The Joy Menu #13: Letting Go
Your intrepid author considers the act of letting go as a metaphor for creative expression — or at least as a way to forgive his mother for a long-ago cookie incident.
For those of you following the telenovela of my creative life, you’ll know that I’ve recently rounded the corner on a novel draft I’m writing based events that occurred in my life some 20 years ago. The other substantial creative project I’m working on is set in a life chapter that completed itself 12 years go.
Both of these are projects I started at the time of their occurrence. Like wine, it turns out, my stories develop body and flavor with the passage of time. (And maybe also a higher ABV percentage.)
Spoiler alert: I struggle to let go. Or, put in positive terms: I carry my life experiences with me like large, uncut gems, taking them out on occasion to study them, microscope in hand. Only, I’m not usually gazing in awe at their beautiful, unique complexities, but trying to understand why they’re so damn heavy, and why I can’t leave them behind.
Perhaps their full and complete expression as fictional — artistic — artifacts will do the trick. That’s the theory at least.
How to Make Art of Your Disasters Rather Than a Disaster of Your Art
I recently spent four months listening to hours of Buddhist lectures every day (#QuarantineHobby) while walking around town. While the experience was enriching and peaceful, it also introduced me to the concept of “sitting with your feelings.”
The idea being that in order to release ourselves from the cage of our most potent emotions, we have to sit quietly with those emotions, to face them, to experience them, and to let our bodies process them.
Yes! I thought. This I can do! This is what I was born for! And I began to. Effortlessly. Sometimes for hours. Sometimes all day and night. I’d unload all my feelings — those splintered, sharp-edged gems — lay them out in front of me, and stare deeply at their bumps, ridges, and points. “Why are you so heavy?” I’d ask. “Why are you so damn sharp?”
The problem, it turns out, is that there’s a difference between “sitting with your feelings” and processing those feelings in a disruptive — and ultimately freeing — way.
I remember one delightful lockdown day I sat with a feeling so long, I actually regressed back in time twenty years and fully lost track of twenty years’ growth, development, and distance.
It was unpleasant. My housemates were concerned. (As evidenced by my canine housemate who — usually not a licker — wouldn’t stop licking my face.)
I’d missed an essential aspect of “sitting with your feelings,” and I began to think that perhaps I was missing an essential aspect of “writing my feelings” as well. The release part. The letting go.
Was I using perfectionism, fear of judgement, a natural inclination to pick at scabs (and then pick at the scabs’ scabs, ad infinitum) to avoid letting go of my personal tragedies, my imperfect stories, my hard, lopsided feelings — those pruned, glittering gems?
Once, when I was little, my family took a trip to Palm Springs. My father had to be there for work, and since we’d never been — and we rarely had the money to “travel” in that era of family life — we all went along.
It was meant to be a relaxing, enjoyable escape. We’d been promised dinosaur sculptures and a hotel pool, which, for three wee kiddos (aged 3, 6, and 9), sounded about as luxurious as the Elysian Fields. Candy also seemed likely to be involved.
But as was my way in those days, I came down with something on the way there, and by the time we checked into the hotel I could hardly breath. Rather than enjoy the pool (It was indoors! Such exquisite novelty!) I was whisked away by my father to the Urgent Care, while my mother was left behind to wrangle my younger brother and older sister.
I don’t remember what happened at the Urgent Care. I often visited Urgent Cares in those days. Most likely, I was having a asthma attack; it was probably a precursor to my thrice-yearly bronchitis or halfway to one of my annual bouts with pneumonia. Either way, let’s assume I was given a nebulizer treatment, loaded up with Ventolin and antibiotics and told to go home and sleep.
What I do remember, however, was that when I did get back to the hotel, my life changed. And not for the better.
I can still see the scene vividly in my mind’s eye: the shadowed hotel room, dark in contrast to the blazing desert sunshine gleaming in through the hanging blinds, the two big beads pressed along one wall, the unfolded cots for my brother and I, the TV we weren’t allowed to watch — and in the poorly stocked kitchenette, my brother and sister standing gleefully apart, each with a face-sized cookie from Mrs. Fields.
And no cookie for me.
Did you catch that? There was no cookie for me.
Without belaboring the scene, I will say a few things: 1) I was fine. I recovered, to cough and wheeze another day. And 2), it took me a dozen years to forgive my mother for not getting me a cookie that day.
My adult mind understands: she was worried, left alone with two restless kids, looking for ways to entertain and cajole, uncertain when I’d return, and if I’d be OK, healthy, or have an appetite when I did — let alone have the vengeful rage of a needy middle child.
But at the time, I found the slight to be incontrovertible proof that I was unloved, forgotten, of minimal importance, literally the only eternally overlooked child. I raised that lopsided gem high above my head, glared across the kitchenette at my guilt-ridden mother, and pledge to never, ever put it down.
For years, a common refrain in my household, from loving son to more loving mother, was: “But you owe me a cookie.”
It didn’t matter how many cookies she got me. She had to get me a cookie and take cookies from my siblings in order to make it right.
Did I Mention I Struggle to Let Go?
For me, moving through my feelings usually means literally moving. Walking. Exercising. Breathing. Relocating to a new country, or finding a new job.
That’s why my creative goals today have more to do with engagement and release than with development and perfection. (Hence, a weekly newsletter — sent out the day it’s written — rather than say, a “collection of essays,” hoarded in a drawer and submitted, at a snail’s pace, to journals, editors, arbiters of dreams.)
I hope that by giving away everything I have, I’ll not only find more to bucket out once the murky, stagnant water is gone, but that once the water line falls, I’ll find some new gems underneath. Gems that I’ll marvel at, and then also give away. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the process of hoarding and sitting with my feelings: there’s no need for me to hold on to what’s hurt me in the past. New indignities (and joys!) are always on the horizon — whether they be fresh topics for stories or fresh fuel for personal growth.
Today, I am working through the second draft of that age-worthy novel; the goal is to get it over with, make it good enough, and then move on. The novel alone won’t heal the pain it seeks to understand, just as the child inside of me won’t ever get the exact cookie it was denied so many years ago in Palm Springs.
But that exact cookie never was. So it’s time to stop chasing it.
I call that healing. I call it letting go.
I call it living onwards —
to creative joy,
p.s. Mom, you don’t owe me a cookie. I owe you one. Or fifty.