Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Parents' Lives Flash Before My Eyes

You know the way they say your life flashes before your eyes when faced with threat?  Well I don't know about that, but it certainly flashes before your children's eyes after you pass on and they tackle the traces left behind.  And it presents itself in 3-D, not merely from the perspective of your child, but through the eyes of all who touched your life and wrote of it.  I am our family's historian and as such am perhaps best focused on the task of going through files.

I just returned from a week disposing of my parents' belongings. Now this is not a simple undertaking and as I live some distance away my visits are marathons compressed between two all day drives totaling 1000 miles. My parents kept things and lived in the same home for almost 60 years. In addition my father liked copying things; if one was good, two was better and he often failed to stop at two. And copying extended beyond paper to videotapes numbering into several thousand. (Many thanks to my sister who has taken on the task of their disposal!)

It is intense decision making - keep, pitch, shred, scan. And a constant need to keep moving, not allowing myself to get  bogged down in either uncertainty or memory. There is also a physical and emotional component. When I go there I first spend a day driving alone. Then I sleep in my childhood bed in a home where I can still visualize my late mother in all her familiar "haunts". My sister comes in for one day of my stay, but for most of the week I am isolated with my parents' belongings, communing with their presence through objects and text.

I am finding there is a secret society of those who have been charged with such tasks, the woman at the Social Security office, the woman at the bank all offer their sympathies having been entrusted with similar responsibilities for their parents. And it is indeed a matter of being entrusted. I feel a responsibility to honor my parents' history, to keep what was of value to them and to preserve family history for my nieces. But in the middle of that I also need to dispose of things and not fall prey to the same malady of gathering an excess of things myself. 

There is a psychology to what fills our homes. My family shares a desire to hold onto information. Books were precious objects in my home with an almost talismanic quality, representing a well educated and informed person. I remind myself that much of my reading is now electronic and try to restrict myself to keeping only art and reference books from my parents' collection.

On my last trip I disposed of clothes. Trip after trip to Goodwill. Then with my sister's help we moved on to technology. When I counted pieces kept and recycled, they numbered over 100 and we are still finding things we missed. And then there are the files that gradually filled my father's study, closets and basement. So far I've hauled away 330 pounds of shredding and countless bags of recycling. That means I went through all of it, an exercise in contemplating two lives.

These are some of the things I've observed:

My parents were once young! Yes, I found love letters when they were still teenagers. Sweet and silly and slightly embarrassing for their adult children. My very well spoken father seemed to like the word "swell" when he was 18 in the 1940s.  As in "we had a 'swell' time.

My father embraced the Internet. As a gregarious person who loved information, it fed many of his needs. He reconnected with people from all phases of his life. As a product of a generation accustomed to paper, he printed them out so I could now read his cyber conversations. He also printed out every email I ever sent them, my own personal record.

My mother kept the roster of every class she taught, every name lovingly preserved. I couldn't bring myself to throw it out, leaving that task for my sister.

My father was a paternalistic guy, offering support and guidance to friends and family. He assisted many with financial management and not only did I have years and years of his records to shred, but also those of relatives and friends.

My parents read widely and kept articles on things that also interested me. My father had articles on personal finance, estate planning and history, especially Jewish history. My mother focused on the arts, health and family history. I fought the urge to read their clippings and notes lest I not complete the overwhelming task before me. 

My mother went to college as an adult and while she ultimately taught grade school, she had many courses in history and literature. She loved school and loved learning. She even attended a mini medical school program and had the degrees and certificates carefully filed away.

I was most struck by how hard my parents worked at maintaining relationships, offering support to family and friends and writing long letters and emails. They wrote to cousins of their generation and mine, to old friends and then the children of friends. And they kept the obituaries of long-time friends in a file, a place of memory that I struggled to discard. They represented memories they held close, just as they cherished the friendships.

The writing I was most tickled by in my father's files was when he wrote to companies to express his dissatisfaction with a product. He certainly expressed his pique, but always with a bit of humor. If they in turn responded with humor he was delighted. His personality clearly came through in these missives.

My mother wrote notes on books she read and kept a file on excerpts that spoke to her, offering wisdom to live by. I felt as if I was having a conversation with her when I read through her file titled Notes on Books Read. Our conversations often focused on books and philosophies of living. Throughout her files I often found a phrase I had once coined and shared with her. She quickly claimed it and made her own. "Take a Piece of the World and Make It Shine". In fact I just gave it words, but the philosophy was the one I witnessed in her daily. I carry a piece of paper in my wallet that once hung over her desk. On it are those words recorded in her hand.

I was fortunate to be with my mother in the end. It was hard, but important and gave me a fuller perspective on death. As onerous as this task of disposition is, it too is also an opportunity to fully process all that my parents were. To see them fully and honor them in all their many dimensions.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Fun-Task Procrastinator

People don’t think of me as a procrastinator.   I’m one of those people who derives pleasure from being constantly busy.  I keep a list of to dos and when they are completed I move them from the top to the bottom of the list.   Done!  And just as I wipe my hands of the task another one quickly takes its place.  By the end of the year I have a list of everything that I did.  I group them by topic areas and  I know exactly where all my time went.  This year talks and following up on my mother’s estate seem to be capturing the bulk of my time.

My friends see this continual activity and can’t imagine that I procrastinate, I’m always so productive. And yet there are some things that remain on the top of that list while other things get added and completed.  I recently read an article by Dan Levitin for the LA Times that added a dimension to what I’ve read on procrastination.  There my name was in neon.  Apparently I’m a procrastinator  of a different variety - a fun-task procrastinator.  .  We experience a jolt of dopamine when we complete a task. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that is released that relates to reward and motivation.  It is a feel good chemical.

So here is what Levitin wrote that resonated:

"We tend to put off those things for which we will not get an immediate reward: projects with a long event horizon such as those undertaken by academics, engineers, writers, housing contractors and artists. The output of their work can take weeks, or months or sometimes years to complete. And then, after completion, there can be a very long period before they receive any praise or gratification. And so there is a very strong pull from the brain's reward center to engage in something — anything — else that will deliver a more immediate sense of satisfaction.”

Now one person’s fun task is another person’s challenge.  Today my fun tasks include such things as building websites or writing a blog.  Not that they aren’t at times onerous, but by and large I know how to do them and once done I have a sense of satisfaction.  It is the things I have no idea how to do that loom and I remind myself that today's fun tasks once resided on that list.   So what remains challenging?  Well on my list I have writing a book and completing a series of paintings on a new topic that requires me to work with a new community to exhibit them.  These are exactly the multi-stage projects Levitin references that have no immediate reward.  When I did the Jewish Identity and Legacy project of interviews, video-editing and artwork, it certainly fit that profile as well.  There was one different variable that spurred me onward - I received two grants to do the interviews.  Now I had the reward, I just had to do the work to earn it.  That is the value of grants, they sustain us through that daunting learning process.

Writing a blog gives me a quick hit of dopamine, writing a book with no certainty as to publication does not.  It also requires a different quality of time.  Similarly thinking about a series of artwork can be overwhelming, especially when I hope to change my approach or market.

His suggestion to move past these impasses is to break them into bite size chunks and feel the satisfaction of each piece.  And so I am trying to think in terms of chapters and paintings rather than books and exhibitions. This week I began a painting in my memory series, moving the image from my head to the canvas.  One step at a time in my search for a dopamine jolt.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Where It Leads

Retirement!  That is the topic of conversation that typically comes up with my still-employed friends.  That in turn segues into what they imagine they'll do when they reach that stage.  Most have no idea.  They often turn to me and say they wish they were creative like me as if that would quickly solve the dilemma.

I've been at this now for nine years, the same length as my longest salaried position. While pleased with the path I've pursued, I have no more certainty as to what comes next than I did when I embarked upon this journey. I do have tasks that occupy my time... two blogs, six websites, speaking gigs, exhibitions and of course the artwork and writing that fuels those activities. Throw in my reading goals and my workout schedule and I sometimes contemplate taking a sabbatical from my "retirement".

Oddly enough this question of what to do in retirement is not too different from the question our grandson faces on what to pursue in college. This year my husband and I have taken him on several college visits. There is so much pressure on college-age kids to map out their career path right from the beginning. I found myself telling him that you aim in a general direction of interest and fine-tune it along the way. Kind of like a recipe, a little bit more of this, a little bit less of that and maybe some of this for flavoring. That is how most of us find our career and we often change it along the way. Sometimes it's a job we might never have imagined because we didn't know it existed or we had to create it.

I don't think my post-retirement process has been much different than it was when I was 17 and trying to find my way. When I left my career, I aimed in a general direction of things that interested me, artwork and family history. I had discoveries along the way about what the ingredients needed to be, storytelling, public speaking, writing. And just as I returned to school at 28 for a masters in a totally different discipline, I reserve the right to change directions at any time.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to solve the dilemma, to fix the direction. In reality the point is to embrace the dilemma. Work and play, whether pre or post retirement, are about finding our way in a continual exploration of life. And if you choose a creative direction you are really choosing uncertainty, that's the point of creativity. You get to create whatever it will be. And that means at some point even you don't know what it will be. 

And yes, sometimes it feels burdensome, not knowing what form it will take and if you'll ultimately be successful in whatever way you define success. And sometimes you get stuck and then you have to get unstuck.  I've been at that point for awhile. I want to start a new series of artwork that I develop in a different way and I am working on a book, a new and foreign area for me. As I'm faced with things I really don't know how to do, it occurs to me that it is best to do it when I have nothing to lose. There are two points in our life where we have little to lose, when we're starting out and when we've left the workforce. Those are the points we can be at our most creative.  It is no accident that what I am doing now often reminds me of my first job. Both were filled with a sense of feeling my way, taking on new things I had never encountered and the excitement and joy that comes with discovery.

So to those starting out in college or early in their career or those leaving their salaried work life, my suggestion is chill. Feel your way. Don't worry about an endpoint, we ultimately all have the same one. Let your life evolve around the things that intrigue you, the things you're curious about. Then follow your curiosity where it leads.