Faith, Life

Letting Go

 

letting go by

 

Up in the attic

Down on my knees

Lifetimes of boxes

Timeless to me

Letters and photographs

Yellowed with years

Some bringing laughter

Some bringing tears

Time never changes the memories

The faces of loved ones

Who bring to me

All that I come from

And all that I live for

And all that I’m going to be

My precious family

Is more than an heirloom to me

 

– Heirlooms, by Amy Grant, E. Brown Bannister, Robert B. Farrell

 

We’re packing up.  We’re sorting and boxing and discarding and selling and giving away.  And as we sift through our old boxes, we unearth forgotten treasures: preschool crafts; birthday trinkets; photos and notes and cards and souvenirs…  We chuckle over the inexpert scribbles from our Kindergarteners and the funny messages from our fledgling writers, and we grow misty-eyed over images of their sweet baby and toddler years.

It can be difficult to know what to hold onto.

The temptation is great to just keep everything, especially for a sentimentalist like me; these scraps of paper and pieces of our children’s history so powerfully invoke my memory of our family’s early years.  Each item is like an amulet, with the power to transport me to the past – and I treasure this, because without such talismans the years we’ve left behind can become just a blur of wiping noses – changing nappies – feeding-soothing-cuddling-correcting-teaching…  But these precious keepsakes have piled up, even in our seven short years of living here – there is too much to store; too much to move across the seas.

And so I am sorting.  I’m sifting through, and I’m learning to let go.  Now everything goes into one of three piles: recycle, keep, and photograph.  One of the boons of living in this digital age is that almost any memento can be scanned or photographed and saved onto a memory stick that takes up a fraction of the original object’s space.  Thus piles of papers, mounds of clay-work, libraries of schoolbooks, and closets full of clothes with sentimental value can be distilled into a single photobook, or just saved indefinitely (and eventually forgotten about) in cyberspace.  This is the way life is; the things we cling to – those that seem so important at one stage – may be more easily parted with as the years go by.

I learned this lesson in a different way last summer.  After a number of years with an unstable shoulder joint, I finally dislocated it so badly that it didn’t automatically pop back into place as it had always done previously.  As I waited for the ambulance to arrive, I cradled my arm tightly in the other arm to try to minimize the pain of shifting the joint.  Regardless, my muscles periodically tensed up in excruciating spasms until my prayers were answered and the shoulder spontaneously relocated – just before the EMTs arrived.

Later (in the months before I had surgery to fix the damaged ligament), I asked my physio what I should do if the injury recurred.  His advice?  Basically to do the opposite of what I had done: instead of holding my arm tighter, it would have been more helpful for me to let go.  What I really should have done was to dangle my arm in as loose a manner as possible, so that it could drop out of the wrong position and pop back into place.  Letting go was the answer.

How often do we do the opposite of what we should do, though?  How often are we so afraid to let go that we hold tightly in the hopes that this will minimize the pain?

Letting go is not easily done.  It is an act of faith.  It’s a declaration of hope in the future as we move beyond the comfort of the past.  We don’t let go of everything, but nor do we cling to it because we are fearful of the future.

 

Let me hold lightly the things of this earth.
Transient treasures, what are they worth?
Moths can corrupt them, rust can decay,
All their bright beauty fades in a day.

Let me hold lightly temporal things,
I who am deathless, I who wear wings.
Let me hold fast, Lord, things of the skies,
Quicken my vision, open my eyes.

Show me Thy riches, glory and grace,
Boundless as time is, endless as space.
Let me hold lightly things that are mine
Lord, Thou dost give me all that is Thine.

-‘Hold Fast True Riches’, by Martha S. Nicholson

These little mementoes of our history; these treasures from our time here in this house, in this community, are precious because they are a key to our past.  But I am learning to release things so that I am free to embrace the promise of our future.  I am learning to ‘hold lightly the things of this earth.’

I am learning the art of letting go.

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Faith, Philosophy, Reflection

Nostalgia

Family farewell

Sometimes it seems to me that my whole life has been a series of goodbyes.

I left my first home in South Africa before I can remember. And I have left it and my loved ones there many times since.  Parting is ever more bittersweet as the years go by; my returns have been fewer and farther in between, and each time I have gone back there have been changes in the family and places I hold dear.

My childhood was filled with arrivals and departures; I experienced many wonderful adventures across the globe, but also many farewells.  Many, many forever farewells.

I can still remember the smell of the aviation fuel and hot tarmac as we trod on Sri Lankan soil for the last time, all those years ago.  That country, at once so foreign and so familiar, had been my home for most of my remembered childhood – and I was caught up in an indefinable melding of joy and sadness in that departure.  We were returning to a place of greater comfort and the embrace of family, but we were leaving the land in turmoil – not knowing if we’d ever return; knowing that, if we did, nothing would be the same again.

Those airport smells, even now, bring back so many memories of places I have been and people I have loved.  It is said that that the sense of smell is, in fact, the most evocative of nostalgia.

Nostalgia – this is one of those words I far prefer in French: nostalgie.  Instead of sounding like a Victorian complaint, it somehow sighs off the tongue with a kind of whispery sensation reminiscent of the feeling itself.  Because nostalgia is, by definition, ephemeral.  It enters, encircles your heart, tugs at happiness, and is gone.

I felt it just the other day. We were having lunch in a heritage building and as I walked through a hallway I detected the scent of old wood and some fragrance forgotten but locked away in the recesses of my memory, and it took me right back into the home of my paternal grandparents.  Tears sprang to my eyes before I could stop them, and for a moment my heart was leaden with grief for a time and place to which I can never return, for those people in whose presence I always felt safe, and loved, and special.

Another time the smell of a hand soap at my parents-in-laws house in Auckland transported me to a happy memory of a holiday in Holland with a special aunt and uncle; another beloved aunt had given my mother a vial of scented hair oil (such a beautiful perfume!) and I remember her dripping some into my long brown hair before I wafted downstairs for dinner, feeling so grown-up (at about age eight).  With that first squirt of the soap it felt like I’d stepped into a time machine – so potently did it evoke those memories – and I rushed downstairs to ask my mother-in-law where she had purchased it.  From then on it was the only soap I would buy, and I found myself often raising my hand to my face to breathe in the comfort of that familiar scent.

There are plenty of other things that can be guaranteed to bring on a bout of nostalgia, too.

  • Weather:
    • Mist reminds me of a little town in Belgium; it was a foggy fall day when I first visited and fell in love with this romantic place.  Now all misty days are ‘Bruges Days’ to me.
    • Clear blue skies on a cold, dry day bring me right back to my mother’s hometown in South Africa and all the sights, smells and people I remember from my visits there.
    • Tastes & scents – too many to name/specify
    • Colour:  there is a very particular pink that is symbolic to me of comfort and coziness; I think that it was the colour of my bath-towel at my grandmother’s house.

Nostalgie is, no doubt, as strong a sensation to many people as it is to me; but most particularly, I think, to those whose lives have been characterised by change.  Impermanence has been more a part of my life than constancy, but I do not say this to elicit pity. Nostalgia is a part of me, and I would not know myself without it. Indeed, I feel that it is a blessing to breathe in these memories and to dwell in them for just a moment as they become real to me once again.

There is great comfort in the past because, of course, it is known.  And no matter how many great and exciting things we might have planned, the future is still unknown.  It is this desire to cling to the familiar that causes ex-prisoners to yearn for a return to their lives behind bars; to some, it may prove easier to forfeit freedom for a cloistered cell than to live with the uncertainty of the outside world.  Other people may feel it as a yen for ‘the good old days’.

But I wonder if nostalgie is more than just a wistful longing for a return to the familiar.  I wonder if, at a deeper level, nostalgia is actually a yearning for the heart’s true home.  For, when we feel nostalgic about something isn’t it often because the place, person, or time about which we reminisce gave us a sense of being home?  Isn’t nostalgia actually a kind of homesickness for a connection, a comfort, a sanctuary that we have known at some time in our lives?

And if our hearts – and our souls – are longing for a return home, then there is a truth on which I can hang my hat. This life is not the end of our story.  Maybe that sense of homecoming we experience with nostalgia is but a taste of what’s to come – an echo of our soul’s true home – and a reminder of the One to whom we really belong.

For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

-Hebrews 11:14-16

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