I went down an Internet rabbit hole the other day that was so deep I eventually wondered if somebody much wiser should invent a search-and-rescue app for the digitally lost, those of us with a perpetual curiosity and propensity for being led off course by Google.
I can’t even remember how it started or what exactly I was looking for. All I know is that eventually I was staring at those cheesy Pinterest-worthy inspirational quote images that only speak to your soul when you’re desperate for some wisdom your brain just cannot provide. I guess that’s where I was—in my living room asking the World Wide Web to lead me somewhere more enlightened. What could possibly go wrong?
I arrived on this picture with a sage background and black block letters: “You only lose what you cling to.” It was attributed to Buddha, in a red blocky font.
I was skeptical of that attribution (try as I might, I can’t turn my journalist switch off in my free time). And I had already burrowed so far down into the digital void, I bravely forged onward to discover it’s a “fake Buddha quote,” though it does carry a certain Buddhist tone. I assume that means somebody else said or wrote it, but I don’t know who that is—and it was past my bedtime, my phone battery was dying and I was too lazy to plug it in, so the mystery continues.
Regardless of the origins, in the light of day the following morning, I was still thinking about its meaning. As we enter the fourth month of 2018, not a day has gone by that I haven’t grappled with a decision about whether to keep something or let it go, be it clothing, furniture, old books, my childhood home…or less tangible things like relationships, ideas, contracts, time, emotions, and responsibilities.
What was moving me to hang on to some aspects of my life and simply release others? And have I been doing it right? The quote was pushing me to evaluate.
I kicked this year off by going back to the house my parents built when I was three. Nothing forces you to prioritize wants and needs faster than the task of cleaning out a 5,000-square-foot home that has been occupied by the same family for 40 years.
I watched my older brother meticulously ponder every belonging—his, ours, my mother’s, my father’s—and decide that nearly everything he found was worth keeping. Meanwhile, I threw stuff on the donation, junk, and consignment piles with abandon. My collection of items to ship to Arizona was modest and meaningful. My original copy of Charlotte’s Web, a couple of rugs, a leather chair, photo albums, and my first writing desk, a seventh birthday gift from my parents that provided a space to discover what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Giving up the grander things, like the house itself, came easily. And I’ve since discovered that a lot of people think that’s weird, offering well-meaning condolences when it came up in casual conversations.
“Oh, that’s so hard. I’m sorry,” they say with empathy and kindness.
I found nothing emotionally difficult about selling that house. When we drove away for the final time, all I felt was relief. It was more complex for my brother and mom. Their attachment to the brick and mortar was deeper, more sentimental, and perhaps in some respects, more “normal” than mine.
I didn’t shed a tear, though, despite the fact that 541 Hilltop Road was always a home. The red door was always open, my Laura Ashley-themed time capsule of a bedroom ready for my occupation whenever I needed it, my entire life, no questions asked. I can hear the giggles of slumber parties, the belly laughs of swim and cross-country team pasta dinners, the Eagles and John Denver tunes serving as the soundtracks to family gatherings and grandparent visits, the clink of Manhattan glasses on a Friday night as the grownups relished happy hour, the smell of a summer dinner grilling on the deck after a long day at the pool.
But I also remember peering through the big bay family room window on a chilly December night in 1987, seeing close family friends bearing Kleenex in their hands, heads bowed, embracing each other as I walked through that red front door with my swim bag over my shoulder and an expanding mix of anxiety and emptiness growing in my stomach.
“Your dad. He didn’t make it,” my mom said, standing in front of the kitchen table.
While I was at swim practice, he had a major cardiac event while working out on a NordicTrack in the basement. He died at age 40.
And maybe it was then that I realized that a house in and of itself couldn’t be a safe haven—it’s just a thing, like all the rest of the things, and its sense of comfort and safety is something you pack up and take with you, along with the family silver and your copy of Charlotte’s Web.
Cliché as it is, the awakening so far this year is that geography and belongings and people can’t provide peace or personal happiness—you have to come with those already ingrained and then choose the peripherals that enhance, perpetuate, and complement them, while letting go of those that don’t. It’s easy to get rid of what (or whom) you don’t need if you’re good with yourself.
Perhaps that was the purpose of my great interwebs adventure the other night—a roundabout discovery that somebody once said, “you only lose what you cling to.” And she was absolutely right.