Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there, and a particularly special one to my mom! Hopefully this is the last time I spend the day away from home.
I inherited a lot from my mom: the shape of my forehead and eyes; my stature; my perfect health and uncanny physical resilience. Personality quirks, too: truly unreasonable stubbornness; always having an opinion; doing anything for a laugh; a persistent need to be informed, especially on current events.
Sometimes my mom is hard on herself, especially when us kids experience hardship or failure. It’s difficult for her not to internalize it, wondering if she could have prevented our misfortune or if it was somehow indirectly her fault. Part of this is just the nature of being a parent, I think, but the other part is that all parents mess up their kids in ways they couldn’t foresee, ways that have ripple affects across their children’s entire lives. For the most part, though, we all turn out all right. I turned out better than all right. I think my mom knows this deep down – knows that there are aspects of me which are completely apart from her, parts which she can’t blame (or, perhaps, praise) herself for. But it couldn’t hurt to remind her of the good stuff.
Here are a few of the many lessons I’ve learned from my mom. There are more than I can list, but these are most important to me right now. In ten years’ time, I’m sure I will have a completely new list based on my own growth and how my mom has helped me along the way.
From these examples, you’ll learn that my mom is brave, resourceful, resilient, strong, and wise. It is my hope that, in time, I develop these qualities, too.
“We’re all going to have to stay in our homes for a little while,” said our national leaders. “It’s for the common social good. A few weeks, maybe a few months, of missed plans and isolation, and we will put all of the bad stuff behind us.”
“Oh no!” replied the introverts of the world, reaching for a blanket and burrowing deeper into the couch. “How ever will we cope?”
Sounds like me, right?
It’s been a little over a month since my state issued its stay-at-home order. It was, at first, a little scary: would we run out of food? toilet paper? what does this mean for my future?
These being the extent of my concerns, though – most of them intangible – shows how lucky I am: I can’t get laid off from the U.S. Navy (and boy do I try). No matter what, I’ll be able to pay my rent and have healthcare and a job. But this is not true for an alarming number of people who are now relying on a safety net not designed for a crisis like this, and wouldn’t be sufficient to support people in need, to this extent, even if it was. And now that I’m hurtling down My Bullshit Lane, if we could pull our heads out of our asses for, like, a single second, we might realize that some of our previous assumptions about the way things have to be simply aren’t true, and we can’t go back to the way things were, pre-pandemic. Too many of us are just a single misfortune away losing everything.
I say all of this as a disclaimer, knowing full well that there’s some measure of guilt in what I’m going to talk about here: being able to move through pure anxiety to find moments of joy during a crisis where others find only the misery of need and uncertainty. If you’re in a tough place, please don’t take any of this as a minimization of your hardship, or some inane encouragement to look on the bright side. Sometimes reflexive cheerfulness is the wrong reaction. It feels strange to be positive now, sometimes, occasionally. Now and then, it does sneak up on me, but it took a while to get there.
On every morning but one, you wake up to the dark – 5AM, dark no matter the time of year – with the exception of Saturday, when your body lets you sleep until a few minutes before seven, and you wake up feeling like the day is already over, wasted (though admittedly very well-rested).
But this is Friday. You have to get up a little earlier than strictly necessary, have to go out for a walk in the dark to wake up properly, to steel yourself for the day. You wear a glow belt, which usually keeps you safe in crosswalks but unfortunately did not ward off a man in a minivan full of (presumably) his kids from pulling up alongside you in a parking lot to yell about watching where you were going. You are confused; you knew exactly where you were going, but he had to drive out of his way to make his point.
It’s still dark when you get back home. You put on your swimsuit and shorts. You think, regretfully, that another week has gone by and you’ve failed to buy a wetsuit or a pair of fins. You flip-flop out to the car anyway and drive 1.4 miles to the boat ramp on the beach.
Now, finally, the horizon is starting to lighten. Despite the walk, your stomach is clenched like a fist. You feel a gentle thrum of underlying panic every Friday morning, no matter how many times you do this exact same thing. Still, you slide your feet out of your sandals, leaving them planted behind the pedals; you leave your folded towel on the driver’s seat, ready to be sat on by a wet butt; you remove your car key from the keyring, clipping it to your swimsuit and tucking it in. Everything stays behind. You hobble over the pine-needles through the parking lot to the boat ramp, getting your first glimpse of the conditions.
It’s Friday, and you’re looking out across Kailua beach, where the turquoise sea is starting to glow in the sunrise. The tide is low and there is barely any wind – unusual for the windward side of the island. The current ripples gently against the sand, more like a wakeless lake than the crashing of the winter sea.
The breeze is gentle. It is January, but you are not cold. Now, you wait.
I learned some things about myself, too: what I’m good at, what I’m not so good at, how I react under pressure, and how I manage stress. But there are a bunch of other positive habits instilled by general military discipline that we come to take for granted. Here are just a few.
Refractive eye surgery is pretty well advertised on my installation here in Hawaii. Long-term, it makes more sense to permanently correct the vision of eligible servicemembers than supply them with new glasses (and contacts? some fliers get free contacts?) every year. I knew my summer deployment was probably going to be my last one, so I thought I’d ask if I could get my eyes fixed before I separate next year.
The keyword there is “ask.” I’m in a deploying billet and a flight status. I was prepared for a struggle, one I suspected would result in the negative.
Somehow, it actually worked. It was six months of persistence and administration and, frankly, the kindness of my leadership, and even now that it’s all done, it still seems too good to be true. I got PRK surgery in September, and it was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. It changed my life.
Here is the how the whole process went down, from start to finish.
According to the Screen Time function on my iPhone, I average about 4.5 hours each day staring into one (1) glowing rectangle.
If you are over age 40, you’re probably thinking: “That’s because your generation is addicted to screens.”
4+ hours does seem like a lot, especially considering I don’t have my phone with me during the workday. For that much daily screen time, I must have my phone in front of my face from the moment I get home until I put my head down to sleep. Do I?
The answer is a little complicated, both yes and no.
I’ve been struggling to come up with the least patronizing term to describe Marie Kondo’s process. The sanctimony of “minimalism” makes my skin crawl and, more importantly, misses the point, highlighting the result over the endeavor. Even “tidying up,” a phrase that has become more or less synonymous with the KonMari brand, doesn’t instinctively call to mind the necessity of discarding first. The closest I can think of is “downsizing,” but even that conjures a problematic context: of being unable to afford things, of having to get let go to survive.
I want to talk about applying Marie Kondo’s principles to my life in a way that doesn’t invoke a moral imperative on the part of the reader. The argument for letting go of clutter can be made, sometimes even convincingly, but it’s not my job to make it. The thing about Kondo’s method is that it is so completely relative. It’s not about discarding things based on the criteria of strict, stark utility. An excess of possessions can certainly weigh one down, but deciding what is the “right amount” of things is a deeply personal, individual experience. What works for me might not – probably won’t – work for you.
The core of KonMari could be summarized like this: “Wouldn’t you enjoy your home so much more if you only surrounded yourself with things that make you happy?” It seems so obviously true that it feels insulting. A lot of people, misunderstanding her, have taken a very bizarre sort of offense to her principles, when “[s]he literally just wants to help people declutter so their physical belongings no longer take a mental toll on their well-being.”
I guess I started off as part of the problem, too. Before I read her book, I feared that Marie Kondo and her Shinto-inspired ideas were going to come into my home and throw away anything that didn’t contribute to a sterile, characterless space, only teak and white linens and a single plant for color. But Kondo never specifies what the end product looks like, only offering the occasional suggestion. The process is about finding what makes her clients happy. She is always willing to disregard even her own rules if they bump against someone’s an immovable anxiety. As with most things, it’s about the journey, about the self-understanding that comes from addressing the totality of your belongs and discovering the “right amount,” than it is about the aesthetics (or even functionality) of the result.
So with all that said, for the past few months (yes, months), I’ve been KonMari-ing my home. It was way more work than I was expecting, but all in all it was a positive experience. One, Marie promises, I’ll never have to do again.
Shockingly, this is proving to be true. I took photos for this post when I finished in late March. I am writing this post now at the end of May. I expected my tidiness to have slipped between now and then – things out of place, folding a little less tight, new unnecessary acquisitions. So far, to my surprise, this has not been the case. The lessons that I learned from Marie Kondo seem to have stuck.
I followed Kondo’s plan as prescribed: starting with clothing, piling every article of clothing you own, from every part of the house, into one heap in one place, going through each item, piece by piece, and deciding if it makes you happy or if it’s time to discard it. Do the same with books, papers, miscellaneous items (komono), and sentimental items, in that order. Kondo says this structure allows us to attune ourselves gradually with what truly “sparks joy,” so that by the time we get to our sentimental items, we can make those “keep/discard” choices with confidence.
Was it “life-changing,” as the title of her book suggests? In some ways, yes. It forced me to confront some things about myself that I was not proud of, but going through it made me feel more confident about my decision-making in general. It also brought to light a lot of the positive aspects of who I am that I often take for granted. It has made my daily routine easier and I am much more considerate now of the quantity of things that I acquire.
The biggest change, though, is being able to sit in my apartment and feel so completely at ease, so filled with joy. Sometimes I’ll look up from reading and gaze around adoringly around my space, my little sanctuary. Everything was chosen and placed with love and deliberation; nothing is here “just because.” It is the first place of my own that truly feels like home.
With all that said, here are some general lessons that I learned from the KonMari process, some truths that stuck with me even since the tidying up came to an end.
I mentioned in my year-end post that the dad of one of my childhood friends once told us that your body gets older on the outside but you stay more or less the same on the inside. Eventually you reach a plateau for emotional maturity, the crest of an upward trend that hopefully continues throughout the rest of your life, while your body begins to do the opposite, dropping down the other side of this metaphorical hill.
Years are going by faster and faster. My foot is pressing down harder on the accelerator and I am unable, will never be able, to slow down, not until at last I stop for good. Someday this will worry me. Right now, I watch these years pass with detached, almost clinical, interest.
I’ve struggled with collecting my thoughts, on finding significance, on reaching the big 3-0. It doesn’t feel more meaningful than any other birthday, which for me is actually a huge deal because I love an excuse to celebrate something. So actually I take all of that back. This is a great event, as usual! Tomorrow, on April 1st, it’s all about me, bay-bee!
In lieu of depth and meaning, here are some lists.
Things that keep me young
Always being a lil bit overweight
General zest for life
Having a tumblr account (see image below for reference)
Hobbies that I’m genuinely very passionate about
Extremely niche hobbies that I’m wildly, ironically passionate about
A “yes, and” attitude
7.5 hours of sleep
Minding my own business
Not smoking (probably)
Things that I wish I had learned sooner
Always have electrolytes somewhere in the house. It might save you a trip to the ER.
There’s a big difference between being nice and being kind.
Recovery isn’t linear.
thank u, next
Everyone loves differently.
Virtues get easier with practice.
You’re not eating enough protein.
God doesn’t say no. He says, instead: yes; or, not yet; or, I have something better in mind.
The more comfortable you are with yourself, the more permission others feel to be comfortable with themselves.
Sometimes it really do just be like that.
I realized today that I’ve been writing in this blog almost continuously for five years. It is mostly a pain, but it forces me to put something out there into the world/void about a dozen times a year. I just wanted to take a second to say thank you to anyone and everyone who is reading this. Whether you know me personally or you just stumbled here by accident (most likely, you are a soft combination of the two), thank you for giving me a few minutes of your day. Thank you for reading.
Grandma wrote her own obituary. She wrote down what song she wanted to play at her funeral and what clothes she wanted to be dressed in. She last updated it in 2014. This is a comfort: she was ready.
She wanted to be remembered for her family, of course. Her parents and siblings, all of whom predeceased her except for one brother. Her children, two daughters and two sons, and her seven grandchildren.
Grandma was the daughter of immigrants, first generation Americans from Austria. I wonder often about what their experience was like, coming to the USA at the turn of the century. Grandma was born in 1928, only a year before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. Her family owned a farm and a bunch of land in New Britain, CT, which must have mitigated somewhat the effects of the Depression, but my grandma was always ruthlessly frugal. So is my mom, who shared a bed with her sister during their childhood. She and I would share that same bed when we stayed over Grandma’s.
Grandma worked at Precision Grinding in New Britain, CT for fifteen years. Her children walked to school, just a few blocks from their home, and she wanted to be there when they came home for lunch. She must have given her children a decent childhood. They all turned out very well.
Her husband, my grandpa, died when I was still very young. I don’t remember much about him, besides the oxygen and dialysis machines which kept him alive in his final years. Mom told me that he volunteered for the army during WWII and stormed the beach at Normandy. She said it was a horribly traumatic experience, that he saw his friends dying all around him from a hail of bullets and from drowning. He didn’t talk about it much. He was so poor that the army was his best chance at a better life, if he came out on the other side of it. He did. I don’t know how he and my Grandma met. I don’t know much about him at all. He was very quiet.
My mom and my grandma were very close. Grandma would come see us in Rhode Island, taking us kids out for a day so my mom could have some time to herself. She would walk us down the street to the Newport Creamery. One year, when my leg was broken in a skiing accident, she pushed me in a wheelchair all the way. She would order a scoop of vanilla ice cream and pour a tablespoon or two of coffee over the top. As a kid, I thought it was gross. Now, as an adult, I think it’s very cool.
In her obituary, Grandma wrote that her “favorite pastime was working in her garden and taking care of her yard. She also enjoyed reading and making trips to the library for new books. She liked to take nature walks, ride her bike, and cook her favorite meals.” This is a beautiful and simple summary of a life that spanned almost an entire century.
In her backyard, Grandma had a big tree that cast the whole lawn in shade, like a giant umbrella, and a statue of the Virgin Mary. She kept old road bikes in a small shed, along with her gardening tools. She would ride her bike around the neighborhood even in her 80s. It took getting hit by a car to get her to stop. Even then, she still took daily walks, picking up trash in the street as she went. More than once, she was sprayed by a skunk, which we all thought was super funny. Neighbors recognized her. All of that land used to belong to her family, Mom told me. Now it is just the one house, the house my mom was raised in, and soon, not even that.
Growing up, the whole family went up to a German family resort in the beautiful Catskill Mountains during the summer. We would hike and hit golfballs at the driving range and swim and eat and eat and eat. Someone always got stung by a bee. One time, my brother got stung by about a dozen bees, and it was sort of my fault. It seemed like everyone there knew Grandma, and she knew everyone else. She tried to teach me how to dance the polka. She would clap along to the music and she knew the words to some of the traditional German songs.
She had a sly sense of humor. She liked to play Rummy. Whenever she wrote to me – for my birthday and Christmas and Easter – she would apologize for her bad writing and spelling. It hurt me that this was something she felt like she had to say, because there was nothing wrong with how she wrote. She didn’t think she was smart, maybe because each subsequent generation of her family was more educated than the previous one, but there are many different ways to be smart. My grandma was an intensely practical person and capable in ways that I will never be.
I would video-call her and my mom on Sundays. When I’m on deployment, it was the highlight of my week, giving me a boost in morale that would carry me through the next few days. She had been losing her memory for a while, and when I was away, she would ask me every week: where are you?
“I can’t tell,” I would say awkwardly.
“She’s in West Hartford!” my mom’s fiance John would yell in the background. He had been in the Navy. He knows how it is sometimes.
“You can tell me,” Grandma would say. “I won’t squeal.”
She told me I had a nice smile and, when I expected her to give me a hard time about my haircut, she said she liked it, said it must be much easier to deal with. Grandma got it.
“Do you regret joining the service?” she would ask in a low voice, heavy with confidentiality and some other emotion that I couldn’t quite pin down.
“No,” I would say, trying to sound positive. The word would hang there, suspended between us, never really touching down. I think we both knew I was lying, at least a little bit. I think my Grandma understood what the military takes from its members, even when it tries to give them back something in return.
In the last few years of her life, my mom went to see her every weekend, being there for Grandma as Grandma had been there for her so many years ago; “the circle of life,” my mom says. Grandma knew it was Sunday because her caregiver would help her into her sneakers in the morning. Mom brought her to the mall to people-watch. They ate at the same restaurant and everyone knew her there. She would watch funny animals on youtube, asking John if he knew the animals in the videos personally, and that’s just about the cutest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.
Even as her health began to fail, she was charming and funny and stubborn. She refused to move out of her home for an assisted-care facility, clinging to this last shred of privacy and ownership that often gets taken away during one’s old age. It was a source of controversy and, sometimes, frustration for my family – where does her autonomy end and overriding concern for her safety begin? – and demanded a revolving door of lady caregivers, a compromise. For Grandma’s happiness and pride, it was worth it. She was in the most comfortable and familiar place possible when she began to slip away.
Grandma died peacefully on June 23, 2018. My brother, a doctor, was at her side in her final moments. This, too, is a tremendous comfort, and he is very brave. The rest of the family was on their way to my uncle’s surprise birthday party. They were rerouted to the hospital instead. “You know how hard it is to get everyone together at the same time,” my mom said. It was a surprise of another kind, but at least everyone was there.
This is my first time dealing with grief from a grown-up perspective. I’m thinking – constantly, much more than I want to – about what it might have been like for her to die. Did she know it was time? Was she afraid? Did she think about her husband? Her kids? Did she know that her children and grandchildren were on their way to her, rushing, frantic?
“Don’t be sad,” my mom told me over the phone, still in the hospital room. “She wouldn’t want you to be.”
It’s a common idea, but it is true. Grandma didn’t have time for all that.
She was 90 years old. The scope of the history that she lived through is almost inconceivable to me. I think often about how different the world was when she was my age and what things were like for her then. I hope my mom lives as long as her mom did. I hope I do too, and see as much as she did, and be as vivacious and strong and tenacious as she was. I will miss you, Grandma. You were our connection to a whole different world of triumph over hardship and tradition. I’m lucky to be part of your family.
You can find her official obituary here in the New Britain Herald. You can leave a condolence for our family here. Thank you for taking the time to read this.