March 14, 2011

The Found Bear

Suzanne Jones has written a lovely piece called The Lost Bunny, which begins with her finding a stuffed toy on the sidewalk and  knowing it must belong to some child who was missing it very much.  She goes on to tell of her own son Julian’s relationship with his bear, Cozy.

My younger daughter Sophie has a shocking-pink, ugly little bear called Bear-Bear, who stands in the same relation to her as Cozy to Julian.  Bear-Bear, who goes everywhere with Sophie, got left at the arboretum once, but was found and turned in to the lost and found by some kind soul who, like Suzanne, correctly identified it as a Very Important Item.

At one point, Bear-Bear went missing for six months. At Christmastime, I got the decorations out of the basement, including a bright red bear of about Bear-Bear’s dimensions (with a Santa hat) and when Sophie saw it, she grabbed it, hugged it fiercely, and said, “She knows Bear-Bear!” Then she burst into tears.

After my wife read “The Velveteen Rabbit” aloud, Sophie sat silent for a long time before saying, in a sad little voice, “Maybe Bear-Bear is Real somewhere.”  It was heartbreaking.  I will never forget the look on Sophie’s face when I finally found that frizzy little pink bear.

Suzanne used her family’s panic over the brief loss of Cozy, and the failure of anyone to come claim the lost bunny she found on her sidewalk, as an opportunity to talk about our human tendency to cling to people and things in our doomed efforts to avoid change.

I picked the bunny up and placed it within plain view on the stairs of my porch. I hoped that the inevitably panicked family could spot the bunny clearly as they conducted their search of the neighborhood…Day after day the bunny is there.  I sit on the porch and I look at the bunny, alone and waiting for someone to claim him and love him and it occurs to me that perhaps this bunny is not meant to be found.  I think of my own life, the things I have clung to and the people who I thought were meant to be a part of it forever.

I think Suzanne absolutely right about clinging to The Way Things Are, and I can think of no clearer illustration of that than the way I simultaneously love my grade-school kids and miss my babies.  Trying to cling to their babyhood is a lost cause from the start, and gets in the way of relating to our growing kids.

But at the same time, I think there is something more to this.  Both Sophie’s bear and my older daughter’s Clare’s bunny have been a part of their lives since before they could remember.  One day, watching Clare curled up asleep with her bunny, I asked my wife why it made me so happy to see the two of them together. My wife suggested that it’s nice to see a child’s developing capacity to love.  And I think she’s right.

Sometimes, however, love can degenerate into useless, or even harmful, clinging, as Suzanne beautifully reminds us.

I reflect on the loss of my marriage and the continual growing of my children. As I look at this bunny it occurs to me that the things that we cling to are not ours to own or possess. That perhaps clinging to the thought of keeping them in our life forever keeps us from moving forward.  It locks us into a place of desperation and suffering that we have constructed for ourselves by trying so desperately to hold on.  There is a point in all of our lives where we feel like this little lost bunny—waiting for our old life to find us once again so that we can have a sense of belonging and stability as we once knew it.  But that waiting is the very thing that is stopping us from seeing the path that is right in front of us.  The family is not coming.

The bunny is not going back. My marriage will not be repaired and my children will not stop growing and eventually have lives of their own.

All of which is courageously thought, clearly expressed, and redolent of truth. But the missing piece, I think, is that we do cling to things (and people) for comfort, out of fear of change and a desire to Keep Things As They Are, but also because we genuinely love them. And when we are parted from them, there’s real grief that needs to be acknowledged and worked through.  And I think there’s a value to keeping a place in our hearts for those we have lost–for missing my babies even as I love my big girls–and I hope that even when we relinquish our clinging and set out on the path before us, we can still carry a memorial in our hearts for people, places, and even ugly little pink bears that have made us happy and remind us of the good in times that are now gone.  My memory of my babies is a valuable resource when my children are pissing me off.  And if my seven-year-old still sleeps with her bunny, I guess that means it is laden with memories of a happy baby- and toddler-hood.  And that warms my heart.

Of course, those memories will survive if the flop-eared physical reminder of them disappears, but I rejoice in the fact that, even while letting go of people and things that are not ours to possess, we still carry them with us, embedded in the very changes we ourselves have gone through while those people and things were with us.

There are times, of course, when it becomes obvious to us that we are trying to keep things the same in defiance of the universal law of change. And the “gift” of those times, Suzanne says,

…is that we come to see that moving forward is essential.  We understand that the shape of our future can be as bright and lovely as what we thought our past had been—likely even more so.

Amen, I say!  I clung to an idea I had about myself until my forty-fifth year, and though finally letting go of that idea–the idea that I am meant to be an classical musician and academic­–has thrown my life into painful turmoil for the past two years, it has been irreplaceably liberating as well.

And yet, I am mistrustful of the language of “letting go.”  Too often, to me, it sounds like “writing off”­–like shaking the dust from our sandals with never a backward glance. But the things I have clung to have contributed to the person I have become, and I honor them for that.

If “letting go” means not acknowledging that I miss teaching so badly that I regularly question my own judgment in leaving it, then I don’t want to let go. I’d rather carry that place within me that misses teaching forward into whatever comes next.

And even if I never expect to see a place or person again, and am reconciled to that, I cannot wish “May he be happy, may she be peaceful, may they be free from suffering, and may we awaken and be free” if I have “let go” of them in the way that “letting go” often sounds to me in what I read and hear of it­–that is, if I have cast them out of my heart.

Whether it’s a bunny, or a bear, or a blighted vocation, the things we have clung to served a purpose for us in their time–otherwise, we wouldn’t cling to them. And as we tread the path ahead, it may be that

…the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.[i]

Or it may not. But if “letting go” means wiping those places off my map, I’ll never know.

[i] Eliot, T.S. “Burnt Norton,” from Four Quartets

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