Thinking back, I’ve dived head-first into more than my fair share of wacky, overly ambitious, voluntary mega-projects, generally involving collective public spaces — making something from nothing with others, after hours and weeks and sometimes longer of sweat, ingenuity, and imagination. Today, though, might have been one of the wackiest. I was finally ready — after weeks (and probably actually months, but I hate to admit that to myself!) on my own of culling, tossing, recycling, giving things to friends/neighbors, selling “more valuable” stuff for nearly nothing to book and collectibles’ dealers, and packing up the minimal amount of stuff my mom and sisters want to keep, and after the past week of rearranging an entire house of what was left for easy rummage access (still, somehow, mountains of things from some four decades of my parents being in this same, big, mid-Michigan house) — to do my “indoor, make-an-offer, yard/estate sale.”
Tons of people came. At the end of today, it was astonishing how much stuff people carted away. Of course, this is mid-Michigan, meaning times are extra hard, so “make-an-offer” was $1 here and $3 there, and an occasional $5 or $10. But I might actually be getting close to finishing this mega-project after all: completely emptying out a lifetime of a home that my parents had created for themselves, and foolishly, doing it all by my lonesome.
It’s a pretty awful task, which I don’t recommend. I tried to encourage my parents to downsize and move years ago, before it was too late. But the “too late” crept up on them. They both got really sick, one day apart from each other, last August. My dad died about 6-7 weeks ago. And I inherited this mega-project, among many others for them this past year, “thanks” to my flexible self-employment that lets me be here in Michigan for a long, long time and my inability to shut off my sense of responsibility. Not anything I envisioned diving into, or even wanting to do so. I’ve written this ad nauseam here and elsewhere: this past year has been horrible, sucking the marrow out of my life and spirit.
Still, yet again, in chatting with all the many people who came through my parents’ now-former front door today, I realized how much this experience I never wanted has brought to me in return. It’s not the mega-project of doing political spaces that I usually thrive on, nor am I part of any of the monumental political upheavals around the world. Here, it’s the “gentle” politics of learning how to speak of life and death issues in ways outside how state policy/bureaucracy and the pharmaceutical-industry complex present it to most of us (without using that language per se), shape it for most of us, and indeed, want to take the experience of living and dying well away from any sort of self-management. Maybe “politics” is too strong a word; it’s the minor, but perhaps increasingly crucial, little acts of trying to be human again toward each other in minor moments — such as me dismantling my parents’ entire home-as-life — in a world that wants to strip us of our humanity at every turn, not to mention dignity.
Nearly everyone today asked me why I was doing an estate sale, for whom, and why I hadn’t hired someone else. From there, nearly everyone felt sad that I had sell off memories and sentiment, equating the objects in the house with the life that had occurred there. Within the first few minutes, it dawned on me how much I’d learned from my long, beautiful week at the hospice, being with my dad while he died well: I can comfortably, happily talk about death as something natural, face-to-face, and self-chosen. I can talk about how everyone who worked at hospice was so comfortable and happy in their work, which most of them said was “a calling” and “an honor.” I’ve been around hundreds of health-care workers of all types this past year, and only the hospice folks were completely thrilled with their work, diving head-first into their own mega-project of helping bring people to death in the best way possible, in the way midwives (midpersons?) help bring people to life in the best way possible.
More and more, that experience has underscored how “memories” and “sentiments” are rarely about things; things may remind us of those memories and sentiments, but it’s us staying really focused on being decent to each other that counts, and remembering, without need for the mediation of a thing. The minute I didn’t respond with what people expected me to respond with concerning this house, this estate sale, and my parents’ death, it suddenly completely rearranged our social interaction, opening up space for all kinds of sharing, caring, and intimacy — even in the brief space of a whole-house rummage sale. I could see in people’s very body language a physical “sigh” of relief, at now being given some sort of invisible permission to make their own stories transparent, comfortable, all right. Everyone had similar experiences of sickness and health, death and dying, having to do isolated familial caretaking in lieu of supportive community caretaking, and knowing there has to be better ways to experience and go through the cycle of life. For whatever it’s worth, this particular never-again, solo mega-project of cleaning out my parents’ house seemed to become, for a few hours today, a collective public space after all.
I ended up getting a lot of stuff today too, in the form of loads and loads of happy memories I’d forgotten. Whenever someone would walk up to me with a box of junk they’d collected, to ask if $6 was OK for the whole thing, I’d spy something that I hadn’t seen in years — surprising, because I’ve been going through this entire house for weeks. But people dug through cobwebs in the garage, attic, and basement, and unearthed all sorts of bits & pieces of silly, funny, raucous, ridiculous family history in the shape of an old cake pan, board game, hat, kids’ drawing, and so on. Through the lens of various objects, I could share a story with them, and then say “yes” to their $6 and also, “So now you can add to the story of (such-and-such thing) and/or remember my story when you use (such-and-such thing) to make more memories, and then pass it along to someone else.” I also got to hear wonderful stories, sparked by someone finding an old typewriter, say, and then launching into a tale about their kid who aspires to be a writer, had a whole series of novels scribbled out in crayon in colorful notebooks at age 5 and 6, and is now working on transcribing their handwriting into typed format at age 10 (that particular tale was so near-and-dear to my heart I gave them the typewriter as a gift!).
All this made me think a lot about this place that is, and soon won’t be, my parents’ longtime house and the house I grew up in. It was cluttered with lots of stuff, a good part of it from rummage sales, thrift shops, our own numerous art/creative projects, or discoveries dragged home from a dumpster or some free giveaway. But mostly it was cluttered with people, because it was always perfectly OK — indeed encouraged — to be oneself in that house, and self-organize all sorts of mega-projects and mega-fun and mega-mischief, and all our friends liked our house better than their homes, because it was full of the self-generated yet often collectively enacted activities of life, not things. It’s odd. Now that I see all the things in this house, and have been trying to get rid of all these things for weeks/months, I realize I sort of didn’t see all these things until now (hence why I agreed to empty the house on my own, since I thought, “It can’t take that long; there’s not THAT much stuff in it” — err, wrong).
And that made me think of my folks, especially my dad, all day long, the good and the bad, the quirky and the ironic, and all sorts of other feelings, including just a nice, warm fondness. So that, my dear readers who are still following along, is why I’m sharing this photo. It’s one that my sister Karen sent me yesterday, via a cousin who is joining us on July 20 for what we’re calling a “celebration” of my dad. It’s a photo of my dad when he was a little boy; my sister Karen thinks it looks a lot like me when I was little kid. Maybe it’s that genderqueer haircut and coat! Who knows. All I do know is, this photo and this day made me happy for the humanness and humaneness of this person who was my dad, as wacky as he was (and he was a “character,” as they say), and how, for better and worse, that shaped the character of the person I am (and some might say, the “character” I am) as well as the politics I hold — things that are so much more important, I dare say, than things.
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Addendum, on the Monday after my two-day “make-an-offer” yard/estate sale:
There’s so much to dismiss in a sleepy, humid, nothing-open-late, car- and strip-mall-centric, church-loving, strangely unworldly college town in mid-Michigan where, for example, it seemed “exotic/suspect” to people at my weekend-long DI(m)Y(self) yard/estate sale — to empty out my parents’ longtime home — that there were “Jewish things” among the piles of junk. And don’t even get me started on the heteronormative understandings of how people related to the objects and rooms in the house, or the person who was proud of their FBI sister but was “glad it’s her not me; I would hate to know how REALLY bad it is in terms of what terrorists want to do to us!”
Yet for all the ways in which I feel like I’ve stepped into a world that could embody many of the attitudes before, say, the plethora of 1950s-1970s’ social movements, all the hours of unsolicited cleanup help I got today from dawn to dusk on my parents’ house — nearing empty, but still littered with piles of unwanted items and plain ol’ debris that I need to get rid of — from complete strangers, who then offered to return this week if I needed more help, harks back to something so lost in the worldly enslaves of cutting-edge politics and trends like San Francisco and New York.
Time and again since I’ve been here — and again all day on this sticky-hot Monday — people actually go out of their way to help you. And I mean, way out of their way. They go out of their way to listen to you and really want to hear the reality of how you’re doing. They also want to tell you their story in refreshingly honest, self-reflective ways, and then use the experiences on both sides as a bridge for what quickly becomes an intimate interaction, because it’s so, how to explain it, down-to-earth and not about proving anything to anyone. Like, “Times are hard and we’re all in this together.” For all the non-politically-collect language, there is, oddly, a high level of tolerance toward the “other” — a life-and-let-live attitude, where in that living, we kinda have to come to each others’ aid, unasked, just knowing we should offer to do so.
It’s not that everyone’s always nice here. But there’s a distinctly different culture to social relations, in which people “take time” to “make time” for others, rather than letting time rule them. Maybe this is what happens when capitalist time abandons whole cities, whole regions. A new time starts, or circles back around again to how people made time for each other in the past.
So today, literally for hours and hours, utter strangers dragged broken, dusty, tattered, near-useful things out of the house, filled up their pickup trucks, took stuff somewhere to dump, and came back to aid me some more in nearly finishing the task of emptying out a big Midwestern house as we dripped with sweat from the oppressive July heat, and talked about our lives — trials, tribulations, milestones, joys, and funny moments, until I felt like I knew the life histories, including the flaws and failings in them, in substantive depth. This help, out of the blue, seemed to be all for no apparent reason other than a sense of “this is what we do for each other” here in mid-Michigan: mutual aid, but soft and without fanfare or political labels.
As the sun set around 9:30 pm, and the last people pulled out of the drive, their little trailer overloaded with my debris hitched to their car overloaded with their patient kids, I rubbed the dusty sweat off my brow. I looked around the house, so close now to being really, truly empty. Then I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. So I dosed myself with mosquito spray, and happily, because of all this plain & simple & miraculous sociality/assistance, started to walk the half-mile to downtown — just in time for all the few restaurant choices to be mopping up their floors and locking up their doors. This ain’t SF or NYC. But sometimes, that’s a very, very good quality indeed.
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If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”