The Beginner’s Mindset at a Time of Mastery

Time of Mastery

My husband and I reached a new level in the game called “life and marriage” this summer. We worked together on a major task, with significant help from family and friends and an exceptional estate attorney. The task is closing out the material life of Joel Fischman, Dennis’s brother, who died early this summer.

A big part of my ability to get through this summer was a combination of committing to a slower pace and a commitment to keeping a beginner’s mindset.

The beginner’s mind is a habit that stresses the virtue of staying curious. It is a way to look at a task without assuming that you know what is needed and you have a plan immediately. Keeping in mind that I have little experience with after-death family care, I needed to step back and take advice. Taking advice has not been a strong suit in my hand.

  1. Learn from my elders. I have one parent left; that’s my mother-in-law. She is an 88-year-old force of nature. Eight years ago, she did the lion’s share of the work dealing with the material remains of another brother-in-law, Ronald Fischman. She arranged a long-distance funeral. She was central to his apartment clean-out. The sibling generation did much of the lifting, but my mother-in-law was the brains of the operation.

We also watched her protect and support her brother, Dennis’s uncle Irwin Chosky, when he was disabled for the last decades of his life.

That experience from eight years ago, when Ron died, was partly a template, but there were significant differences. I needed to ask more questions because the people we were talking to were strangers, not the family funeral home in Pittsburgh. I needed to ask more questions about the apartment clean-out, this time, because that would take place in a city I had never been to before. That was all new.

  • Learn from our peers. When Ron died, the remaining siblings and my mother-in-law removed all the usable things from his apartment in one afternoon. Then a hauler came for the rest. We divided up the tasks to get it done. A similar division happened this time, in Ohio. However, this time, there would be two of us, not six of us plus three friends.
  • Forward planning: 

First, we had five days to plan a funeral and get ourselves to Maryland.

    • There are not many hotels close to where my mother-in-law lives. They are all 20-30 minutes away. Last year, we stayed in College Park, in order to be halfway between my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law. Instead of replicating the last trip, I needed to start over, as a beginner. What are the priorities this trip? What do we really need and not need? This time, I chose one with the best route to my mother-in-law. We were only going to my sister-in-law once. I chose a place that was in a smart growth community. That allowed for fairly new construction and access to grocery and restaurants.
    • The funeral was arranged by phone, sight unseen. Choosing a cemetery started with relying on my sister-in-law’s experience, since she was local. After pricing out two places, we chose the one closer to my mother-in-law. The beginner’s mind questions were: what would be a good funeral experience? Who will be visiting this grave in the future? 


Then, the trip to Ohio to empty Joel’s apartment was more complicated. We needed to go as soon as possible, to keep expenses down. We needed to be there for as little time as possible, to keep expenses down.

  • A) We needed a hauling company to take away the non-reusable things.
  • B) We needed someone to donate the reusable things. We needed to deliver those donations.
  • C) We needed to sell his car.
  • D) We needed to deliver Susie’s (Joel’s dog’s) things to her before she went to her new forever home.

Again, I needed to start from the beginning. Who do we know who knows this part of Ohio? Can I ask people there to guide me in the best way to get it done? Can I remain open to doing it their way? 

How it turned out:

This turned out very well.

  1. I found a company that would haul the unusable things to a dump and also move the usable things to a veteran’s charity. That took a few calls. Some movers would take everything to the dump. Some refuse companies only provided dumpsters, not muscles. No charities are picking up, in that area.
  2. We did A and B with the same people! It was wonderful!
  3. Some used car places did not want a car with a standard transmission; others expected that they would want to buy it, pending a test drive/inspection. I had two places lined up before we arrived.
  4. We would have an overlap from the time we got to Ohio before Susie went to her forever home. So, that drop-off went well.

So, what’s left?

Completing the estate work. That is a lesson in pacing. Since there is no hard deadline for this, we were able to prioritize the paperwork and do it in order, as time and energy allowed. Slow and steady will win that race.

What I am a beginner at, still, is staying comfortable that there is no hard deadline. I am also a beginner at doing things well enough. I am in uncharted territory, there. I like to have a map. When I don’t have one, I can’t give up every time I hit a rock. 


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