Letting go

When I walk in the mornings, I love to chat with friends. Even if we live many miles apart, it’s a blessing to have friends in my ear. This week, I had two disparate conversations, and although the topics of conversation varied widely, there was a universal theme: letting go.

Early in the week, I talked with one of my best friends, my cousin Pam (pictured above with her sister, Dinah and I.) Pam used some of her time over the holidays to clear out the garage.  In the last few years ‘The Happiness Project’ and ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up,’ have described clearing out our physical closets to release the mental clutter that can clog our minds. Clearing out stuff really is cathartic, but it’s hard to do. Pam rallied the troops, including my equally beloved cousin Dinah who collects wine, magazines to be read and fancy bottles of shampoo from her many world-wide travels. They got a dumpster and attacked small stacks and piles each day. Pam described the relief that comes from getting rid of shit, even if it was expensive, a cherished memento or hypothetically usable for some future need. Pam and Dinah let go and felt better for the effort.

It’s hard to do. In moving my mom into our house, mom and I have had to confront our different approaches to ‘simplifying.’ Like everyone else, I keep stuff, especially photos, books, and some clothes. (Much of my closet is taken up by ‘work clothes,’ even though it’s been exactly three years since I had to go into an office with any regularity and I’m more prone to wear yoga pants from Target and T-shirts with grey deodorant stains everyday–so why do I keep the khakis?)

In general, though, I’m pretty disciplined in clearing stuff out. My relative minimalism has led to small kerfuffles with my mom. She somehow thinks the walls of her two rooms will accommodate 100+ years of family photos, many of whom are of my dad’s family in Greece, who died decades ago and who she never met. When we (and by that I mean me, my sister Kathy and a hired helper–one of Jack’s old babysitters) cleaned out her condo in California, I found many, many rolls of wax paper (used for her microwave meals.) Mom had post-it-notes in all shapes, sizes and degrees of stickiness. There were boxes of unopened neosporin tubes, clothes I’ve never seen her wear and newspaper clippings from 2007. We are still adrift in much of her detritus, but mom is slowly allowing that not everything she insisted on bringing will find a new home here in Virginia. She’s letting some of it go, slowly.

After chatting with Pam, another friend and I were talking about our pedometers. Sam needs a new phone, but because her daily step counts are recorded on her phone, she is hesitant to upgrade without the assurance the history will carry over. I totally get that–if you don’t have a record of it, it’s almost like it didn’t happen. I suspect Sam will have a new phone soon; she’ll let her record go, knowing she did still log many miles, and her strong muscles are the proof.

This theme of letting go has actually been bubbling in my consciousness for some time. About a month ago, my phone died. I lost voice memos of my dad’s last days. Pictures of Jack as an infant and toddler which were never saved in the cloud, evaporated. Notes, contacts, podcast episodes… everything washed away. I was devastated, but there was something that ultimately lifted for me, too. I didn’t have to feel guilty about saving my dad’s voice, but not listening to the recordings for fear of triggering a meltdown. I forgot some of the podcasts I had habitually listened to, but which were no longer euphoria-generating for me. I saved new pictures of Jack to my wallpaper and updated my screensaver of the almost 10-year old who smiles back at me from the screen.

Back in October, I read a fictionalized account of Hemingway’s’ first marriage. At one point before Hemingway published his first major work, a suitcase of all of his hand-written drafts was stolen from a train in Paris when his wife was trying to help him impress an important American publisher. This in a time before  copies were easily made or early editions were magically saved in a computer. Hemingway returned to writing, a bit dejected, but later, many fans have said his innovative, sparse style was born out of that loss. Hemingway didn’t choose to let those hundreds of hours of work go; the universe chose it for him.

Letting go of things, especially precious relics, is difficult, but there is something more heart-breaking going on for me right now in life. I find myself having to let go of people. It’s not by choice, but circumstance. Some of my beloved friends and I have lost touch since the move to the East Coast; the time change and the distance insurmountable. I can feel them drifting away. Last night I dreamt about my college roomate, Jen. I was waving to her fondly from a shore. We’ve lived apart before and the consolation is that when our lives even out, we will reconnect, like an infinity sign. Still I miss her right now and have her Christmas card saved on my desk. I am working though accepting this hiatus of relationships. It’s happened before and then there’s a  resurrection… a phone call, a visit, a move. I suspect my work right now is to let go of expectations, but maintain the love until circumstance weaves us back together.

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Sharing Space at B and N

Right before Christmas, Mom and I were at Barnes and Noble. The store had a self-serve gift wrapping table to lure habitual Amazon customers, like myself. Those of us who braved holiday parking to venture into an actual bookstore were rewarded with free tape and appropriately generic gift paper; take that, $3.99 Amazon gift surcharge!

About 20 minutes into our wrapping, I felt another customer hovering behind us. She seemed slightly annoyed, and rightly so as my mom and I had basically taken over the table with our 10+ purchases. I moved my books to clear space, but she still seemed a little standoffish.

As I am prone to do, I instantly profiled her. This woman had bought an awful lot of coloring books. I guessed that she had caught on to the trend of adult coloring as a way to meditate in a creative way and generally SLOW down.

If you are a middle-aged white women, you’ve been similarly encouraged to buy fancy coloring books and happily wash away your cares with crayons.  If you’re a Mom and incorporate this fun activity as a way to spend quality time with your child, you’re golden. Bonus points for educational coloring books. On one hand, the idea of coloring is to leisurely spend our time and slow down,  but without multiple checks off the ol’ to-do list, coloring still feels wasteful for people like me who are a little high-strung.

I judged this fellow shopper in a split second and imagined the gaggle of Lululemon-wearing friends of hers opening these coloring book gifts during a ‘girls night ‘ cookie exchange. In a flash, I dismissed her as being too similar to me to be worth getting to know.

As soon as I reduced her as too much like me, I had an awareness that I was also reducing myself. What I was really saying by closing myself off to connecting with this fellow shopper was that wasn’t worth chatting to. I was not worth getting to know.

I have a recurring story in my head that is viscous. The gist is pretty much, “I am not enough.” This isn’t verbatim, but 100 times a day I whisper a version. “I am not exercising enough. I am not a good enough mom. I am not kind enough to others.” I feel guilty for not responding to emails. I feel guilty for not working full-time. I feel guilty for relying on Trader Joe’s composition dinners, rather than the from-scratch versions I used to enjoy making.

The absolutely nutty part of this is that deep down, I secretly think this guilt prevents me from losing my grip on everything I have. By keeping the guilt and fear of loss, I am trying to control my world. And the tragedy is that by its very nature, this fear and guilt and need to control prevents me from enjoying any of it.

This was all in a mental microsecond: I came to Barnes and Noble for the same reason I came to Virginia – to better understand the world and myself in it. I came to challenge myself, get out of my routines and to connect with a bigger world. If this woman was worth opening my heart to, then maybe I was worth it too.

I took a breadth and cheerfully asked the gift wrapper, “Who are you shopping for?”

“My brother. He has Alzheimer’s.” My mom and this quiet stranger then began chatting while wrapping. Her name was Linda. Her brother was a scientist. In early middle age, Linda’s brother developed early-onset Alzheimer’s. He was exposed to many chemicals in his job as a scientist and now his mind was dormant. Coloring filled his idle time.

My initial dismissal of this woman was made on false assumptions. Reductions. I would have missed all of this, if I had let silence sit.

We all do this. We all make judgments about ourselves and each other.  And if we look closely, often our greatest fears about ourselves are reflected in how we engage with others. If we can take a step back we can really see and listen to others. The paradox, of course, is that we’re really coming closer to ourselves. Even at Barnes’ and Noble.

 

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