I have been holding rocks in my pocket ever since I read Byrd Baylor’s excellent children’s book, “Everybody Needs A Rock.” She says, "I’m sorry for kids/ who only have/ TRICYCLES/ BICYCLES/ HORSES/ ELEPHANTS/ GOLDFISH/ THREE-ROOM PLAYHOUSES/ FIRE ENGINES/ WIND-UP DRAGONS/ AND THINGS LIKE THAT — /if / they don’t have/ a rock/ for a friend.” I mean, how can you argue with that? This woman feels sorry for people with WIND-UP DRAGONS if they don’t have a thing as simple as a rock. So my desk drawers and jacket pockets are full of kumquat-sized stones I've stolen from rivers and beaches and yoga studios. (Yoga studios are always trying to sell you pieces of jewelry or fabric headbands by displaying them in dishes of stones. Those are usually the BEST ROCKS.)
A few months ago I went to a friend’s housewarming party, and on the way out one of the hosts said, “Our party favors are these prayer stones — pick one out and take it home!” The stones she volunteered had gold words painted on them. They said exactly what one would expect prayer stones to say: warm, nebulous, hopeful things like, “serendipity,” and “love.” I sorted through the collection until I found a long, flat rock with the words “letting go” painted on it. “Oh yes,” I thought. “THIS is the one I need."
I’m bad at letting go. I’m still a Girl Scout because I couldn’t bear the idea of telling the organization that it was time for me to move on. (Every month I receive a letter and a catalogue reminding me to update my uniform. You’d think the Girl Scouts would have cooler uniforms by now, but no: they still look like something you’d wear if you were a wet nurse in a church basement.) I often whine that I am always getting broken up with, but that’s because I can’t bring myself to do the breaking up, even after a relationship has been sour and toxic for months. I have piles of things I won't throw away that are categorically trash — movie ticket stubs, play programs, algebra notes. I wouldn’t call myself a hoarder, but that’s really only because no one calls themSELVES a hoarder.
The “letting go” rock had a great shape. It fit exactly in the palm of my hand, which made it ideal for swiveling around all day long. The truth about rocks is that they’re really a tool for the neurotic and anxiety-riddled. A rock gives your hand something to do while your mind is freaking out about ALL THE PEOPLE AT THIS PARTY or how THAT CAT IS STARING AT THE GROUND IN A WAY THAT MAKES ME SUSPICIOUS ABOUT HIS INTENTIONS. Personally, I'm a basket case. Fairly often I refuse to leave the house because the prospect of being around other human beings, no matter how lovely they are, is completely terrifying. Rocks have helped me immensely.
A few weeks ago, my roommate Hannah and I got the news that we would have to move out of our house on Toulouse Street, because the owner has to sell it. At first, the move-out date was in late May. Then, suddenly, it shifted to mid-March. We have lived in this house for four years, and we are completely in love with it. The paint is all shades of wheat, brick, and cornflower blue; there are creaky, cozy panels of salvaged wood in every room; the avocado bathtub matches the avocado sink, and both look like they fell out of the pages of another era. People have written poetry about our kitchen, which is flooded with light all the time, and feels like it should be a fictional Pinterest kitchen for all its charm and vintage furniture. There will never be a house like this house. The news was a blow.
And then, my most significant romantic relationship began to change. I hesitate to write, “I went through a break-up,” even though sometimes I say that, because it elicits the most emphatic emotional reaction from people. But I couldn’t honestly call this a break-up. We just stopped kissing, and seeing each other every day, and texting before bed. I guess it was a break-up; but it seems to me relationships never really “end.” Then again, I’m bad at letting go (see above).
And then, I was rejected from the graduate school program I’d hoped to get into most. Rejection extracts a unique kind of sadness, because it’s usually too embarrassing to talk about. You think, “Who am I to care so much? And who was I to think this would go any differently?"
There are always other things, too. When things are going badly, it’s easy to identify OTHER things going badly. Like, suddenly it feels like the end of the world if your hard-boiled egg isn’t cooked all the way through, or you spill paints on the floor while moving from one room to the next, or you ruin your favorite shoes by accidentally stepping in a muddy patch of grass. Ordinarily, those things do not feel emptying, but when you’re deep down in the murky depths of your weakest heart, everything about being human is totally impossible.
For me, the “other things” were shamefully materialistic: over the course of 48 hours I lost my journal and my wallet, and someone stole my bike from my front porch. I probably shouldn’t wallow: I never lock my bike. I tell everyone it's because I want to have faith in people, but really it’s because I am lazy, and when I get home it seems like a lot of work to put on the U-Lock when I COULD be eating corn chips.
Meanwhile, I had turned my “letting go” rock over so many times in my hand that the paint came off. In the trenches of my woe-in-me-ness, I could almost hear the blank rock taunting me: “You’ve used up my magic. Shame on you, Sophie. You’re an utter failure.” I spent entire days in bed, staring at the ceiling, clinging to my sadness, because it was all I felt like I had left to cling to.
It is amazing that I got out of bed for long enough to take a birdwatching trip with Luke, but I did. Bikeless and walletless, I climbed into the passenger seat of my own car (I had no driver’s license, and I’m a law-abiding citizen, so), and forced myself to seem upbeat. Actually, this was good for me: the birdwatching was amazing (white-faced ibis, great white egrets, vultures, phoebes, wrens, cormorants, prothonotary warbler, and so on and so forth), I was in good company, and we got to eat pizza.
Then we got in a canoe. I’m not TERRIBLE at canoes, per se, but I’m the type of person who is sometimes overly-enthusiastic with the paddle and shovels water into the boat. I think I feel like I’m not doing enough if I’m not really DIGGING into the water, you know? Anyway, things were going fine, my water-shoveling was minimal, and we saw TWO armadillos. (Armadillos aren’t NEARLY afraid enough of humans. Don’t they know that we carry guns and are stupidly fearless about leprosy?) Then we got out of the boat to look at more armadillos. Then we got back into the boat. Then I lost my balance and fell into the river.
I resigned myself to the fall and felt my clothes cling at my skin, and then get heavy and muddy. Luke said, “Climb onto the bank!” (I actually hadn’t thought of that, so that was helpful.) I climbed onto the bank, collapsing on my stomach into some dry grass, and felt my own heart in my chest, heavy. Luke got out of the boat and pulled the wet cell phone out of my back pocket.
There was nothing to do but lie there. This was the moment I understood letting go.
Transitions are not difficult because the new thing you are moving toward is scary; they are difficult because you want to hold on. Everyone wants to hold on to everything, all the time. This is why mothers have to push babies out into the world: babies would not do that on their own; they would prefer to stay in the warm wet of stomach forever. There is nothing profound in this: we all know it, and we know that life does nothing but change, and we know that we have to know how to let go. And yet: we continue to cling.
When I fell in the river, everything visceral changed instantly, without warning. Everything dry became wet; everything land became water; moving became difficult; warm became cold; light blackened under the surface. And it was all OK, even thought it didn't FEEL good. The change happened, the letting go happened, and I survived. The only direction was forward.
On the bank, I could feel rocks pushing into the skin beneath me. Even rocks, which are stubborn and hard-headed, must let go of their shapes and sizes and places on the earth as they are pushed around by water and fire and time.
I had been clinging to my sadness. I wanted something familiar, because everything around me was changing, and I didn’t like it. But at some point, I would need to let go of the sadness, too. Change is all there is. But love is also all there is. And while the two may seem a contradiction in terms, they actually, paradoxically, cannot exist apart.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.