We often find ourselves in this dilemma. There’s something in our life we’ve—at one point—determined to hold onto, to steward, to keep safe, to hide as a treasure. Time goes by and we begin to realize we’ve got to loosen our grip, possibly even turn it loose completely. But how can we justify to ourselves it’s the right thing to do? Can’t we just hold onto it a little longer? What if…?
This can be a feeling of attachment for things we own, for relationships we are in, or even for ideas or ideologies to which we feel a kinship. It’s as if—once we’ve allowed them entrée into our lives—their presence becomes so intertwined with us, it is exponentially harder to extricate them. In many cases, when we do release our hold and let them go, there’s a pang of loss not easily quenched.
Stuff You Own
I believe my mother was the first person to help me work through this concept. We were German, back then, living in Wiesbaden, and I was doing something with my cousin, Mario. Evidently, there was a favorite toy I wanted to act ‘territorial’ over when he showed an interest in playing with it, too. Before it turned into a battle of wills, my Mom stepped in and told me, “Lass ihn jetzt damit spielen. Sie werden es später haben, weil es Ihnen gehört.” (Translation: “Let him play with it now. You’ll have it later, because it’s yours.”) And, you know, that worked for me; I let Mario have a blast with any of my stuff, knowing I’d still have it later. He did the same for me. Win-win!
Many years later, after moving to the United States, my Mom demonstrated another principle of sharing that would’ve cut a little deeper if she hadn’t walked me through the reason. It was near the holiday season and I was expecting a few new toys. Several weeks before Christmas, she asked me to take stock of the things I already had…and which ones I felt I could part with. What? “But, Mom! This is all my stuff!” She reminded me that some of what I owned, I hadn’t utilized in quite a while. I still didn’t want to turn loose of those things. Then she explained, in English laced with a German accent, saying my name with a long ‘ō’ and a drawn-out ‘ăh’, “Thomas, there are children who have nothing, get nothing, for this holiday. You have so much. Can you give of your excess to make them happy?” Oh. Well…yes, I could. And did.
Over a lifetime, it’s taken me lots of practice to quell my innate possessiveness, my territorial streak, in order to stop clutching at things and realize it’s just stuff. I’ve learned to steward the things most important and most useful to me, sharing or giving away those items I don’t really need to people who might. It’s allowed me to travel lighter, unencumbered within my surroundings and within my own mind.
Relationships are a lot trickier than dealing with stuff. After all, we never truly own another person, even if we marry them, or if they’re born into our family. Each person is unique and grows into their own individual personality, eventually fashioning a life separate from our own. Even friendships and acquaintances are in a constant state of flux. Whether you live in one town all your life, or if you’re a globe-trotting world traveler, you’ve got to remember you’re only given one life to live.
Losing loved ones is the hardest “letting go” I’ve ever experienced. My Dad passed away over a decade ago, ravaged by cancer. My Mom passed away a few years ago from complications of old age and surgery. Our youngest daughter passed away at the tender age of twenty years and fifteen days, leaving us to wonder why she thought this world was too terrible to remain in it. I’m sure each of you has similar experiences within your own families, tragedies and losses only you’ve been privy to.
Realizing none of us gets out of this life alive is a flippant way to express that truth, yet we’ve all had to acknowledge its veracity. Every single one of us dies. There’s no getting around it; if you’re born, you will at some point die. So, really, when this happens—not if—we shouldn’t be surprised. But…we are. Almost inevitably, we are caught off-guard by death. “I didn’t know she was sick.” “It was a tragic auto accident.” “I’m sorry, Ma’am. He was killed in the line of duty.” “She was so young…had so much to look forward to…why would she…?”
And we cry or get angry or try to figure out all the ways things would have been different if only we’d… Done what? Once someone we love passes away, we have to find some measure of peace about the finality of it. It can be terribly difficult to decide what mementos—part of the person’s life—we keep (because they help us remember them with fondness) and which we get rid of (because we know they’ll stir up emotions too forceful to deal with). It’s a balancing act, and we don’t always get it right.
This emotional tightrope walk also holds true among the living. I’m talking about personal relationships we either cultivate or choose to prune out of our lives. How many of you are still in the dating scene? You have to make decisions every time you’re with someone new, even with the one you’re starting to find some common ground. Keeper, or kicked to the curb?
With friends, the process may take years to manifest a change. You’ve known Joe ever since you were kids, but over the last few years he’s drifted into the drug scene, jeopardizing his health and lifestyle, as well as entangling you in the mess. Is it time to cut the ties, or to force an intervention to get him clean again?
Family and relatives are the hardest to handle when it comes to holding on or letting go. Ever seen a family where someone was labeled as a ‘black sheep’ and ostracized for years, maybe decades? Have you also seen parents who will go to any lengths to protect their kids, despite the fact their kids are breaking laws or harming themselves, and don’t intend to change their behavior…ever? Where do you draw the line? When do you say the idiocy is enough and things have to change, even if it means letting go?
Beliefs and Ideologies
Alright, that’s the bit about stuff and about people. What about our entrenched ideologies or traditions? Have you found yourself waking up to a dichotomy in the way you handle your lifestyle, suddenly aware there’s a disconnect between what you’ve been taught all along and the reality of a situation? Conversely, were you that rebellious one who refused to toe the line, wouldn’t conform, fought against authority…only to realize there’s a wee bit of safety in the establishment of certain rules? When you came to your senses, did you have a knee-jerk reaction and turn everything upside-down, and travel 180 degrees in the other direction? Or were you more circumspect, weighing all the information, judging the ‘what works’ against the ‘shit, that ain’t right’ so you could find a healthy middle ground? Again, decisions. Decisions only you can make. What to leave in and what to leave out.
Control of Your Writing
While we’re examining thought processes, let’s take this idea into the realm of you and your stories. Are you the kind of Writer who wants to be intimately involved with every aspect of the construction of your novel, because…like…OCD? Do you have a hard time divesting yourself of any responsibilities—even the smallest ones—because you fear someone else will screw things up? On the other end of the spectrum, are you the Writer who only wants to WRITE, handing over all the drudge work to the plebeians who get paid to prettify your work? Do you really trust them to leave your important ideas intact, so they go out into the world in all their glory?
In either case, let me recommend that when—not if—you enlist the aid of outside sources to bring your precious little baby book into the world, look for folks who have a similar focus and who you can trust. Do you think you’re such an immaculate writer there aren’t any SPAG (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) errors in your work? Trust me; there are. You can even go so far as to have checked it yourself dozens of times, felt like it was good to go, hit the PRINT button, and—lo and behold!—what’s this on page 217? The word ‘there’ instead of ‘their’, and the spellchecker didn’t catch it! What about plot holes, continuity disconnects, character descriptions you thought were consistent? (A close Reader friend informed me large ruminant animals, like horses and cows, don’t lap water. They suck it into their mouths. And I had written THREE occurrences in my Novel of a horse lapping water. Doggone it! Revision 2.) Get another pair of eyes on your manuscript before you send it to the publisher.
“A poet can survive everything but a misprint.” — Oscar Wilde
Book publishing these days comes in myriad shapes and sizes, and you’ve got to find your correct fit. You’ll need to make some very telling—sometimes radical—decisions concerning how much control to keep or let go for any given step of the process. Be prepared for some missteps along the way, but rest assured, most of them are recoverable errors. Be patient with the entire process. Be responsible for your choices. Be proud when you get through it all and your story is available for everyone who wants to read it. At every stage, at every turn, be cognizant of what to hold onto and what to let go.
When I started considering this idea, several classic rock & roll songs immediately sprang to mind. “Hold on Loosely” by .38 Special, and Bob Seeger‘s song “Against the Wind” that addresses the quandary of ‘what to leave in, what to leave out.’ I chose not to mention these tunes until the end, because they may have kept running through your mind as you read. Could’ve been distracting. Now, go ahead; reread the blog and use one (or both) of the songs for your soundtrack.