Proof of Life

No, it’s not what you might think. Perhaps I should have written”proof of having lived.” Except for two years in a two-bedroom apartment, my husband and I are living in the smallest home we have ever occupied in our thirty-three years of marriage. I love our home, and truth be told I still have a lot of things that I am attached to emotionally. I have a college degree plus two post graduate degrees, which means I have a lot of books. Many of my books are professional in nature; far more non-fiction than fiction. In addition to all the books that are left, I have a kindle with about 100 books on it, give or take and a library card. Okay, two library cards.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

Books are still the hardest for me to get rid of, even if they are not emotional attachments. I serve two churches in retirement, so I have held onto all my preaching resources.  In addition to writing this blog, I write monologues and other stories for use in Biblical Storytelling, so any academic resource about women’s lives in biblical times is still on my shelves.  When I retired and we bought our own home I had to leave behind the wonderful built in, wall to wall, bookcases that were part of every parsonage we occupied. My office in our retirement home is 8’ by 8’ and contains a computer desk, an old oak teacher’s desk and three bookcases that are only a little over 2 feet wide. They do not hold nearly as many books as any parsonage I have ever inhabited. I have given away books to friends and colleagues, I have culled my books and donated some that might be useful to the local library and done so several times. Everything in me abhors the thought of throwing books away.

Sometimes I have given books away, only to wish I still had them. After carrying my high school year book with me for fifty years with no contact with any of my classmates, I grit my teeth and threw it out, just before our retirement move. Five months later, in October of 2018, I reconnected with a few former classmates and in October of 2019 sat down to dinner in a restaurant with 10 of them. No yearbook.  In another case I had a book on my shelves that was written by a local colleague many years ago. I bought it because he had written it, and it might be useful in a different context but never read it. It too went into a give-away pile. It was a smart move. Yet, ironically shortly after doing so, I was appointed to serve the very church he had written about!

I once knew a woman who lived in a camper and the rule of thumb she and her husband practiced was if something new came into the home something else had to go; blouse for blouse, book for book. Stockpiling anything was not allowed.  Now, near the end of my first year of retirement and my first year living in our own home I am working intentionally to make my possessions fit our space and not the other way around. I don’t want to feel boxed in by stuff, or by boxes containing stuff. I don’t want to add more furniture to hold the stuff that won’t fit anywhere else. But combing through my possessions, whether it is clothes, books, knickknacks, gifts or even paper files it is just not easy.  And let’s not even get started about family pictures.

Photo by Liinnea Hansen from Pexels

When it comes to keeping or eliminating possessions, being an itinerant pastor has been an advantage. We move when and where the Bishop sends us, by agreement. It is so easy to accumulate additional possessions without realizing it, they generally just fit into places, or storage boxes, or closets and we hardly notice, until it is time to pack. So, with each move we have made since we were married, we have, without any argument, held yard sales. In our first big move we sent two loads to a local auction house and held two yard sales. In addition to the sales, we have donated to local thrift stores and gotten rid of anything that was broken beyond repair. The most difficult time we had was during our first pastoral move when after the moving truck had left and we loaded everything we could fit into our two vehicles, we resorted to leaving the things that would not fit on the curb or in the trash. (We still haven’t replaced that Hibachi Grill).

Photo by Mister Mister from Pexels

Make no mistake, this is not easy physical or emotional work. Many of us are so prone to hang onto things we might one day use. That beautiful dress I haven’t been able to fit into for 15 years might still be in style when I lose the weight that I have gained. Or, that table you might get around to fixing, the chest you might one day refinish…you get the idea.

Parting with clothes is another obstacle to downsizing. A few years ago, at the beginning of Lent I grabbed on to the popular “give 40 things away” trend and used that for my Ash Wednesday service. We even rolled up black trash bags and tied them with red ribbons to give out along with the imposition of ashes.  Because I try to practice what I preach, I attacked my own closet with robust determination. Have you ever had to put your hands together as in prayer, and use those hands to forcibly push coat hangers and their clothes apart so you can pull something out to wear? I did, but I don’t anymore. I kept at it and until I could see the clothes that were in my closet and not have to pry clothes and hangers apart with superhuman strength, just to get dressed.

Not perfect, but greatly improved

Now, I am no “clothes horse”, so this is relatively easy, but not totally. On my days off I tend to live in jeans and tees or sweaters, depending on the season. My wardrobe for Sunday worship is likewise simple, black dress slacks, colorful polo shirts with the names of the churches and denominational seal embroidered on the shirt. That might not work in every church setting, but I am a retired pastor serving rural churches.  In my current setting, our retirement home, I am resolved to keep only those clothes that will fit into my dresser, my closet and one tote of off-season clothes.  In addition, I have a few items that pass for professional dress as needed for funerals, weddings and other official things. Despite all this, I really do like to clothes shop, but I try to be careful that if I bring something new into the closet, something else must go.

The most difficult possessions I have ever parted with had lived in my china closet. I had carefully collected, a simple set of Lenox China, a service for eight. It was the most inexpensive pattern, the silver band on the rim of the plate and I bought them one place setting at a time after my youngest child was born.   But we hit some very lean times when our children were teenagers and I came to the difficult conclusion that one cannot eat sentiment. So, they were sold in a yard sale.

 Then there was a lovely, heavy cut glass punch bowl that my mother had given me, bought for me. I used it a few times and loved it. But as we prepared to move from our four-bedroom four story rental to a two-bedroom apartment, I grit my teeth and let it go in a sale. It still makes me sad because it was a gift from mom. But in truth, I cannot think of one time in the last twenty-five years when I might have used it. It would have stayed in the bottom of a china closet collecting dust.

When my mother died, we were certainly left with some difficult tasks, funeral details, cleaning out her apartment and disposing of her things but she had done much of the emotional work for herself.  In the weeks leading up to her final health crisis, she began going through her china closet and deciding who she wanted to have the things that were there. She went a step beyond carefully packing them and mailing them or preparing them for the mail. She also did one final read of all my father’s letters to her and destroyed them. I had read many of them as a teenager and I admit I was disappointed not to find them. But I appreciate the fact that they were her personal possession and her right to do with them what she wanted.

My husband is a wise man and he is the one responsible for my current train of thought. He began getting rid of cards and other sentimental things. At first, I was hurt, but then I realized the wisdom in doing that.  But that wisdom also begets this question: When I finish getting rid of all the things, I should get rid of, will there be any proof that I have lived, that I have passed this way? And If I want to leave some kind of “’proof of life” behind, what should it be? I am not trying to be morbid, and as far as I know, I am not currently actively dying. But these are decisions that I should be making for myself and not leaving to my spouse or children or strangers.

Light blue ceremaic mug with small bowl and plate, dark blue outlines and pink flower in the center
Made in Portugal

The work of downsizing or decluttering can be so hard. I have had modest success but am sure that I will never be a minimalist. These are a few secrets to the modest success that I have had:

First, a determination to ruthlessly evaluate every possession. Second, a determination to not be surrounded by boxes filled with stuff. Third, a determination to practice what I preach. Fourth, gritting my teeth and just doing what needed to be done. Fifth, I agree with organizational experts who insist that the way to declutter is not shiny, new closet organizational structures. The way to declutter is to ruthlessly eliminate things you no longer need, want or use so that others might be able to use them. Sixth, I have tried to adopt a mindset that says if I have enjoyed something for thirty years (pictures, mementos of all varieties) it is time to let someone else have the pleasure.

So, what about you, dear reader? Do you have suggestions or advice that you would add to this list?  There is no danger that I am going to pick everything up that I own or ever touched and throw it into a dumpster. I am carefully combing through books, papers, trinkets, etc. and giving them away, or taking them to the neighborhood thrift shop or trying valiantly to find a home for them. I have a long way to go but I am trying to do the intelligent, emotional work of limiting my possessions and being careful about the choices. But I also don’t want to lose myself in the process. If my son or daughter were to come into my home after I am gone and see the things I have chosen to leave behind, I hope they would say, “That is so mom!” 

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

Published by msomerville2014

About: Michele Somerville is a wife, mother, stepmother, grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin and friend. She lives with her husband and their dog Sheba. Sheba is their fourth rescue dog in 30 years. She is a retired ordained United Methodist Elder and serves two churches part-time in North Central Pennsylvania. She obtained her Bachelors’ Degree in 1999 from Mansfield University and her Master of Divinity in 2004 and Doctor of Ministry in 2016, both from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. My Doctor of Ministry Thesis was:” Prophetic Words of Grace: Biblical Storytelling in the Local Church.” Michele began writing and performing character monologues for worship in 2008. She began by asking the question about nameless characters in the Bible, “What would they say if they could speak for themselves?” and then using her theological education and experience of the human condition to attempt an answer that is both academic and creative. Much of what you will read here are memories from growing up in a tourist town, in a bar, in the 1960’s, shaggy dog stories about our rescue dogs, life in a small town, and stories of faith and hope. Throughout her life she has lived in many states, including small towns, large towns and cities. She lived in Rota, Spain, for nine challenging months. Despite all the places she have lived since moving away from home in 1970,Michele is at the heart of all things Jack and Maggie’s daughter, and a beach girl from Onset, Massachusetts.

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