Don’t finish what you start

When I was in my 20s (shockingly long time ago that was!), reading The Far Pavilions got me interested in learning more about the Khyber Pass, so I bought a book on it. Despite the interesting subject matter, the book was the most boring book I had ever read. Even though my boyfriend suggested I just stop reading it, I struggled through it because once I started a book, I could not NOT finish it.

Imagine my shock when some years ago, a friend told me about the wooden boat he was building. He had gotten the plan as a result of his volunteer work at a nautical museum, bought the first installment of wood, and started the build. By the time it was partially built, he decided he wasn’t interested in finishing it, tore it apart, and used the wood for firewood. When he told me this, my jaw dropped. I mean, how could he do that? Wasn’t it morally wrong? Did this make him the kind of person who could never finish a project? My verbal reaction was more restrained, but those thoughts were the background to my asking him what he was thinking.

What he was thinking was that he had no interest in using the boat once it was finished and that it made sense to stop work before he spent any more time on it. It wasn’t even that the process would teach him a skill that he didn’t have—he was already an accomplished woodworker.

Fast forward to a couple of days ago when I was having lunch with a friend. She told me she was reading a book that had gotten great reviews. She had already read a couple hundred pages of this 700-page book but just could not get into it. I said, ‘so stop.’ I couldn’t believe how easily the words came out of my mouth, but I’ve come to see the value of not finishing what I start. I struggle with the concept, but I’m more likely these days to stop reading a book that doesn’t appeal to me or is poorly written or has no discernible plot or interesting characters.

It’s not just books, though; really, why should we keep plugging away and wasting time and energy on pursuits in which we have no interest? After all, as a college professor of mine said, activity precedes interest, and if we find out through activity that we’re not interested, why not let the project or craft or learning experience go if we decide it’s not for us?

However, it still bugs me when I think of an internal and external landscape littered with unfinished books and projects and crafts, so I went looking for perspectives on the subject. I found a blog post by Scott H. Young, in which he says, “I believe the solution is to view all activities you undertake as being of two different types: experiments and commitments.” Experiments, he goes on to say, are okay to quit. Ah ha! Brilliant! (Another thing about getting older—I realize I’m taking advice from people younger than me.)

So I said to my friend, ‘stop’—you don’t always have to finish what you start.

Kaye, M. M. The Far Pavilions. St. Martin’s Press, 1978.

Scott H. Young. “How to Build the Habit of Finishing What You Start.” Scott H. Young. April, 2015. Accessed 10 July 2017.

Letting go

When I moved to Italy last fall, my friend Elka was starting her second year of cancer treatment. Although I had been emailing her and responding to posts on her CaringBridge site, I felt badly that because I was living in various cities distant from her, I couldn’t provide the kind of support other friends could, like helping with the day-to-day tasks of her life during treatment.

After I made the move, I felt even worse. Mind you, Elka herself was nothing but encouraging and supportive. She asked me to send her beautiful pictures because they made her happy and she never failed to express her appreciation of how the Algernon and Ilsa pictures we took with the Elka Strong bracelet made her laugh. I, however, often felt guilty—here I was enjoying an interesting adventure in beautiful surroundings, while she was literally fighting for her life.

At one point, I called the therapist who had helped me through the aftermath of my accident and talked to her about it. She listened and asked questions and finally said, ‘yes, of course, you would like things to be different, but is your guilt making her better?’ She suggested that I think about what guilt was doing for me, what purpose it was serving in my life.

Shortly after this conversation, Elka died and I realized that whatever purpose guilt was serving in my life, it sure as hell didn’t keep her alive. Along with grieving her loss in my life and the incalculable loss in the lives of her family and friends, I was, and am, angry. Most of my anger is about her untimely death, but some of the anger is about wasting all that mental and emotional energy over useless guilt.

That realization prompted me to start thinking about what purpose guilt was serving in my life and about why, for most of my adult life, I’ve had a sort of free-floating guilt. It isn’t guilt connected to someone I had injured or something I had done—that kind of guilt seems to me justified. No, this is guilt around concepts like ‘should’ and ‘why’ and ‘who am I to be / have [fill in the blank].’

While I don’t yet have much in the way of insight on this one, I’ve realized that it’s time to let the guilt go. Just as I’ve eliminated physical objects in my life that no longer bring me joy or fit the life I have now, maybe I should look at what’s in my mental and emotional closet and see what I can discard. As with the physical objects, I don’t pretend it’s an easy process. However, not only do I not have the time and energy to maintain these unproductive emotions, I figure if I’m having to let go of loved ones and expectations and a whole host of other things, then I can jolly well let go of some of the crap too.

Tradition

tradition: a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time

When we were children, we had a set of cardboard buildings with which we made a tabletop snow scene every Christmas. My sister Nancy and I were usually the ones who placed the church, houses, trees, and candle figurines (which were never ever burned) in a village scene. My mother used to tell the story of how one year she suggested that we hang the houses on the tree as ornaments. She said that she gave up on that idea when she smelled the tar burning and saw us plucking chickens for the feathers. To say we were appalled is putting it mildly!

I tell this story to acknowledge how important tradition is, especially when it comes to holidays like Christmas. I loved our Christmas traditions when I was a child—from waiting until the Sunday before Christmas to put up and decorate our tree to repeating our Thanksgiving dinner on Christmas to the pattern of our Christmas mornings (church, breakfast, then opening presents).

Even as I grew into adulthood and was no longer spending every Christmas with my family, I incorporated some of our childhood traditions into my own. I still make the same sugar cookies I made then, using cookie cutters just like the ones we had as kids. Although various factors having to do with living in an apartment preclude my having a tree, I hang a wreath and decorate it with the ornaments my mom started putting in our stockings when we were in high school and college. And I don’t care if I just had turkey at Thanksgiving, if I’m in my own home, I make another one for Christmas. The pieces of my traditions that come from my childhood make me feel connected to my past.

I’ve seen, however, that tradition can become a burden if we try to continue it when distance, financial considerations, or family circumstances change. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, my siblings and I did not feel good about our family spending a lot of money on gifts for each other. We asked our mom, dad, and stepmother to donate the money to a charity that they would have spent on us. My dad and stepmother, while disappointed that they would not have an opportunity to give us gifts, complied. However, my mom insisted on doing things the way we had always done them, which led to a lot of negative feelings and to some extent, spoiled our enjoyment of that Christmas and cast a shadow on several subsequent Christmases.

That experience makes me wonder if we should consider doing what I used to do as a project manager. At the end of a project, we have a meeting in which the team reviews the project. We talk about what worked, what didn’t work, what we could have done differently or better. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing to do after the holidays, when it’s fresh in the mind but before we’re on the brink of the next year’s holiday—to think about what is working, what is fulfilling, what is causing resentment or becoming a burden. I don’t mean reverting to whatever is easiest, but thinking about whether our traditions make us feel connected to our loved ones, contribute to our community, or bring us joy. For my part, there have been years when I wasn’t sure I had the energy to make those dozens of cookies to give to friends and co-workers, but did it anyway. I never looked at those plates of cookies and thought ‘man, I wish I hadn’t done that;’ instead, I felt a surge of happiness as I handed them out, knowing people would enjoy them.

So which of your traditions do you want to keep? Are there any you are ready to discard or change? Whatever the answers, I hope your holiday traditions continue to bring you joy.

“Tradition.” Merriam-Webster. 2014. Web.

In a twilight zone

On Facebook today, I saw messages from children of all ages to their mothers, wishing them a happy Mother’s Day. Several were accompanied by photos of mother and child with arms around each other and smiles on their faces. Other Facebook friends posted remembrances of their deceased mothers. I wished I could have posted something but I did not know what to say because the situation for me and my siblings is betwixt and between—our mother is alive, but she has dementia. She is in a twilight zone and in many ways, we, and our relationship with her, are also in that twilight zone.

I will not pretend that I have been close to my mother for the last fifteen to twenty years. She and my dad were wonderful parents when we are growing up and I know I was lucky  to have the wise, disciplined, and loving parenting they provided. But over the years, my mother changed emotionally and mentally and her refusal to acknowledge or seek treatment for those changes was draining. Although I spoke with, emailed, and visited her, I removed myself emotionally to avoid being sucked down with her. But however complicated my adult relationship with her has been, I would not wish what has happened to her on my worst enemy.

When my brother became her guardian a year ago, there was a faint hope that our mother would be able to move from her ‘independent with in-home care’ living situation, which had become untenable, to assisted living, but within a matter of weeks, it became clear she was not a candidate for that. Her physician and the geriatric social worker we consulted recommended a local Alzheimer’s care center. Even then, we hoped that after the initial evaluation period, she would be able to move to a unit that was more like assisted living than the unit she was admitted to, and is in now, but that was not to be.

We have learned, both from the staff and our own experience, that dementia is not reversible; that the most one can hope for is to halt it in its tracks or slow its progress. Thanks to her doctor, the line was held for a few months, but now, our mother is slipping away before our eyes. Given some of her other issues, I am not sure she and I ever would have had any kind of resolution or reconciliation in our relationship, but now there is no chance, nor will there ever be. All we can do is watch over her, make sure she is safe and well-cared for, and appreciate that for now, she usually knows who we are when we visit.

So today, my sisters and I visited her with cards and flowers and cupcakes and gave her pretty mint-green sheets for her bed. We sat around a table in the dining area, talking with her, sometimes talking around her because she zones out easily. Before we left, my brother-in-law took a photo of us three girls around her. Now I look at that photo and my heart breaks that the vibrant, intelligent, articulate woman I knew is no longer with us.

Saying goodbye

A boyfriend once told me of a t-shirt he’d seen imprinted with a cartoon. In the cartoon (by Jennifer Berman), a banner saying ‘Adult Children of Normal Parents Annual Convention’ is displayed over an auditorium empty except for two people. I said ‘that’s me’ and he replied, ‘yes, it is.’ My parents weren’t perfect, but they were good parents and I knew that even when I was young.

This comes to mind because I’ve spent the last couple of weeks with my two sisters, closing out my Mom’s storage spaces. It has been a sad process in many ways. For one, by closing the spaces, we acknowledge that our mother will not live independently again.

When she moved from her apartment into respite care three months ago, we hoped that she would eventually be able to move to an assisted living facility, so we stored the contents of her apartment. In the month my mother was in respite care, it became clear that she was not a candidate for assisted living and would need fewer of her possessions going forward. As much as we would have liked to postpone the process of disposing of her belongings, we had the choice, as my brother says, of using the money we were paying for the storage spaces for her to have a good life or for her possessions to have a good life.

The process was also sad because it reminded us of a time when my mother was a different person. It is not just the dementia that has made her different than the mother we knew as children, but something else—mental illness, soul sickness, whatever one calls it—and it has been present for many years. Now her mind and body have failed her and to some extent, taken away her ability to come to terms with whatever it is that ate into her soul.

In May, as we began the process of sorting through what was already in storage and going through her apartment to weed out what could be discarded instead of stored, I came up with the idea of taking photos of some of the possessions that held memories for my siblings and me. The original photo I envisioned was the four of us with my parents’ bedroom suite, but my brother was not able to join us this past couple of weeks. However, the idea had by this time evolved into a series of photos that would capture in some way the mother we knew as children.

In coming up with the props for the photos, I remembered my mom as the woman in a pink formal dress with long gloves, on her way to a dinner with my dad. I was impressed all over again with her decades-long commitment to Girl Scouting—she was a troop leader, a trainer, a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts. I was in awe of the woman who spent her 50th birthday in New Zealand, having applied for and been granted a scholarship by Rotary International to study overseas for a year. I paid tribute to the woman who, at the age of 69, trained for and completed the Danskin Sprint Triathlon.

In different ways and on different paths, all of us have had to come to terms with saying goodbye to that woman but I want to remember her, even as I deal with the reality of who my mother is now.