The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Future Field July 22, 2016

The days are long, but the years are short.

These aren’t my words, but I’ll be citing them for a long time to come. The mother of a piano student and I were marveling over the way in which time seems to speed up once your children hit a certain age, and without pause she offered this lovely, succinct sentiment. To hear it put so correctly, so simply, it gave my heart a bit of relief. It felt good to identify the phenomenon so easily. Because it is absolutely so true. You hear phrases like these in your younger years and think, ‘yeah, I suppose that makes sense’, but until you’re there, you just can’t fully get it. Now that I’m arriving here myself, man do I get it.

Those days and nights of sippy cups and car seats, naptimes and baths – the stuff that seems to go on and on without respite – all of that stuff comes to an end before you’re fully aware that it has… And then, in what seems like only a few more minutes, you wake up to the reality one day that your child simply doesn’t need you as they once did. But that’s just the beginning. Then the landscape continues to change in new and unfamiliar ways… Your child is almost directly at eye level with you now, and it won’t be long… That mysterious change takes place at some point in adolescence when the child takes on a different look; the very essence of the young child has somehow disappeared, magically morphing into a young adult.

What exactly tells us this change has happened? What tiny contours have appeared that weren’t there before? How can such subtle shifts represent such a big change? I see my students as they grow during that mysterious passage from ten to fourteen and I am continually amazed by the process. Elihu and I attended the local high school graduation ceremony in late June and my mind was blown as I watched nearly a dozen kids who I’d known for the past eight years cross the stage in cap and gown, now indisputably young adults. I know this is happening now with Elihu, and I find myself daily readying my heart for the next couple of years. In perusing this blog I see a nearly endless childhood, a mother and young son moving through the world as a unit, discovering things together. But I know that our future story will soon become very different in its nature. That’s good, that’s fine, it’s all as it should be. I know. But still…

For the past month, the world has been doing what it does so well…. Offering up daily distractions, projects, serendipitous events, the shifting of gears and moving on to the new. At this point my son’s been with his father in Chicago for over a week, and I am settling into my annual basement organizing effort. I pour through piles of paper memorabilia, and as always – perhaps even more so because of my distilling sentimentality for Elihu’s quickly passing youth – I am beset with more crap than I have room for. I find letters to me in a child’s hand, sketches of birds and airplanes, tiny shells and rocks once stuffed into pockets in order that we might remember…. I am bound by these worldly anchors, and I am bogged down. Making decisions is more than difficult. I wonder: This can’t be how everyone else lives, can it?

I see photos on my hard drive of the field next to our property, the one in which we’ve chased woodcocks and flown kites for the eight years in which we’ve lived here. There is a physical ache when I open them now, as I know that within months a house will stand in that space, and a family of seven will spill over onto the open acres that we once thought of as belonging to the birds and the two of us alone… We always told ourselves that this was coming one day, it’s just that we never really seemed to believe it. It’s not the worst thing that could happen – we know this – but still, it hurts our hearts with a slow, deep burn.

It’s not my intention to sound whiny, it’s not that I mean to complain, because I have it good. I know I do. It’s just that nostalgia tugs at me and keeps me from moving forward. It prevents me from throwing out hand-written letters and ancient concert programs. This summer, as with so many summers before, I find myself struggling to let go of my past in order to move into my future. It feels as if I am holding onto the line that tethers me to the shore because the vast expanse of water ahead is just too frightening to comprehend.

I’ve hired an organizer to come and help me make the hard decisions. She’s come before and has been a great help to me. For me, she is a lifeline. This has to stop, and I need outside help. I cannot keep saving, accruing, collecting – and looking back. My brother is a hoarder of the highest order, my mother likes to make passive-aggressive stabs at me for “throwing everything out” and my father’s office is still piled high with paper two years after his death. I cannot go down this path like the rest of my family. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he warned us not to put so much emotional such stock into the physical crap here on earth, which he reminded us will ultimately become moth food or rust…

Today I will try to be bold, I will remind myself that these artifacts are not the memories themselves. In casting off the keepsakes I remind myself that I am not losing the experiences, nor am I losing the love of those with whom I shared those memories. All of those experiences are still inside of me. And no matter what the future brings, no one can ever take away the memory of a small boy running joyfully across a bright, sunny field…

 

 

Paperchase February 23, 2015

Paper has followed me closely throughout my life. Of course it started for me as it does for all my brothers and sisters here on the planet; there were the requisite forms my parents filled out on my behalf shortly after I arrived, and the stamp of my inky footprints in lieu of a signature to kick things off… And before I knew it, my relationship with paper had begun.

In my earliest years the collection took the form of preschool art gems. Over-sized pieces of thick, fuzzy paper frozen into stiff waves by watercolor paint… Next came the phonetically spelled messages that immediately preceded my learning to read, and shortly after that I was in school and churning out a respectable daily output of used paper. In high school I filled my paper with far less academic focus; endless doodles lined the margins of my Latin notes, I drew floor plans on any remaining space in which I didn’t doodle, and I wrote the name of a certain cute senior boy (who played bass) – both forward and mirrored backwards, too – across every page of my notebook during sophomore year. I was a doodler. Later came sheets of classical music, lead sheets, chord charts, string arrangements, production notes and set lists. More paper, much of which is now deeply infused with the memories of those projects and the time in my life which they represent. I find it impossible to simply toss the stuff. And so instead, I file it away. I can totally understand hoarders. It’s a safe feeling to have tangible evidence of your life’s favorite moments within easy reach. For the most part, it’s not a drag. What to me is a drag are those piles. The ‘to-do’ piles all over your office that don’t ever get done.

But that’s only one kind of paper battle. There’s the other sort that most folks deal with daily. The better part of my mother’s life these days is spent just keeping up with the shit that she finds stuffed in her mailbox each day. Unlike me, she takes her mail up to the house and goes through each and every piece, whether it’s a solicitation for money (free dream catcher inside!), another outside agency offering to provide electricity at discount prices (never a deal) or life insurance offers (for just pennies a day and no medical questions to answer!), she gives each its moment of consideration. Piles of envelopes wait patiently on the desk for her attention, while correspondence of a similar sort over at my place gets unceremoniously dumped into the recycling bin on the way back to the car. More than enough crap has made it past my front door – I have no desire to give myself yet more things to purge. If I ever become flush with cash, I’ll give some to my friend who digs wells around the world. That’s it. Real results, no waste. If I ever need a discount on my electric, I’ll consider going solar. And as for insurance, they can keep their brochures. If I die, my kid gets all my stuff and then goes to live with his dad. Nuff said.

Having finally put ‘like with like’ over this past, kid-free week (Elihu’s been in Chicago with his dad for winter break), I am finally able – after living here over six years – to know where everything is. Got my old files down low, new ones up high. Seriously old stuff – as in those doodles from the early years (along with Elihu’s thousands of bird drawings) are sealed away in labeled boxes. I know where they are, but they’re tidily out of sight. Finally I have a handle on it. And the relief is almost physical.

Between the logging, the random life adventures and all the organizing I’ve been doing this week, I’ve been going nonstop. Elihu returns tomorrow, and I’m finished with the office just in time. (I have spent several hours trying to get my computer to see my piano keyboard to no avail, and am also having some deep frustration with my new computer and it’s ‘non relationship’ with my printer. So in truth, nothing’s truly resolved and over. I’ve just reached a nice, temporary hiatus of sorts.) Elihu will return this time with his new tuba in tow, so of course we’ll be off into a whole new adventure as soon as he steps off the train.

The logs from our property are ending up going in all directions and will be put to many uses. A local school will be burning the chipped tops in their furnace, some nice looking butternut made its way to a local clock maker, and some of the fine, long hardwood will even find its way across the globe to far-away furniture makers in the not too distant future. And some of the haul will even be made into – you guessed it – paper! Let the chase continue…

IMG_2192My little aviator, ready to fly.

IMG_2204How is it that this never grows old? A plane is always an exciting, enticing sight.

IMG_2222There goes my baby…

IMG_2241Lost in the snow.

For me, this never grows old either.

IMG_2265Leaving the airport I saw hundreds of puffy sparrows hunkered down in the trees, just waiting out the brutal, sub-zero weather as best as they possibly could. Poor creatures!

IMG_2308I had planned to have a mammogram one morning, but found I was driving on a totally flat tire and ended up cancelling. I suspected the loggers might have some compressed air to get me to the garage…

IMG_2320Easier said than done. Their equipment is always breaking down. Steven did a good job of nursing the compressor pump motor along. It took some real patience in the frigid weather. And see – he’s not even wearing gloves. But given the finesse he had to use in getting the engine going, I can understand why. Even I took off my gloves to unscrew some nuts on the tire. Sometimes you gotta feel what you’re doing.

IMG_2342My tire was truly busted. No repairs to be made there. Time to use that spare. So unbelievably cold in spite of the sun, and again, no gloves! These guys were so kind and helpful, and I am extremely grateful for their help. I’ve changed tires myself before, but I was a lot younger then – and it was a whole lot warmer out too! I think I’ve finally reached the age where I can comfortably allow younger people to do things for me.

IMG_2370Now I’m heading out into the woods with forester Dick, so he can show me how the cut looks. (The hat I’m wearing was knit by Lydia, my maternal grandmother. I like that I have something functional – and quite attractive – that she made. She’s been gone since I was twelve, but this makes me feel connected to her.)

IMG_2376Here comes the skidder. Sometimes you can hear the engine but can’t see it for all the trees – until it’s right up on ya.

IMG_2354They cut and drop em in a line…

IMG_2358…then grab em with that giant claw and drag them back to the landing where they’ll be sorted and stacked.

IMG_2383A load slips by while Dick checks out the cut.

IMG_2395It’s the fellow manning the claw who makes all the decisions about what trees should go to what vendors. He stacks them, cuts them to size and then either feeds them to the chipper or loads them on a truck as logs. One full 40′ semi trailer holds 30 tons of chips. Think 15 elephants. !

IMG_2411The dark center is called the heart. While this looks pretty here, this soft red Maple (which is a hard wood – go figure) is not worth as much because the ratio of heart to light wood will make the resulting cut wood irregularly colored. Apparently people want uniformly colored wood.

IMG_2409Now these guys look pretty good. The smaller the heart, the more value to the log.

Love listening to these guys talk.

IMG_2405Dick goes over the pile to see if he agrees with the head logger.

IMG_2423I head home to assess my mess.

IMG_2420Gotta keep at it. Put in over 30 hours just filing. Whew.

IMG_2427Ahh.

IMG_2428Three ring binders are this girl’s best friend.

IMG_2480And finally… at week’s end! Not once in my six years here has my office ever been so organized. Maybe I’ve finally chased the bump under the rug into the next county. Maybe. At least my paperchase is done for now.

 

Stuffed July 6, 2014

We are a culture of stuff. Crap just seems to find most of us, regardless of whether we are filthy rich or dirt poor. Our contemporary American culture grooms us to become professional consumers and collectors from the earliest age. Even our organic, untouched human nature, regardless of cultural affiliation – always in search of wholeness, satisfaction and existential peace – places great importance on objects to help us fill those voids and still that pesky uncertainty. We all know that a flag is really just a piece of fabric, but plenty of us are still a little squeamish about seeing it hit the ground. Trinkets and mementos tug hard at our heart-strings by offering us tangible evidence of long-gone memories.  Finery represents to the world our good taste and our economic success. And then of course, there’s that ‘new-from-the-box’ rush against which few of us are immune. Stuff is comforting, it’s exciting. It’s what we crave. To many of us, our stuff really, really matters.

To some of us, our very identities are completely identified by and wrapped up in the stuff that we own. Most of us live with a low-level of this affliction, but as the current run of tv programs on hoarding will bear out there’s also a growing population of people who act like absolute magnets for matter; people who feel somehow safer, more emotionally protected and at peace when completely surrounded by stuff. All contingencies of life are potentially prepared for, all heartbreak warded off, memories continue to live, and past hopes and dreams, whether realized or not, linger comfortingly in the physical realm. Most of our stuff is merely a collection of inert, valueless objects, but to the super-invested owner, the very experiences or memories those objects represent – whether either in the past or possibly yet to come in the future – are one in the same with the object.  Owning an object also seems to mean owning control over the thing that it represents. And control gives one a feeling of comfort. Of predictability, stability and ultimately, of safety. To have control is to have the illusion of peace. And the illusion of peace can sure feel better than no peace at all.

Stuff helps cover your shit up. It weighs you down and buffers you from any possible hurtful, frightening or unpleasant experiences. Stuff insulates you from pain of living – but only temporarily. It can help mask the fear, yeah, maybe, but in the end, stuff kills. In the end, it’s the stuff that has the control over you, not the other way around. If you’re a person that doesn’t feel the nagging tug of stuff, count yourself lucky. I know you’re out there; I’ve met a few folks for whom it’s never been an issue. “But what about all of your schoolwork, your artwork, your… you know, all your stuff?” I would press them, but the response from these folks would often come easily, matter-of-factly. They didn’t remember really, they guessed that they just didn’t ever think about it much. Their stuff just kind of disappeared over the course of their lives. Who knew? That kind of answer always blew my mind, because I myself have been in a constant battle with stuff since I was a young girl. A hand mirror given to my by Louis and Patty, a stuffed suede dog from Switzerland that Hannelore brought me, an empty spool of thread my grandmother left behind or an ever-growing box of my drawings and writings. I kept tight watch over my stuff and it broke my heart to think of it lost or gone forever. I try to imagine what it’s like not to live as I do, and I just can’t.

My basement is currently under siege; stuff from toys to clothes to aquariums to old paper mache costumes take up valuable space in a humid and dank, ever-shrinking space. Gifts of hand-me-downs sit in bins, waiting for their seasons, or perhaps even to be given away, broken candles await the winter project of making shiny new ones from the remnants, lps line up on sagging bookshelves, volumes of photo books too take up more shelves. Stuff just blooms from the corners and the mass seems to have grown bigger than the last time I took a casual inventory. For someone whose main goal in life is to live simply, I am years away – or at least many hours away – from that goal. And whenever I make some headway, it seems something throws me back again; a kindly drop off of clothes or toys by a friend or classmate, a couple of ‘bird things’ from grandma here and there, oversized drawings of Elihu’s, or hundreds of his unique paper airplane designs that now require storage in an enormous plastic bucket. When assessed one object at a time, most of them seem reasonable enough on their own. But there comes that certain threshold in the accumulation at which it all of it seems equally deserving of a rented roll off container.

A short time after college, and long before it was hip, I worked as a personal organizer. It was a short-lived endeavor, as I felt that most clients needed both a psychologist and organizer in one, and after a certain point, I didn’t have the skills to wrest unhealthy people from their hoards. ‘Assess a Mess’ ended before it might have realized a good measure of success; the job took a huge amount of energy and stamina to do right, and my own personal energies were going in a different direction. So it makes me wonder; if I didn’t have the stamina to deal with people’s messes back then (when I was young and had more oomph) how on earth will I deal with this mess, now? Plus there’s also another phenomenon to purging and cleaning out – it’s easier to do it for other people than it is for yourself. It’s simply not as easy to make the hard decisions when you’re so emotionally invested in things. But I also know this about cleaning house: when the time is right, you find it in yourself to get the job done. I’ve also known major cleanouts to happen around big life changes. Obviously there are the stories of death and divorce, cross-country moves or major career changes, but there are physical and emotional chapters too which play a part. When I was twelve, shortly after I’d first gotten my period, I did a heroic job of cleaning and organizing my hugely sloppy and congested bedroom. Martha, family friend and matriarchal figure, asked if I’d ‘just begun menstruating’. She seemed to have skills of divination; how on earth did she know? She laughed and told me that often ‘when girls become women’ they do something of that sort. I guess it’s kind of like the nesting that soon-to-be mothers are famous for.

There’s definitely change afoot in my life; I’m pretty sure it’s part of what’s been contributing to my panic attacks and bouts of deep depression lately. And if change is what I need to get this massive clean-out underway, I have a hunch that I’ll find it in me to get this thing nailed. Gotta unload a little of life’s ballast to set sail for new seas…

kitchen hoardThis is my brother’s kitchen, it’s a mixture of garbage and non-garbage items. Hard to tackle even if you’re feeling strong and of good spirit; how on earth can someone so compromised by depression even begin?

kitchen clutter

And here’s my mess, after coming home from a friend’s house and receiving the contents of her pantry and other assorted things after her recent out-of-state move. It was daunting, so much so that I hired a neighbor girl to help me get it packed away.

IMG_7558I’ve spent hours upon hours excavating my cellar and garage. It’s not quite organized yet, but at least it’s out in the open where I can see it all… I’ve posted ads in Freecycle and Craiglist hoping to give it all away. Maybe the key words ‘free stuff’ will move it out faster.

IMG_7721Sure enough, folks were coming by long before the thing was even supposed to start. Drat, I forgot to post ‘no early birds’. That’s ok. Everyone’s lighthearted. One woman even went to get me coffee when I mumbled something about not being ready so early (and also kindly invited me to visit her church one day)… I met a bunch of very sweet people that afternoon.

IMG_7710It’s sad for me to see things go… this little blue trike my kid dubbed “Mongey” when he was four. Never a cuter sight than that tiny boy pedaling along furiously, his baby curls blowing in the breeze…

IMG_7716The wizard, acquired at a truck stop and now missing an arm (which always inspired us to cry ‘it’s just a flesh wound’) has found a new, enthusiastic owner. (Btw – if you, new owner, should read this post, I have the power supply – find me and I’ll get it to you.)

IMG_7718There goes a model of the Tally Ho. I once jumped off the cap rail of that boat and kept this for years as a memento of that day.

IMG_7729Told this gal she’d have to wipe it clean; it was too hard for me to do.

IMG_7731My grandma Lydia’s raccoon coat is simply too musty for me… hope this woman will give it another go.

IMG_7775This cherub poster hung over my marital bed for years – in the early, posters-as-art days… My ex felt it should be on our walls here to help give Elihu a sense of continuity. ! I’d felt there were other, more important symbols of ‘continuity’ than this, and it’s been languishing in the basement ever since.

IMG_7767I’m even willing to part with my Noel candle, purchased at the Jewel in Wilmette (the one on Greenbay that had the escalators) as I, at the age of six, repeatedly begged to have it. (It lasted, untouched til the last of the giveaway, so I ended up sneaking it back into the garage. Shh..)

IMG_7769I was giving it all away…. I wanted stuff to move, after all. Ended up making $25 in tips. Good karma sales.

IMG_7821Unearthed from the vaults. Those on the top are from the bicentennial! And the Eli business was a nod to both Yale (founded by Elihu Yale, and my father’s alma mater) and a mentor figure of dad’s at Yale, who’s name was actually Elias. When my son’s name finally came into my head (he was nameless for a good week) I first saw in my mind’s eye this license plate. Crazy, huh.

IMG_7755I remember many nights going to bed with this fan in the window. It used to scare the pants off of me. As kids, Andrew and I would fake dare each other to stick our fingers into the unprotected metal blades. They don’t make em like they used to – and it’s a good thing, too!

IMG_7754Look – made by Montgomery Ward. A drop of oil and you’re ready to go.

IMG_7749It’s this young girl – also named Elizabeth – who’ll be enjoying the fan next.

IMG_7766More sentiment. This is the main activity that kept my son busy on our drive here when we left Illinois.

IMG_7806This is what’s left of an impressive Quetzacoatl/Archaeoptyrix (yikes, I don’t remember which!) costume I made year before last (complete with 12 foot wingspan on a working pulley system), and in the upper right, a goofy but earnest portrait of a young Navy man that I would love to pack up and send to Evanston’s Lucky Platter. Evanston peeps, ya think?

IMG_7804What’s a girl to do with an enormous monarch caterpillar costume?

IMG_7799I’m running out of steam…

IMG_7738Keep it going… I see some shabby chic makeovers in the future..

IMG_7740Make yourselves a big ol load of stuff…

IMG_7820The next morning, I’m left with just a few things..

IMG_7818A bunch of trash…

IMG_7819Some wonderful clothing which will go to a local community center…

IMG_7810And soon we’ll have our own Burning Man here – only it’ll be Burning Gingerbread Man…

IMG_7816Bald Mountain approves of the tidy garage.

IMG_7823Ya know what happened at the end? A really nice man named Dan showed up, and while my offerings disappointed, he did end up with an Oliver Sachs book, a couple of nice planter pots, plus he was a saint and helped me schlep all of the remaining items to the roadside for passersby to pick up and whisk away.

IMG_7826Good Free Stuff. Well, kinda. At least it’s free. And so now am I.

Aaaahh.

 

Nostalgia August 19, 2012

My ex always used to say that I spent much of my energy in life looking back, while he spent much of his looking forward. I wouldn’t argue with that. I am, fundamentally, a sentimental person. And with the recent death of dear Von Freeman, something deep within my melancholic nature has been stirred. I’m made keenly aware of time’s passing. Elihu is no longer a very young boy, my father is now a very old man, and my hair is run through with silver. I’ve been here in New York now four years to this month. Time enough to have graduated from high school or from college. I’ve completed a four year term of life, and now, before I embark on the post-graduate study of life to come, I need to assess and file away what I’ve learned and accumulated thus far.

Over the past year I’ve been working at sorting through all of my household stuff, so that I might know the contents of my house – of my life – down to every last one of my mementos, recordings, art, writing and possessions (and the same of my son’s). Now I have reached the final – and most challenging – phase of the project: my office. Going through this archive of my life is an emotionally charged job. In some way it seems I’m bearing witness to all I’ve done and created thus far that I might now lay it to rest and begin the next chapter of my life’s work with renewed enthusiasm. When this room is finished, when the evidence has been considered and put away, it will create a good, clean emotional place from which to go forward into the adventure. But with all the retrospection going on today and all the poignant discoveries, for the moment I’m feeling a little sad, a little hesitant to say goodbye. A little stuck.

In this room is the fountainhead of all the things I’ve ever created and saved: work from grade school, papers from college, art, recordings, photos, writing, old programs from early in my dad’s career, ticket stubs, backstage passes, bits and pieces from every corner of my forty-nine years on the planet. What to do with it all? My goal, as I sit right now in the midst of a room full of paper, is to create systems. Binders will house the finest pieces of art, file boxes for the rest. Much has already been burned, much more is yet to be. Items – things – the stuff I really have no room for, it will be thinned to a manageable amount – put into a clear plastic box (for if it can’t be seen, it can easily be forgotten) and then onto a shelf. When will they lose their meaning? Will I end up tossing them or will that fall to Elihu after I’m dead? I am stopped by the quandary of stuff. What have my peers, my friends, my readers done with the sentimental things from their lives? I wish I knew. I’ve culled the best I can, I must simply store the rest that I can’t say goodbye to. I’m not good at taking my own advice. These things are not the person, not their love, not the memory, I know, I know… Yet I can’t throw out the postcards from my grandmother, nor the clay figure I made in second grade… I’m in a sentimental fog, and I’m trying to clear my head.

My load has lightened, it has, yet there’s still so much crap. Driving down the road today, I saw an open garage whose wall was covered in boxes. Likely the boxes that never got unpacked after that last move. I personally know plenty of folks with that story. So what then? And what, exactly, is actually in those boxes? Me, I’m finding mostly art in my boxes, some letters and lots of musical programs. I find a box of tax docs from our old Cafe and realize I can toss em now. That helps. Physically it gives me some room. Psychologically it frees me up. Ok. Progress is slow, but it’s there. One box down is one box down.

Then I come upon some photos of my last recording session. It was with Von. Wow. I look so much younger. And thinner. I remember – I was newly pregnant then. What a good time that was. It reminds me, and I’m happy to find these. I’d forgotten all about that session, I’m so grateful to have these pictures. I remember Von had said he thought he sounded like Ben Webster on the ballad… yeah, I remember that. I still have that recording. It gets me thinking. Maybe I should release it. Don’t know, but it’s something to think about. It’s a possibility.

Everything is a possibility right now. In a way it feels like I’m about to emerge – in earnest – from my old life. While reading my old letters to Fareed still brings tears, and while it’s still not easy to understand that Elihu has two brothers and a sister I don’t even know, things are better these days than they were in the beginning. Things are settling into their own new pattern. No longer is my story new and fresh. The hurt is there, but truly, it has dulled with time. I’ve come to realize that I love living alone, that Elihu and I have great adventures together, and that yes, two people can constitute a family. I’ve examined my life, and now I’m examining my possessions; taking a full-life inventory. I’ve moved through a phase of aging, of growing, of learning these past four years. I’m ready to move into my future.

Ever onward, yet ever mindful of the past. Nostalgic yes, but eager to create new memories. I think I still have a little space for a few more boxes….

 

Clean House August 12, 2012

Almost there. Hoo boy – I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Spent a good ten hours yesterday in my office, filing and tossing reams of paper. The recycling boxes fill up and the inbox goes down. Finally. After months and months of piling up. The going isn’t so easy at first; I find it hard to stay focused, hard to work for more than fifteen minutes in a row. The piles, the boxes, it all looks like way too much. I reward myself with snacks, with little trips outside to check for eggs or other domestic details that could use attention. I file for ten minutes, then I fill the bird feeder. I file some more, then I go upstairs and wash the dishes. Finally, my house – the upstairs, that is – is as put together as a model home. There are no more distractions. I need to get down to it now. Sigh.

In the end, it was the Turner Classics channel that got me through; a James Mason marathon, from ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ to ‘Lolita’ kept me entertained as I slogged through the monotonous project . It’s a mind-numbing, exhausting job to file a year’s worth of life on paper. Divorce, bankruptcy, health issues, governmental assistance, the life of a low-vision advocate – it’s all represented here in papers I must keep somewhere. Papers I must be able to locate easily. Somehow I’ve managed to navigate through the past four years without much of a permanent filing system; my life exists in two boxes: one marked ‘current, to-do’ and one marked ‘archive, done’. Not the most efficient system, but in the eye of the storm, in the midst of a full and busy life, it’s easy to let it go. So far I’ve made it work, but every time I sit down at my desk there’s a knot in my stomach. Am I sure where my auto insurance policy is? My income and expense sheet from last semester? My masters for teaching handouts? Kind of, but not really. I admit it, I’ve had a problem with paper for years. It was even a source of stress between me and my husband. I always contended that I needed time to set up a system, and that I felt life moved too fast for me to catch up. In some ways I still agree with that – there’s always been so much going on that it always took a back seat. But no more. Finally, I have the time and space to deal with it. I’m catching up. Getting my system in place. And man, it feels great.

A big part of my current paper-related challenge is the volume of Elihu’s artwork. I know many moms probably share this struggle; what to keep and what to toss. I once asked friends of mine who have four children how they decided what to keep and what to get rid of. They told me that they saved much of it, and at some point had each child go through it and save what was meaningful to them. I liked that, and have used that technique myself, but in of itself it’s not enough. My son is an artist. Prolific, yes, but honestly, he is good. I mean really good. So I can’t just toss his work. I have to go through it. Elihu’s got a thing, and in going through the past fours year’s of his artwork, I find myself fascinated with his evolution. In the end, I managed to negotiate my way through the huge catalog by dividing his art by not only years but by the quality or the ‘importance’ of the work. I found dozens of incomplete drawings in which I can see him working on ideas, a wing or body shape, perspective and such, and so I keep a few of these in a file to be tucked away, but I reserve only the very best and final drawings to be inserted into a large book. I put all the art into plastic sleeves and in turn put them into three ring binders. Two large binders end up representing his work so far – along with a letter from David Attenborough and one from Senator Farley commending him on his art – and they are now tucked neatly into his bookshelves in an exceedingly tidy and organized bedroom.

As for the garage – the ultimate vortex of crap – I have managed to heap all the trash outside and have cleaned and set aside useful items for their new owners to come and pick up. The breadmaker and lamps left today, more toys will go tonight, and tomorrow I’ll deliver a few things on my round of errands. The rest will go to the Salvation Army, and the garbage will be picked up by Frank, my favorite junkman. (Not without cost to me; it always takes a good $75 to rid myself of the final dregs. I just hope this is the last time I’ll need to call him in for help.!) I stand so very close to completion of this project that I find myself in a constant state of low-grade anxiety about it. I look at the piles waiting in the driveway and tell myself ‘just a few more days…’

My office isn’t quite finished, however. I have piled boxes of all sizes on a wall of bookshelves which I have covered in a sheer film of deep orange curtains. Just sheer enough so that I don’t forget the task ahead of me, but just pretty enough to allow myself some peace when I sit down at my desk. CDs from old bands of mine, master DATs, probably now degraded beyond usefulness, unsorted photographs, schoolwork of Elihu’s kindergarten and first grade years, tax docs from my married years, paperwork from the Cafe I used to run back in Dekalb, pens, pencils, office supplies and every manner of long-forgotten but hard-to-let-go-of mementos from years of travel… all this and more await my attention. Yesterday tackling the wall seemed insurmountable, today it seems vaguely possible. I stare at it, taking it all in, and I wonder, how do other people deal with all of their life’s crap? Years ago I had a woman help me organize my files. She and her husband were able to keep their possessions to a mere couple of file drawers. They moved frequently, and were able to pick up and pack up in short order. How? I grilled her – where were the postcards from old friends, the letters, the key chains and tchotchkes? Apparently they had none. I still didn’t really come to understand how they came to live a life so free of physical stuff. Apparently she approached life in a far different way than I. So often I’ve encouraged friends to get rid of stuff by reminding them that the stuff is not the love they shared with a person, nor is it the person, nor does the loss of the stuff remove the memory or the experience from their lives. I tell myself the same things. In fact, I have to coach myself hard and heavy when it comes to letting things go. Throwing things away. Jesus warned us not to ‘store up treasures of the earth’… Good advice. I’ve already learned how much heartbreak comes of mice and moths.

So I power on. I steady myself for the final wall, for the last few weeks of vacation and a child-free life and the ability to get it all done without interruption. The final weeks of my intensive house cleaning and a very nice end to a wonderful summer. What a fine thing it will be to start the new school year with a clean slate – and a very clean house.

 

Life Library April 10, 2012

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Stuff and More Stuff February 22, 2012

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal...,Divorce Diary — wingmother @ 12:33 am
Tags: , , , ,

I’d thought the battle was won. But no. I am still overrun with stuff.

Elihu is in Dekalb with his father this week for winter break, and so I’ve turned once again to the job of housecleaning. Taking stock, assessing my mess. How is it, I wonder, in a life so simple, that I still have so much goddam stuff? I have no idea.

While I made a good start putting my house in some kind of order this past fall, I realized that many boxes were still unpacked from my moving here three years ago. Having recently helped some friends in their own unpacking and mess assessing, I thought it finally time to see what lay in those yet-unpacked boxes. In my excavation I find the mice have long beat me to it. Cardboard is no barrier, nor are plastic bags, for the relentless onslaught of diligent rodents. I have revisited many artifacts of my past tonight, most of which have been rendered garbage due to my tiny roommates. Once again, I renew my campaign to take back my home.

I’m completely overwhelmed. I find bags of boys clothes, given to us by kind friends whose own sons are a size ahead of Elihu, all needing to be sorted through. I find hastily stashed remnants of holiday decorations, party favors, wrapping paper and craft items – all mangled and tossed together in plastic tubs, my intention having been to tend to them one day. All of the clothing has become a tangled mess, seasons and sizes have long lost their proper places. Winter hats we’ve meant to wear but never have, single gloves which I’ve kept in hopes of finding their lost mates – all these things and more co-mingle in large plastic bins awaiting some serious inventory-taking.

I only wish it were but a day’s job. This may take me all week. It took me a while to get going tonight as I didn’t quite know how to begin. There’s just so much crap. I did finally get into a groove, and for the most part it was easy to decide what should stay and what should go. But then things got a little trickier for me as I began to uncover pieces that still hold meaning for me. Of all the many things I own, I have just a few favorite things. I find most destroyed by mice. A scarf brings me back to a day long ago when Fareed and I spent an afternoon Christmas shopping at Marshall Field’s. I’d picked up the scarf and wrapped it around my neck, asking him how I looked. “Like a princess” he’d said. Although the few other scarves I’d saved lay undisturbed, my princess scarf had been pulled apart and made into a nest. It was hopeless. There was no saving it. I wonder, if Fareed were still in my life, would I have been so moved, so saddened to find it destroyed? I have also kept a blouse – too small for me to wear these days – only because he’d once said how lovely I’d looked in it. Is not the memory alone enough? In spite of my desire to live a simpler life, free of things I no longer use, I find myself clinging to things as if I could bring my past back and keep it alive through the physical evidence. I’m hard-pressed to take the advice I often give to others; the thing is not the memory. Let it go. So I tell others. Can I let it go? I toss the scarf into a pile of ruined garments. I tell myself if I write about it; if I can broaden the witness to my memory, it will help me to say goodbye. I just wish I could do it with more conviction.

My favorite shoes were long lost – discovered last fall when I first realized how bad the mouse problem had become. I’m still not entirely over that. So much for detachment. So much for my zen country life. As I continue my clean up, I find an old pair of platform boots I’d worn for many a gig – again totally dissected by mice. That’s ok. I can’t seem myself as a fifty year old woman wearing those again. Out they go. In fact, out go most of the shoes and boots I’d saved.

Out go so many, many things. I wonder if the mice might not be a gift after all; they are certainly forcing me to lighten my load. I think of the people who live in Japan, whole families in tiny apartments – without the benefit of storage lockers. I think of most of the people of this earth, living free of the burden of stuff. The way of stuff is dangerous. One doesn’t even need to watch an episode of “Buried Alive” to know the power stuff can have over us. I remind myself that I’ve done it before, I can do it again. Lord knows I let go of a whole lot of stuff when I left Dekalb. There was no way I could have done it alone – so I’d hired someone to conduct an estate sale. I marveled over the way in which the women had displayed the articles it had taken me two decades to acquire, making each display as compelling as any upscale vintage boutique. I half joked that it all looked so good I’d like to buy it myself! (Having enjoyed the hobby of grazing through some pretty fine estate sales for several years I’d ended up with some beautiful mid-century finds.) I was in such a daze as I planned my escape from Dekalb that I’d simply had to detach myself emotionally, with my only goal to free myself and start over fresh. Knowing that my things had found happy new owners made it a bit easier. That gave me consolation.

I need to complete the job I started three years ago. My divorce will be final in a few weeks; a thorough cleanup seems fitting. I had to slog through a lot of crap to complete the divorce, and it seems there’s just a bit more slogging to be done…