Risa's Pieces

Risa Denenberg

Risa Denenberg
Seattle, Washington, USA
February 25
Smart Girls Ink
I also blog about end-of-life issues at http://risaden.blogspot.com/


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AUGUST 26, 2010 1:51PM

Closing Up Shop

Rate: 31 Flag




 I've been thinking for some time now about getting rid of stuff. Mostly just thinking about it. I disposed of quite a lot of furniture, books, and sundry duplicate items when I sold my home in Pennsylvania and moved to Seattle. But I carried a truckload--literally--of possessions cross-country, and now two years down the road, I have begun to re-acquire "things", especially books, which now line a whole wall in my living room. And this, despite living in a city with the world's finest libraries.

My niece, who spent a Junior semester abroad in Bolivia and Peru, told me that the people she met during her months there didn't have or use forks. "Everyone has a bowl and a spoon. That's about it. You don't need a fork, really. Forks are kind of pretentious. The people there are just not materialistic," she explained. I'm guessing there is a bit more to the story, but the idealization of living contentedly from spoon to mouth is a lovely one, to my imagination anyway. 

There are two reasons for my concern with my own accumulation of things, although they do merge at a future point. First is the rational goal of simplifying my life. Having less possessions, wanting less, living a smaller life, being happy with less, eschewing acquisitiveness, spending less, preparing for a less "thing-filled" aging. Learning to live with less income is an imperative that is no longer lurking around the corner, but has come in the door to greet me. After all, I don't have the job security that I once took for granted. 

Preparing for a simpler life leads quite naturally to the impending task of preparing for my death. For many of us at death, possessions float into a world of limbo. Even the most meticulous of planners likely leave many possessions without a plan for their disposition. The piles of bills and bank statements. The duplicate herbs and spices. The broken TV set. In my case, a large file drawer of handwritten journals. I would like to relieve my son and others who may have to help him with the task of closing down my home after my death,  the emotionally draining burden of going through my stuff and deciding what to do with it.
I have closed shop--so to speak--twice in my life. I've helped with this task many times, but on two occasions it fell entirely to me to close down an apartment and decide how to deal with another person's possessions. One, my best friend, the other, my mother.  Both experiences were harrowing, each in its own way. 

Jon lived in the East Village, NYC, and died of complications of AIDS in the summer of 1993. Although he had given explicit instructions outlining his political will regarding his death (please see Jon Greenberg's funeral procession at  ACTUP NY's site on Political Funerals), he left no legal will, no advance directive, nothing to guide me in the protean after-death tasks other than an unspoken but clear understanding that I would take care of the details. In his last days in the hospital, he wrote checks to pay his bills, put them in stamped envelops, and asked me to mail them. I did so reluctantly, aware that I would need any funds he still had to help with cremation expenses and to hold on to his apartment for at least another month so that I could close it properly.  

On the day after his memorial event in Thompkins Square Park, I invited his parents into his apartment to talk and share our grief. In the short version, his mother accused me of 'stealing' her rightful experience, and his father appraised his stereo speakers. Only years later have I begun to soften my feelings towards them and their private grief. Meanwhile, I had open house for two weeks, letting friends come and take what they would. I never relinquished his journals, which I was unable to read until several years later--the grief was too close. Jon came to NYC as a young gay man in 1978 and journaled about his emotional and spiritual life from 1978 to a few months before his death in 1993. I continue to struggle with these journals, and my efforts to publish a series of poems that I wrote as a result of having to handle and hold this burning treasure. 

My mother's apartment was a mess at the time of her death at age 82. Thankfully, she was able to stay in her own home until the end, and we had months of really good time together as her illness progressed, but the usual well organized person she had always been dwindled over months or years so that after she was gone it was impossible to figure out what papers were important and which were decades-old bills and bank statements. It was a jumble. It was an emotional train wreck to go through, finding surprises, evidence of my own existence that startled or embarrassed me, evidence of her life that I knew nothing about. My brother was only minimally and peripherally helpful in the task and at the end, I had to pay someone a handsome sum to cart the detritus away, feeling guilty, spent, and confused. 

Even the death of my sweet companion Jezebel-the-cat has left me alone with her possessions, a cupboard full of kitty treats and canned Fancy Feasts, two carry-ons (one in pink-and-green stripes), and other cat paraphernalia.  I should take it to a shelter, and will some day, but don't have the heart to yet. 

As for me, I am preparing to pare down, wade through, and as consciously as possible, trim the sails. Before I die.





Here is a practical and informative blog about cleaning out a house after a death.



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I need to do this as well. Well put Risa.
Wow - Risa, there is so much to this post. I breifly looked at Jon's journal site and the "political funderal" site and the "cleaning out a house" site. Everytime I go visit my mother (who at 81 is well but going blind) we clean out another closet or another file cabinet.
Just an FYI I made quite a bit of money a few years ago selling books (particularly non-fiction) on amazon.Com.
This is beautiful. Thank you. This, especially, got to me:

"It was an emotional train wreck to go through, finding surprises, evidence of my own existence that startled or embarrassed me, evidence of her life that I knew nothing about."

I can only imagine.

With no children, I need to think this way more consciously. I don't want anyone to resent me when I'm gone because I left too much stuff.
Also, I'm so sorry about Jezebel. I remember a post that you wrote about her being sick, but apparently I missed your subsequent posts.
It's good to see you, Risa...love and love...xox
I completely agree and am actively pairing down. R
Getting rid of things is cathartic, and can clear the mind. I've done it. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long to accumulate again. Preparing for death is something I'm not ready for.
I glanced at this when you first posted it a couple of hours ago and felt unable to read it. I am back and as I suspected, it is beautifully written almost achingly so. I am afraid of death and cannot seem to "prepare" myself in such a way. This summer I did what I set out to do: clean out the closet I wrote about months ago. I have given a lot away and thrown out a lot of stuff. I feel lighter and have more space. But to think about death~ I don't have your courage.~r
It is good to clean out the closets, to pare down. Beautifully written. Good to hand on to Jezebel's things, though, until the time is right.
This is wonderful writing. I did this for my own mother, and it convinced me that I don't want anything around me that I don't absolutely love (or anyone, for that matter).
Risa~ this is so clearly and unsentimentally stating what has entered my peripheral vision in a quite natural way. I think as we get older we should want to shed, as part of a natural cycle. I do not (yet) have your "job qualifications" for taking care of loved one's things, other my cats and my memories: and what to do with archived mementos?
"First is the rational goal of simplifying my life. Having less possessions, wanting less, living a smaller life, being happy with less, eschewing acquisitiveness, spending less, preparing for a less "thing-filled" aging."
Yes, this is the path I have found myself on, after a lifetime of acquiring. My problem is, my acquisitions are almost all fraught with meaning. Letting go--so hard, and yet so freeing. (r)
I think talk of your death is premature, but I agree that we have an obligation to lighten our load for many reasons. Good to see you posting again!
fine writing, thanks
Wonderful post. As I look around and see all of the stuff I own - the clothes I don't wear and the books I haven't read and will never read -I do recognize the importance of paring down, in preparation for the end of life. Thank you for your directness and honesty.
I've been paring down over the past 10 years, and I find it easier and easier over time to 1) get rid of stuff and 2) not accumulate more stuff. It's a good process. It makes you lighter in so many ways.
Very Nice written post.thank you for sharing this great information.keep it up riza goodluck.
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Very well said, Risa. I hate clearing house after someone dies. It's so complicated.
Another one of your close to the bone, but beautiful posts.

I've been thinking about this a lot myself lately. Not preparing for death, but preparing for a middle age doing something I love that probably won't make much money. I once interviewed my favorite writer, Grace Paley, and asked her advice for young writers. "Keep a low overhead and never live with anyone who doesn't respect what you do." Those words come back to me again and again. I'm increasingly convinced that cultivating a simple life free of unecessary stuff, and the materialistic people who tend to come with the accumulation of unecessary stuff, is the core of a satisfying creative live.

So, hopefully, you're preparing for some kind of birth as well.
i love this. this is very much on my mind at all times. i too have closed up shop for others, and one of the gifts i want to give my daughter is to leave her with a clean house to deal with. not that i am in a great hurry.
This is exquisite. And we will all have to pare down in the coming years, voluntarily or not.
i've been "cleaning out" too, but for reasons i'm not aware of.

i fill bags and boxes with the stuff i want to rid myself of, invite various friends/neighbors to go thru, then whats left, i donate.

i want life to be more about people and less about things. things do absolutely nothing for me.

this was a wonderful blog....i know what its like to have to sift thru a departed loved one's stuff....not easy. rated with understanding.
Risa - I related so strongly to everything you wrote. My own mother passed away 8 years ago and left behind an apartment that was dusty and disheveled.....filled with a lot of "stuff" that my husband and I had to clean up. She was 79 when she passed and we were very close. She had had some minor strokes and was developing Alzheimers, which I'm sure contributed to the mess, but emotionally it was devastating. I too hired someone to cart most of it away and kept what was sentimental (jewelry, photo albums, etc.). I too sifted through years of memories of my childhood but, in my case, there were no secrets....I pretty much knew about her life. My sister was minimally involved in it all. What it left me with was a strong desire (which I am beginning to implement) to clear my entire house of all irrelevant paperwork, books, clothes, memorabilia. It's an emotionally charged process - very symbolic - and I have been putting off this "purge" for years.........because when I do this, it means death is just that much closer, even though I am still relatively young. I do not want to burden my children with what I went through and so I must do it. The process of simplfying, throwing out or giving stuff away, can be emotionally cleansing, but also fraught with the idea of death. I am pushing forward anyway, but the connection between paring down to only the essentials and mortality is very real. I hope, when I am done, that I will feel somehow "lighter" and can move on with my life feeling freer. I have a feeling I will. Thank you for such an eloquent post.
I think about a lot of stuff. I'd like to get rid of that stuff... but some of it is quite delightful... the stuff thoughts. Is it more important to rid oneself of the stuff or the thoughts about the stuff? Once the stuff thoughts are purged does getting rid of the stuff follow naturally like the withering of the umbilicus?