Avi Rockoff

Letting Go

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Wikimedia Commons

It is both sad and somehow sweet to lose ourselves in the past.

Why is it so hard to let go?

My wife and I just emptied our home on the US East Coast to prepare it for sale. We raised our family and lived there for 45 years.

As everyone knows, emptying a house is exhausting, disorienting, and often painful. Exhausting, unless you are used to hefting cartons and piling them up—books, clothes, tools, toys—to ready for distribution to family, friends, thrift shops, or to pack on a lift for transport to Israel.

Disorienting, because nothing is where it is supposed to be. Counters that should be clear are strewn with stuff that has no business being there. How often did I bite into a cookie or sandwich and put it down, only to be unable to find the rest of it for days.

And painful. Everything–furniture, books, miscellaneous files of all kinds–brings back memories: of where you were, of what you were doing, of whom you were with.  You have done nicely for years, for decades, without giving a moment’s thought to these memories. But when you stumble onto them while cleaning out your attic and closets, it suddenly becomes unbearable to even think of getting rid of them once and for all.

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In our almost-empty attic, I found a manila folder with correspondence from 1975 from my first job application after training. One of the letters concerned a position in New Jersey that I accepted, only to learn that it had never been offered.

Why did I store that away?  Probably because back then getting my first real job seemed like an important milestone, one I might want to recall and perhaps share someday. But when, and with whom? As of now, nobody I know would be interested, including me.

Some things are much harder to throw away than old correspondence. Think of photos, for those of us old enough to have snapped and stored piles of prints. Nowadays we take cellphone photos, knowing they will be stored in perpetuity in the cloud—that Great Storage Attic in the Sky—where we never have to look at them again. Because we know they are there.  Or hope so.

In your attic or storage closet, you may well find your own photos. Some are of friends and family, looking like much younger versions of the way they look now, or the way they looked before they passed. Some are of you and your spouse, looking absurdly young, hopeful, and overly confident, cradling impossibly sweet and innocent small children. Viewing pictures like those tends to fill me with agitated longing. Maybe you are different, and you gaze at these with joyous contentment.  But there is no way either of us is going to throw them out, is there?

You can find professionals to digitize photos for you onto a thumb drive, so you can upload them to the cloud and rest content that they are up there, somewhere.

Those of us who keep diaries are familiar with this kind of thinking. Today we met someone who said something. We went somewhere and did something. Was any of this memorable? Hardly. But that night we write it down anyway. Why?

Because it is a small part of us.  If we don’t record it, or if we delete or tear it up, then we are admitting that this small part of us is gone forever, and we ourselves made that happen. Oblivion may be inevitable, but why help?

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(This is a stock photo—NOT our house!)

Such reflections take on added urgency when the memories you are agonizing about overflow into so many cartons and boxes that you can barely get to your front door. Shoeboxes full of letters, if you’re old enough to have written and received them. Greeting cards, clever or sentimental. Brochures from trips you forgot you took. Lecture notes from adult or continuing education classes you attended thirty years ago and thought you might review, which of course you didn’t.

You can’t just leave these things all over your floor. Whoever buys your house or rents your apartment will trip over them and hurt themselves. Yet what are your options?  You can pack them all onto a shipping container and get rid of them later, when they are delivered and threaten to clutter your new home. You can scan and beam the lot up into the cloud. Or you can empty it all into various pieces of luggage and show up at the airport with a dozen overweight suitcases and your credit card.

Or, just maybe, you can nerve yourself to and throw most of it the heck out.

There is a good reason most of us do not have the physical or mental room for all our old memories. The reason is so we can keep on living and generating new ones.

As a kid I watched cartoons on TV for hours at a time. Thoughtful experts agreed that TV was going to turn our whole generation’s brains to mush. That didn’t happen.  Today’s experts say the same about smartphones. We’ll see, or someone will.

Some of those cartoons were witty, though I certainly didn’t use the word at the time. One that I recall showed curious goings-on in an imaginary CuckooLand. The voice-over tour guide sounded like an old-fashioned, baritone radio-announcer.

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“In CuckooLand,” he intoned, “there are birds who fly backwards, because they want to see where they’ve been.”

I make a point of not talking to imaginary birds, but if I ever loosen up about that, I might say to this inverted flock—and to the humans, including myself, who may be tempted to imitate them:

Cut that out and let go! Instead of focusing on where you’ve been, pay attention to where you’re going. Even if your horizons are shrinking, you can only see them if you turn around and look.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff came on aliyah with his wife Shuli in March 2022. They live in Jerusalem. His new book, This Year in Jerusalem: Aliyah Dispatches, has been recently published by Shikey Press.