We hear a lot about the wisdom of letting go. Letting go is often recommended by daytime television hosts and their guests. It’s almost a panacea for all the ailments of modern life.
There are, of course, many things that should be let go, and some of them the quicker, the better. There is nothing to be gained from holding on to a grudge, a bad relationship or an angry cat. We appreciate the old adage about how holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal and expecting it to burn someone else.
We do hold on to our memories, at least the ones that help us. If we are lucky enough to survive into old age with our memories intact, or if we live so long that we have more memories than we have family or friends, we don’t just hold those memories, we cling to them like the life preserver they have become.
As is the case with so many of the choices that make up our lives, we seek a middle path, and we don’t worry too much about popular opinions and catch phrases. We hang on to the memories that help us. We let go of the ones that don’t, or that no longer have anything to teach us.
These are the things we think of as we’re sorting through the contents of the old family home and preparing for an estate sale. The old house holds many memories, and we’re beginning to understand how people can become pack rats when they get a little older. “Things” are just things, granted, but some things preserve memories and focus them. Our parents saved things from their own childhood as well as ours. Old toys, children’s books, tools and trinkets, all carefully wrapped and labeled and packed away in the hope, perhaps, that someone some day would unwrap them and remember.
The pocket knife your dad always carried, the one he peeled apples with, and cut walking sticks when he hiked with you in the woods, that knife is more than just a thing. Your mom’s sewing kit that she always brought out when she mended your jeans or added a new decoration to your Christmas stocking, is more than just a thing. Even a weathered but sturdy old screen door is more than just a thing when it slams with exactly the same sound as it did when you were in the second grade. It is a time travel device.
The perfectly seasoned cast iron skillet your mother never allowed anyone else to clean is more than just a thing. Every time you use it to make cornbread, she’s right there with you. (And it’s still perfectly seasoned.) Your dad’s jacket and hat that have been hanging on the same peg in the basement for decades are more than just things. Every time you go down the stairs and see them out of the corner of your eye, even though he’s been gone for many years, it’s just like he never left. It’s hard to take these things down, to remove them from their accustomed places.
But we do take them down, eventually. We let go of the old to make room for the new. This is a fundamental, and inescapable, feature of this physical reality. But sometimes it seems as if American popular culture encourages us to let go too quickly. We don’t remember what happened last year, last week, or even what happened in the last paragraph if it’s longer than a text. We tear down our old buildings and cut down our century-old trees. This may prove to be a disadvantage when we have rivals on this small planet who honor their ancestors who lived a thousand years ago and make plans for 200 years into the future.
Today, as we visit with the past, we are not overly concerned with what happens 200 years from now, but there is some consolation in knowing that a new family will move into our old house and someone else will hang their hat and jacket on the peg. Someone else will grow up slamming the screen door and filling the house with memories they will come to cherish one day. Nothing can stop the turning of the circle of life. We hold on as long as we can, until it is time to let go.