An Equation for Life

“What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” – Ecclesiastes 3: 9-11

I have spent a considerable amount of time and paper this summer, contemplating the value of things and what makes up this big thing we call life. As my brother and I sorted through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children) there were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things we had collected and held on to throughout the 60 years of my parent’s life together.

I shared with you my family home decluttering tales, the sentimental moments of nostalgia that flooded the basement with tears, the moments of shock that sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories at seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain priced for the estate sale. So much emotion devoted to things and the memories made with them.

If anything good can come from the deaths of one’s parents, it is the lessons we, that are left behind, go on living with about what life really is all about.

I recently read an article by Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy, in the New York Times in which he wrote about the equation of life that most of us are currently in the process of solving.

[Life] = [Money]

We spend all this time earning money to spend on stuff that makes up our lives. We swap our lives for money. In fact, we swap about 40,000 hours of our lives over 20 years for money which we then spend on stuff.

His equation morphed into this final assessment:

[Life] = [Stuff]

After my brother’s and my experience of cleaning out the family home of stuff this summer, I could not agree more! To be honest, I think there was way more than 40,000 hours of life swapped for stuff – more like a lifetime worth life swapped for stuff.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying everyone should stop working and earning money and buying things – goodness, things make life worthwhile –  to an extent. We are humans. We need things. As a civilized and domesticated human, I want things and frankly couldn’t live without things. A roof over my head is important, as is heat, clothing, food, and yes, for me a car. I know some people can get by in life without a car – there is a whole movement among the millennials to not own a vehicle – and more power to them! I however, cannot. I like my car and the rapid way it transports me to places I need or want to go. I like to have a comfortable and welcoming home – a remnant of sorts of the home I grew up in, I suppose, where collections created a story of our lives.  A nifty pair of boots make me happy when the weather turns cool.  The quest for things keeps our economy humming. When the economy stops humming most of us start moaning and groaning – so obviously, things have an important role to play in our lives.

But I will tell you right now – I would sell you the clothes off my back and everything I have acquired in my 20+ years of working, to have a few more moments with my mom and dad.

I recently ventured “home” one last time. The house has sold and I needed to gather the few remaining things that had been stuffed into my bedroom closet and pick up a few more things that remained in storage that would now occupy my new home. This was the first time I had stepped inside that house completely void of everything since the day we bought the house 28 years ago. I was 18 years old at that time. A new chapter was opening in my family’s life. Dad had just retired and was looking forward to years of golf and staying put for a change. Mom was looking forward to being close to family again and staying put for a change. It did not dawn on me at that time that this would be the house they would die in.  Standing in that empty house, I felt like a wildfire had come through and swept everything away. Stripped bare of the contents collected, “home” felt foreign to me – as if the 28 years of life lived inside these walls hadn’t happened. The emptiness was too much. I longed to page through the books my dad’s hands once held, and to light again, the candles my mom collected because candlelight always made our hearts glow. I longed for our blue and white dinner plates that served us dinner for 35 years, I longed for the scent of my dad’s Bay Rum and Aqua Velva after shave and my mom’s Bonn Street eau de toilette.  Those things were all gone. Sold and taken away to the stories of other people’s lives or simply gone and alive only in my memories. There was no comforting ticking of the old barn clock that had hung on every wall of every home my parents owned. Just silence.

Poignantly, some of things left behind in my closet were bundles and bundles of cards  – cards from my childhood – cards from friends telling me good bye and good luck as we prepared to move away. Cards from aunts and uncles and cards from Mom and Dad. Cards from when I turned 6 and turned sweet 16. Cards in honor of my confirmation and graduation. I tried to sort through them, thinking now was as good a time as ever to lighten my collection of stuff –  but the “to toss” pile never grew. I found myself clinging to every written word on every single card as a link to my past. I knew in these stacks of cards were some of the last words written to me by Mom and Dad. All I wanted was to see their handwriting telling me they loved me and how proud they were of their little girl. I will never receive one of those cards again.

There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things become a part of our lives.

There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how little those things matter in life.

Death has changed what I value. Those hand-written cards found in my closet have far more value to me than all the clothes I could ever want to hang there. The sale price of the family home means far less to me than the life once lived within its walls. And that is what makes my heart break.

We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I do not have enough. I did not invest the time I had with them wisely.

Having worked for a financial advisor for 4 years now one would think I would have this investing thing down pat. Well, from now on I plan to. I am refocusing my investments – not in things, not in money, but in life.  I am investing more time in living life.

I’m done swapping countless hours of life for things and empty existence. A few hours for a nifty pair of boots, ok – yes. The rest I plan to invest in the times of my life. Here’s my equation:

[Time] = [Life]

Aside from paying someone to mow my lawn – money can’t buy any of that.

“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.” – Ecclesiastes 3:12-14

When Comparison is the Thief of Joy

“Last year at this time I was/had….” How many times lately have I started a conversation with that comparative statement? More often than I would like to admit. Regretfully, I have spent much of my time this summer dwelling on the past rather than living fully in the present and contemplating the future. It is a relatively easy habit to fall into and when one is feeling mentally exhausted, stressed out, or just down in the dumps. Dwelling on happier times is a good respite for the emotional soul. Positive memories have an important place in our lives – they help us out of a sad moment, help us heal from the loss of a loved one, and create meaning in our lives. They can also send us spiraling into a trap of living in the past while ruing our present –  keeping us from moving forward and enjoying the gifts of life we have now.

11731884_1033524946672103_274556446325443046_oI found myself doing just that as I talked to friends about summer plans. Last year at this time I had already knocked out 23 hikes in the park including summiting several mountains with plenty of joyous trail journal entries and pictures to fill a museum. I was feeling strong and mighty, like the world below me was mine to conquer from those peak-top experiences and happiness seemed to radiate from my soul. This year however, I have only managed 6 hikes- 4 of which were remarkably wet and miserable to the point of relegating one pair of manure and mud encased boots to the trash barrel and another instance of dumping about a ½ cup of water out of each boot upon returning to my vehicle. On the two hikes not inundated by rain, I found myself drained of any stamina. I felt conquered by the world, my radiance reigned over by sadness. What was wrong with me? The lack of hiking opportunities due to rain cancellations and life events conflicting with fun in the sun were just the tip of this depressive iceberg.13754601_1256154167742512_2134166270177249671_n

My life has not been a bed of roses lately with the death of my mother, the loss of a relationship, and my father’s recent cancer diagnosis, surgery, and serious car accident. Rather than being thankful for the present I was asking “How much more, Lord, how much more?” As the summer wore on the happy memories of the past made my present seem more and more unbearable… I was on a trajectory of dejection with a dark stormy cloud hovering above me.  Indeed, this summer has been a season of discontent.

And then one of my dear friends shared a bit of wisdom with me, a belief she has followed through her own difficult times. When we dwell on the negative, we attract more of it. By focusing on what wasn’t going right in my life I was allowing that dark cloud to boil and billow into a huge thunderstorm of negative thought pellets that hailed down on me no matter where I went. The rain sodden hikes just exemplified this in physical form and further dampened my outlook! On the heels of those words of wisdom, a visiting pastor gave a sermon with a message that really hit home with me. It was one of those God moments where you think He is talking directly to you and no one else surrounding you.

The message, born from the books of Ecclesiastes and Luke, talked of getting wrapped up in the increasing busyness and trappings of life. Rather than getting caught in the frenzy of keeping up with the Joneses, or in my case keeping pace with my own over the top life of summers past, we should look to our present and give thanks for the simple pleasures and blessings we receive from others to find joy. Receiving these words of wisdom from two very different people made something click in my mind. Rather than resenting my present, I was able to accept that I was living in a very different season of life this year compared to last year. I wasn’t allowing myself any grace, something I am great at giving others but not myself obviously. By dwelling on the past I was missing the good things that were growing in this season’s garden as a result of the rain in my life. The dark cloud of comparison had hidden those good things from my sight.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” —Theodore Roosevelt

13613171_1265591673465428_7058362766506802065_oThrough this past and present emotional season of life I have been the recipient of many gifts given by others. And so taking my friend’s advice I began to dwell on those gifts – kind words, hugs, long talks on walks, the simple generosity of time given by one to the other. Because I have not spent every weekend this summer in the mountains I have rediscovered the simple joy of Sunday morning coffee hour after worship and connecting with friends I only see once a week. Because I have not spent every weekend in the mountains I have spent much more time at the piano and found new music to challenge myself with.  I began to dwell on the beauty of my surroundings – the valley landscape that I had often overlooked on my mountaintop adventures and the new life abounding around me. I dwelled on the joy of singing with a choir and the joy of sharing beautiful music with friends. I dwelled on the recent opportunities to celebrate life over dinner with friends. I dwelled on the simple but wonderful feeling of escape from the world found in the pages of a good book on a stormy evening. I dwelled on the sunlight reflecting on water. Most of all, I dwelled in this present season of life. Sure it has been a tough one, but the tempestuousness of it has made me stronger and more appreciative of yes, the joys of life.

13147272_1204040166287246_6929792025810359721_o

There is a time for everything in life, a time for living joyously and at full speed ahead and a time for mourning and rest. Both seasons should be embraced, not resented.

A Time for Everything

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

~ From Ecclesiastes 3

Let your light so shine.

20160805_204059