The effects of moving are experienced in the body, in the imagination, in the realm of desire. What the eye sees, what the body feels, what the heart yearns for, what remains and what has been lost — these are difficult at first to describe. ( Louise DeSalvo, On Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again, 2009)
Like many of you, my garage is filled with boxes, ones containing mementos from the past, old notebooks of writing, prints and paintings, and books—lots and lots of books. They are things I’ve used and loved, kept in boxes and neatly stored on garage shelves, evidence of my life and my reluctance to let go of things I have loved and enjoyed. We’ve moved before, but these mementos, the artifacts from my past, have expanded, filling more boxes, taking up more space. Now that we are faced with a cross country move and a smaller living space, I’ve been forced to the many boxes of belongings that, out of sight, were also out of mind. It’s hasn’t been easy or quick.
Here’s the embarrassing truth: I hadn’t realized just how much I’d accumulated over the years. Sorting through all these boxes, I soon discovered, was an emotional process, particularly as I encountered the several containers of my old journals and notebooks, as I mentioned last week. The process of remembering was sometimes embarrassing, sometimes humorous, and sometimes painful and difficult to read. But the issues and questions, ones I had written about so passionately, were now simply memories of then, not part of the life I lead now. I read through journal after journal, but ultimately, in a concrete process of letting go, destroyed the majority, hundreds of pages filled with emotional pain and suffering. Yet I lingered over pages, remembering events, people, places and what I was thinking and feeling at the time. It was a looking back to understand and acknowledge how my life has changed and grown, despite occasional bumps and challenges.
Moving is not only a process of packing up, but of letting go. As I tore up hundreds of pages of old journals, it became a ritual acknowledgment that the turmoil and questions I experienced many years ago were no longer relevant to me—nor did I wish to have them accompany me into a new chapter of life. I had, as poet Rainer Maria Rilke once advised a nineteen year old officer cadet, learned to live my questions to discover the answers I so fervently sought at one time.
And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, originally published in 1929).
Clinging to a past no longer relevant to our present only seeds depression or regret. Learning to letting go of those worn out pieces of the past is a necessary process, something we have to do from time to time, not just when we’re packing up to make a move to another place. It’s a bit like a spring cleaning, choosing what to discard, what to retain and what to carry forward as we go on with our lives. Letting go is evidence we’ve learned from our experiences and have begun to revise our lives, something we do naturally to make sense out of events that alter the course of our lives. Like the work of writing (which always includes rewriting), it’s an ongoing process allowing us to see our lives in a fresh light. Revision is something that poet Naomi Shihab Nye described as “a beautiful word of hope… a new vision of something.”
Think about it: we are constantly revising our life stories. Things happen to us; we make choices or take actions that influence events and outcomes, yet the story closest to us can be the most difficult to understand. It’s one of the most important reasons I write, not simply to record my history, but to reflect and discover new insight and understanding, and ultimately, growth.
In the book, You Must Revise Your Life (1986), William Stafford wrote, “My life in writing…comes to me as parts, like two rivers that blend. One part is easy to tell: the times, the places, events, and people. The other part is mysterious; it is my thoughts, the flow of my inner life, the reveries and impulses that never get known—[it] wanders along at its own pace…”
I like to think of the process of “letting go” is about paying attention to the current of our inner lives, the thoughts and desires that rise to the surface, often unbidden but are important in helping us move forward and embrace the unknown, whatever it contains. We honor the stories we’ve lived, learn to let go of old ways of being or seeing the world that no longer serve us as we continue to move forward. It’s a bit like thinking of your life as a giant canvas, gradually filling with color over the years. We do what the artist does: let the material of our life—all that happens to us–talk back to us so we may see it anew. Stafford tells us that revising our lives involves embracing whatever happens—in things and in language. “The language changes,” he says, and “you change, the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.”
Letting go? It’s not easy. Change can be unsettling. Learning to embrace whatever happens takes intention and courage. I admit to having periods of utter overwhelm and doubt as I prepare for our move, but when I do, I pause, embrace moments of quiet and listen for the deeper current moving through me. Like artists and writers I admire, I’m trying to work with the material of my life, letting go of what is no longer relevant, revising and seeing things in a fresh light, as I remind myself that we are progressing toward new possibilities. I have questions, of course, but I’ll only get to the answers by living them, gradually finding my way into a new life chapter as I move forward.
So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go
(From: “Security,” by William Stafford, In: Passswords, 1991)
- This week, write about holding on and letting go.
- Write about a time your life changed. What did you have to let go of or revise?
- Have you cleaned out the “stuff” of life to embrace a new beginning? Write about it.
- Think about how revision can be “a beautiful word of hope.” Have you discovered this in your life? When?