Last week I learned that someone had my card number, you know the card number, and was trying to use it to buy things. Luckily, my bank caught the suspicious activity and no money of mine was lost and a new card is being sent to me. This has, however, caused all sorts of snarls in my own life (and on-line accounts) and also indirectly resulted in my car running completely out of gas – which is a long story.
This morning, I was hurrying to get ready for work (because I had overslept again) and noticed that I was wearing my top inside out. Interesting way to start the morning, I thought to myself. Then, because of the gas situation, Tracy drove me to work, on his day off when he could have been sleeping, and two cars almost hit us for no apparent reason that I could see.
But I got there and got settled in and realized that the bottle on the Highbridge Spring Water dispenser needed to be replaced. I have a co-worker who is always concerned about the fact that I’m the one who changes the water. The bottles are heavy and she doesn’t think it’s safe for me to be lugging them around and hoisting them up, but that water is important and this morning I decided not to listen to her advice about waiting for the work-study student who would be coming in the afternoon, and to put the water on myself as I always do. Somehow, I banged it against the corner of the table and it burst open and water flooded my office, soaking me and the carpet. My co-workers came to my aid and we got the broken bottle to a sink, but not before most of the water had rushed out all over everything creating a mess that was deemed, “Lake Lori.”
Yep, I thought. This is really interesting.
Luckily, what I’m in the middle of at work right now is writing obituaries. I’ve talked here before about what that process is like. This morning, someone forwarded an article to me written by a person at another college about the practice of compiling obituaries and she described it very well. It feels very much like this.
Last night, I attempted to explain it to Tracy in a much more awkward way. I tried to explain what it’s like to hold in your hand a file folder that contains the arc of a person’s adult life: a photo from their first year of college, holiday letters, birth announcements, notes about them written by their children, the honors they received, the friendships they cherished, the losses they suffered, descriptions of the manner in which they died.
It puts everything – this whole life thing – in quick perspective.
There was a note that stood out to me yesterday, lodged in my heart – an image that came alive for me as soon as I read it. It was in the middle of a fat folder, a man who was greatly accomplished and seemingly always positive, always loving and generous in his correspondence and his outlook. This was a man who clearly embraced the idea of being alive. On the back of a reunion questionnaire he had described one of his favorite college memories, “Late night hikes to the Toddle House in Chevy Chase.”
I remember the Toddle House. I know exactly how long it would have taken for a group of students to walk from the dorms to the diner, can imagine exactly the route they took. I see them pulling their coats around themselves, laughing. I see him, the man in question, the one who would go on to be ordained minister and receive advanced degrees and publish his writing and give commencement addresses. I see him as a young man, falling in love with his wife, walking with his friends for midnight pancakes, completely unaware of what was ahead, completely unaware that one day a women he’d never met would sift through a few artifacts of his life and write a paragraph to sum him up.
Which of course, can’t really be done.
I often wish I could write the things I see between the lines. I wish I could write about the stationary on which correspondences were sent, the small stories I run across: In May 1998, she shared a beach house with friends for the weekend. At her daughter’s wedding, she wore a fantastic dress and looked like a movie star. She was angry in December 2003, really angry. In 1986 he grieved for his wife and it changed him. One night he and his friends walked to the Toddle House.
I try to take my time with these things, these folders, give them consideration. I’ve not worked on obituaries yet without being moved to tears at least once during the process. Sometimes I am writing about people I knew, but mostly, I am meeting them for the first time when I open their folders. It isn’t difficult to find the connection. As different as we all are, we are so incredibly alike.
So what does this sifting through folders have to do with the awkward fumbles and inconveniences of my daily life?
When I’m working on obituaries I always come away with two understandings. The first is how important it is to be honest in your life, right now. Get rid of the stuff that isn’t working. Ask for what you need. Live authentically and reach for what you want. Do it now because this life is over so quickly, it can fit in a file folder. The second is how unimportant the little stuff is. All the little crappy things, and big crappy things, that make us feel angry, ashamed, frustrated – these things don’t matter. At all. Let them go now because in the end, they are meaningless.
Of course, this is all so clichéd we hardly pay attention to it anymore. The words have lost their meaning because we’ve heard them so many times in so many purple ways, but the thing about clichés is, they got overused for a reason.
When I’m working on obituaries, I ask myself, what do I want to put in my folder? Terse notes demanding apology over some wrong I believe was enacted against me or memories of walking through the night with the people I loved? Regrets about what I wish I’d done differently or gratitude for the gifts I was given? When the time comes for someone to sift through my papers and sum me up, I hope they see a person who was happy and who spread that happiness, a person who lived her truth and opened her heart, and held out a hand to those in need instead of holding on to every little injustice or embarrassment.
Sometimes your clothes are on wrong and you flood your whole office. This is life. It’s what you do next that matters.