Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Today's essay is brought to you by Skirt.com, an online mag that inspired and then declined it for publication in their issue about simplifying, downsizing, taking a different path, cutting ties, running away. It's called:


My ship has come in.

It's a 35' sailboat. In a few months my husband and I are moving from a four-bedroom house onto our boat, a boat that makes a studio apartment look like Yankee Stadium. Storage space for stuff will be almost nil. There is no attic. To say the basement is damp is clearly an understatement, perhaps an underwater statement.

So, in order to jam ourselves into this new adventure, we have to pare down our belongings to little more than you would carry to summit Everest. It's simplifying your life as an extreme sport.

Fortunately, I've always been prone to living lean, but it must be a natural law: if you stay in one place long enough, solid objects start piling up around you. In the 10 years my husband and I have been together, I've gone from a small carload of belongings to an entire house full of stuff.

Divesting myself of all this stuff is like peeling back layers of my life. The outside layers come off quickly and painlessly. Ikea lamps, kitchen chairs, CD racks and rarely used kitchen gadgets fall away effortlessly. These things have served me well but have not woven themselves into my narrative.

It's those inner layers that I want to protect and keep, that are sensitive to the light. What do I do with the 30-year-old letter my mom wrote to me when I took my first airplane trip? What do I do with the tiny stuffed mouse my great aunt Flora made for me in 6th grade, the silver money clip my late father carried in his pocket for as long as I can remember? These are the chapters of my life. They have a story to tell.

For instance, if you look at the small painting in my office, all you will see is a nice watercolor of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. What you cannot see is my husband and me in a tiny apartment in a hilltop villa; you cannot feel the ancient stones beneath our feet, see the stray cat mewing at our villa door, hear the raucous laughter of our new Italian friends wafting out between the brushstrokes, but I can.

And there's the nest.

When my grandmother died seven years ago, I was 2000 miles away. I had told her my last goodbye six weeks earlier, but her death required some final act of closure. My husband and I were building a house at the time, and the day Nanny died, I found an abandoned bird's nest under the eaves. Something about it resonated, so I decorated it with flowers, took it to the oceanside and laid it on the shore. As I sat grieving on the sand, the sea swooped up the nest, swirled it about and delivered it back at my feet. That nest still rests on my windowsill.

A nest, a money clip, a painting. Am I clinging to these things, afraid I'll lose something of myself if I let them go? Am I forestalling a much greater fear that when these last things go, I must go, releasing my very life into the hands of the sea?

In the '60s, I had a poster in my room with that quote, "If you love something set it free. If it comes back to you, it's yours. If it doesn't it never was." Since at least 1970, I've thought that was maudlin and trite, but it captures the message the ocean delivered at my feet. When I released that nest, I was giving up my grandmother, letting go, feeling a deep and desperate sense of loss. I fully expected that nest to sink like a stone, or be carried irretrievably out to sea. I did not understand at the time why the nest came back. In fact, I waited a good long while at the water's edge to make sure I was meant to keep it and even then stole away with it like a contrite thief.

My grandmother was physically gone, but when I relinquished the nest, her memory, buoyed by a swell of emotion came back to rest firmly at my feet.

The fate of my little treasures is still in the balance, but as I approach their release I feel secure in knowing the memories they trigger are safe, memories that will surely comfort me on long night watches, memories that will remain bright and unscathed when I am storm-tossed and water weary, memories that will neither mold nor wrinkle nor jockey for space with storm sails and flashlights, first aid kits and life jackets.

I too will be released to the sea, swirled about and delivered safely back to shore.

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