Thursday, March 26, 2009

Stop Making Sense: Spring Cleaning and Shoulder Pads

I’m a deadline kind of girl. Give me a deadline and I’ll get it done. Be it taxes, a story or paying bills.

The problem is, spring cleaning doesn’t really have a deadline unless it’s self imposed. I’m usually pretty good at those but there are times when I let things slide. I mean, spring cleaning is a nice idea and all but it doesn’t have to be done.

And really, when I refer to spring cleaning, I’m always pretty much talking about spring purging.

Cleaning is easy when you have an absence of clutter. And me? I tend to hang onto things. Way. Too. Long.


I cannot totally blame this on a lack of discipline. The thing is, I get attached to my stuff. I look at it and have trouble letting go, everything from stuffed animals to books to — the worst of it — clothes.

I mean, I still had my high school graduation dress until a couple years ago. Really.

Part of this is a sense of value. Some of the clothes I’m sorting through look like new. Yes, they may be 10, 15 years old but they look good. And most still fit. How wasteful to toss them out, even to donate. I feel I should have really used up these clothes that I put my hard earned money into.

Another part of this is an emotional attachment. In some way, I feel as if my soul inhabits these things. That to give them away is to let go of a piece of my life. And not have a clue where it went or how it’s being treated.

I know. Crazy.

I’ve even gone through these items over the years and, yes, decided it was not time to let them go, hung them back in a closet I never use or in boxes I rarely touch. Either they still had meaning or — foolishly — I imagined I’d wear them again because they were so fabulous once, of course they will come back in style.


What I don’t do often enough is actually try these clothes on. I’ve found that to be helpful this year.

It’s also helped that I have a deadline: the National Kidney Foundation was in my area and announced a pick-up of just about anything in decent condition, including household “bric-a-brac,” whatever that is. All I had to do was set it out by the curb.

I’d dug through a bunch of stuff just a few months ago for the 2008 tax donation deduction so had already been kind of on a roll.

So I found myself the last several days unloading the upstairs closet — four sets of hanging clothes, jackets, blouses, shirts — and putting them on. As I removed each item from its hanger, I’d relive the times I wore it as if I was in some movie watching that sappy montage sequence of happier times. Oh the great times I had and how terrific I thought I looked.

But that was then.

Then reality.

Gasp! Did I actually wear this with these huge David-Byrne-Stop-Making-Sense shoulder pads?

Or those silky blouses I wore so often a decade ago but now look shapeless? I can see how I liked them at the time because that was in fashion. But now? Everything is so much more… fitted.

I still had an ensemble, which I finally donated this time — with only a slight amount of donator’s remorse — a fabulous pale yellow linen sundress and jacket which for years I could rely on to look smashing in whatever the event, be it a fashion show or wedding.

In fact, a couple of years ago I had to go to an event and thought it would be perfect. Then I saw myself in the mirror. I couldn’t believe the hemline was as short as it was or the shoulders so wide. I simply could not wear it.

It was clear, no matter how wonderful it was, it was time to part. Don’t ask why I still had it. Either I decided to keep it in the last round of purges, hopeful something would change, or I hung it up and forgot about it.

The thing is, while some of these items are a little out of style, someone who needs clothing will be happy to have them. And how many sweatshirts and T-shirts can I possibly have? I can only wear so many, even though some I wore maybe once.

It’s a good lesson: Think twice next time before I buy. Ask: Do I need it? Will I wear it? Don’t I have enough?

There is also the lesson to share the usefulness. They are useless in my closet or in boxes.

I actually began to feel motivated knowing these nice pieces will look just fine on someone else. Maybe they won’t even care how they look. Maybe they just need something. Period.

Meanwhile, that upstairs closet space can be put to better use than warehousing memories.

Although I must confess. As I filled the garbage bags the other night to set out by the curb, I was stung with occasional feelings of remorse — that T-shirt from Bermuda, the sweatshirt from Australia, that oh-so-perfect-shade-of-pink silky blouse that still looks like new — and put them in another bag. By the end of the night, it was a whole damn bag.

I told myself, I can still give it away later. I even thought if the truck didn’t come first thing in the morning, I’d sneak more items out. Alas, the guy came by too early.

Now I have a giant bag of stuff I never wear. Sitting there.

That’s okay. I can still give it away. I’ll decide later.

I just hope it’s not in 10 years.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Elephant in a Tsunami

"There but for the grace of god go I."

I met an old friend for lunch last week. In the back of my mind this phrase surfaced. She is in a battle with breast cancer. For the third time.

I cannot say I’m overwhelmed with pity for her — partly because we’ve not been in each other’s lives very much over the years. So there is some distance. But she also looks good and has a positive attitude. For what it’s worth, I’m optimistic for her.

Still, I would not want to be in her shoes.

And there but for the grace of god go I, I hear myself say.

The funny thing is, in recent years, I’ve realized people may be saying that about me, or more aptly, my family.

How strange that has been to recognize.

Before that, life seemed pretty charmed. About as charmed as any life can seem from the outside. We all know nobody’s life is perfect. But things were good.

Then in 2001, a convolution of events occurred, a kind of tsunami of health issues, mostly engulfing my mother, but others, too. Suddenly my family was overwhelmed with one thing or another…. It was really rather ridiculous.

I named this blog Only the Half of It for two reasons.

First I wanted a sense of fun. To say: Hey, sometimes things happen that are so ridiculous, you wouldn’t believe half of it.

The second reason for the name was to reflect the madness I felt I — or we as a family — have had to deal with. That it’s been bad, but even worse than you knew and I just didn’t feel like telling it all because I didn’t want to see jaws drop or looks of pity reflected back at me.

Perhaps I wanted to deny a little bit, just enough to keep my spirits up. And that’s not a bad thing.

I read after 9/11 that psychologists discovered something that ran contrary to the popular belief that you have to talk about and purge the horrors you keep deep down inside lest they fester like a cancer and ruin your life. They found that some victims of 9/11 were in fact better off, maybe healthier and better able to cope and get on with their lives, by not talking about what they’d been through. That some denial was healthy.

I thought this myself some months before 9/11. I remember looking in child-like horror into a sterile hospital room as my mother was being dialyzed for the first time, just days after she was diagnosed with sudden, unexpected kidney failure.

She looked like a mummy swathed in layers of thin white hospital blankets, her eyes tightly shut as if she was in pain. Maybe she was, and maybe she was also trying to escape the reality.

And that was this: Her kidneys had shut down. She would die without dialysis. That entailed getting a central line, something more akin to surgical tubing than an IV line, stuck into her chest so they could pump her blood out and back in as the dialysis machine did its job of cleaning her blood. This would happen three times a week, three to four hours each time. For as long as she lived. Unless her kidneys recovered or she got a transplant.

As my mother lay there, eyes tightly shutting it all out, that’s when my mother’s new doctor-by-default, a kidney specialist who did not know her at all personally, told my father and I quite bluntly and with an air of criticism: “She’s in denial.” As if she needs to not deny what is happening to her.

The doctor’s words made me angry. Later I told my dad: “Of course she’s in denial. I don’t blame her.”

I’ve spent so much time in hospitals and dealing with one health issue or another affecting my family that I’ve come up with my own ideas of how to cope because I’ve had to.

It helps to remember things could be worse. It doesn’t always help to look to someone less fortunate, but I do try to remind myself, and my mother, of the bright side. I thought that with my girlfriend over lunch, that thankfully that wasn’t me. So many people deal with so many bad things you can’t even imagine it. And so in some ways we are lucky. Very lucky.

For instance, my parents are reasonably active. My mother has a transplanted kidney (mine), and despite some rejection discovered last year, she is doing okay. We are managing her other health issues. My father, on dialysis himself now, also does well. Better than my mom did. There is more but I won’t go into it. (You wouldn’t believe me anyway, as I like to say.)

So I give thanks. And I mean it.

I also believe a healthy dose of denial comes in handy. Maybe focusing on the positive is a way to deny the negative or, at the very least, get away from it so you can cope. Try not to drown in it. Even try to outrun it. This is where the elephant comes in.

I’d like to be like an elephant in a tsunami.

If you recall, when the tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, elephants in Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Thailand moved to high ground before the storm struck the shores. They knew something was coming and saved themselves. The cool thing, too, is they trumpeted loudly to bring their kin, to keep them from what would have been certain death.

Call it a sixth sense. Call it a heightened awareness. Call it hypervigilance. I call it prevention.

I do not have a sixth sense. But in times of tension and terror, I want to be present. For me that means don’t assume the doctor or someone else has every answer. I’ve learned this firsthand too many times. My friend, with whom I began this story, discovered her cancer herself this third time around — not the doctor.

That’s what I want. To stay ahead of the tsunami. And trumpet as loud as I can.

NOTE: The amazing image above is from a show titled "Ashes and Snow." I saw it in NYC in 2005 before it traveled the world. See it if you ever get the chance.