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Our "Cute" Life: The Things We Leave Behind

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Saturday, 26th August ,2017

My older sister has recently moved to New Zealand.  The weeks before she left were so hectic for her and her husband, as they realized they could not bring everything from their house in Fairfax, Virginia, with them.  What items would be important to you from the more than twenty years you lived in a certain city? Will you make mistakes leaving behind or giving away objects that might be meaningful to you in the future?  My sister was sentimental about her past, emailing me photos from our childhood in Vietnam, our early years in the U.S., our family gatherings in the Washington areas where our children were growing up.

While my sister was sorting out her life full of physical objects, I was sorting out the physical objects that my mother left behind after she died more than five years ago.  My mother was an elegant woman who liked to dress well and wear nice jewelries.  She always complained that I was so unlike her, since I like to be comfortable and casual. I am, for example, too practical and frugal to wear clothes that need dry cleaning.  Why buy a dress on clearance then have to dry clean them so many times? The price of dry cleaning would exceed the price I tried to save by buying them on sale.  My mother, like me, never wasted money on expensive clothes.  She had an eye for good style and could search through the racks of outlet malls and bought the most elegant items for the lowest price.  

Mother liked clothes, purses, perfumes, sunglasses and hats.  She had many hats in different colors.  She had even more hats than she needed because I bought her hats everywhere I went to, since I knew she loved hats.  There are many photos of her wearing different sunglasses in different hats.  She matched her clothes so well.

After my mother died, we left her closets untouched, as if she would someday come back to put on her summer hats and her colorful dresses, sport different sunglasses and walk in her elegant shoes.  We still have a hard time parting from the era when mother was still a living being and not just a memory.  Where did she go while the handkerchief is still tuck in a pocket of a leather purse? Her scent still lingers on her clothes and purses.  She left behind so many little bottles of perfume in different brands.  What are we going to do with them?  None of my two sisters or I wear perfume.  I don’t wear wide rim hats that often; I wear running caps.  I rarely wear high heels because they are uncomfortable, are not orthopedically safe and slow me down.

We gather “things” over the years of our life.  Unlike those living in an impoverished nation, we Americans have a habit of gathering even more “things” that we don't need. Many of us wear new clothes every year, with different clothes for different seasons.  How many pairs of black shoes does a woman need? My husband often asks me this question.  Black shoes for many women could be like human DNA, with every pair having its own “unique” look, I reasoned with him.   

The practice of medicine has given me the wisdom about what to do with material “things.”  Patients talk about the difficult tasks of dividing things their parents left behind.  There are fights and disagreements, broken relationships over physical objects parents thought their children would enjoy after they are gone.  Sometimes none of the children like what their parents left behind and the items end up in garage sales or being donated to different organizations.

At midlife, we start our cleaning up process, getting rid of items we have had for so many years.  My husband even read Marie Kondo’s international bestselling book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.”  Frankly, I am not that fanatic about being tidy.  I thought it was odd that Ms Kondo chose, as a birthday gift from her family, to visit the tidiness museum in Japan when she turned ten years old! It doesn’t bother me if a ten years old girl wants to visit Disney World, or Chucky Cheese, but the museum of Tidiness? Kondo was so intense about tidiness that by middle school, she had read all the books on tidying up available.  She volunteered to tidy up her siblings and friends’ rooms at a young age.  It’s good to avoid gathering or to holding on to too many things that we do not need, but to be so tidy with your living space is not necessarily a relaxing way to live.

Every time we have visited a third world country, I have packed mostly clothes that I would leave behind.  I would come home with my suitcase empty of clothes, but full of little local gifts I got for friends and families.  I “unloaded” my material possession in Myanmar, Costa Rica and recently, Peru, where I gave my helpers and drivers all my shirts and T shirts, sunscreens and skin care, insect repellant and running shoes…They were very happy and grateful for the little gifts because they needed them more than I did.  My mother in law used to do the same when she went on her medical trips to Africa, packing her suitcases with T shirts and giving them away to the villagers. 

My Lady Doc friends and I have been reading Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s book "Life Reimagined, The Science, Art, and Opportunity of MIdlife" for this month’s bookclub.  One of the book’s chapters was about the joy of giving and how the givers can get as much satisfaction as the receivers.  Social scientists have found how we are happier when we “unload” many earthly possessions.

A few days ago, the internet went viral with the amusing story of the Secretary of Treasury’s wife Louis Linton’s “spicy” Instagram exchange with a middle class woman in Oregon who mocked her for a trip to Kentucky with her husband.  Mrs Mnuchin, as the story went, posted multiple photos of her glamorous life including one of her getting off a government plane wearing expensive designer clothes.  She made sure her followers know the expensive wardrobe she had on, from the Tom Ford pants to  Hermes bag and scarf and Valentino shoes.  Being irritated with the middle class woman’s Instagram remark, Mrs Mnuchin let out a ranting Instagram reminding the middle class woman of how different their life condition, contribution or “sacrifices” to society was.  

“Your life looks cute, go chill out and watch a new game of throne. It’s fab,” she wrote to the commoner.

People who live such a “beautiful” life like the Mnuchins, or so they believe, often live with an illusion or delusion that material wealth brings happiness.  They believe their human value is based on how much they can afford to show off.  They often do not make effort to make friends with or understand those who are “beneath” their social classes to know how these  common folks’ “cute” life could be a very meaningful life. 

This morning I exercised by running through my neighborhood.  On the way back, I heard a beautiful piece of Vivaldi played loudly from a recorder.  I suddenly saw Mario, a gardener who worked for us almost twenty years ago.  We now have other teams of landscapers as Mario went back to his country for awhile and stopped working for us.  There he was, Mario, trimming some bushes while listening to Vivaldi.  Mrs Mnuchin would not have thought how people with  a “cute” life like Mario would actually enjoy Vivaldi music while working on someone’s yard.  As I happily kept on running, a Lexus SUV abruptly stopped ahead of me and I heard some shouting.  The woman driver was turning toward the backseat yelling at, obviously, a much younger person.  She was ranting about how this person, who probably was her teenage daughter, should have been more grateful that she has a roof over her head and all the nice things in life and she should not act in such ungrateful and rude manner.  She went on to remind the girl what she expected from her around the house and how she expected her behavior to be.

Sometimes, it takes wisdom to know there might not be a big difference between a “cute” and a “beautiful” life.  We all face many similar problems.  All the expensive objects we possess are just “things.”   Mrs Mnuchin might someday realize she would feel more free and comfortable trading her Valentino high heels for a pair of Nike on a long flight.  She might have less callous that way.  For all the unnecessary orthopedic visits, it might be worth a try for her, and I bet her true friends would still love her.

“You’re adorably out of touch.” Mrs Mnuchin concluded in her Instagram to the commoner.

Being out of touch, again, depends on what you believe as truth.  Don’t you wonder how the richest people in the world like to be remembered after they are gone, for their good look and elegant clothes, for the red Ferraris they drove, or for all the work they did to change the world for the better? How do they plan to “unload” their earthly possession? What do they plan to leave behind, foundations to support poor children to colleges or starving people in the third world, or their dermatologists or plastic surgeons’ cell phone numbers and unused appointments for Botox? You should decide what you would rather leave behind, if you happen to be one of these very rich people.  In the mean time, we should enjoy our “cute” life knowing how, at the end, we can’t bring all the hats and sunglasses with us.  It’s the memory of  how kind we were that counts.





Tags: giving, altruism

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