My mother is death cleaning.
She has told me she is organising her drawers, throwing out expired medicines (which really should be part of death-avoidance cleaning I think) and destroying any papers she doesn’t want to be discovered after she is gone (although there isn’t anything of hers that we haven’t already read).
She has also written letters to us.
My siblings and I are petrified by this ultimate form of having-the-last-word.
This death cleaning has been inspired by the concept of döstädning, the Swedish practice of “death cleaning”. Death cleaning applies a simple formula to the process of dealing with our possessions before we die looking at each object and asking whether anyone we know would be happier if we save the object.
The concept, döstädning, is a name for a set of what I think are natural behaviours. (We like giving names to everything now. It makes it more easily hashtag-able). My grandmother who lived to be more than a 100 liked to give away things faster as she got older. Near the end of her life she would give everyone around her money at least a few times a day. All recipients knew to take the notes that they got and put them back in the bowl next to her bed so she could do it all over again…
I have been doing my own kind of death cleaning for a few years. (It is not a morbid sorting out of my belongings. That happens naturally when you live in London homes with their confined spaces. I am sure I am (mis)quoting someone famous when they said, “When you pee in London bathrooms you have to leave half your body standing out”. I am sure one of you will tell me who it was.)
My form of death-cleaning was inspired by an exercise my leadership coach asked me to do at work recently. She wanted me to develop a 10-year plan on a piece of paper. This wasn’t the usual where-do-you-see-yourself-in-10-years plan anticipating a future interview question. She wanted me to imagine myself- my priorities and ambitions- and the people most important to me 10 years from now. She then asked me to think about how my current ambitions and priorities sat next to myself aged now+10 and to the people that I most care about.
• How many of the people who I love would be alive in 10 years?
• Would my children have left home?
• What would I feel about my career at that stage?
• Would S. and I have run out of things to say to each other?
The exercise was terrifying. In my imagination my future life emerged as a painting by an artist of minimialist persuasion. What would make me really happy was a chaotic Matisse.The exercise made me understand (in a gut-clenching sort of way) how important family and friends are in my life.
Family. This blog is not about them (that needs several).
Friends. If someone was to ask me now or in the past whether friends are important to me. I would say of course. But am not sure I live this day to day. On a “normal” day I have spoken more to school mums, people at work and been kinder to random strangers during a supermarket queue than I have to a “friend”. This is not to say that people at work or school or supermarkets cant (or havent) turned out to be the best of friends but most of the time I interact more with people who I may not stay connected with if I moved to a different school lets say, or a different job or even a different supermarket…Ever since that life coach discussion I have been trying to connect with friends who I see in my life now and in 10 years. Friends who I can imagine would be there at my funeral. Even cry.
True to my generation this tribe of friends is spread across space and time (zones). A long time ago, the physical distance of these relationships- not being able to express what I want to say by a shoulder squeeze; or sitting together in silence – felt like a loss. Goodbyes were painful. But now, being older and wiser, and knowing that actual living, breathing, normal (or my kind of mad) people are so (so so) rare that I am just grateful that they one were part of my life. My younger self liked the one liner “people can change my future but no one can take my past from me” but its so embarrassingly dramatic now I can only ventriloquize it through a younger me.
My form of death cleaning or life+10 planning consists of really small actions. A resolution to check in on someone new every day through a whatsapp. A long email that goes beyond the usual facebook pic “like”. An actual birthday phone call (a friend reminded me recently on how odd it is that we don’t call people any more on their birthdays). Our holidays forage out friends far away. In the summers we let ourselves be foraged by friends visiting London (we insert ourselves between the Harry Potter studio tours and museum visits).
It is a powerful exercise. One of the first people I met after my life-coach discussion was one of my besties after years from when I went to university in Toronto. I had forgotten all about my undergrad- in- Canada self . There was the whole not-yet-18 into a totally different country and not-being-at-all-cool challenge. There was the financial pressure of choosing a university that didn’t have a scholarship that renewed to the same level as the one they offered me in my first year. There was the guilt of not having chosen a university that did offer me a 4-year renewable scholarship. So at any one time I was doing at least two jobs, classes and extra classes (as I tried to finish my degree in 3 years rather than 4) while maintaining a decent GPA. The friends who stood by the stressed out, refusing-to-own-a-cell-phone; forever-busy phase of my life mean so much to me. The kind of friends who orchestrated “you need to have fun” interventions; the ones who brought me their cooking the type of friends who celebrated my graduation as if it was theirs.
Seeing her reminded me of how lucky I had been. It also made me clock that when you reconnect with friends you understand better the people they are becoming and you understand yourself better too. Because every friend is witness to a different part of your story.
I have been lucky enough to see so many other friends who each hold a different part of my story in recent months and years. Cousins- the first friends who know you from bathroom-humour-days; friends from school and college the custodians of all the silly dreams you had about what your life would be like and what you would do (and don’t remind you of it); friends from saving-the-world days when everything seemed possible but nothing really was; friends from sleepless mummy days, the precious one (s) who didn’t judge the anxiety that I constantly showed but understood it as a gut instinct for the parental challenges I was about to see. Then there are the “new” friends, the ones I have just met who I know I am going to be creating many memories with in the years to come.
So many special people in my life both in the years gone by and the years to come. (So many blogs waiting to be written).
So that’s how far I have gotten in my death cleaning. How far are you on yours?