Monday, 3 August 2015

Lessons from My Sister's Life

Linda Young, 1944-2015
My sister passed away yesterday. 

"She'll probably outlive us all," my brother used to say. That didn't happen. But she lived far longer than anyone, including her doctors, expected. Linda taught us that life doesn't always end in happy ever after. In a celebrity-obsessed culture, she never got her 15 minutes of fame. But she left an enduring legacy for me and the rest of my family. She was a survivor who showed us how to keep on keeping on. These are the lessons I take from her life:


  1. We are all living; we are all dying. Choose life. Linda was 32 and immersed in her nursing career when she was diagnosed with scleroderma, an auto-immune disease of the skin. Death, it seemed, was imminent. She left her job, gave away all her possessions, and waited to die. She eventually gave up waiting: not only did she not die, she lived on for another 38 years. I doubt she ever took death seriously again. She sailed through a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in her 50s and just did what she always did: living one day at a time. May we all do the same.
  2. Focus on small pleasures. My sister was the queen of small pleasures. A resolute mall walker, she stumped up and down the length of the mall, first with her cane and later with a walker. She went out for Sunday lunch, with white tablecloth and flowers. She decorated cakes. She was an aficionada of cooking shows. She enrolled in contests and won. Her life was made up of such little moments. They were important to her. And in the end, that's all that counts.
  3. Creativity does not have to mean great art. My sister used to colour long before it became trendy for adults. I think one of the many reasons she sought out children was because it gave her a socially acceptable reason to colour. Linda crocheted until the time when her disease finally froze her hands into place. She painted by number and framed her work. Then there were those cakes. Her art gave joy to others in the very smallest and most endearing of ways.
  4. Concentrate on the young. My sister was there for us when we returned to Canada from Colombia. Broke and uncertain how to start over, we moved in with her and my widowed mother. While Mark and I struggled with putting our life back together, she focused on our kids. She coloured with them, read them books, took them to the candy store, picked them up from school. Ariana, for whom she is one of the most important people in life, calls her "my Linda." Julian and his aunt spent hours together, singing the theme song from Postman Pat. When Daniel broke his leg and was in traction for two months, depressed and in pain, she came to the hospital every day with books and games. When he stopped eating, she smuggled in Big Macs, their illicit aroma wafting down the hall. Linda never lost her delight in wee ones: she remembered their birthdays and laughed at their jokes. The great lesson from her life is that time invested in small children is never wasted. My children will pass down the songs that Linda sang to them. They will tell the same silly jokes to their own kids. Linda had no children of her own, but her legacy will live on in the life of every child she touched.
  5. Refuse to see life in terms of success and failure. From the world's perspective, my sister's life might not be viewed as a great success. There will be no New York Times obituary or Wikipedia profile. She gave no thought to such things, choosing instead to focus on the things she could still do. She sent funny cards to people on their birthdays. She showed up at their funerals. She returned library books on time. She drove old ladies to church. Not an impressive list perhaps, but as people reacted to news of her death, the two words that appeared over and over were "kind" and "thoughtful." It's something we should all strive for.
  6. Don't worry too much about what other people think. Linda lived her own life; she held firmly to her own opinions and was prepared to defend them. She was often infuriating and she wasn't always easy to live with. She didn't care. In fact, I think she slept pretty soundly at night. Stick to your guns.
  7. Don't be defined by the things you loseLinda lost a great deal in life. Her professional career ended early. Disease robbed her of one of her greatest passions: long-distance swimming. An accident on a curb outside Tim Hortons signaled the end of daily treks with her walker. But she could still clip local news stories out of the newspaper and send them to far-flung relatives. Scornful of the Easter Bunny, she would spend hours tracking down an "Easter Chicken" card for an incredulous niece or nephew. She taught us that a single life -- even one lived from a chair -- can have a great impact. Life changes. Change with it.
  8. Value the record keeper in your familyOurs was a big family that shrank to a small one. The multitude of cousins moved away. Divorce caused painful ruptures. But not for Linda. Though her world shrank, her connections did not. She sat in the middle of a vast family network, as the one common link among us all. When I wanted to remember who was related to whom, I asked Linda. When I wanted to calculate the age of one of our far-off family members, I called her. When I couldn't remember the ingredients of a family recipe, she was the one I turned to. She remembered all the words to the funny songs my dad sang. The last time I spoke to her, she reminded me of the time she took me to Disneyland as a little girl, when I insisted on eating hamburgers at every meal. She recalled the exact years of family trips and the names of those who succumbed to the Hong Kong flu. I guess it's up to the rest of us now. We owe it to her. 

Beyond a headstone, there won't be many physical reminders of Linda's life. She didn't dream of changing the world. But change the world she did: she made it a better place for those she loved. Linda's life shows us, her family, that there is grace in keeping on. Rest in peace, Sister.
__________ 

About me


Susan Young de Biagi

As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou—my first novel—I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products. 
[Read more]


"Susan Biagi has woven a marvelously intuitive tale … at once beautiful and harsh, observing the simple and dangerous lives of cultures interacting on the threshold of new world history." 
[Read more]

Follow My Year of Living Backwards' board on Pinterest. 
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aging, transition, fashion over 40, fashion over 50, retirement, health, Christ, faith, mature, wise, wisdom, you, love, passion, change, baby boomer, zoomer, senior, beauty, generation, decision making 
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Monday, 18 May 2015

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being: Lessons From a Yard Sale

Post Yard Sale
For me, houses are a metaphor for life. At night, in my dreams, buildings become physical symbols of my inner life. Whenever I find myself in a basement, I awake knowing that I've penetrated the deepest recesses of my consciousness.

I've spent my adult years stuffing things into bureau drawers and closets, in a failed attempt to present a smooth surface to the world. But those hidden possessions weighed me down. When the time came to get rid of them, it proved a deeply cathartic process. 


The Storm Before the Calm


It began when I left my new home in the north, to prepare my former house for sale. Since then, our belongings have been sold at yard sales, given away to friends, donated to charity, and trucked away to the dump. As I waved good-bye to each load, I felt lighter and lighter, giddy even. Mental and physical burdens were lifted. 

These are the lessons I learned from that experience:

1. Out of sight is not really out of mind. Every now and then, it's important to take out our stuff and really look at it. Some of the things in my closets had not seen the light of day in decades. From time to time, I'd shove in something new, all but closing my eyes to the stuff in the back. My sister, Marilyn, watched in dismay as I pulled out item after item, every one of which had to be moved, priced, and sometimes cleaned. 

So it is with our inner life: old hurts and resentments cannot simply be shoved into the back closet of our mind. Take them out, and examine them in the bright light of day. Because whether we know it or not, they affect our daily behaviour and our interactions with people. 

2. There is a cost to things we acquire. My house is located on a peninsula. With all garbage barged out of town, residents are charged a fee for every bag of trash.
This dumpster cost $643 to dispose of, over half the profits of my yard sales. Aside from the monetary cost, there are ethical and environmental considerations in accumulating this much garbage. 

Many people pay storage fees for the things they are unwilling to jettison. This article, entitled Hoarder Nation, explores the consequences in the United States. It's likely similar in Canada, on a smaller scale. 

We ultimately pay a price for every extra burden we take on. 

"Count the cost." 

Who said that? 

3. Some costs can never be recouped. Between the two yard sales, we made about $1000. Sounds impressive, doesn't it? To prepare, my sister and I worked day after day, often starting at 7 a.m. and working right through to dinnertime. In the end, we calculated that we made under $5 an hour, for intensely physical labour. How hard are we working to deal with the fall out caused by bad choices, made in the past? 

Before: Living Room with Yard Sale Items

4. Our stuff is a burden to others. I was haunted by the thought that I would die and my children would have to deal with all our possessions. For years, I went to estate sales, where every little knick knack and soap dish that Grandma had so lovingly hoarded was laid out for the world to devalue. I was particularly puzzled by the old family photographs. Why would anyone buy someone else's old photo? Then it struck me: they wanted the frame. The picture itself was ripped out and thrown on the garbage heap. 


I refuse to become that grandma: no one else will have to sift through the flotsam and jetsam of my life, forced to make choices I consistently refused to consider. This includes psychic inheritances, which are far heavier than physical ones. When we carry negative opinions and old feuds into our future, we risk passing them down to our children. From now on, I plan to live more selectively and consciously.  

Trying a new purchase on for size
5. Too much choice leaves us stymied. While sorting through our possessions, I discovered a large aquarium, dusty but in perfect shape, with all its equipment in working order. I asked myself, "Why didn't this take pride of place in my house?" The answer came immediately: because it was stored with eight other aquariums of various sizes, in various states of disrepair. Because I was unwilling to sort through all the useless items, I missed seeing the one thing of real value. 

6. Some things become almost impossible to dispose of. Books are a writer's lifeblood. I had carted mine around for years: dragging them to Colombia and back, moving them from the east coast to the west. When I was finally ready to pass them on, there were no takers. "These are wonderful books," the shoppers at my yard sale commented, as they lovingly put them back on the shelf. Why weren't they buying? For the same reason I'm not: e-books and Internet access. In the end, my beloved books were put into boxes and donated to a charity thrift store, one of the few places in town that will still accept them. A large tote of three-inch floppy disks suffered a worse fate, going right into the dumpster. Printers, monitors, fax machine, and computers were all recycled. Shoppers will still purchase DVDs but the time is fast approaching when it will be impossible to unload them. 

Time makes all things obsolete: choose carefully what you plan to take into your future. As we lifted and sorted, my sister reminded me of Jesus, Buddha, and Ghandi -- all of whom refused to be weighed down by useless burdens, physical or otherwise. We can't move forward if we're pinned to the ground by old stuff. 


After: Staged Living Room
This week, I'll pick up my single suitcase, lock the door behind me, and hand the keys to my real estate agent. What will life look like from now on? I have no idea. I do know I will not assume the same burdens again. It's just too much baggage in my years of living backwards


________________________ 

About me


Susan Young de Biagi

As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou—my first novel—I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products. 
[Read more]


"Susan Biagi has woven a marvelously intuitive tale … at once beautiful and harsh, observing the simple and dangerous lives of cultures interacting on the threshold of new world history." 
[Read more]

Follow My Year of Living Backwards' board on Pinterest. 
Scroll down for icons to follow on Facebook or Twitter.


aging, transition, fashion over 40, fashion over 50, retirement, health, Christ, faith, mature, wise, wisdom, you, love, passion, change, baby boomer, zoomer, senior, beauty, generation, decision making 
, memory loss