, toward 3pm several people started arriving. About an hour later, my daughter had made $20 on old toys and some vintage clothing. We were ecstatic! But we still had almost the same amount of stuff we had started out with.

We began to bundle things to bring to the local thrift shop. We packed the games and toys into boxes to donate to a business that recycles them for less fortunate children. We dragged most of the other stuff to the curb. Then something really interesting started to happen.

About 4pm the scavengers began to cruise past our trash pile, pulling out things they wanted. One lady left with four Ikea chairs and cushions much to our amazement. A truck stopped by and a woman hopped out and picked up some of our lighting fixtures and threw them in the back of the truck. (Maybe collecting metal to sell?) A neighbor walked by and asked us to save the antique chalk board for her. Another neighbor showed up and told us he would take the two rusty bikes we had put out to the curb so he could refurbish them and give them to poor children. Almost everything vanished by 6 pm!

I had thought that the reason we hadn’t sold anything is that our neighborhood is middle class and everyone has enough “stuff” of their own and certainly didn’t need our stuff. That was the big lesson of the day. Then it became clear that some people cruise Sunday night trash collections to see what they can find for free. No one wants to put for stuff they already have in their own basements and attics. But there are people out there who know a bargain when they see one for free. In the end, although we made hardly any money, we were delighted that mostly everything in the trash had disappeared, and everything else was destined to be recycled.

Baby steps. Most important was that we had finally begun what will be a long process. Now if we can only keep up the momentum! Our winter plan is to go through boxes of personal papers, books, etc. There’s already more space in our basement. If I look real hard, I can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Clutter…A Family Affair

Several weeks ago I had a reason to go down to the finished basement for something I thought might be there. Our basement has been a receptacle for the many seasons of our individual lives for many years, so I knew that it was cluttered and in need of cleaning out. But I was not prepared for the sight that confronted me. On top of the usual mound of boxes and objects we no longer used were two chairs we had recently replaced. The “mound,” as my daughter affectionately calls it, now touched the ceiling of the basement. I recoiled in horror because this meant to me that we were now officially hoarders. I had read somewhere that hoarders like to stack things like towers, and our first tower was now staring back at me. I became panicky.

I confronted my husband with this experience (it was he who had stacked the chairs on top of the mound) and declared war. We could no longer delude ourselves…we must clean out our clutter! My daughter was enthusiastic about this because she had recently begun complaining that she was dismayed by the amount of “stuff” we had all acquired over the years. Eager to turn over a new leaf in her own life, she felt she could not make a fresh start until we did something collectively about “our problem.”

We are all world travelers, widely read, well informed and actively pursuing different threads in our lives. The problem is we are also sentimental and attach too much value to stages in our lives that we can no longer accommodate.
I have kept board games, select toys, art produced by the kids, boxes of photos…you get the picture, finding it difficult to part with their childhood and secretly hoping that one day there might be grandkids to share some of this with. My husband is a technology hoarder. We have come across boxes of outdated printers and stereo speakers. Old radios were a favorite. My daughter once found a tangle of headsets that looked like an exhibit from an artist’s installation of “Detritus from the 20th Century.” My son, for lack of space in his Brooklyn apartment, has left us with several bookcases of his books, such collectibles as legos, Star Wars figures, and boxes of baseball cards. We also house a collection of first editions that do have real value but now sit on a shelf in his former bedroom. Our daughter had a separate life in California for seven years, most of which is still in boxes in the basement. It is time…really it is…to confront this problem.

So yesterday, I resumed a project I had begun before I was hit with cancer last July. I had started to go through the boxes of books in the basement trying to weed out whatever I could. I resumed my project and felt very proud of myself at being able to consolidate three boxes of books into one we would keep (for now) and two that will go to the library for their book sale. My daughter cruised the basement for random items that clearly no longer served any purpose in our lives, and came up with a couple of bags that will go to the local thrift shop. My husband finally began to tackle the random collection of pieces of lumber he has been saving for years. For what? To build us a retirement shack? I don’t think so! My son is spared this enterprise for now because he no longer lives with us. But there will come a day when he, too, will have to confront his demons and shed some of his past.

It’s just a beginning, but spring is almost here and hope springs eternal. Wish us luck!