Death and All the Stuff

Prompted by sheltering at home during the COVID 19 plague, the question came up: maybe it’s time for Margy and I to update our wills and other legal documents which we last visited in 2012. The basic purpose for us in these documents is to protect each other and make sure that we have the power to make decisions for each other, and inherit from each other. As a lesbian couple who are not married, this is what protects our “next of kin” status.

But each of these documents also has a secondary feature.  What if one of us is not available or able, or dies first–what then, who is next? That has always been a more challenging part of the process. In this age of plague, it is not outside the realm of possibility that both of us could succumb.  Who could we ask to take on the role of health care agent, or financial agent, if we were both incapacitated?

We don’t have children, and our family members are far away, and not always supportive of our identities. We have several good friends, but not a “best” friend, and many live far away. Can we ask any of our local friends to take on these roles? Are they close enough, or not too busy, or would they be overwhelmed by such a request? Who would bury us if we both died? Who are our people?

Similar dilemmas confront us with our wills, and who would inherit if we both were to die. I find that I have new concerns now that didn’t show up in the last will. What would happen to our land and garden that we’ve been so carefully tending? How could we ensure that the land would find new caretakers who would love it as we have? And who would have to sort through all the stuff that fills our little house? My natural temperament is to live simply, to possess little, and treasure those few possessions.  But somehow over all these years, I’ve accumulated a lifetime’s worth of stuff. (How did that happen?)

In the past few months, my mother has been preparing to leave her own house, and move into the home of my sister.  She officially moved yesterday.  All of her nine children and multiple grandchildren were invited to consider things we might like to take from her lifetime’s worth of stuff. But, aside from a few mementos, most of it has nowhere to go.  So even more likely, my own stuff will have nowhere to go.  It occurs to me that if I want to share mementos with people, maybe I should just send them as gifts now.

When I first did a will, I noticed that I most cared about my writing–I wanted there to be a way for thoughts and words to survive, for journals, sermons, essays, to live on in some way, to be a legacy.  That is still true, though now that I have actually published a book, I feel less anxious about it.  It feels like something of me will endure, this book child. But I also have five archive boxes full of journals that I have saved, countless sermons, another unpublished book, and even these blog posts. Sometimes I imagine them in an archive somewhere, discovered by some future historian who will be intrigued by my story. Might I be a spiritual ancestor to someone?

What fuels my need to save the writings? What compels me to write in the first place?

I wonder, does anyone see the whole story, does anyone see each of our stories, whether written or unwritten? Are our lives inscribed in a Book of Life somewhere?  When I was a child, we learned that God could see everything we did. It was somewhat scary then.  But now I find the idea a comfort–I want my life to have a witness. I hope my life will be inscribed in a Book of Life.

Stuff

Vase on Mantel DSC00542Today was one of those days when the idea of actually sorting through and giving away or packing our stuff seemed pretty overwhelming. Part of our search for greener housing includes this process of dealing with our stuff. How did I get so much stuff? I remember being able to put almost everything I owned into a backpack, along with a tent, and carrying it on a bus when I went to join the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice in 1985. I must have had a few boxes of stuff stored with a friend back in Chicago, but not much. Now, our stuff fills a house.

Maybe some people feel happy having lots of stuff, but I often feel uneasy about it. I grew up with St. Francis of Assisi as a role model, the patron saint of voluntary simplicity. I had to learn to appreciate the value of creating a beautiful and welcoming household. I was reminding of that value when a friend visited this weekend and remarked about how wonderful it was to be in such beauty. And I do love our home, and the stuff that helps to bring it alive. Some of it is practical–a kitchen table, chairs, beds, desks, bookcases, dishes. Some of it is sentimental–gifts from friends or a few cherished pieces from family. Some of it is just for beauty–the pitcher and cups on our mantel, a wall hanging of the tree of life.

But when I think about having to move it all from one place to another, it feels daunting. Today we were cleaning up some of our clutter in preparation for a visit from an appraiser. Not quite as daunting as preparing the house for showing to prospective buyers, but that will be coming up too. It is funny that as Americans have become more mobile, we have also accumulated more and more stuff. Is our attachment to our stuff trying to make up for our loss of attachment to land and community?

There are a lot of guides out there for helping to get rid of excess stuff. Common questions to help in the process include these: Have you used it within the last year? Does it give you joy? I have added another: Is this worth saving for my permanent personal archives? That one covers the fact that as a writer I am attached to keeping all of my personal journals. The last time we moved I even purchased archival quality boxes to store them in. I understand the process we need to go through. I just can’t imagine how we’re going to find the time to get it all done.

I am reminded of a quote by Wendell Berry. It isn’t really about stuff, but about anything that feels daunting or too big. I have it posted on the bulletin board next to my desk:

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Or perhaps it would be helpful to take the advice of Dory in Finding Nemo:  “Just keep swimming.”