Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Memento mori

In the Victorian era, hairwork (jewelry made with human hair) was a popular type of literal memento mori, used to preserve a small token of a loved one who had passed away. (Gordon McDowell / Flickr)

Memento Mori. "Remember that you must die."

I don't wish to send you off into an emotional downward spiral, but the translation of this Latin phrase has spun around my head, waltzed in one ear and out the other over the past few weeks. Besides being a humorous catchphrase on Dear Hank and John, my favorite (and probably the only) "comedy podcast about death," it is a sobering reminder of something we know every day, but choose also - in some ways - not to know.

This is how I treat the reality of mortality, but it is how I treat other realities too. The reality of loss, the reality of failure, the reality of fear. I cross out the remember in "Remember that you must..." and replace it with "Ignore all signs that you must [insert unpleasant thought here]."

But on occasion, willful ignorance is no longer possible. I have to see what's directly in front of me. Quite literally. Because, like so many, I keep relics of the past.

These are actual mementos, not-so-figurative remembrances of those unpleasant thoughts. Things like a college rejection letter, a ring from an ex-boyfriend, a handwritten note in the final days of a sick relative.

Once we have established positive associations with our belongings, it can be difficult to let them go. When we couple those positives with negative associations, however, it becomes downright impossible.

There is something poetic in the notion of bittersweetness, that we cannot think of a word to describe the feeling of simultaneous sadness and happiness, thus we must associate it with a much more palpable sensation: taste. I liken the experience of looking at a deeply meaningful yet tainted object to having a better than average cup of coffee. At first it reels you in with the taste of cream and sugar, that which can render the beverage tolerable. But there's also something soothing in the slow-to-arrive bitterness. It keeps you there, lingering on the flavor. On the duality of the experience.

Tonight I threw away some things because those tastebuds had been used to such great effect that they lost their appeal. Like that fateful day when I went from having Chex Mix every afternoon to having it next to never, I had to come to an unwelcome realization that my needs were changing. I had to give up what was tiring me out.

At what point do we say goodbye to sorrowful memories, and how do we accomplish it? I don't have an answer for this, and I think that is the most human dilemma. We cannot forget. We compare our capacity for memory to other creatures - describing it as gnat-like or using the saying "an elephant never forgets." Like physical mementos, memory can be a blessing and a curse.

As with the realities I choose to ignore, but cannot forget, there are objects in my life I have struggled to let go of, hiding them in plain sight so that I can pretend they aren't there while trusting that they are just the same. On some level, they ground me, reminding me of a tumultuous past. On another, they burden me with a constant hovering dread.

So today I let go. Not fully, that takes time. But in releasing some mementos, I have given myself the permission to feel things independently and without interference. Whether my mind can trash negativity as easily as my hands can, I don't know. I'm searching for that reality most of all.