30 July 2015

Facing Mortality: one year later

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.

It has been a full year since my housemate's mother died. 

The tide of her mail, bills, and boxes of personal papers and artwork has receded. It now takes up a small corner of the den instead of two banquet tables and my housemate has made progress on cleaning out her mother's house but there is still work to be done. 

Things that have been helpful to her: 
  • Having a space at our house where she could keep an 'office' of her mother's paperwork. In the beginning there were a lot of different things to keep up on like medical billings, insurance, setting up an estate bank account, and having a place to put the mail as it came in. We ended up with two large plastic bins for junk mail, catalogs, and subscriptions-- since dealing with them wasn't time sensitive and a smaller inbox for bank statements, medical bills, and other potentially important and time critical mail. The nice thing about being able to use our den for this during the first year, was that my housemate could close the door and walk away. It wasn't piled up in her bedroom. 
  • Having me process junk mail in batches, including an hour spent on the phone telling catalog sales people to take her mother's name, and our address, off of their mailing list. Once I realized that telling folks straight up that the person they were trying to sell to had died, I found that they were all quick to take care of matters. One woman went so far as to offer to look up the name in other databases she had access to and she saved me 3 more phone calls as a result. It made me sad to have to repeat the same information over and over, but not nearly as sad as my housemate might have felt. 
  • Making a database of addresses from the collection of papers, cards, and old address books that we found during while looking for official paperwork like wills and car title. 
  • Being lucky enough that her mom's house was paid for. This allowed her to use it as a base of operations and only bring essential paperwork over to our house. It also has meant that she could take her time going through her mother's things at a pace that worked for her. It would have been much more stressful if she had had to go through things quickly. 
  • Hiring a lawyer who specialized in estate work to help her with the legal process of filing the correct forms with the county courthouse. The house is in another county from where we live and is a two-hour drive so having someone local was very helpful. It also didn't cost that much and everything was included in one upfront fee. 
  • Having weekend-long family work-parties at the house. There was an overwhelming amount of things to sort through and having a passel of folks there, that my housemate trusted got some big jobs done. My housemate's mother had been operating in survival mode for several years before she died (one of the many reasons she opted for the risks of surgery) so in addition to dealing with the belongings of a normal household, there were layers of projects that had been to be abandoned due to lack of energy that needed careful sorting through. One of the ways she coped with low energy was to have caches of items she would need near where she would use them. Things people helped with:
    • Sorting tools in to broken, duplicates, and usable categories 
    • Rounding up caches of costume jewelry and putting sets back together 
    • Sorting, washing and packing clothes for donation Sorting perishable and non-perishable food and taking it to the local food bank along with unused personal products like soap and shampoo
    • Cleaning out the potting shed and re-organizing it 
    • Finding the stashes of yard tools and consolidating them 
    • Gathering up office and art supplies and sorting them (many will be going to a local school)
    • Dump runs and runs to the recycling center 
    • Rounding up potentially hazardous materials and prepping them to go to the county haz-mat facility 
    • Cleaning out the extra freezers and refrigerators on the property 
    • Leafing through books before sorting and packing them for distribution to family, friends, and local thrift stores. 
    • Assessing and make some minor repairs to fixtures in the house 
Even with all the time spent on the estate so far, there is still a fair amount to do. Including following through with what we have learned and making sure our own estates are in order. One good thing that came out of this is the awareness of the complexity of dealing with even a simple estate and the steps we can all take to make life easier for those we leave behind.

21 July 2015

Failing at Faith

In the gospel of Matthew 14: 22-32, the miracle is not that Jesus walks on water, but that Peter even tries.
If you have ever learned an instrument, ridden a bicycle, or learned any new physical skill, you will remember that, as you learned, it was difficult to sustain a newly acquired ability.

You might have a moment where you disappear into the action and everything is working smoothly. Then you think about what you are doing and mangle the music, or fall off the bike. A brief loss of focus and the competence vanishes and is replaced by a feeling of frustration that you will never master the skill.

So it is with faith, Peter steps out of the boat, experiences a brief moment of competence and belief that he can do the impossible, he can participate in the miracle. He, for just a moment, gives his whole being to the enterprise and walks upon the water.

However, Peter, like all of us, is only human and sustaining that level of devotion and focus is beyond him.
That said, the fact that he tried is the true miracle. He not only steps out onto the water, but asks Jesus to make his walking on the water a command. Peter opened himself fully to the idea that all things might be possible if Jesus asked it of him.

Then the wind comes up, he is distracted and falls into the water. The small, intimate bubble of quiet that had seemed to hold just Peter and Jesus is broken into by the elements that fishermen know to fear. In a heartbeat, Peter goes from trusting disciple to fearful waterman. The connection between student and teacher is not enough to keep Peter walking on top of the water.

However, when he falls, he only loses faith that he could emulate Jesus, he doesn't lose faith that Jesus can save him from the depths. He goes from the high of 'I can do this myself!' to the low of 'Please catch me!' that is a universal human experience shared by anyone who who has wobbled down the street on a bicycle or played their first flawless scale on a guitar.

But just because I fall off my bike, does not mean that my teachers have forgotten how to ride. I may lose faith in my ability to perform a new skill; however, if my teacher is wise and patient, they will reach out to me and help me try again until I can master the elation of momentary success and turn it into a persistent skill.

Jesus may be frustrated that Peter fell, but he still reaches out his hands and pulls Peter back into the boat fully justifying Peter's faith in him as a teacher.

The best teachers will let us fail, without letting us fall.

How else can we learn to have faith?


This piece was originally published on July 20, 2015 in Speaking to the Soul.

20 July 2015

Mother / Daughter Bonding

My mother spent 30 years attending the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (with one convention off in 1996). Her first convention was in 1982 as a lay deputy. I was a rising junior in High School and would turn 17 later that year. My brothers were 12 and 8 respectively.

Her last convention as a deputy was the 77th General Convention in 2012, by then she had been an ordained priest for 16 years.

That was a busy year for both of us. She went to convention that summer and then she joined my 13 year-old-son and me on a trip to France in the fall-- a first for all three of us. It was also the first time she was sure in herself that she would not be returning as a deputy to convention. After three decades of service, she had reached the end of that particular ministry.

My understanding of the church has always been intertwined with my relationship with my mom. When I was a child, she was active in the local church. By the time I left for college she was serving in the national church and traveling around the world as a part of her "church-job" (a job for which she was unpaid). As my college career was winding down, her's was gearing up-- she and my middle brother were both in college at the same time in the 1990's.  I still remember the moment she called me having just completed her first college paper since the 1960's-- she said it was the first time she'd had the luxury of being able to stay up and complete a train of thought since she had had children (something I took to heart when my husband and I were making the decision to have a child of our own).

In 1996, she was ordained to the priesthood. My husband and I sang at her ordination and I could barely make it through the verses, my heart was so full of pride and joy.

As she lived fully into her new role as a priest, I started to struggle with my relationship to my local congregation. My issues with the facts of life in a small church, plus my own medical concerns (insomnia is not compatible with a 10am service attendance), led me to have only a tangental relationship with weekly worship. Through it all, I retained my connection to the greater church. I gave money to Episcopal Relief and Development in lieu of a local congregation after my first Seattle-area church went under. I followed the national church news through developing on-line media. I named my blog Ceramic Episcopalian, because, while I might not be going to church on a weekly basis, I thought about God and my relationship to my faith on a daily basis. Many of those thoughts found their way onto my blog in the form of personal essays.

For a while I settled on the idea that I was a tribal episcopalian-- raised in the faith, but no longer living it. That all changed on the 1st of July.

I had been watching the live-stream of the 78th General Convention, in part because I had been obsessively following SCOTUSBlog as they live-blogged the release of the court's opinions on right to marry and on the outcome of the suit against the Affordable Care Act. It was an easy jump from there to follow the #GC78 twitter hashtag and thence to waiting and watching as the House of Deputies confirmed the selection of Bishop Curry as presiding bishop elect.

We were in the midst of a rare June heatwave in the Pacfic Northwest and temperatures in the 90's kept me inside, desperately trying to conserve the dose of cool air we got at night when we threw the windows wide and turned the fans on high.

Mom and I started swapping notes through Facebook about what we were seeing in the twitter and live-stream feeds.

Then on Wednesday, July 1st, my mom had to run into Portland with my dad for their usual town appointments-- which meant she was cut off from the live-stream for most of the day. So I took it upon myself to send her regular updates.

It was a very interesting day to watch the House of Deputies (HoD) as they worked their way through some of the major resolutions on the future structure of the church and then later in afternoon they tackled the marriage resolutions. That is when I started seeing the phrase 'don't let perfect be the enemy of good' pop up on both Twitter and on the floor of the HoD. 

Throughout their discussions and debates I continued to summarize what was going on for my mom. When she had time, she would comment on what I was seeing. For the first time, I could see the work she had done for the past 30 years. Even though she was not a Deputy to this convention, she was up on all of the resolutions and could frequently identify them by number right away (I kept having to refer to the electronic blue book).

It was amazing and delightful.

I found that the increased attention needed to report things to my mom, rewarded me with a greater understanding of what the Deputies were talking about. At the end of the day, I was exhausted and all I had done was sit on my comfy couch to hide from the heat outdoors and pay attention to what folks in my church were saying. I can't imagine how wrung out the Deputies themselves felt after starting their day at 7:30 am committee meetings and ending a long legislative day after 9:00 pm with more committee meetings.

That said, I came away with a rich appreciation for the history and tradition of my church and of the power of 800 plus people meeting in the same room to pray together, follow parliamentary procedure together, and put their best selves forward for the good of the order and the life of the church.

I have never been so proud to be an Episcopalian and, from now on, I will drop the 'tribal' from my description of myself in relation to the faith I was raised in. I found myself explaining the inner workings of Episcopal governance to my friends (most of whom are atheist/ spiritual/ taoist/ seeker or ex-Christians). The only person explaining more complicated arcane topics in my life was my husband when he talked about his latest bridge hands.

My mom tells the story of how I was the reason she returned to the church. I don't know all the details, but like many college students and young marrieds, she slipped away from regular attendance at church. Then, about 2 years after I was born, she decided she should look into getting me 'done' (baptized). She returned to the Episcopal church she had been raised in and in the process of taking care of my spiritual needs, found her own path.

That path continues to this day. She has 'retired' from General Convention but is still very active in her local congregation and in the online presence of the church. She coordinates the local church newsletter and helps out with the Episcopal Cafe. She is an evangelist for the church's strong digital media footprint in the world and she puts her time where her passion lies. Seeing her live into her faith, even as her role in the church continues to evolve and change is an inspiration to me.

And learning, through the power of digital media, how hard she and thousands of unpaid Deputies have worked through the years to guide the national church, to try and understand our role in the world, and to come together every three years to live out our witness as a people of faith makes me proud to be an Episcopalian.

I may have spoken too soon when I said I would leave the word 'tribal' behind, because, through watching my church in action, I feel I have rediscovered my tribe.

It is a cranky tribe full of smart people who can follow parliamentary procedure and complex rules of queuing and voting in one moment and open themselves to prayer and learning new ways of relating to one another under the guidance of the HoD chaplain.

It is a people of rules and of the book, but also a people who will try to listen to all sides of a debate and prayerfully consider not only what is right, but how folks are going to feel if they lose a vote that is dear to them.

It is a tribe of funny, creative people who make up songs to celebrate the new technology of virtual binders and electronic voting gizmos.

It is a tribe of crafty knitters, whose needles click as they try to parse a complex legislative proposal.

It is a tribe of loving people who are trying to be compassionate in the midst of sleep deprivation and while working on difficult issues.

I am grateful for the opportunity to see my church in action though the members of the House of Deputies. I am grateful for chance to get to share the same worship time with time as they begin their day. But most of all I am grateful for the mother/daughter bonding that the church gave me, starting with my baptism and continuing on into the future.

I am, and forever shall be, an Episcopalian.


This piece was originally published on July 19th, 2015 in The Magazine at the Episcopal Cafe as "A Cloud of Witnesses."

14 July 2015

Perfect is the enemy of good

Perfect is the enemy of good

This is a phrase I saw on Twitter and heard coming from deputies own mouths during the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City and it has stuck with me in the week since convention ended.

I know from my own experience that it is very easy to set a complex project aside in order to spend time thinking about how to solve a problem.  However, what I have learned in project after project is that there is a difference between taking a break to rest and come at a problem with fresh eyes and putting a project away to wait for inspiration to come and solve the problem.

In nearly all cases, the first method usually gets results while the second is a project killer.  

One of my many hobbies is costuming.  I make costumes with my housemate and we wear them to our local science fiction convention or dress up for our annual Halloween party.  I have made some pretty complicated things over the past 10 years, and what all of the completed projects have in common is a lot of seat time in front of my work table.  I might be spending that time swearing, or asking our favorite workroom question: "Am I crazy?", but projects don't make themselves and most particularly, problems don't solve themselves.

It takes active, engaged, thinking to come up with solutions to why a pattern isn't draping correctly; or how to secure wings to a corset in a way that won't either damage the corset or limit it's use in future projects.  

Every project from costuming to web design, from writing to gardening, has many moments where the part I am working on is beyond my skill or experience.  Once I am out of my comfort zone, it becomes much easier to set the entire project aside and be temped to 'wait for a solution to come.'  

In all honesty, I have never had a solution come to me without work.

Solutions take research, they take planning, they take trying a new approach an having it fail.  Waiting for the perfect solution to spring from my mind fully formed is a sign that I am never going to finish the project, because waiting for the perfect solution is a passive activity.  Creating something, anything, from a good meal, to an elaborate Victorian outfit, is an active state.

Creation is action.  If I am not actively working on the problem, I am not creating.

That is not to say that I shouldn't rest and recharge.  Actions take energy and no one can be active all time; but there is a difference between resting before coming back to a project and procrastinating.

Sometimes procrastination is a sign that I have hit the limit of my skills.  I want the finished piece to be better than I can make it.  However, perfect is the enemy of good.  I am never going to make anything that is perfect.  That is the nature of being a limited being. My time on earth is limited, my physical body has good days and bad days, days where I have excellent fine-motor control, and days when I can't think my way out of a paper bag.  I'm never going to have both enough time and enough skill to make a perfect thing.

But I can make a good thing.  I can even make a pretty darn good thing.  But not if I don't work at it.  Believing that something can be made perfect kills the good things I am capable of.  I will never finish an essay and hand it off to an editor, or write a story for others to enjoy, or have a costume to wear if I don't sit down and do every step that is required of a finished project.

And there is a certain virtue in finishing a project, declaring it 'good enough' and perhaps the best thing you are capable of doing right now, and signing off on it.  One of the most useful things I learned from writing fiction with my friends was that if I kept constantly revising my stories until they were perfect, no one but me would ever get to see them. Art has to be released into the world to be art, political acts have to be done and not just talked about to make change.

Perfect is the enemy of good.

Use the next project to improve rather than trying to make the current one perfect.  That is what I try to remember when I look at a daunting project.  

As we say in our workroom, "Sewing is slow magic, it goes very slowly until the end, when suddenly it is done, like magic!"


This essay was originally published on The Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 13 July 2015.