All that you can’t leave behind

I was angry. Very angry. One day when Mom was still alive, a very fidgety and anxious nurse broke several objects in Mom’s room. The nurse couldn’t sit still for very long, and she decided to keep herself busy by dusting, even though I had repeatedly asked her not to. In her nervousness, she knocked over some things that she shouldn’t have even been touching, and those things came crashing to the floor.

When I arrived home from work, she confessed to what had happened. She was obviously distraught, but all I could feel was anger. I had felt for some time that I was a guest in my own home, which in my mind had become Ground Zero of “Occupy Cynthia,” a place where others often seemed to dictate where I went and what I did. And I disliked that feeling. It was uncomfortable and frustrating. The fractured keepsakes symbolized my growing discontent.

Among the broken objects was a coffee mug that belonged to my grandfather. I was very proud of that mug. I had gazed upon it as a child, knowing that it meant my grandfather had accomplished something noteworthy. The mug duplicated a story from the Houston Post (a now-defunct daily newspaper) announcing my grandfather’s retirement from his senior vice-presidency at a large and prominent Houston bank.

As a child, I didn’t really understand what my grandfather did, but his modest demeanor always encouraged awe and respect. Thanks to my grandmother, the mug remained on the desk in his home office long after he passed away, and I proudly displayed it in Mom’s room after my grandmother’s own death.

I was able to receive financial compensation for the other objects that the nurse broke, but there was no way to put a monetary value on the mug. I bought a special glue to fix the mug, but somehow I never got around to the repair. It currently rests on top of a kitchen storage cabinet, with the handle awkwardly detached from the mug.

How is it that such a small object could have so much power? In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle talks about the way that we allow material possessions to play a major role in identity formation. The latest gadget can define us as “early adopters,” while antiques represent the desire to preserve traditions. Yet, these things are just things and nothing more.

My essential be-ing would not be diminished without the mug. In fact, there might be some value in letting it go. The mug can’t begin to summarize the value of my grandfather’s presence and influence in my life, and he was certainly much more than a banker. In fact, my fondest memories of him have nothing to do with his career.

Maybe I’ll repair the mug one of these days, but for now I am going to let it sit there in its brokenness. It serves as a reminder that I should continue to work on detaching my ego from stuff and from the pride of ownership that goes along with that stuff. At some point, I should probably consider giving away the mug to a relative. That would be the ultimate release from its power, but I’m not quite there yet. This journey that I’m on–this thing called life–is one of transformation, and I will wait until I am ready to let go of the mug.

I think that those who are dying can teach us this lesson of release from possessions. When Mom transitioned out of this earthly realm, the mug had no meaning for her. It ceased to be important to her long before her death. What she treasured most was spending time with my sister and me, and no mug or other material items could compete with the value of the time that we had together.

I’m striving to reduce the amount of stuff that stands between me and the calling I feel to work towards a better world for all people. Part of helping others involves caring for myself, and I would rather spend my time creating music and art, dancing, doing yoga, cooking, gardening, and doing a host of other activities that don’t involve being a curator of things.

As I’m looking back over this reflection, I am amused by a certain irony in the story of the mug. Yes, I was proud of my grandfather’s accomplishments, but I’ve also had a tendency not to share with others what he did for a living. I’m not embarrassed about his work as a banker–he was one of the most ethical people I’ve ever known–but a part of me has shied away from talking about his career. I was raised not to talk about social status or prestige, and there has always been a little voice in my head encouraging me to downplay anything that might come across as social privilege.

Perhaps that type of conditioning becomes an object in its own right, and it’s time to let that go as well. I’d like to encourage others to join me in releasing whatever holds you back from being authentic. If desired, fix what’s broken, but don’t let material possessions or ego-centered attitudes interfere with what really matters. We can’t take that stuff with us when we die, so why let it control us in the world of the living?

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One thought on “All that you can’t leave behind

  1. I struggle with this same thing. I was just talking about it yesterday as a matter of fact. One of my goals for 2013 is to get rid of a lot of the ‘stuff’ in my life. Particularly the stuff I don’t actually use. The trouble is, many if not most of that stuff is loaded with ‘sentimental value.’ I don’t intend to become a minimalist by any means, but I am in the process of trying to figure out just how much value there is in sentimentality itself. Let me know if you figure it out.

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