Things We Cannot Abandon

“Nothing is simple. Not even simplification.”
Wendell Berry

What compels us to retain things we don’t need? It’s one of the most predictable and tiresome patterns of humanity: acquisition and retention. We have these discerning decision-making brains, yet things—useless at most— in front of our nose escape expurgation.

From the steel-trap mind of short story writer Lydia Davis1:

This dull, difficult novel I have brought with me on my trip—I keep trying to read it. I have gone back to it so many times, each time dreading it and each time finding it no better than the last time, that by now it has become something of an old friend. My old friend the bad novel.

Stamp ink. "Things We Cannot Abandon."
Stamp. Inkwell from China, bought by my paternal grandparents. I used to put my thumbprint in it as a child. It enraged my grandmother. When they died I claimed it. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

When I was at college, I kept fruit stickers. The small oval ones.

I stickered them to the furniture—the chair, the desk, and the shelves that remain as students move on. By the end of term, there was no visible wood, just stickers. I ate a lot of apples; they reminded me of home.

Italian novelist and frightfully deep observationalist of what physical things say about our humanity, Italo Calvino, once wrote about collections of sand. A person who collects sand, Calvino supposed, registers their past memory in the small parts of these things.2

It strikes me these collections are more than a collection. They are registration of a human need. To possess? To control?

In a collection, they belong. To disregard them would be abandonment. Things bob along in our wake until some external need upsets the relationship.

E.B. White once wrote a deceptively simple essay about moving from New York to Maine. He wriggles uncomfortably in minutia, the process of disposing the indisposable.3

For some weeks now I have been engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world. During September I kept hoping that some morning, as if by magic, all books, pictures, records, chairs, beds, curtains, lamps, china, glass, utensils, keepsakes would drain away from around my feet, like the outgoing tide, leaving me standing silent on a bare beach.

White would rather be abandoned by his things than abandon them. And when that is impossible, he imagines he’s releasing them on their next journey. They have life, still.

Meanwhile, his wife, “a strategist, knew better,” and she manages to clear out the place while White writes a requiem for curtains.

Of course, what she and he and we all know is that moving from New York isn’t about saying goodbye to stuff—it’s about fixating on stuff so he doesn’t have to “say goodbye” to people, to life, to the person he had so long been.

Stick from Georgia. In "Things We Cannot Abandon."
Stick. I made the mistake of picking up this stick on mile 1 of the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t put it down until mile 2,285.  I couldn’t abandon it. Was its weight worth it? I picked it up again and have it still. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Abandoning things is easier for some of us than others. I left the fruit stickers in my room when I moved out in May. I couldn’t throw them out. I just couldn’t. Their little screams as I chiselled them off… No.

Today, I don’t let much gather dust. Nothing precious that we couldn’t carry out in our arms in a fire. You have to think about fires in London.

My husband is the E. B. White sort—everything has meaning. My husband lost his father terribly abruptly, so abandonment is a force for him, a deep, abiding force. It isn’t for me, not anymore.

Things become special because we make them special through human acts, through expended emotion. Things we keep nearby, things that bear witness to our lives, and things that will speak of us once we’re gone. They matter.

Like Lydia Davis’s “bad novel,” American poet and farmer Wendell Berry offers us the sparse but true “Throwing Away the Mail”:4

Nothing is simple,
not even simplification.
Thus, throwing away
the mail, I exchange
the complexity of duty
for the simplicity of guilt.

We moved out of the dorm rooms come summer. I worked for Harvard Dorm Crew, cleaning up after other students. It was good money, usually quiet.

In room after room after room, I found collections of fruit stickers. On walls, furniture, tables, even bedframes where they would have been, no doubt, covered and invisible. But there, all the same. Collected.

Are all Harvard undergraduates great collectors? Do we suffer letting go? Fear of abandonment? What do these collections say of their owners?

That we have something in common, at the very least.

Silver. "Things We Cannot Abandon."
Silver. Given to me, my husband and my daughter at birth. I never understood this tradition yet I cannot throw them away. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

We are in a perpetual state of retaining things, argues MIT professor of physics and humanities, Alan Lightman, because we cannot retain time. We long for permanence because we live in a world that doesn’t have it. Even the sun itself will die. Space might be infinite; time is not.

I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs.

Lightman’s own quest for permanence and fixity in a world of uncertainty courses throughout his work. As he crosses interminable lengths of time (to the start of the universe and back), he reaches for an anchor of meaning to keep him still, present…alive?5

I grew up in a house where Mom fiercely decides what stays and what goes, and Dad clings to whatever he can like an octopus scrambling for leaves in a breeze. Upstairs, however, hidden and forgotten in a closet up on a shelf, is a cigar box of hotel soaps. A perfect collection of my father’s from childhood. It’s delightful. I check it every time I go home. Make sure it’s still there.

They will find it when they downsize. Mom, the strategist, will clean out everything, and Dad, the intellectual, will write a requiem about soap, and I, in memory to the child Dad once was and in deep love to both of my parents, will ask to take the box.

Shells of hickory nuts. "Things We Cannot Abandon."
Shells. 35 years old, from a hickory tree outside my maternal grandparents’ old house. Best moments of my childhood were spent there. The house is gone, the tree is still alive. As are my grandparents. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Over time, fruit stickers become adhesive. You have to remove them with a scraping and washing and more scraping. As I did so those early summers, sticker after sticker, room after room, I kept thinking, “We have to make room. Got to make room.”

I didn’t clean my own dorm room. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” wrote T. S. Eliot. Someone else cleaned up my fragments.

It has to do with giving up, maybe. Death. Death of the person who lived in New York, the death of the person reading the bad novel, the death of the student who lived in that room.

We shed these selves and move on all the time, but sometimes, when our emotional health is too fragile and we hold tight.

The late journalist Christopher Hitchens, an irascible, brilliant, independent mind if there ever was one, once underwent a spa experience in order to write “On the Limits of Self-Improvement.” Of the many challenges of good living the one to quit his “keystone addiction to cigarettes, without which cocktails and caffeine (and food) are meaningless, ” was the most difficult.6

About all the downsides—the shame of being conned by the tobacco companies, the disgrace of being an addict, the suspension of one’s reasoning faculties in the face of self-destruction—I already knew. […] Anyway, I left my pack and my lighter in O’Hara’s care and for a couple of days didn’t smoke and didn’t much miss it either. But then I hit a difficult patch in an essay I was writing, and turned again to the little friend that never deserts me.

A friend that keeps such good company becomes something more, a thread in the fabric of us. Hitchen’s own fabric would soon fall apart, he was diagnosed with cancer a few years after “Self-Improvement” was published. Even as he closed in on death, Hitchens held on to the monument at the core of his being, atheism. (He did, however, give up smoking.)

The older we climb, the harder we cling. We don’t know where we exist when we die, so we must exist even more now.

And yet, we do not and should not live forever. We must clean up. Abandon. We must make room. We must die.

To the students whose room I cleaned, to everyone that came after and affixed their mark on the wood, to my own collecting self, to my husband and my father and even my mother and to anyone who has ever gathered anything close:

You were here. You can no longer be here. Someone else must be here. You must make room. But don’t worry, you will always have been here.

An Implacable Call for Kindness

“Find out what makes you kinder, what opens you up and brings you out the most loving, generous, and unafraid version of you, and go after those things as if nothing else matters.”
George Saunders

Kindness, as an action, is the fluid that makes society work. Keeps things as a cohesive whole. It’s like water to organisms. A simple, transparent, and odorless thing without which we burn and in which we live and thrive.

"Simple Acts of Kindness, I" by Marilyn Yee - Featured in "An Implacable Call for Kindness. But How?"
“Simple Acts of Kindness, I” by Marilyn Yee, a Singapore-born illustrator and bright observer of humans and interactions.

Kindness, as a word, is one of those rarefied, monumental terms that grows and changes with culture, usage, and need:

Kindness’s original meaning of kinship or sameness has stretched over time to encompass sentiments that today go by a wide variety of names—sympathy, generosity, altruism, benevolence, humanity, compassion, pity, empathy—and that in the past were known by other names as well, notably philanthropia (love of mankind) and caritas (neighborly or brotherly love).

The above lines are from On Kindness, a meaningful collaboration between psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor. The pair ask why “mutual belonging” and the connected nature of things are an anathema to contemporary society1.

For most of western history the dominant tradition of kindness has been Christianity, which sacralizes people’s generous instincts and makes them the basis of a universalist faith. For centuries, Christian caritas functioned as a cultural cement, binding individuals into society. But from the sixteenth century, the Christian rule ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ came under increasing attack from competitive individualism. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan […] dismissed Christian kindness as a psychological absurdity.

Though many like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume fought against the mythology of the individual, the growth of individualism hasn’t ceased. One could even say we’re riding its crest at the moment, Christians et al. Through this philosophical monocle, we see each other not as one of a whole but as separate, even disparate.

Phillips and Taylor argue that our natural inclinations to be social and extend ourselves outward come at the cost of making ourselves vulnerable and even weak.

When I met my now-husband, he never used a turn signal when driving. Never. I asked why (implored, actually). He said, “Then, no one can cut me off.” This simple gesture—akin to asking permission— would make his intentions clear and, thus, make him vulnerable.

It sounds daft, but I’m sure most of us are guilty of a similar thing—hiding vulnerabilities behind walls we erect to protect ourselves, meanness or, worse, indifference.

I keep a sticky note of “Hanlon’s Razor” on my desk: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I thought it might help me remember kindness.

Or at least battle indifference.

Indifference is the opposite of empathy, which is deeply connected to kindness. Especially when we regard others. Susan Sontag’s study of visual-related empathy suggests our concern is triggered when suffering is disproportional, the “product of wrath.”2

The iconography of suffering has a long pedigree. The sufferings most often deemed worthy of representation are those understood to be the product of wrath, divine or human. (Suffering from natural causes, such as illness or childbirth, is scantily represented in the history of art; that caused by accident, virtually not at all—as if there were no such thing as suffering by the inadvertence of misadventure.)

Elsewhere, Sontag elegantly uses the word “pity,” which—although another monumental term of much meaning—is familiar from the lines of war poet Wilfred Owen. Owen, who fought in World War I in order to document the suffering, wrote famously, “The Poetry is in the pity.” He elevated poetry to a status of witness and urged us that our humanity is lost if we don’t feel sorrow (pity) at needless death.3

(Empathy has also taken a hit lately, but I do not intend to argue that it is good or bad. That is all a bit academic, isn’t it? I’ll assume you wouldn’t be on this blog—which purports to value our individual and collective humanity—if you didn’t have some interest in being kind.)

I believe in kindness above almost everything. A full measure of a person can be taken accurately when she gives kindness to those from whom she has nothing to gain.

In a single word: care.

"Simple Acts of Kindness, II" by Marilyn Yee - Featured in "An Implacable Call for Kindness. But How?"
“Simple Acts of Kindness, II” by Marilyn Yee. With soft lines and subdued colors, Yee depicts mood and atmosphere of social settings.

I am not always kind. That we should be kind and being kind are two completely distinct things.

If we talk about why kindness we must talk about how kindness.

It takes extraordinary self-confidence—rooted in self-love—to extend our selves, to open and trust, being at peace with our own vulnerabilities in order to embrace others. The aphoristic Razor never did much to influence my kind nature. It only made me think people might be stupid.

Almost two thousand years ago, Stoics like Marcus Aurelius believed kindness was rooted in our connection to each other and offered this advice on how to be kind4:

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. […] and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own—not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them […]. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him.

The idea of unity doesn’t carry much weight in our age of individualism. Fortunately, novelist George Saunders’ reframed the “how” in an individualistic argument with modern appeal: kindness or failures of kindness, is a legacy we leave behind.

In a 2013 speech to graduates Syracuse University, Saunders told this tale5:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentially, her Convocation Speech name will be ‘Ellen.’ Ellen was small, shy. […] When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it. So she came to our school and our neighborhood and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased. (‘Your hair taste good?’—That sort of thing.) I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult.

[…]

At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: ‘How was your day, sweetie?’ and she’d say ‘Oh, fine.’ […] Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it. And then—they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing. One day she was there, next day she wasn’t. End of story.

Saunders’ “Ellen” moved away, and he, decades later, regrets he wasn’t nicer. So much so that it became the subject matter and sole focus of his graduation speech to thousands of graduates, who looked to him for advice and worthiness. The breath of expectation hot on his neck, Saunders humbled himself, dug into vulnerability, and gently showed the way.

The speech is a great, great kindness.

"Simple Acts of Kindness, III" by Marilyn Yee - Featured in "An Implacable Call for Kindness. But How?"
“Simple Acts of Kindness, III” by Marilyn Yee. Common themes in Yee’s digital paintings include buildings, interiors, botanicals, women and, delightfully, the occasional cat. Her work is highly observant and subtly harmonizing.

A third method of summoning kindness when needed comes from Christie Watson, a British nurse for more than twenty years who delivered massive amounts of daily kindness.

In her 2018 memoir, The Language of Kindness, Watson writes she found kindness simply by imagining others’ needs were her own6:

For all that I’ve seen and touched and smelled, and as difficult as it is at the time, there is a patient at the center of it, afraid and embarrassed. […] We have all been nursed. We are all nurses.

I have a new sticky note on my desk, wonderful heuristic: “Do unto others…”

When I was applying to graduate school, one of the admissions essays was “What matters to you most?” Simple: Do unto others. I didn’t have to think about it. It mattered to me most, apparently, it mattered to Stanford, it is how I met my husband who now uses turn signals and it is how I return to kindness when it is all but impossible.

Kindness. It is implacably necessary. It is difficult. It is transferable. It is compounding. It is contagious. It is easier with practice. It is a microbial action that gives life to our social ecosystem.

Whether you pull meaning from our interconnectivity or a feeling of legacy, or simply because you wish it were given to you, find kindness. Show kindness. As Saunders told us from the height of experience, “Nothing else matters.”

Cruelty and Falsity of Spring

“In those days spring always came finally but it was frightening because it almost failed.”
Ernest Hemingway

The crocus springs into its new world with fertile cheer, and daffodils beam spherical radiance seducing muscles to smiles.

Spring has come in joy and sadness. I can’t help but think of sadness. Is that true?

Ernest Hemingway captured it, as Hemingway does. Writing in his 20s from Paris, he notes, “In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.” There is failed promise, immediate hope dashed by reality.

He continues in his essay “The False Spring”1:

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

Full of youthful step, a spongy head, and brooding shoulders, Hemingway passes a day of false spring by going through routine. Shortly, despite effort to avoid engagements, he is slowed by obligations, limitations, and dependencies—the likes of which proclaim our adult status.

Hemingway feels it too, a loss, an ache: “Life had seemed so simple that morning when I had wakened and found the false spring.”

For Hemingway, spring was something promised and unfulfilled.

Falsity of Spring
Blue hyacinths. One of the first flowers of spring, One hundred years ago they were used as a Christmas flower, brought indoors to bloom next to evergreens and holly. Blue variety means “Constancy.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a writer with deep love for nature, paints spring in similar strokes. Like Hemingway, he enjoyed meaningful company but preferred solitude.

In 1909, Rilke writes of solitude’s greatness, our fear of it, our need for it, and our quickened temptation to forgo it if only to be in any company, be it “ever trivial or banal.”2

Perhaps those are precisely the hours when solitude grows, for its growth is painful like the growth of boys and sad like the beginning of spring. But that must not put you off. What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness.

The painful growth of spring?

Surely the warmth, the light, the presence of flowers, the joy and comfort of these wonderful, faithful human companions would render us happy, joyful.

Maybe it’s not their presence but their fickleness that stings.

The metaphor expands in the hands of British novelist and essayist Laurie Lee. In his essay “The English Spring,” Lee reflects on a slow, easing spring, early to appear and quick to fade. He is more open about his bitterness, his sword at the ready, facing spring like a foe3:

Almost overnight comes gusty March and the first real rousing of spring—a time of blustering alarms and nudging elbows, of frantic and scrambling awakenings. It is a bare world still, but a world of preparation and display against the naked face of the countryside. The cold east wind puts an edge to activity.

Although March is the first of “hot certainties,” it continues to claw and rage, furious and wild.

But spring’s cruelest trick, Lee continues, is yet to come: “[April] is the month of the spring’s sweetest pain—the pain of awakening and having to live once more after the anesthetic of winter, the agony of sap returning to the limbs, of numb hands held to the fire.”

Falsity of Spring
Daffodils, early to rise, early to fade. Their name means “New Beginnings” and is the beloved flower of Wales used to celebrate St. George’s Day on March 1. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

No wonder T. S. Eliot called it the cruelest month in his monumental poem, “The Waste Land”.4

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Rimbaud wrote something similar 50 years earlier. He called winter his worst season. “I dread winter because it is the season of comfort.” As we are settled in our warmth and our layers and comfort, spring comes and shakes it up. Stirring memory and desire.

There is life and birth and death in spring. There are lambs and rains and feasts and withdrawals, resurrections and divination. Time is compressed and expanded. It contains all of our joy and slows down so we notice minutia.

Like falling in love. Heartbreak. Falling in love. Heartbreak. The seasons of which we all know only too well.

I’m forced (happily) to turn to David Whyte, a masterful American poet and chef of words who has written a miscellany of common terms and their complex meanings. Of “heartbreak,” he writes this5:

Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control, of holding in our affections those who inevitably move beyond our line of sight.

Is spring as a cruel temptress luring us out of our winterized selves?

One would think so, reading all these individuals I mentioned.

Falsity of Spring
Purple hyacinths. In Classical legend, Hyacinthus was a beautiful youth whom Apollo adored and accidentally killed. Purple variety means “Please Forgive Me.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

After I left home for college, my parents introduced each early March phone call with news on the fruit crop of Western Michigan.

If there was a late frost, I knew immediately: pain and sadness from Mom, anger and disbelief from Dad. For the vulnerable blossoms, for the vulnerable trees, for the vulnerable farmers.

They all ran towards spring, helpless and hopeful, and spring let them down.

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot. […] Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is just as much an essence and emblem of care as the spiritual athlete’s quick but abstract ability to let go.

Who doesn’t run towards spring with open arms and wide, receptive hearts? The longer days, the broken ground, the flow of life. Gathered flowers in our arms.

The guilt lies in us, too. Not just spring. We are numbed from winter, anxious for warmth and light, we run towards spring expecting it to be summer and it’s not. It’s spring.

Spring isn’t cruel or heartless. It’s spring.

Will we never understand that nature seeks less of us as a partner than we do of her?

I’ve taken many early spring walks in forests, marveling at plants and blooms only to get nasty sunburns on the tips of my ears because the leafs had yet to form. My need for love has always outpaced nature’s readiness to give.

Spring keeps us young. Youthful hope and love. Run towards the forces that open the soil and expand the afternoon. Gleam in spherical daffodil splendor. Run towards spring and embrace it fully.

Though, it may hurt. All the best lovers do.