Monday, September 13, 2010

Attach. Release. Repeat.

"Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world; it's accepting that they go away."
Shunryu Suzuki

I used to pride myself on being unattached to things. I liked to say that I could fit all my possessions into my car, and that's the way I liked it. I couldn't imagine that motherhood would change me into a thing collector, hanging onto ancient pacifiers and faded locks of hair. My humbling proceeded swiftly, when the day came that I had to admit, really admit, that my daughter had outgrown her first wardrobe—the truly tiny, surely no one is this small, hats and shoes, shirts and pants, dresses and pajamas. “We have to keep this one,” I said to my husband, clutching the giraffe sleeper I had put her in at the hospital. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I felt almost sick. I couldn’t remember which of the white hospital shirts was the first one she had ever worn and I wanted to know because I wanted to keep that one.

As it turned out, I wanted to keep almost everything. I felt my attachment like a hot hand clutching the core of my being—the very same attachment that Jesus, the Buddha, Patanjali, and myriad other enlightened masters have clearly pegged as the source of all human suffering. Clinging to the material world creates pain because whatever you are clinging to will absolutely, positively, no two ways about it, change. Disappear. Transform into something different. Become obsolete. Case in point: the teeny tiny giraffe sleeper bag. And of course, it wasn’t the clothes I couldn’t bear to let go. What I couldn’t bear to let go was already irretrievably gone.

When you hold something beautiful and sublime in your hungry hands--your baby, your lover, a moment, a phase--you want to hold onto it forever. It's human nature. And yet, letting go, over and over and over again, is the only sane response. Being a mother seems to be all about this paradox, of needing to hold on and contain and attach profoundly to our children--that's the job--followed by the necessity of letting go, with some measure of confidence, but absolutely no guarantees--that's also the job. We have to do both. We have to embody, daily, these opposite impulses. It's not easy. This is why there's so much weeping at graduations and weddings and the first day of Kindergarten--the sadness of what is passing and the joy of what is coming to be arise simultaneously in equal and opposite measure and the next thing you know, your mascara is running down your face and your kids are embarrassed.

In the end, I kept two tiny hats and a pair of shoes, and you can pry them from my cold, dead fingers when I finally give up the ghost. They are symbols of the ego softening truth of impermanence and my own human frailty. And, I can fit them in my car, in my glove compartment, even. I'm still like, totally Zen, right?


  1. Beautiful. I just walked into the kitchen and checked the bulletin board to make sure the little hat the nurses made for Isa in the hospital was still pinned up there. Yup, it’s there 31/2 years later.

  2. Perfect. I was so ambivalent about Grace starting kindergarten, I waited until the day before to enroll her. I also remember going through piles of baby clothes deciding which were too precious to let go. I whittled it down to one small plastic tub, which was then lost in a move. I finally realized that the memories and pictures I have of her in those clothes are all I need. And Grace herself, present but ever-changing, clinging and pushing me away. It's beautiful and heartbreaking to watch kids grow, isn't it? But like, totally Zen.

  3. I love this metanoia of yours ( - see the 'strengthening' definition

    "When you hold something beautiful and sublime in your hungry hands--your baby, your lover, a moment, a phase--you want to hold onto it forever."

    When you say 'phase' you take it beyond objects or others and connect what we can lose to our identity(ies) themselves, or at least our temporary conceptions of them.

    Who am I if I am not the me I think I am?

  4. You couldn't have said it better.

  5. I like what Ersatz Bling said (what a great name!). Wonderful inclusion of the word and idea of a "phase". It's all a passing phase. I'm in one now that is probably already concluding before I can even fully become conscious of how attached I am. Agh!

    I think motherhood provides the lessons for becoming a black belt in relinquishment. It's up to us to practice and improve. Thanks for the lovely reminder. I always enjoy reading you. :)

  6. Mick,
    Your writing is just fantastic. This is such a moving, beautiful piece.