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Posts Tagged ‘letting go’

Stuff has a weight.

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It doesn’t matter if it all has its own place. It doesn’t matter if much of it is hidden away behind doors and in cupboards and drawers. It doesn’t matter if it’s nice stuff or old stuff or ugly stuff or useful stuff.

Stuff has a weight, and I know that because engaging with it deeply the way I am now, I feel it. And so much of it carries the weight of the past.

I wore this skirt in high school. I got this T-shirt in Norway. I wore this dress to a high school formal or during a time when someone hurt me badly. I got this table from my stepmom who disappeared after she broke up with my dad, never to return. I wore this at my wedding. My mom made this. My mom gave me this. My mom owned this. My mom loved this.

I hold on so tightly to my stuff. But none of this is now. None of this is even close to now.

It’s as if this stuff, it proves these things happened. It’s physical proof. Coming from a household where memory was seen as the opposite of reliable, proof matters. I used to run over things that happened again and again because I was afraid I would forget, and by forgetting I would lose myself. And I’d seen exactly how ugly that could be. So I had my litany, like a horror show bedtime story, so I’d remember who I was and where I’d been.

It worked. I remembered.

And I realize now, so many years later, that I know what I know. I know what has happened to me. I know what I’ve done. I know the choices I’ve made, the good and the bad and everywhere in between. I know who has been important to me, who I’ve loved without measure, and I know the difference between the people I know who are safe and the people I know who cannot be trusted.

I don’t need stuff to tell me who I am, or who I’ve been.

Trust me to find something profound in engaging in spring cleaning. Yup, this is definitely who I am.

In The Life-Altering Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo says:

“It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure.”

When I was a teenager and a young adult, there were things in my life I wished were different. Hard things. I thought about wishing they’d never happened. I mean, I did wish I’d had it easier. But then I thought, “Well, I am the person I am today because of everything that has happened to me. And I like who I am. So that is something to be grateful for.”

Thinking this way didn’t make everything okay. But it did make it meaningful, and that was enough for me to move forward, to keep trying, and to not give into despair and rampant cynicism.

This is what I think about now while I make decision after decision about what stays and what goes. I’m not getting rid of the things I really love right now. And because it’s me, that’s a fair number of things. There’s no worry about me going all minimalist any time soon.

But it is not the stuff that matters. And some of this stuff, I’ve been dragging it around from place to place for reasons that are no longer true. If they ever were.

I’m letting go of the things that are heavy.

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I’ve been sick this week, which isn’t exactly surprising since I just got back from the Rainforest Retreat, which means airplanes and airports and hanging out late with writers who are sick and sleeping not especially well in the strange cabin bed and working my butt off.

I’m not seriously sick, I just have a cold, and so I’ve almost been enjoying watching how everything slows down. Because I don’t have a lot of energy, my life as a result gets pared down to its essentials: putting on clothes, feeding myself and the dog, taking the dog out, drinking ridiculous amounts of fluids. And then, you know, trying to put at least a few words down through the fog of illness.

And now of course I’m sitting down to write this blog post, and my main thought is, how do I make being sick compelling? And I probably can’t, of course, because the overriding experiences of being sick are those of physical misery (throat that burns every time you swallow, limbs that ache and feel strangely heavy, tightness at the temples) and tedium (because you’re really too tired to do much of anything), and neither of those are particularly interesting. Being sick sometimes feels like the spaces between when all the good stuff might happen.

But the spaces between do give me time to reflect on the good stuff. So I’m going to tell you a story. It is about a tipping point. Unlike being sick, tipping points do tend to be compelling because they represent that moment when everything our unconscious minds have been working on coalesces and comes out into the open. And then we, story-loving creatures that we are, turn that into a narrative of the tipping point.

The time: About a month ago, a Sunday evening. The place: My living room, the same chair I’m sitting in now, in fact. It’s an awful-looking chair, I’m told, but I don’t even see it when I look at it anymore. I just know it’s comfortable.

I’d spent a few hours earlier in the evening working on tax-related stuff, and now I’m making a hard phone call. Also, I’m irritated. And I have hurt feelings. Nala lies at my feet.

So I’m sitting there trying to have this conversation, and honestly, this is not a real conversation I’m having. I mean, there are words coming out of both of our mouths, but I’m certainly not being myself, nor have I ever been myself with this particular person (a reality that has been troubling me), and I have no idea who I’m actually talking to. It’s all mirrors and masks and a maze made of brick and a series of painfully careful steps leading to this moment.

And I’m engaged in some waste-of-my-time chain of thought, and then all of sudden, I interrupt it. It is so abrupt that before I have time to think about it, I blurt the interruption out loud: “This is not my problem.”

Not my most tactful moment, but that sentence continues to resonate in my mind. This is not my problem. And most of my other emotions fall away, and I’m left with a sense of profound relief. Because this is not my problem, and that means I don’t have to do a thing about it.

….

And I didn’t. I let it go. I was grinning like a maniac for several days, and the next day I sat down and wrote “What I Really Did Last Summer.” Because now I could see that what had kept me from writing it before was, in fact, not my problem either. I could see that all that careful footwork had gotten me precisely nowhere except all tied up in knots and estranged from authenticity. And why? For something that wasn’t even my problem in the first place.

My most adorable problem.

My most adorable problem.

I’ve spent much of the past month noticing what else is not my problem. It’s an interesting exercise. It doesn’t remove all the hurt or disappointment from life, but it does remove a lot of stress. It turns out there are many things I thought were my problems that really aren’t. So many situations I don’t have to fix, so many people I don’t have to charm or make feel better. Which means I have a lot more energy to throw at the things that actually are my problems, like making my current novel as awesome as possible or getting myself to Rainforest and back or hydrating obsessively to get rid of this cold.

And now that I’m sick and everything has slowed down, I can sit back and appreciate this feeling of having fewer problems, of letting other people do what they’re going to do while I take care of myself.

I could get used to this feeling. It feels like happiness.

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In my ongoing quest to stop being a perfectionist and instead just be a human being, I have found the following strategies to be useful.

1. Get a dog. Dogs don’t care if you’re perfect; they only care that you love them.

Portrait of a Devoted Doggie

2. Reframe the idea of perfection. Decide it is impossible, or decide it encompasses more than a single rigid definition, or go all philosophical and decide that imperfection is perfect in its own way.

3. Spend time around people who appreciate your natural strengths.

4. Spend time around people who are okay when you falter.

5. In fact, spend lots of energy finding awesome people with whom to surround yourself. This helps with all sorts of things if you are paying attention.

6. Distinguish between situations in which you must present yourself professionally at all costs and those (often in your personal life) in which you have some more leeway.

7. For the latter, force yourself to be honest. Especially when you really don’t want to admit that you need help or that you’re having a rough time.

8. Accept that not all people are going to understand or believe your honesty. Change your response to this from a panicked “I must seek their approval at all costs” to a shrug. Be grateful for those who are supportive. (And if none of those exist in your life yet, go back to number 5 and try some more. They are out there.)

9. Remember that you are one person and that therefore you cannot do all the things. Even if other people want you to. Even if you want to.

10. Realize you can’t control everything, and that perfection doesn’t automatically equal happiness.

11. Actually, not only does perfection not equal happiness, it sometimes equals stress, burn-out, dysfunctional relationships, isolation, and despair. Remind yourself of its downsides when you’re having trouble letting go.

12. Embrace the cheesiness and tell yourself you love yourself. Tell this to yourself even more when you think you’ve fallen short.

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Ever since I read an article in Psychology Today entitled The Double-Edged Sword of Hope, I’ve been thinking about the nature of hope.

I’m a natural optimist, and possibly as a result, I carry a lot of hope around with me. It’s not that I don’t see anything wrong in the world or in my life, but I tend to try to find the hope in a situation. Sometimes that means thinking of the best case scenario as well as the worst case one. Sometimes it means brainstorming what I might be able to control myself in order to turn things around. Other times it’s more of a blind hope–things might suck now, but things do change. (Tuesday’s blog post is a great example: We might not have a strong space program now, but that doesn’t mean there will never be one in the future.)The problem with hope is that it sometimes persists past the point of reasonable returns. We have such an ethos in our culture of not being a quitter, of persistence as a virtue, of not giving up. Many times these are beliefs that hold us in good stead and keep us going when things become difficult. But there is a line that we don’t want to cross, beyond which is the Sea of Wishful Thinking.

The Sea of Wishful Thinking, for all that it has a poetical name, is a painful place in which to reside. It is from this place that we continue to try, even though in our heart of hearts, we understand (or at least suspect) that things aren’t going to work out the way we want. We continue to hope even in the face of odds that are truly insurmountable. Perhaps there is still hope in the bigger picture (or perhaps not), but we continue to obsess over the battle that we are consistently losing.

The difficulty, then, is determining whether we are indeed in the Sea of Wishful Thinking, or whether we’re still dwelling in the Realm of the Possible and have merely fallen victim to a passing Dark Despair Cloud. If the latter, then by holding fast, we can wait out the cloud and still have the potential of a positive outcome. And indeed, in most ambitious endeavors, there will be times when we have to hang on even though things seem bleak. If the former, then at some point we will need to cut hope loose and move on to some more promising possibilities.

Hope can be a beautiful sentiment, but ultimately it is a tool we can use for both the good and the not so good. It can trick people into thinking they don’t need a practical plan, or it can keep someone going until they reach the next stage of mastery. It can bring the strength needed to survive, or it can offer someone an excuse not to take responsibility for themselves. I think as soon as we become aware that hope can both help and hinder us, we are better able to recognize how we’re using it. But sometimes its promise will burn too brightly for us to see clearly, and sometimes it will gutter and die too soon. Perhaps that is part of what it is to be human.

Hope springs eternal, the saying goes. But it is up to us to decide how we are going to use it.

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