Material Matters/The Substance of Stuff

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Material Matters

The Substance of Stuff

I’ve been meaning to clean out my closets, metaphorically and literally, for the past twenty years, give or take a decade. I admit my cupboards and drawers are cram-jammed. My closets overflow-eth. As I approached this topic, I imagined writing a lighthearted piece, you know the kind—a dose of self-deprecating humor, roll-up-your-sleeves and get to work gumption. However, my journey took an unexpected, dark turn.

Most of us in the so-called developed countries can relate to the quandary of excess stuff. When our dwellings can hold no more, rather than paring down, we house our precious stuff in storage units. In the United States, the self-storage industry is booming, with an annual industry revenue of $38 billion (Alexander Harris, sparefoot.com 3/2018). Individual storage lockers rent for about $1200 per year, so per capita, that’s one hell of a math problem. I blame Amazon’s one-click feature.

Like me, perhaps you’ve vowed to de-clutter. You fully intend to create a tidier, more minimalist existence—some day. Perhaps you’ve consulted books, such as Marie Kondo’s acclaimed KonMari method. Kondo urges us to keep only cherished belongings and discard the rest. Her advice is logical, her writing lovely, poetic and compelling in its simplicity. She provides a step-by-step recipe to envision and create a tranquil, energizing home. For the effort, converts find lasting contentment.

I adore her. I am convinced. I’m ready to begin anew.

Why then, am I paralyzed?

I know the drill. Clutter is a kind of sickness, the outward manifestation of a troubled, disordered inner life. On a larger scale, a visit to any refuse disposal site reveals our beloved planet overburdened by senseless waste—we are literally burying ourselves alive. We have become a mindless, addicted-to-stuff consumer culture gone haywire. The problem is, this knowledge does not help me. I know I am sick. While my symptoms may be obvious, when it comes to a remedy, I am at a loss.

As I stare into the abyss of my closet, I become uneasy. All children know about the existence of the monster that dwells within. Lately I have become reacquainted with that monster, keeper of the closet, guardian of unseen ooze beneath the surface, the skeletons I’ve been avoiding. Like a kid, I promptly shut that door. Damn you, monster.

With a sigh, I admit I am no longer a child, not ancient perhaps, but vintage. For those of us who have turned the page out of midlife into late-life, time is not our friend. Time begins to shrink, along with the freedom to fail, to make mistakes and put things off. Let’s face it. We are running out of do-overs. At last, it dawns on me—this isn’t about cleaning my closets. Putting my “house in order,” is about sorting out my life, and ultimately confronting my own mortality. It means being a grown-up.

If you’ve ever been tasked with the sorting and disbursement of a departed loved one’s possessions, you know the emotional charge of “stuff,” the irrational attachment and anguish of letting go. We may find ourselves clinging to grandma’s moth-eaten, threadbare scarves because she loved them so. Only a heartless person would trash them. We fill a box. Stack it on top of the other boxes. But what will become of grandma’s old scarves after we are gone? Who will recognize her face in those worn, dog-eared photos?

As a child, I didn’t listen to my parents, tuning out their “old people’s” advice. But lately, certain words of wisdom have resonated with me. My dad’s fallback line for any daunting job: Just dig in. It’s like eating an elephant—do it one bite at a time. When confronted with hard choices and life’s complexity, my mom advised us to approach every challenge big or small, decently and in order. These little nuggets, I realize now, epitomize how my parents lived, and relevantly, how they died. They were practical people who accepted life’s impermanence, the inevitability of death.

Mom, never sentimental about stuff, did not abide clutter. Sometimes this hurt our feelings, like the time she gave away our Christmas ornaments. But in the end, her organization and tidy closets made it a little easier to navigate losing her. Before our father’s passing, he made certain his finances were transparent, documents in order, eliminating red tape or legal entanglement. In the depths of profound loss, my sisters and I felt taken care of. We will forever miss our humorous, intelligent, imperfect, exceptionally devoted parents. Only time has lessened our grief. But unlike many of our peers, we did not inherit legal struggles, money knots or heaps of unwanted stuff. Why? Our parents prepared for death. They made considerate decisions, like grown-ups.

I take a deep breath. Once again, I peer into my closet.

I shut the door, flip on my laptop, tuning into another Seinfeld rerun on Hulu, though I’ve already seen it six times. Don’t judge me. It sucks to be a grownup. If only I had an official roadmap.

Truth time:

Nobody has a roadmap for this life. We learn by fire, negotiating all the bumps, twists and forks in the road, as we grow. Traversing new territory at the end-of-life is a sobering task, with few do-overs allowed. Where to begin? Taking stock, as usual, I have more questions than answers. There are no shortcuts, no roadmap, but I do have a few breadcrumbs along the path, guidance to help me find my way. When I’m ready, I hope to take it slow, mindfully, one bite at a time, decently and in order.

 

 

 

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Re-inventing Aging: A Jane-lite Third Act

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Remember when you were in your twenties? Who could forget those old geezers who groaned every time they rose from a chair? Observing them through the illusion of eternal youth, those oldsters seemed like a different species. I’ll bet you never thought you’d be one.

Neither did I.

But these days, creaking bones and aching muscles have become a routine part of my morning. I begin each day by tentatively evaluating my discomfort, and often it’s a matter of degree. Perchance my low back is tweaked, but at least my knee feels okay. My right pinky toe hurts, but my hips and ankles are holding. Now and then I still spring out of bed, pain free, but these days are becoming rare. Ten years ago, I may have been tight from working out, or a little sore from overdoing it, but ricketiness had not become a chronic condition. Recalling the passage of time, I go to a dark place—if this is what sixty feels like, what will seventy or God-willing, eighty bring?

I turned to Jane Fonda, who may have coined the expression Third Act in her 2011 book, Prime Time, an instruction manual of sorts for the over-sixty demographic. In a nutshell, Act One (age 0-29), “a time for gathering” includes the formative experiences of childhood, adolescence, self-image and gender identity. Act Two (age 30-59), “a time of building and in-between-ness” is characterized work and family relationships as they shift and evolve over time. Although Fonda explores the first two acts, The Third Act (age 60 and beyond) is the heart of her book.

Prime Time opens with Jane’s personal reflection at a turning point in her life. On the cusp of her sixtieth birthday, she begins to grapple with “the issue of time—the inexorability of it—pressing in on me.” I identify with Jane’s inertia, her sense of foreboding, and I am struck by her humility and courage.

She begins a soul-searching life review, examining family memorabilia, taking a humble look at the little girl or teenager smiling (or not) in family photos. Her process continues as she pieces together pivotal experiences, poring over her fifty-nine years. As if traveling back in time, she relives the joys and heartbreaks that have shaped her. Letting go and “becoming whole,” she is free to move forward into her Third Act.

Emerging from her life review, Jane hits the ground running. With her trademark vivacity, she steps up as spokesperson and champion for the chronologically challenged. Urging boomers to get off our lazy backsides, she crushes late-life stereotypes, coaching us to live “full tilt to the end.” The exposition is well-researched and prescriptive, providing concrete directives, a recipe for success if you will, with “eleven ingredients for successful aging.”

Here are Jane’s big eleven: Don’t abuse alcohol, don’t smoke, get enough sleep, be physically active, eat healthfully, keep learning, be positive, review and reflect, love and stay connected, give of yourself, care about the bigger picture. These sensible suggestions resonate with me. I cannot disagree with logic. Still, Jane’s recipe leaves me vaguely disquieted, as if I’m failing.

Those if us in our third act (60 or better) have learned a few things. For instance, when we thumb through magazines, ogling glossy airbrushed photos of flawless folks, we no longer compare ourselves to these images. We know better. We understand this kind of perfection is both simulated and humanly unattainable.

Jane’s “full tilt” life is like an airbrushed pic. Compared to her, I will always come up short. My inner cynic quips, who wouldn’t look fantastic with a team of surgeons, trainers and nutritionists? I remind myself of her celebrity status, wealth and entitlement and it’s easy to dismiss her, writing her off as another self-appointed “expert” wielding her fame. Alas, I am not superhuman. I will never be Jane. Who cares? Who needs soul-crushing perfectionism? Pass the pizza.

Yet, as I close Jane’s book and reach for a cheesy slice, I’m hit with an unexpected twinge of guilt, or perhaps shame. Maybe it’s all the wasted hours I’ve spent binge-watching re-runs on Hulu, that third glass of wine. Could it be the dark chocolate that keeps mysteriously disappearing from my cupboard? I glance down at the book jacket, Jane’s all-knowing eyes looking back at me. At that moment, I contemplate her legacy. Whether you love or despise her, Jane is a force. She’s inspired many, including me, as she continues to evolve and reinvent herself. An accomplished actor, controversial political activist and legendary guru of fitness for more than six decades, at 79, her vitality is undiminished. These days, Jane is busy lighting up the screen with Lily Tomlin, eviscerating so-called older women’s traditional roles, in the groundbreaking, irreverent, smart and wickedly funny hit show Grace and Frankie. Unlike the endless parade of vapid, pretty people in the media mainstream, I cannot dismiss her.

I pick up the book, studying her face. What do you want from me, Jane? Must I eat more kale? Must I lift weights? Learn Italian? Perhaps I am losing my grip on reality, because I hear Jane’s response. She reminds me that my choices are my own, but whatever I choose, to live with intention.

I exhale noisily. I admit it—Jane is right.

Very well, Jane. You win.

Did she just wink at me?

 

The Reckoning

Taking an honest inventory of my life, I recognize room for improvement. Disclosure: I’m afraid to start something I cannot finish. I don’t want to fail. Sorry, Jane. I’m not quite ready to revisit my past unflinchingly. I’ll save the life review for later. So, how do I begin my Third Act, intentionally and with clarity?

I’ve never been good at diets. The moment a food is deemed off-limits or “forbidden,” it’s literally all I think about. Going cold turkey on vices such as wine, chocolate or overconsumption of the Internet, I am destined to fail. Adding a positive goal, not subtracting, has always been more successful for me.

As fall approaches, I’m reminded of new beginnings. With that mind, I embark on a more conscious Third Act, taking baby steps toward meaningful change. The first thing that comes to mind is diet. I’m a decent cook, but night after night, it often feels like drudgery, so most of the time, I rely on prepacked salad greens to fulfill the vegie requirement. I love vegetables and I know they’re good for my body, but don’t eat enough of them. I tell myself it’s too time-consuming and I’m just too damn busy for all that shopping and cooking. Hell, I’m not Jane Fonda. I have no personal chef, tempting me daily with an abundant variety of luscious, exotically prepared vegies.

This is the point where I smugly justify my laziness. But not this time, because the veil has been lifted. I can choose to make this manageable, yet significant change. There may be only one Jane, but the rest of us can strive for Jane-lite.

 

JC’s August-September Baby-Steps Challenge

I task myself, and anyone who’d like to join me, to consume a greater variety and quantity of vegetables. Your ideas and suggestions are very welcome.

Baby steps, people.

 

Stay tuned for updates!

 

 

 

 

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Confessions of a Tomboy

 

 

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Born in the winter of 1956, my girlhood was fraught with gender envy. If being a girl meant sitting quietly, playing with dolls, minding my manners, wearing frilly dresses and behaving in a lady-like manner, I did not wish to be a girl. If being a girl meant becoming a princess and someday marrying a prince, I rejected girl-ness.

These early observations led me to an indisputable conclusion. Girls were restricted and boys were free. Being a boy meant riding my bike, playing baseball, running wild, scraping my knees, and shooting mud pellets from my air rifle. Therefore I simply chose to be a boy. I got away with it, too.  Yes, I sometimes fielded the innocent, yet brutal inquiry, Hey kid, are you a boy or a girl? It was worth it.

My carefree boyhood, sadly, was cut short. Junior High School and its cruel sidekick, Puberty, knocked me out, dragged me down and slugged me in the gut. I put away my baseball glove, my air rifle. After my mother took me bra shopping, I succumbed to the bulk of a sanitary napkin between my legs, the stranglehold of its chaste elastic belt. In my reincarnation as a female, I discovered Day-Glo orange patent leather shoes, nylon stockings, garter belts and blue eye shadow. I took to kissing boys rather than beating them up. I learned to let them win. In the midst of change, I lost my voice, my spunk, my edge. I had never heard the word depression, but late at night, alone in the dark, I contemplated the sweet release of suicide.

Jump ahead to 1974. Picture a seventeen-year old girl walking into her first women’s studies class. The word feminist described who I was, what I believed in, who I wanted to be. This moment of homecoming set in motion a lifetime commitment to choice—to equity, as a mother, an educator, a wife. These days I’m still reclaiming my voice, my spunk, my edge.

Footnote: I discovered my inner princess, and I embrace her, too.

 

 

 

 

 

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JC Miller

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