Holding On/Letting Go

I recently cleared out my storage unit. That doesn’t sound like a momentous act, but anyone who has moved, and moved often, as I have, knows the nature of such an act, fraught as it is with all the weight of holding on and letting go.

I’ve moved a lot, mostly as an adult; my recent guess is about twenty moves in two plus decades. Some of these were small: just a move across town; others were more radical: a move across the country, or even from one country to another. Each move required a combination of mental and physical exertion and created, despite my best efforts, a great deal of uncertainty.

I’ve had leisurely moves: planning months in advance and, therefore, able to pack thoughtfully and incrementally; I’ve also had last-minute moves. The latter have been occasioned by a number of reasons: from the time when my roommates and I were booted out of our San Francisco apartment thanks to a roommate who will go down in the annals of crazy, irresponsible roommates as one of the most egregious examples, to a job offer that necessitated a move with two weeks’ notice across country. That last move was one of the most insane things I think I’ve ever done: accept a job, find a place to live, book tickets, box up many years’ of belongings, give away anything possible, and get self, two cats, and crucial documents across the country to start a new job in a new town in a completely different state with a startlingly different culture—go!

Sometimes I’ve had great assistance from friends who came by to help and, on several crucial instances, help from my sisters—my heroines. They were the key ingredients in the insane move: boxing up my seemingly endless belongings, helping me lug the cats across country, and putting up with a me who was loopy on too little sleep, food, or water, and driven to a state of near-manic-rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light crazy thanks to all the stress. At other times I’ve been left in the lurch, lugging boxes until I thought my back would snap and my ankles buckle, sweating in boiling weather and shivering in freezing temps, determined to get the move done any way I could.

One of the essential elements of a move is letting go: releasing yourself not only from the place you have lived, but the entirety of the life you had there. This also means letting go of things: from kitchen gadgets and clothing to old papers and furniture. It’s hard to let go of things, even when you know that you don’t have room, it’s broken, you never wear it, or it’s part of a you who is so long gone, so much a part of the past, that thinking of that past persona is like looking into a strange hall of endless mirrors, all somewhat distorted, slightly broken.

I’m a bit of a hoarder: by nature and, probably, a bit because I’ve done so much moving and I find it painful to let go. I hang on to things I probably shouldn’t: that coaster from the Dirty Duck (pub in Stratford on Avon, popular with actors), 4 high school yearbooks, the first shirt I ever bought, my ribbon for goat showmanship, and so on until I have boxes and boxes of things, strewn everywhere. Moving is therefore beneficial in the sense that I have to argue with myself about every item—should I keep it or should I let it go—though I confess to sometimes just dumping everything into a box or bag when all of this self-interrogation gets too much—or if I run out of time.

Picking through my things when it came time for my storage move-out, I discovered some lovely and poignant items that I’m really glad I kept, as well as boxes of stuff whose presence remains a mystery—why did I bother? The lovely items include letters, cards, photos of family and friends, some gone. For example, there’s the letter my grandmother wrote towards the end of her life, in which she said that she felt just the same inside—a young girl ready to race over the moors—but her body could no longer race, even stand, without help. Young and thoughtless as I was then, I’d always assumed that as you aged physically your mind, your interior self, changed too, that somehow it was a whole package deal: that seemed to make aging easier to understand, perhaps accept. To learn that one might feel just the same inside—just as young, vibrant, curious, and energetic—and yet be tied to an aging, sick, changed body was a sobering prospect.

Another find was my grandmother’s autograph book from the teens, when she would have been in her preteen to teenage years. There must have been a fashion for autograph books at that time, books filled not simply with signatures, but with poems, pictures, and reminiscences. I pulled the book from a box carefully, mindful of the disintegration of the faded red leather around the book’s edges and the fragility of the paper inside. Joined by a sister and brother-in-law, I looked through the book, admiring the effort that went into the artwork, some of which was very sophisticated, the work of hours, while other examples were mere scribbles or sketches. Noting the dates on some of the pages of 1912, 1913, 1914, and on, my brother-in-law decided to search for one of the artists online, a boy who’d left a particularly intricate drawing around 1913. He quickly found the name, listed on a roll of army enlistees from that county. Only a few years after he held my grandmother’s autograph book in his hand, the leather warmed by his fingers, eyes fixed on the colorful shape forming beneath his pen, he was dead, one of so many gone. Hearing his fate, I remembered the story my grandmother used to tell me about a woman who lived down the street from her when she was young. The woman had many sons and they all left home to serve: only one returned.

To be continued…

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