26 May 2015


I have developed the habit of reading the Psalms as a defense against bad sermons. 

Recently, I realized that I have not read the Psalms through in their entirety since I was a teen reading the King James Version of the bible for fun. Nearly 30 years have passed since then and I have a great deal more life and academic experience.

The psalms require my full attention, more than any other portion of the bible. This is largely because poetry and I don’t get along. Knowing that, I approached reading the psalms with the goal of slowing down and giving each one my full attention. I still have difficulty reading the psalm in one go, but I found that noting any words or phrases that leap out at me helped me go back an read with an eye toward seeing how that phrase plays out in the rest of the psalm. Much like the bible study I participated in in EFM years ago, where we were encouraged to read the assigned passage and then share what spoke to us on that particular day.

What leapt out at me from Psalm 1 was in the very first verse: 
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers; (RSV)
It was the single word: scoffers.

In the progression of the phrase as it appears in the RSV translation of the bible, the final weight lands on that one word and, by my reading, gives it more power than “wicked” or “sinners.” I wondered what a biblical “scoffer” would be. It seems like a fairly straightforward word, but it is translated as “scornful” in the Book of Common Prayer.
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful! (BCP, 1979)
After some poking around using the power of Google, I circled back around to Bible Gateway* and did a search for the word “scoff”; and there, in Proverbs was a definition of a scoffer: “[it] is the name of the proud, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride.” (Proverbs 21:24)

The modern definition is: “to speak to someone or about something in a scornfully derisive or mocking way.”

As a side note, I found it interesting that the English verb started out life as (likely) a Scandinavian noun (an object of ridicule) before transforming into a verb, something could be ‘a scoff.’

Nowadays we encounter the action of ‘scoffing’ on a daily basis. Particularly if one is active on the internet, some people make a hobby of being a scoffer. I spent some time thinking about modern manifestations of scoffing and decided that, for my own part, scoffing is mostly closely related to being snarky and is a more passive action than trolling.

From there I went and read the annotated version of the psalm from Robert Alter’s book “The Book of Psalms: a translation with commentary.” His translation puts the emphasis on the movement: “has not walked, nor…stood, nor…sat”. With each iteration of interaction with evil habits the movement slows, until the the scoffer is sitting, still and immovable, perhaps trapped in a habit of mocking others. But scoffing is portrayed as a passive action. One sits with scoffers and only comments on something if it passes nearby.

What happens if we reverse it: sit with the scoffers, stand with the sinners, walk with the wicked. Could one outrun the evil of these habits? Run with the righteous?

The Book of Proverbs mentions of ‘scoff’ 14 times and with each mention of the word it becomes clear that a scoffer is toxic. One verse even recommends shunning the scoffer: “Drive out a scoffer, and strife will go out, and quarreling and abuse will cease.” (Proverbs 22:10) However most verses restrict themselves to pointing out that correcting a scoffer will not teach them anything. It is one of the ways to tell a wise person from fool— a wise person accepts correction or seeks advice; one who scoffs is impervious to help or correction.

Is scoffing a form of armor? Or the sign of being an unhelpful know-it-all? When I put that question to myself, it is painful. I’m a recovering know-it-all. I’ve gotten as far as realizing that there is not only a lot that I do not know, but that most folks don’t need my advice as much as they need my mind to be open and my heart to be listening.

Being a know-it-all is a way to try to take control of the uncontrollable, to bring false order when chaos is all around.

This is very strongly illustrated in Job— as most of that book is the humans going on and on about who and what they think God is and how Job’s suffering is a manifestation of God’s Judgement. When God finally does reveal God’s-self to Job and his friends in the form of a whirlwind and after God speaks (for quite a long time) about the many things that Job does not know and would find unknowable; Job answers, humbled by God’s presence: “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job had debated with his friends about nature of God, about whether the prosperity or poverty of a person on earth was actually any guide to the righteousness or sinfulness of that person. His friends were trying to give him advice; he was trying to explain. But God comes in and says that God is bigger than all of that. All the arguing, know-it-all pronouncements, and claims of understanding about the mind of God are swept away in God’s presence. The friends who had been vehemently arguing that because Job had lost his children, his possessions, and health he must be abandoned by God are given the task of bringing offerings to Job, for Job to give to God. Job is given the power to pray for them and to intercede with God for them. God makes it clear that God is not happy with their pronouncements about God’s being and nature.

Job’s humility in the face of the awesome, wild, and terrible Presence allows him to be open and experience God.

His friends don’t argue with God that it wasn’t fair, that they were standing up for God. 

Even Job, who has been waiting for the opportunity to make his case to God is silenced by how much more God is than any of their arguments or disputations had covered. They all talked about God in relation to their own selves, not about God’s whole creation.

They all do what God tells them and God accepts Job’s prayer.

In what I read of Job, God doesn’t take sides in the argument the humans are having. God spends God’s time with them by sharing how unknowable the mind of God is. God arrives in a whirlwind, upsets everyone’s understanding of God, and departs without fanfare.

If I think of scoffing as a form of armor that I use to protect myself from the chaos and abuse that life throws at me, as a way preemptively protecting myself or by lording my (probably not very) superior knowledge of a subject over others, I see that, not only does that behavior drive others away, it keeps me from experiencing God in God’s fullness and wildness.

Armor not only protects, it cuts one off from contact with other people. Touch can’t be felt, the senses are confused by helmets that cut off vision, surround one with one’s own scent and muffle one’s voice.

If I set aside my need to be in control, if I acknowledge that the universe is big and wild, if I look for ways to be present with others where they are, and not where I need them to be; then I don’t need to scoff.

I can embrace.


*If you have not used Bible Gateway it is an excellent resource for wandering through the bible and exploring many translations.

This essay was originally published on The Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 26 May 2015.

Resources used:

Alter, R. (2007). The book of Psalms: A translation with commentary (pp. 3-4). New York: W.W. Norton.

Bible Gateway (all quotes in this essay are from the RSV translation)

21 May 2015

Facing Mortality: Death and Taxes

My housemate's mother passed away in July 2014 and my housemate is acting as the estate's personal representative. This post is inspired by her experience.

So my housemate went to do her taxes this April and discovered too late that she had mis-understood some of the instructions about dealing with her mom's estate and paying the taxes. Here are the key things she learned at the last minute that never would have occurred to me:

  • Even if probate has not been closed, the personal representative must give a report to the beneficiaries so they can include that information in their taxes. The important point is that if an estate/probate is open across the end of a year, there are still tax reporting requirements and they may have an earlier deadline (like Jan 30th). 
  • The form for reporting the decedent's taxes has a number very similar to the usual 1040 (I think she said it is a 1041). It can be very easy to mis-read that in the information the IRS sends you and think that you will be dealing with a very similar/standard form that most tax paying adults are used to. However, it is apparently very different and not something to attempt on April 14th. 
  • Even if the person did not leave a large estate you want to make sure all of the tax forms get filled out on time and get to the heirs on schedule. See above, deadlines may come earlier in the year than you are used to. 
Per my housemate: learn from her and if you ever have to act as a personal representative do not put off finding out what the tax reporting requirements are-- there maybe deadlines that are much earlier than the normal April 15th that we (in the US) are all used to.

20 May 2015

Facing Mortality: Get those documents in order

My housemate's mother passed away in July 2014 and my housemate is acting as the estate's personal representative. This post is inspired by her experience.

Four (mostly) simple things you can do help organize your paperwork for estate planning/ other emergencies:

1. Make a Will: Find an attorney who specializes in estate planning for your county (or at least state). If you don't have experience with attorneys or law-firms, don't be intimidated. They (for the most part) want to help you find someone who is a good fit (both in terms of what you can afford to spend and what their expertise is). Call around, just like you would for any other professional and ask for referrals from friends. Find out in advance what they charge and be up front about your own budget. Don't put this off-- it may take several calls to find the person who is right for you. 

If you cannot afford an attorney, check with your local bar association and see if there are any pro-bono services available. If English is not your first language, evaluate your situation/fluency and consider hiring a bilingual attorney.

Making a will may take only one or two visits. The first to talk through what you want and the second to review the papers and sign them.

You can make a simple will without the use of an attorney; however, while it seems simpler up front, it might be letting your heirs and personal representatives in for headaches down the road.

The reason to go to an up-to-date attorney is the same reason you take your car in for regular maintenance and oil changes-- to prevent problems down the line. If you do make your own will, research the rules for your local area, try visiting some pro-bono law clinics, see if there are any standard forms that you can use or if there are particular rules you need to follow.

Ask the attorney what they need from you to make your will. You will likely need: 
  • Basic biographical information about you (and your spouse/children if you have them). 
  • A list of any real property you own (real property is usually things like cars and homes). 
  • Possibly a list of bank accounts or basic banking information. 
  • Two people who are willing to be your personal representatives--a primary and a backup, in case something happens to the primary after/at the same time as you die. 
  • If you have pets, the name(s) of the people who will be inheriting them. 
  • If you have minor children, the name(s) of the people who will become their legal guardians. 
2. Contact the people who you would like to have take on the major responsibilities for you once you die. If you do not have pets or children, you likely need just 2 folks (your main personal representative and a back up).

If you have pets, ask a friend or family member to be willing to 'inherit' them and put that information in your will. Note, if you have the resources to give your pet's new family a monetary bequest for future expenses that is something to consider. Follow your lawyer’s advice on this. Note that if you have children the pets and children will likely want to stay together so things could get complicated. These are all good scenarios to run by your lawyer.

If you have minor children, ask someone to be willing to step in as their guardian if something should happen to you. Don't depend on having your spouse outlive you, have a backup.

3. Follow through: Get the will drawn up and tell your personal representatives where it is being kept. If possible show them where you are going to keep it. 

Note: do not store your will in a safe deposit box at the bank.  Your personal representative won't be able to get to unless they are signers on the account as well. In some county courts you can place a copy on file with the court for a fee-- ask your attorney for advice on will storage.

4. Gather the following information and put it with your will:
  • A copy of your address book with notes about how these people know you (or at least calling out the names of people that you really want to make sure find out you have passed away before they read about it in the newspaper). 
  • The title deed for your car (you know you aren't supposed to be keeping that in the glovebox-- right?) 
  • Any living wills / organ donation information / powers of attorney / or other legal documents that might go into effect under certain conditions. 
  • A basic list of your major assets. Major assets include: house, car, bank, accounts, savings bonds, insurance polices, and etc... 
  • Your funeral plans. If you have prepaid for a service and burial it is important for your personal representative to know that. Likewise, if you have strong preference for a certain type of service be clear about it. Note: your personal representative will be limited in what they can do, if you do not pre-plan things. If you want an elaborate funeral with all the trimmings, start saving now-- the cost of it will come out of the estate, but only if the money is available. You can start simple with this and add to it over time. 
If you are feeling really motivated:
  • A list of all personal property valued over $100 (or ask your attorney what the inventory rules are for your local area and follow that). Anything from appliances to wedding rings can be listed. If you have receipts or appraisals for these items put them somewhere safe and note where they are (this is the kind of paperwork that might go in a safe deposit box). 
  • A list of your computer passwords for social media / email / electronic accounts / your primary computing devices. Note: don't keep the passwords and account names on your computer or in the cloud. This is a good time for paper and pencil (pencil so you can update it as you change your passwords). 
If you are feeling daunted by all this, break it up in to small steps-- but do the will part as soon as possible. It is really easy for days to turn into months to turn into years.

If you need a motive for doing the Gathering of the Paperwork that isn't your own death (because, lets face it, who wants to think about their own death more than necessary?) think of it as preparing for an emergency. If you give a copy of your address book to a friend, or out of state family member, they can be your phone tree if something major happens in your area and communications are cut-off or restricted. You only have to make one call/ text/ email and your point of contact can let all of your friends and family know you are okay. If, at the same time, you make an additional copy and stick it with your will then you are ahead of the game. Put a date in your calender and update this information once a year.

Same goes for a personal property inventory. The first time you do it it might take a while (and it might be worth doing just one room at a time), but if you limit yourself to only things valued at $100.00 or more and further limit it by things you are planning to keep long term, it will be a much shorter list than All of the Things You Currently Own and much more manageable. Then, once a year, get it it out and update it. Making this list will save your personal representative time and aggravation and, if non-death disaster strikes, your insurance company with have something to work from. To top it off, if you make the list, rather than leaving it to your personal representative, then you will have an opportunity to jot down notes about who should get first dibs on certain of your belongings-- guidance that your personal representative will be grateful for.

If you are feeling really ambitious try the system developed by Erik Dewey. His Big Book of Everything is free and he started the project after having to sort through his father's papers after his father died unexpected at age 65.

In summary: if you don't have a will-- get one done in the next 2 months. If you've had a will for a while consider having it reviewed and updated-- especially if major circumstances have changed (minor children now adults, a move, a divorce, etc...). 

Once your will is up to date, set aside a little time each month in the coming year to round up your essential personal papers. If you can afford a small, fireproof safe that can be a good central location for documents you need to keep at the house. Start a filing system and start filling in the blanks-- by this time next year you will be in maintenance mode.

There is a lot of information out on the internet that can help you if you get stuck or have questions-- just make sure that you get actual legal advice from lawyers versed in estate law for your area.

Time line/ checklist (for those who need a plan):
  • First business day after reading this: Call the people who you would like to have be personal representatives / guardians of minor children / inheritors of pets (your estate team) and ask them if they are willing to take on the job if needed. The first people you ask may not be the ones you end up with-- this is why you ask before putting them in your will. 
  • Once you have your people, find your law firm / attorney. Try to do this within a week of talking to your estate team. 
  • End of the first month: have scheduled an appointment with your chosen firm. Follow their instructions and gather up the information and permissions you need for your will. 
  • End of the second month: have your will signed and done. While the attorney is working toward that, spend some time on gathering your supporting documents, chatting with your estate team, and answering any questions your attorney has. 
Once your will is signed, find a safe place to keep it, tell your personal representative, and sit back in the knowledge of a job well (mostly) done.

19 May 2015

Facing Mortality: Reasons to have a will (that you may not have thought of)

My housemate's mother passed away in July 2014 and my housemate is acting as the estate's personal representative. This post is inspired by her experience.

Having a will means you've found someone to be your personal representative after death; and, having found that person before death the two of you can talk about all kinds of things that might not make it into an official will. 

You have a support person:
  • For example, my mom emails me service ideas for her funeral and has done for many years now. Mostly she sends me 'What Not To" items. 
  • For example, my housemate's mom talked to her about which thrift shops she wanted clothes and household items to go to and why it was important to her.
If you don't set this up before you die:
  • For example: if you don't name a personal representative, then that person is decided by statute-- and may not be the person most fit: physically, mentally, or emotionally. 
  • For example: without a named representative it can take much longer for someone to get the mail from your PO Box (even if they can't find the key), get access to your house, and donate/ distribute food before it goes bad. 
Especially if you live alone and your family is far from you (physically or emotionally) having a will means having a chance to get a trusted local friend to be your personal representative.

18 May 2015

Facing Mortality: Roles to fill

My housemate's mother passed away in July 2014 and my housemate is acting as the estate's personal representative. This post is inspired by her experience.

One of the steps in making a will is sounding out the folks you want to have roles in your estate plan:

The (possible) roles:
  • personal representative: (aka the executor of your estate) who has primary legal power and responsibility to wind up your affairs and transfer your assets to your heirs 
  • heirs: folks who would receive goods or money from your estate. In most cases you don't need to ask in advance if someone wants to be your beneficiary; however, if you have pets it is good manners to ask if someone wants to be the heirs of your pets and take responsibility for them. 
  • funeral/ wake/ memorial planner: This is not information that would go in your will as such, but most estate planning binders have a section for your funeral plans and if you have a friend / religious organizations/ prepaid funeral who can do this job, it would be one less thing your personal representative would have to manage. 
  • guardian of minor children: if not the same person as your personal representative. Note that even if you have a spouse, you need a backup guardian. 
It can save time if you find candidates for these roles before you start working with an attorney. On the flip side, any good attorney you consult with should be able to give you a list of what you will need to bring to your appointment in order for them to draft the will. In some cases, one person will take on all of the roles listed above. 

Always ask before giving someone a role in your estate. It is a heavy load on top of their every-day life and their grief on losing you (think of it like asking someone to take on a part-time job on top of their usual responsibilities). Look for someone who finds the idea of helping you and your loved ones as a gift they can give you and not an onerous duty to take on. Closing out your estate properly can be a way to allow them to say goodbye in love and service.

17 May 2015

Facing Mortality: What to look for in a personal representative

My housemate's mother passed away in July 2014 and my housemate is acting as the estate's personal representative. This post is inspired by her experience.

Things to look for in a personal representative:
  • Trustworthy-- you are giving them full control over your estate. 
  • Practical-- they should be good at following up on deadlines and dealing with the basics of life like paying bills. 
  • Detail oriented/ organized: they will be keeping up with their household responsibilities and yours for an uncertain amount of time (particularly if you own your home). 
  • Physically and emotionally capable (or with good support systems of their own). 
  • Lives near you (preferably less than an hour away). 
Note that none of these is "related to you". If you have a relation who can be this person, Huzzah! However, don't feel bad/guilty about recruiting a friend instead (but tell your family once you do so it is not a surprise). 

Think of it this way-- your personal representative is going to be going though your underwear drawer and likely learning a lot more about you than you can imagine. Pick someone you trust-- not someone who you think it is your duty to pick.

16 May 2015

Facing Mortality

My housemate's mother passed away in July 2014 and my housemate is acting as the estate's personal representative. This post is inspired by her experience.

Okay, I know almost no one who likes thinking about their own mortality, but for the love of pete (and your executor/loved ones) take the time and make plans now, while you are healthy and of sound mind. You don't need anything complicated (especially if you don't have a lot of assets). 

I'm not a lawyer and I don't even play one on TV, but based on watching other people go through this in my lifetime, her are some basic ideas to allow your grieving loved ones to grieve your loss without adding to their stress.

This is a time to remember that you may be the sole point of contact for several networks of friends, family, loved ones, professionals, government entities, and organizations. You are the only only person who makes this network work, once you are gone, a bewildered person is going to have to take up the reins of your life at least long enough to bring it gently to a halt and not have everything come crashing down around them.

1. Make a will. Regardless who draws it up make sure that it is clear and to the point and that you understand what you are legally asking your executor to do. Have an executor and an backup executor and make sure that they know about each other and consent to doing this for you. If you have children or pets make sure that your will is clear about who will be their guardians in your place. Get consent from those people before writing them into your will.

Your executor and backup should know where your Will and other important paper work is kept. If you change your organizational system, then tell them (or better show them so they can picture it if they need to). 

Do not put your will in a safe deposit box at a bank-- if your executor is not a signer on the account they will not be able to access it in a timely manner (much like "open box with enclosed crowbar").

2. Keep the following with your Will (and update it yearly-- most of this could go in a binder):
  • any power of attorney/advance medical directives 
  • how you want your remains disposed of (including details if you have a specific donation program arranged) 
  • a list of insurance polices, if any (you may have a bunch of incidental polices through credit unions, work, or even credit cards-- they may not pay out, but if you signed up for them keep a list) 
  • a copy/printout of your address book (if you are feeling particularly generous you could annotate it with clues for your executor as to how you know people) 
  • a list of the banks and credit companies that you have accounts with 
  • a list that describes where the title deeds to things like cars mobile homes RV's, or other assets are kept 
  • a copy of your safe deposit box key (or a note where to find it and which bank it is at) 
  • a list of major assets and identifying information (car, IRA's, house, pensions, etc.) 
  • a list of personal property that you want to go to specific people (most wills have a clause that refers to such a document). 
  • a list of agencies you regularly interact with & account numbers (Social Security, Medicare, any federal, state, local, or community organizations that either support you or that you support) 
  • a list of your recurring monthly/quarterly/annual bills with account numbers and contact info (house payment, utility bills, property tax) 
  • a list of your email, and social media accounts 
3. Review the contents of a safe deposit box annually (if you have one). 

Side note: If you have very specific body donation requests, that all needs to be arranged in advance with the program you hope to donate to. If they need proof a particular diagnosis for your body to be useful in their study-- lining that up now and making sure the person with your medical power of attorney knows the details will make it much more likely you can benefit science in the way you want.

Even if you are an organ donor, it is good to make sure that the loved ones/family who would likely be charge at your death know your wishes. Giving people time to get used to the idea makes it more likely your intentions will be honored-- especially given that there is a very short time window after death for plans to be confirmed and carried out.

The upside to all of this is that if you go through the steps of getting organized all you have to do is update it once a year and cull old/outdated information and if you have some other type of crisis (that doesn't result in you dying) you will be able to quickly lay your hands on important documents in an emergency.

Quick test: If you own a car, can you find the title in under 5 minutes?  

Now imagine your stressed out loved one trying to find it in amongst all of your other things.

Organize your paperwork and document your wishes and then put it aside and live your life.

15 May 2015

Lost Year

15 May 2015

This time last year, I was exited about costuming and having a whole year to work on things for the next Norwescon.  My family and I were also in the midst of finishing our new kitchen and preparing our house for our housemate (and my CPiC*)’s mother.  She was coming to stay with us to have surgery and it was our plan that she would stay with us for several months as she recuperated from a major operation.  It was all of our hope that he operation would result in a long-term improvement in her quality of life.

The night before she went into surgery, she and I talked. It would be the last time I would see her.

At first the surgery and recovery seemed to be going well; however, it soon became apparent that she wasn’t recovering.  Not long after that it was clear it was only a matter of time before she died.

Our housemate sat vigil by her mother throughout.  I baked as a way to cope and sent the results to the hospital for the family.

Since then our household has been through a lot.  CPiC has been dealing with being her mother’s personal representive, my husband has had both work and health stress, and in January I came down with a mystery illness.

Needless to say, last year’s idea of documenting my costuming adventures in this space did not come to fruition. 

What I did manage to do over the past year is experience, at close range, what it like to be the personal representative for a small estate and talking about that on Facebook.  It recently occurred to me that this information might be more useful (and findable) on this blog— so in the next few days I’ll be updating this blog with those posts.

*CPiC = Costuming Partner-in-crime