Harriet Walker: Why I don’t like to let go of anything

Harriet Walker
Sunday 17 March 2013 01:00

I have never been very good at letting go. I hoard emotions and belongings like a squirrel facing polar night. I consign dates and events to eternal memory. I etch them on my heart, and use them the way you do a counter in snakes and ladders; I never let anything go.

And I'm terrible at bearing grudges – that is to say, I'm really good at bearing them. I bear grudges the way people used to be sewn into their underwear for the winter. Grudges are every bit as scratchy and uncomfortable and similar, I imagine, in that after a while they begin to smell like old milk and nobody wants to come near you.

When I moved house last month, I found a tin of foie gras that I'd bought on holiday nearly eight years ago and kept because I'd had such a nice time. I couldn't bring myself to eat it, because it would be like cannibalising the memories. So it went off, five years ago, and nobody ever had the pleasure of spreading it on warm toast. That's where not letting go gets you.

It's a horrible phrase, because it implies you're wrong to have held on. It makes you feel embarrassed and needy – or the very worst, a bit clingy. Sometimes the awful part about letting go is the sudden realisation that you were holding on to something that meant nothing in the first place. And you've been digging your little fingernails into your palms for no reason.

You can let go of staff and of bad feeling, and people praise you for being a clear-headed pragmatist. But they'd think twice if it was a branch in the wall of a gaping abyss that you were letting go of. That and the handles on one of those rubber rings attached to a speedboat are two things in life that you should never, ever let go of.

Sometimes you don't get the chance to think it through. Sometimes your fingers are prised off whatever it is before you've really decided that you're done with it. These are the hardest things to let go of because, in your mind, the branch, the handle, the love of your life, remain clutched firmly in your grip. But when you look at your hand, there's nothing there. You're falling, you're in the sea, you're alone, before you worked out when you hit the ground or got a bit soggy or that no one was replying.

Not letting go is useful when you're a writer, because it means you can dredge up every tiny, unimportant, infinitesimal detail and use it as part of your craft. The best writers are retentive – Woolf, Eliot, Rankin. Obviously I'm not putting myself in that league, but it helps me justify the amount of stuff I had to pack up and shift when I emptied my old flat into the new one.

Some things, though, are impossible to let go of, even if you're of a retentive nature, because they become a part of you. So letting go of a way of life or a feeling, or even another sentient human being, is as difficult as it would be had you decided to simply leave one leg behind the next time you stood up from your chair. Clunk.

The fact is, letting go of things is so central to the human condition that we do it several times a day without noticing. Chucking out dead flowers, getting our hair cut, finishing our perfume, our book, or turning the page on our calendar. All the connections we make, all the nice things we engineer, will have to be relinquished eventually. That's what memories are for – but even they seem slippery sometimes.

I say all this because spring always makes me feel like I'm letting go of something. Usually it's the nagging feeling that I'm spending too much on central heating and cold and flu pills, or the sense that I will never see the sun again.

This time around I have a new home and an entirely new outlook. I have a new future, and I don't know what it will be. Everything I had last spring has gone, and as I waved it off and let it go, I thought life would never be the same, never as good. Instead, I find letting go of it all was the best thing I ever did: letting go with one hand and resurfacing my existence with the other. Falling into a vat of hope and potential. Landing at the bottom of the chasm only to find someone had installed an express elevator that would take me back to the top and then some; an elevator that happened to be operated by a handsome young man.

So as you tie on your headscarf and tabard, and fluff your feather duster for a spot of spring-cleaning, remember to throw out some of the quantities you've stored up before they go off. If things want to get away, let them. Let go and hold on to something else instead.

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