Staying attached

I am with my parents, in the same house where I grew up, for the first time since 2015. My sister and her family are here, too. But her husband tested positive for COVID the day after they arrived—which was the day before our family arrived—and so their family immediately decamped for an Airbnb not far away. My sister is now following in her husband’s viral footsteps, four days behind.

With the time I’ve not been spending with my sister—when my children are distracted by Pokemon cards or old jewelry—I’ve taken up one of my favorite at-home pastimes: looking through the things I’ve saved and considering whether there’s been any change in my attachment levels. Is there anything I am now less attached to? Anything I am finally willing to let go of?

The last time I came home, I remember delighting in my newfound non-attachment to entire binders of college course notes and handouts, language quizzes and tests, homemade study sheets, opera program books, and all the hypothetical futures in which any of the above would have any utility or value whatsoever. Into the recycling bin it all went with a very satisfying thud.

This time, I started strong on Christmas Eve by recycling a collection of old posters from college orchestral concerts, high school and middle school winter musicals, and lower school presentations on crickets, giant pandas, the Titanic, and The Phantom Tollbooth. (I did take photos first.) On Christmas Day, I recycled a box of old business cards from a job I had in college. After that, all my college tuition receipts. After that, all the checks I ever wrote prior to 2003 or so, back when my bank still returned all my original checks back to me. After that, one measly college paper I wrote for a course called “The Atmosphere.”

I was starting to get annoyed with myself. No further growth in detachment? I seemed to have arrived at some fixed level of attachment to precisely everything that remained.

I studiously avoided the Rubbermaid of journals from middle school, high school, and college.

Then I rediscovered the large box of letters, postcards, correspondence, scribbled notes, gift tags, and other sentimental mementos. I plucked at random. No matter how random the thing I plucked, the thing instantly bloomed as a full-fledged, multivalent memory.

It was exhausting. I closed the box and pushed it away. Staying attached was feeling like harder work than letting go.

I wonder when and how people choose to remember what—and to what end? To preserve? To forget? To revive on demand like the scent of an old scratch-n-sniff sticker? To secret away, counting on an expiration date for embarrassment? To commemorate a former self? To re-love? To re-learn a hard lesson? To relish? To relinquish? To reflect?

Plucking here and there from the box, the act of remembering felt like an act of grace and will: grace for who we once were, and who we have become as a result; and the will to give meaning to a moment.

Especially as a parent, I experience the uncomfortable sensation of time slip slidin’ away, without meaning. (It’s one reason I started five years ago to note interesting things my children say throughout the year and then create a year-end compilation.) I question whether I am giving myself and those around me the grace to see who we really are right now, and whether I have enough will to see the possible meaning of each moment.

It’s another definition of ‘being present,’ I suppose—to be aware that perhaps this is not just another time that you are pouring milk into your coffee, or washing a child’s water bottle, or saying good-night, or closing the door behind you. It is not a moment to let go of so easily.

Nor is this moment, in which you and I are having a momentary meeting of minds across time and space. This is precious. This has meaning. You have meaning. I am here, making of it a memory.

What is this moment to you?


Thanks to George Tannenbaum, for introducing me to the following poem by W.H. Auden:

“Night Mail”

This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,

Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.

Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.

In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, Her climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends,
Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers’ declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled on the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s:

Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and hope for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?


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