The Art of Letting Go

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Why am I afraid of letting go?

Here I stand, dirt in hand, and yet dropping it on top of that casket feels like the hardest thing in the world.  It’s a funeral, so freezing up is allowed, and the rest of the line just passes me by.  A few mourners pat me on the shoulder, but I hardly feel it.  My gaze is fixed into the rectangular hole in the ground.

We try to sanitize death as much as we can, and maybe we should.  But that doesn’t take away what it means, what it does.  What it ruins.

Everyone has paid their respects now, and it’s just me standing in front of the grave waiting to be filled in.  Even now, with everyone watching my pathetic inability to act, I don’t want to move, because opening my hand means surrendering.  It means letting her go.  I know that holding onto this fistful of dirt won’t bring her back, but it will keep me frozen in time, stuck as close to her as I will ever be again. It’s all that’s keeping me from having to move on.

They played Amazing Grace earlier and my eyes were dry.  I was too numb to cry.  But now they’re playing that stupid 90’s song that she loved and I’m bawling.  I squeeze my kingdom of dirt a little harder.  Now even more than before, I know that I’m not letting go, and I’m not sitting down.

The song ends, and people are starting to leave.  I don’t turn around, but I can feel their glances.  Let them think what they will.  I’m not moving.

I hear whispered consultation behind me, and then my name.  The question mark hangs in the air until it’s clear that I’m not going to turn around.  A few of them just continue to stand there watching. They’re uncomfortable, for sure, but what is that to me? I lost her and she’s never coming back. I think I’m afforded my own measure of grief.

It’s such an odd tradition, sprinkling dirt over the casket. It’s not as if our pathetic contribution to the work makes any difference. Some minimum-waged worker who never met her, never cared for her, couldn’t tell the difference between her and every other corpse in this rotten place; he’ll still have to come over with a backhoe and fill in the grave. What does it matter if everyone attending the service drops in a fistful of dirt? It feels like giving up.

My hand is shaking and it’s turning white from how tightly I’m squeezing it shut. My name is spoken from behind again and I close my eyes, new tears coming. I frown and clench my jaw as I stare down into the abyss one more time. Then, I take my fistful of dirt and shove it into my coat pocket.

I turn around, keep my eyes on the ground, and I let them take me away. What do I care? What matters anymore? I can feel the weight of the damp dirt in my pocket as we walk, but I need it there. Letting go of it means letting her go. The final step.

So I don’t do it. I hold onto that soil as if it were a precious family heirloom. I take it home and place it in a jar, taking it to my bedside at night. I take it into town, where I have it set into a nice piece of glass, and then I place it on my mantel, except that I remove it whenever I go out. I have to take it with me. It is me. It’s not as small as it was when it was in the jar- the ornamentation made it bigger and heavier, but I take it with me nevertheless. Feels like giving up if I don’t. I have to carry it with me.

More and more of my days are spent fixated on this memorial. A wide, thick rectangle of glass with that same fistful of dirt exploding inside of it, keeping me locked in time to that day at her graveside. Without pictures I would have forgotten what she looks like. My shrine of dirt makes me remember what I need to know. My scars are precious to me. My wounds are kept close to my heart. My dirt memorial is with me always.

I find excuses now, years later, to shirk off others in favor of staying in and caressing my glass fixture filled with dirt. My work has suffered. My pain is constant. My devotion is unquestioned. Years, opportunities for happiness, and countless joys pass me by. How could I let them in? I am consumed with holding onto my fistful of dirt. I understand now that I must not only keep it with me always, I must always carry it. Its weight is oppressive, but I carry it still, for her. It is for me also.

Time stalks on unabated and I order a castle of thick, smoky glass built all around me and my precious memories. I no longer consider it safe to carry my handful of dirt cast in glass out into the world. Someone may dispute my right, the glass may break. It can never leave, so I can never leave. The commissioned walls of protection rise higher and higher, thicker and thicker. Guests pound on the doors of the great, cavernous fortress that I have built, but I ignore them and their cries of feigned pity. I ordered my doors built without hinges, the knobs on the outside only constructed out of obligation. I am encased in protection, alone, safe, and bitter. My holy fistful of dirt is before my eyes constantly. I regard it with all that I possess.

Who are they to judge me? My burden is a glorious one! Who have they lost? How could they know? How could they understand the magnificent and sublime suffering that I have gone through these many years, my youth now only a vague memory, my hands arthritic from clenching at the glass artifice that never leaves my arms. I have done what I needed to do, everyone else was too weak. No one understands. I am now only steps from the grave myself, a wasted life pined away in memoriam. I had to do it. It was inevitable.

Or, I suppose, I could have let the dirt drop all those years ago. I could have said goodbye and opened my hand. That is the other option.

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Ice and Clay

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They say that the same sun that melts the ice,

Hardens the clay. One spectacle, one star,

One to bless, one to mar, virtue and vice,

At the same artifice, shows who you are.

 

One will give up his shape in the bright rays,

How could he not? A heart of frost meeting,

The sun’s shiny greeting is overcome,

His shape and his self were always fleeting.

 

The other hardens and clings to his shape,

None can mold him, his resolute armor,

Will always honor his first form innate,

And will bake in scourge of day with ardor.

 

My prayer is that you would be water,

Fearless to lose yourself in awe of the majestic sun.

Learning From History

History

I am a big fan of a podcast called “Hardcore History.” It’s interesting to me for a number of reasons, not least among them that I love learning about history. I think that it is a very valuable thing, and I find it strange that despite our culture’s essentially ubiquitous familiarity with the famous quote, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” very few people bother to even learn history, much less learn from it. Dan Carlin’s podcast, “Hardcore History,” is a good place to start.

That said, here is what’s on my mind today. As I was listening to one of these podcasts the other day, the subject was on the buildup to World War I and the war itself, the podcaster made an interesting observation. He said that after the Napoleonic Wars in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was a fundamental shift in how wars were won. In times past, manpower, training, and strategy were mostly what determined the winner of a war. Yes, technology helped here and there. The English Longbow, the forging of steel, etc. Yet essentially war had not changed drastically in all of human history up to that point. (For those of you history buffs out there, we can certainly debate the merits of the phalanx versus the legion, the Mongolian advent of using a majority force equipped with ranged weapons, etc, but all of these things are innovations on the margin, and we will set them aside for now for the sake of brevity and cohesion.) Alexander the Great’s army could conceivably have faced the Carolingian army from a thousand years later and won.

After the Napoleonic Wars, this sort of thing was no longer the case. War technology was shifting so quickly that every fifteen years a new army would be able to utterly obliterate the army of fifteen years prior. The American WWII army would have ruined the American WWI army, which would have destroyed the American Spanish War army, which would have obliterated the civil war army, which would have easily conquered the revolutionary army. Never before in history had the mere fact that time had passed meant so much to a nation’s fighting ability. All of the sudden air warfare was on the scene as an entirely new, unstudied branch of war. Submarines became effective. Machine guns meant that a single man could wipe out an entire company if it was exposed. Every few years man surpassed the war-making ability of their ancestors, and historically speaking this was an anomaly.

Apart from being a fascinating topic of study for its own sake, this idea of technology allowing modern fighting forces to be so drastically superior to their forerunners makes me wonder how our worldview has been shaped as a people growing up in this world. Historically, it is bizarre that every fifteen years (less, even) a fighting force becomes overwhelmingly superior to what it once was, but we all grew up with the understanding that this is just how the world works. There is no question that great scientific and technological strides have been made (setting the moral debate aside for the moment), but I would offer this hypothesis: this trend of quick obsolescence makes us arrogant.

Most of us are not trying to be arrogant, I think, but there is this sort of tacit understanding that we are better than our fathers. That we’re more enlightened than our grandparents. That our great-grandparents were bigots and our great-great-grandparents were barbarians. Here is the problem with this widely accepted idea:

We stand on their shoulders.

In both a technological sense and otherwise we stand on their shoulders. I once read a book by scientific historian James Hannam (I believe it was in his book, forgive me if I err) in which he very poignantly asks the question, ‘If you had to demonstrate that the world revolves around the sun, could you do it?’ Some of you, perhaps, but I would wager not many, and those of you that can, remember that it is much easier to figure out a problem when you already know the correct solution. Our place in time was not by our own choosing. The triumphs of ages past do not belong to us. We are the dwarf who stands atop the shoulders of a giant, seeing farther than them both, but we forget that there is a giant beneath us, so we believe ourselves taller than any who have ever gone before us.

Man is still man. For all of our incredible war machines and instruments of labor and cars and airplanes and smart phones, these all yet require a person to operate them. I am well convinced that if we took an ancient Mesopotamian and adopted him into our society, after the culture shock wore off he could be coding in C++ in very little time. He could be taught how to drive a car. He could learn to do the things we do, because man doesn’t change and we are not smarter than our fathers. There is a lot to learn from them, in fact, but our arrogance often keeps us from doing so.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Believing those from the past to be inferior to ourselves is an excellent way to avoid learning from history.

Sarah

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“Sarah?”

The young brunette girl turned around, looking surprised.

“Yes?”

“Sarah McGlocklen?”

“That’s my name, yes. Who are you?”

The earnest, fedora-wearing gentleman set down his briefcase and wiped his forehead with a damp handkerchief. He appeared relieved.

“Oh, thank goodness. Jeepers, me, I thought I would never find you in this place. I hate shopping malls.”

Sarah raised an eyebrow at the strange young man who had called to her. She looked him up and down, but she didn’t seem to recognize him from anywhere. She wondered what he could possibly want.

The man in the fedora took her top to bottom scanning to mean something different. He blushed and put his hands out in front of him.

“Oh, no, Ms. McGlocken, I don’t mean to give you the wrong impression. I know that, well, I’ve been told that I have a certain allure, ha- but, ahem, that is not why I’ve stopped you.”

Sarah laughed at the absurdity of it all. The man was not particularly attractive to her, and she thought it was odd that his mind was so quick to arrive at romance.

“I have no impressions, Mr…?”

The man in the hat smiled and gestured back and forth with his hand. People continued to pass by on all sides in the crowded mall, but they paid no mind to Sarah and this stranger.

“Oh, no you don’t. No one gets the name. Almost everyone asks, if you can believe it. I suppose there’s a friendliness about me, too, that people want to know me, but no. You won’t see me again after this day, Ms. McGlocken.”

Sarah’s amusement faded and she began to feel uncomfortable.

“Why did you stop me?” she asked, folding her arms across her stomach. “And how do you know my name?”

“Well, the devil’s in the details, as they say, and I won’t bother you with the bureaucratic minutia- that’s a good word, minutia. Isn’t it? Ahem, anyway.”

The man knelt down and unbuckled his briefcase as Sarah looked on suspiciously. She couldn’t see inside from where she stood, but the man in the hat shuffled through a few papers, squinting at them and then deciding that he needed to wear his glasses, which he removed from his breast pocket. A look of distant focus came over him as he picked up papers, looked them over, and set them back. Sarah looked around, still clutching her arms around her middle.

“Ah, here we are,” the man said, rising from his place. He looked over the form in satisfaction, then handed it to Sarah. “I just need your signature here.”

Sarah let the man in the hat hold out the paper with a vague smile on his face. She made him wait several moments while she considered taking it, but the satisfaction in the stranger’s face never left. She took the form and began to look it over.

“Why do you need a signature from someone you don’t even know?” Sarah asked as she looked at the ornate heading at the top of the page. “Is this some kind of petition or something?”

The man chuckled.

“Oh, no, nothing of the sort. Just a simple matter of course, really. And we do know you- we know you quite well.” The fedora-wearing, mysterious man removed his glasses and picked up his briefcase as he spoke. “We know that for quite some time now you have been, well,” he chuckled, “having some luck with the fellows.” He winked. “You’ve practically leaped from man to man, and there’s no slowing down in sight. They make you feel pretty, you’ve learned how to bend their will to yours… it’s  a marvelous thing, really. Pull them in, make them chase you, and then drop them on their heads, ha- it’s a wonderful game, and you excel at it, Ms. McGlocklen.”

Sarah opened her mouth to speak, but no words came. She glanced from the man to the paper, then back to the man.

“But there is just this one, teensy issue,” the stranger continued, wrinkling his nose. “There’s this nagging bad feeling. Little twinges of baseless regret, absolutely baseless,” he said, shaking his head. “When you want to be a free woman! Feel the wind in your hair! Scatter the hearts and the bodies where you may! Anyway, ahem, this form is just a formality, the final step in the process of getting rid of those nagging feelings. You may not be aware of it, but you put your application in long ago. Sign on the dotted line, keep pulling in those men, and not an ounce of regret in the morning, the next night, or ever!”

The stranger held his briefcase up like a table for Sarah to set the paper on.

“What are you, some kind of a freak?” Sarah asked, though she did not run away. She was intrigued and frightened at the same time.

“Do you believe in fate, Ms. McGlocken?”

Sarah leaned back and regarded the man carefully.

“Can’t say that I do.”

“Good! Then think of this as an opportunity. Was I wrong in my assessment?”

She hesitated.

“No.”

“Do you want the bad feelings to go away?”

“Well, that would be nice, yes.”

The man in the hat laughed amiably and shrugged his shoulders. He fished through his overcoat and pulled out an expensive fountain pen. He handed it to Sarah.

“Right there, Ms. McGlocken, and you’ll never see me again.”

Sarah took the pen gravely in her hand, staring at the words on the page. She tensed up inside and trembled, feeling both an inevitability about the document, but also feeling as if the feeling of inevitability was a false one. Anxiety gnawed at her.

Suddenly, she laughed, struck by the absurdity of it all. Her full, painted lips drew into an amused smile.

“Very funny,” she said, putting her hand upon the briefcase. She signed her name at the bottom of the page. “There you are, your ‘signature’ that you ‘needed.’ This really was a funny gag, do most people react the way I did?”

The man in the fedora put his glasses on his nose and examined the signature, then grinned.

“Oh, it varies from time to time. Some are more eager than others.”

He set his briefcase down and unbuckled it, shuffling the papers inside and adding Sarah’s to the mix.

“Thank you very much for your cooperation, Ms. McGlocken, and rest assured that everything has been taken care of. Now go and slay those boys, am I correct?” He winked. “Show off your curves, strut your stuff, and not an ounce of regret in the morning.” He smiled and began to walk away. “Oh,” he said, stopping suddenly. “I almost forgot.” He walked back to Sarah, who had placed her hands on her hips, and watched with an uncertain sense of amusement. “There’s this nasty rumor going around that someone can undo these sort of contracts- they’d call it ‘helping you.’” He scoffed. “Anyway, don’t worry about them. All contracts are final. Take a new man home tonight and celebrate! Toodles.”

He walked away then, and Sarah shook her head, chuckling. What an odd experience, she thought, but it had amused her greatly. She turned and continued on her way where she had been going before she was stopped. She held her head high as she swayed through the crowds, passing the theater before arriving at the lingerie store. Outside of the entrance she stopped, suddenly, feeling a sense of déjà vu.

She looked over her shoulder at the theater marquee and saw that there was only one thing playing that day, which was odd. The signs all said “Faust,” but Sarah had never heard of that one before. She shrugged her shoulders and went to go into the lingerie store, like she planned, but across the way she caught sight of a dashing young thing with a day of stubble on his strong chin and shoulders you could build a house on. He was sitting in the food court with what looked to be his wife or his girlfriend or something, but that would just be an added challenge. She smiled voluptuously and strutted over.