44 and counting…

It’s official. We are leaving. We depart Vancouver on November 2nd, as the eight-month-long West Coast ‘monsoon’ season reaches full force.

We have pondered the idea of leaving for some years now, not knowing when or how. But in light of recent events and my husband reaching un certain âge, we felt that the time had come to move.

Vancouver is hailed as a most desirable place to live. People from all over the world will give their first-born to settle here. Yet this city with its stunning views has never felt like home to me. My soul has always longed for dilapidated façades, crumbling ruins, and yes, even more ‘dirt’ in the streets. Thankfully, my husband feels the same. The older we get, the more we wish to add patina in our surroundings. So we leave for the unknown. At last we try, before we get too old or too weary of changes.

The plan was to get rid of everything except a couple of boxes of books. At present time, we are heading for 50, and there are still more to be packed. In my infinite wisdom, the first thing I boxed up was our cooking pots followed by our can opener. Hence, our dinners are limited to take-out heated up in the only remaining cooking receptacle, a lonesome reject that has not yet been given away.  (Thankfully we have a plethora of restaurants to choose from merely blocks away) I am not exactly sure how we will live the last days, with our dining table and desk gone and our bedding and blankets being shipped on Wednesday. A small challenge…

Rewinding 17 years to a another life: We were leaving LA for Norway, selling everything from our Santa Monica lawn with a baby on my arms. As I fretted over what to take and what to leave, my nanny looked at me, saying. “You know, Karethe, I had a gun to my head and 20 seconds to get out, when we left our home in Yugoslavia.” Her words resonate in me every time I get an urge to complain or bemoan our situation.

Besides, we still have some extra bubble wrap to cuddle up with…

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The most bearable lightness of owning less

 

Through my adult life I have had an unwritten rule that if I get or buy anything, I give something away. I brought up my son in the same manner, so when he even as a young boy would beg me for a toy car or stuffy – if the toy came home with us, another toy of his choice would have to be donated to another child.

Every month we would clean our house and bring donations to the free store that YWCA has for single moms on the Lower East Side. To teach him to appreciate what he had, I volunteered us at the Christmas clothing drop-off in Vancouver’s Skid Row. Oskar, the first time barely 6, was assigned to pair up donated shoes, not the most glamorous of tasks…  (He will probably tell his psychologist about this childhood trauma one day…) The rule that I tried to install in myself and him was that you always give something back, and even if you don’t get anything, you still give!

Too many possessions bogs me down. Overfilled cupboards make me hyperventilate. I get a rash if my closet is filled with too many clothes. I am the ultimate anti-hoarder. I even started preaching, with some effect, the joys of giving to my neighbours, so we now have started neighbourly donation trips to the goodwill store.

Of course, all doesn’t have to be given away. I am a firm believer in the North American tradition of yard sales. It is a brilliant way to get rid of what one does not need, and offer it to others who may find it useful. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. We always pledge that nothing comes back in the house at the end of the day. Whatever doesn’t sell, we give away. If you were prepared to sell it in the first place, you do not need it.

Maybe this joy of zenetizing is the antithesis to older generations, who at least in Europe still stock up on everything, in case the Germans should invade again, even if it was half a century since the last time. My grandmother had 3 freezers for this reason and I think my mom is right behind her!

A couple weeks ago we decided to do the ultimate plunge, sell everything and move. Now, our house is full of donation boxes, shredding piles and things to sell. 90% of what we own must be gone. For every box leaving out the door, I feel lighter and breathe freer. In the end we will be so light that we nearly can fly off without wings! Purging may be painful, but it is the ultimate invigorating cleanse. To me, when it comes to possession, less is truly more. And to be honest, I do not think my son suffered any serious damage from giving away that bin of Lego…

 

 

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Long Distance Living and how my parents agreed to marry over the phone

My mother called saying that my dad is out of the hospital. “Nothing to worry about”, she says. Of course nobody told me that he was going into hospital, not wanting to worry a daughter living half a globe away.

As I grew up, my parents advised us to go travel and see the world. They married almost a decade after their friends. My father went to Scotland to train in a shipping company. My mother went to school in England and then to France. By the time they met, she lived in Rome, working as an air hostess between Europe, Africa and the far East – the most glamorous job for a woman of the time, other than being a movie star.

Even their nuptial arrangement were done long distance. This was just over a decade since the WW2, so my father was still doing occasional military service. He had to use my grandfather as the middleman, as it was impossible to catch my mother between flights from his mountain barrack. He asked if my grandfather happened to talk to my mother, could he please ask her if she had an answer for him. Being a gentleman, my grandfather did not inquire further. Some days later my mom called him from Rome, an astronomical expense in those days. She talked of all kinds of trivial matters before mentioning if he had heard anything from my dad. Yes, said my grandfather, he had called and all had been well. And he had also asked if she had an answer for him. “Well. Tell him it is all right, then”, said my mother. And that is how my parents agreed to marry over the phone.

Naturally, they wanted their 3 children to experience the same joys of travel, so we were allowed to pick a university anywhere in the world to study for one year, if we passed the entrance exams. My sister chose remote Nova Scotia, my brother picked sunny California, and when I heard that the French and English where fighting, I immediately chose Montreal. I could have ended up at universities in Toronto or Victoria. However, academic considerations came secondary to the action the city had to offer.

My parents gift became an expensive proposition, financially, because as a teenager living on my own for the first time in a foreign city, I did not know how to balance a budget. However, the greatest cost to my parents was probably emotional, as while my siblings came back, I decided to stay abroad. Today, I have spent more years away than in my birth country. I lived in a village in Greece, in Paris and in LA, but most of my years away were spent in Canada.

Living long distance has it’s advantages, particularly when you come from  a place where everybody knows your name, remembers your great-grand-aunt, worked for your father or dated your sister. In little Norway you are your past and your roots. In Vancouver on the other hand, history has only scratched the surface of time and the city is barely a century and a half old. Everything is about the future. It is a society in the making, where people still come to make their fortune. Nobody knows your clan history or favours you because of your family name.

Yet there are two sides to every story. Living long distance also means missing all birthdays, anniversaries and school reunions. You can never go home for Sunday dinner or drop by an aging relative. I came too late to my sisters wedding ceremony, and fell asleep during the party due to jet lag. My nieces and nephews were all born and baptized without me there. The last time I saw my aunt before she died was on SKYPE. Living long distance also means that one has to grieve from afar.

As my parents are getting older, one surviving cancer, the other with a new heart valve, I feel an inner pull to my own shore and an echo from my roots. I wish we could be closer, so I could visit my father in the hospital, help them clean up the attic, and stroll with them, watching sailboats on the pier. There are some things one just cannot do long distance….

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Moving a Centenarian

 

My path has crossed with many wonderful, bright and inspirational old women. Some of them have become role models, showing me not only how I hope to age, but also how I intend to age.

Last weekend I had the honour of helping move a soon 101-year-old friend. Clara lived on her own until she was 99, and only moved into a ‘home’ at the insistence of her son (himself a mere 80…) who were justifiably worried about his mother carrying her laundry down the steep basement stairs.

It cannot be easy, having had independence and a home of ones own, to move into a retirement facility with assigned roommates and shared baths and bedrooms. Yet our society sort them together, based on the single common denominator of advanced years. They might be cranky or kind, demented or bright, kleptomaniacs or law abiding citizens, liars or painfully honest, religious or atheist, strong or sickly, chatty or hardly uttering a word- yet they are housed together, often with people with mental problems that our society does not know where to place. Thus, it is confirmed that if you are old, weak or mentally unstable, all are equally undesirable.

But Clara doesn’t bemoan her situation. She is a prairie girl through and through, who does not easily resort to complaining. She might mumble something about the loss of sanity of a certain ‘cell mate’, but in all fairness, who wouldn’t, if one had to live at close quarters with someone not of ones own choosing.

Clara is clearly blessed with good family genes, but attitude and outlook on life have a lot to do with how people approach their aging. Take Cliff, a wonderful 92-year-old blind gentleman who still visits his daughter in Mexico. I asked him one day how he can travel on his own. “I just tell them, I don’t see worth a damn and I am not much good at walking either and somehow it works out”, he tells me. So, with his cane and knee brace, and his grace and good humour, he gets chauffeured from gate to gate without a glitch!

A couple of weeks ago, Clara was offered a new room on the second floor of her retirement home. She would still share it with someone, but it would give her a few more square feet to navigate her wheel chair, store her few belongings and even allow space for her antique side table that she had stored with a neighbour. So Clara, at one hundred and a half, decided to go for it!

My pal Char and I volunteered as her moving helpers, bringing her table, bubble-wrapped and taped to oblivion. It is really not that much to do when one moves a centenarian. At that age, the few that are still be around have managed to get rid of most superfluous stuff. (Though wheelchair-bound Clara still insists on keeping a pair of runners, in case…) The furniture, bedding, medicine and ‘vehicles’ of choice etc. is provided by the facility. The only personal items that the residents have are photos and a few decorative items.

Char and I were pushing Clara’s furniture around to find the optimal viewing angle between TV, wheel chair and comfy chair, without impeding too much on the shared space with her roommate. The latter was visibly excited about our visit, probably hadn’t not seen as much action for ages. The two ladies nodded in agreement from their respective wheelchairs as we held up artwork and family photos for approval.

Clara followed us to the elevator,  shuffling her slippered feet along. She thanked us again and again for the help, sending us off with her blessings. It should be me thanking her for the privilege of knowing her. Not because she has been given with a long life, but because she at soon 101 still entertains the ‘old’ people at her residence by playing psalms on the piano in the common room!

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Embracing Change

Two weeks ago I resigned from my job. I didn’t go to work that morning planning to quit, but that’s what happens in life – unexpected changes. The ‘why’ does not matter. What does matter is that I was not prepared for this.

Change is the one thing we can expect in life. It may be a comfort when we are going through hard times that ‘this too shall pass’. But likewise, as we enjoy a fabulous meal, fall in love or land a dream job – this too will change at one point. Everything is impermanent.

Most of us are not taught to prepare for the inevitable changes life brings; sickness, loss, moves, aging. The ultimate change, death, fills us with fear. Yet change, like death, is one of the only certainties in life, so we must learn to embrace it, whether we like it or not.

Being suddenly without job made me feel like I had jumped out of a plane without a parachute, not knowing where, how or if I would ever land. As days go by, I have come to accept that the latter might be true. I am still flying through unchartered air, but I am starting to find comfort in the process, embracing the possibilities and no longer worrying where or if I land. Free falling is the new me.

In times of difficult changes, I turn to Rumi, the wisest of them all. This Afghani poet put my feelings into word some one thousand years ago.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Rumi (1207-1273)

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