After a visit to the roman catacombs when she was ten, a childhood friend of mine became unable to cut her fingernails, to let even the smallest piece of something that once belonged to her go. Inadvertently dropping a Kleenex into a gutter in Florence, she wept when the rainwater bore it away.
Though I don’t weep for lost Kleenex or nail clippings, I feel very close in temperament to my almost pathologically retentive friend. Even after years of meditation practice, I still have a powerful resistance to letting go. Whether it’s people, animals, or things that I’ve loved, I want them to be with me always—as in an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb, where the lover, the cat, the papyrus scrolls, and the household goods all come along for the ride.
Every time I go on retreat, by the third day I find myself mourning the gold charm bracelet that my grandmother gave me when I was a girl and that was stolen from me in college.
I’m fifty-one years old now, and I sit on my zafu, remembering every charm from my grandmother’s travels, as if I were counting rosary beads: the Eiffel Tower, the British bobby’s hat, the Egyptian scarab, the Jerusalem chalice. . . . I used to feel mortified by such a blatantly materialistic fixation—but over time, I’ve come to see the gold bracelet as a kind of alchemist’s distillation of everything I’ve ever lost. And life itself: the grandmother adding charms. . . .
If I’m a failure at letting go, there’s something I have gotten better at, and that’s letting in. Indeed, this seems to be the only way I can let go, by letting in.
For instance: my grandmother.
Not the extravagant grandmother who traveled the world and sent me gold charms, but my other grandmother, whose name was Grace. She had pure white hair and very blue eyes and she wore only blue. Her dresses were blue, and her jewelry was lapis lazuli or sapphire. From her quiet and refined manner, you’d never guess how adventurous she’d been. She was among the first generation of social workers under Jane Addams’s tutelage, and as a very young woman she braved everything from the tumult of Chicago settlement houses to Alabama coal miners’ camps.
The other day I had a sharp pang of missing her. But instead of leaking out through the pang into the painful dispersion of loss, I remembered to make that other movement: down, as if dropping into a well. And in that well, I felt so saturated with her—her blueness, her quiet strength, her sugar cookies, her surprisingly fierce game of croquet—that when I came up, I really didn’t care if she was alive or dead. Is this cheating?
If so, I know I’m in good company.
The poet Rilke wrote of his father:
Often, in childhood, my thoughts would become confused and my heart would grow numb at the mere idea that sometime he might no longer be; my existence seemed to me so wholly connected to him that to my innermost self his departure seemed like my own doom. . . . but so deep is death implanted in the nature of love that (if only we are not misled by the fear and horror we attach to it) it nowhere contradicts love: Where can it drive someone we have borne unutterably in our heart save into this very heart?
(Letter to the Countess Margot Sizzo, 1923)
For me, the most wonderful moments occur when, without any effort, I simply know that I can’t be separated from anything I love because, as Rilke says, there’s no where there. In the first second I laid eyes on my daughter, the veil between birth and death was so transparent that I knew, “If she dies now, we’ll still be together.” Yet by the next second, the heavy machinery of attachment was already so powerfully engaged that if I’d lost her, I would have gone berserk.
That’s how it is for me. I sit on my zafu, counting the beads of my losses, sometimes feeling just a hair’s breadth from going berserk, and sometimes letting myself fall into that great well where there’s no distance between me and anything I’ve ever loved.
This is the painful period that goes on for some time, months, even years. When someone we love dies, it’s not a single event. We keep on losing that person. At holidays, times of difficult decisions, or in those little personal moments we want to share, we are painfully confronted with the absence of the person we love. We see clearly the roles that person has played in our life, and we grieve for those also. We don’t just lose our wife when she dies. She’s the person who worked out all the battles with our kids, or made the money, or the one who touched our body with love and tenderness. When our parents die, we may find ourselves feeling fragile. They were the buffer between us and death, and suddenly we are more aware of our own mortality. This is the period when we feel most alone. Friends drop away in exhaustion. Others tell us to keep busy or to get on with our life. This is the individual’s fear of pain and our cultural predisposition toward avoiding anything unpleasant. Advice doesn’t help. Listening does.
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