4 Lessons Learned from My Key Ring

I slipped the silver key off of the metal ring. Then the one next to it. Then the one after. I wouldn’t need these anymore. I no longer lived in the homes they unlocked.

For whatever reason, when I’ve moved, I’ve kept the duplicate keys on the ring. Each time I moved, I left plenty of extra keys for the new renters, so I never thought to take mine off. Illegal probably, and hopelessly nostalgic. I always figured I’d take off the keys a few days after I moved – when I was ready.

The time for being ready never came naturally. In fact, it rarely does.

A couple of days ago I looked down at the key ring and it felt heavy. Physically, but also emotionally. I considered the possessions I carry with me every day. What does it mean if my keyring is overstuffed, if my wallet is overfilled with receipts and hair ties, if my purse contains unnecessary bags of tea and phone chargers and eight pens? What does that say about the other things I am carrying on a daily basis.

I recently moved to an new apartment, packing up all my little possessions on this Earth and carting them across town to a new space with new roommates. Though I downsized immensely, taking box after box to Goodwill, it still doesn’t feel like enough.

Once I started to pay attention to the extra things in my life, I now want to whittle it down as small as possible. Any additional weight feels immense. And so – the necessity of winnowing.

Today, I took one last look at those keys on my ring. The keys from my childhood home, which we sold last year. The keys from my first shanty 1-bedroom, the first time I lived alone. The keys from The Hostel, the cozy duplex I shared with three of the most incredible humans on the planet.

There is much to learn from the process:

  1. Holding possessions does not make the experiences linger, it makes us live in the past.
  2. Giving away those possessions does not mean I care less about those experiences; it means I care enough about the present to let them go.
  3. A key is a key, and it would be silly to keep them forever. Do I want to be 100 years old and have forty keys on my keychain? I think not.
  4. The process is necessary, but it still isn’t easy.

Even as I sit here, the keys now off the ring, laying strewn on the desk, I still have an urge to put them back on. Don’t let go of them yet, my brain pleads. Remember how much you love those places? Remember that time Katie tried to fix the fire alarm? Or how the floor slanted in the Meinecke Ave. apartment? Or how you’d open the door to the wafting smell of freshly baked zuchinni bread? Remember, remember, remember?

But then I remember the mission: this year is about letting go of what I can no longer carry. I will always remember those people, those homes that made my life so stunning.

That’s the beauty of memories – I do not need a key to unlock them. I do not need a key to call Kelsey on the phone, to remember the chatter of friend gathered around a table, to hear the whir of the coffee grinder rattling the kitchen countertop, to feel the calm of my south-facing window portraying the white-headed dandelions populating Kilbourn Park. I do not need a key to validate my experiences there.

Today, finally, I took the keys off. And also, I glued those memories in a little tighter. I repeated my mantra to myself:

Keep what is necessary.

Let go of what is not.

Today is one more step toward lightness.

Positive vs. Negative Idealization: How to Stop Idealization from Weighing You Down

“It is not Daisy herself who is beautiful; rather the beauty in The Great Gatsby is in Gatsby’s idealization of Daisy, in the beauty of his dream.” This was my thesis statement on a 2008 literary paper in my sophomore high school English class. My teacher, a stunning writer and woman, verbally guided me through my messy thoughts to construct a statement of eloquence and clarity, one I surely could not have constructed independently. That thesis statement has always stuck with me for its poignance, and more importantly, the universal truth it holds.

Sometimes the dream of something is more beautiful than the manifestation of it. It’s why we hear the cliche “Never meet your heroes.” We idolize people, and sometimes the idealization of them does more for us than the reality of who they are. Our imagination constructs a whole world around them. The beauty then, is not in who they are, but in our brain’s conception of who they are.

Our imaginations are a powerful tool for sculpting a worldview. And this world can kick us in the balls. It can be gritty and hard and challenging. And so, it’s not all that bad to find arbitrary things to idealize.

Do I think Cheryl Strayed and I could be best friends? Yes. Does it make me better thinking so? Yes, it inspires me and lifts me higher. Her writing, her career, and her general way of outwardly moving through the world resonates with me. My idealization of her is a positive influence in my life.

Conversely, do I think that an idealization of Cheryl Strayed’s career should be the standard for my current career as a writer? No. Does it make me better thinking so? No, it would feel defeating because the reality is, though Cheryl Strayed produces prolifically, it is always harder than it appears. Plus, I have been a writer for half a long as she! Such an idealization would detrimental and crippling. My idealization of her career would be a negative influence in my life.

Do you see? There is a time an a place for idealization. Idealization is healthy when it inspires and uplifts us. Conversely, idealization is unhealthy when it creates an unrealistic comparison, which weighs us down.

Reader, it is time to let that go. Let go of the idealized parts of your life that hurt you. Why are you holding onto them?

Does wishing you have a bigger house distract you from loving the house you have? Does your peer’s instagramable days make you feel worse about your own uniquely darling, dazzling, daring life?

Our imaginations are a powerful tool. We have the ability to use our imaginations to create weighty comparisons or to use them to propel us forward. Which will you choose? Will your imagination make you feel stuck in the life you have? Or make you feel inspired to achieve the life you want?

A Bald Woman’s Guide to Unwanted Change

She was wearing a baseball cap when I came home. “I did it,” she said. “Today Mrs. K came over and shaved my head.” The moment’s rawness was palpable; she stood on the other side of a chasm with no way back – cancer was pushing her further than she had ever wanted.

Her hair had been falling out for weeks. She’d wake up in the morning to find long blonde strands on her pillow. She’d bend over the sink to spit out her toothpaste and the hair would gently float down, collecting in haphazard piles in the water before it swirl down the drain. She became like a golden retriever whose coat hasn’t been brushed in weeks – one touch of that hair to fabric, and the hair would cling to the fabric instead.

My mother had always had lush blonde curls, which sprung into spirals in the summer and relaxed into beachy waves in the winter. She grew up in the 1980s, an era that her voluminous hair was built for. I have the same hair as she, though unfortunately, I grew up in the age of flat irons and flawlessly straight hair. My flat ironed hair looks less like a silky smooth Rachel Green cut, and more like it belongs to a cocker spaniel. Our hair definitely belonged in the 80s.

In early 90s, my mom chopped her long curls to adapted to changing styles. She idolized Princess Di by adopting a sassy blonde bob, and soon after, a daringly short layered style. My mother used her hair as a form of expression. It was iconic for her.

How painful it was to watch chemo attack that integral part of her – the last part of her that looked healthy. When her skin appeared burned from radiation and her muscles melted into atonic strings of tissues and her eyes sunk further into her gaunt head, at least her hair had been the same – the anchor through a diagnosis. Her body began to change before she was ready, and gradually her hair began to change too.

So instead of participating in the slow parade of watching the hair fall out, she did something bold – she chose to shave her head. She made the decision to change actively, before her life changed passively around her. It is the difference between swimming parallel with the riptides and being submerged by the undertow.

Sometimes life assigns us this difficult choice: Do you want to change or do you want to let change happen to you? Active or passive?

My mother chose active change, to choose to remove her hair instead of watching it slowly fall away from her while she sat on the sidelines. She chose to take an unfortunate circumstance and turn it into a choice. And when she did, among the mix of anger, sadness, unfairness, worry, anxiety, defeat, she felt something new – empowered.

Choose is an empowering word. Choose connotes freedom. My mother never wanted to be bald, but she soon adopted her baldness into a source of pride. It became the sign of a warrior, of someone who acknowledged the suffering around them, of someone who was choosing to fight.


The Winnowing Process

Winnowing begins with a mess.

It begins with a jumble of seeds and husks and dust particles, laying broken and haphazard in a sorry burlap sack. These plants have been threshed – gathered together in a sack and beaten with a stick or smacked against the ground until any semblance of order among the grains and husks is destroyed. Winnowing begins with destruction.

Sometimes we too have been threshed. We have been emotionally broken, beaten, defeated, smashed to pieces. The structure of our lives looks nothing like it once was. We have faced change, either intentional or not. Sometimes, before we realize it, our schedules, worldviews, families, homes, lifescapes look so different than what they were, they feel schismatic. Our little life on this planet has changed, and we are left holding fragments of a life in our hands. How do we make sense of the newness? How do we move on from the oldness? How do we find order after destruction?

In the process of agricultural seed saving, there are two ways to glean seeds from the mess: (1) You can pick out the seeds by hand, a time-consuming and ineffectual process in which your bleeding fingers pick through the abundant jumble of grainy skeletons or (2) You can shake the mess into the wind, letting the unnecessary components blow away as you let the seeds fall cleanly around you. Option (2) is called winnowing.

One of my favorite parts about the word winnowing is that is has the word “wing” right in its name, as if begging us to stretch out our arms and take off into the air. The o and w’s are soft, and harken to familiar, soothing words: willow, spring, sparrow. The name winnowing is inviting, and if we look at the etymology, it derives from the word wind. There is much to unpack in a word.

And too, there has been much to unpack about this year. It has been a year filled with constant change – career, home, family structure, romantic relationships, friendships, worldview, self. That last one’s the real kicker: self. I am changing – quietly, internally, constantly, more than ever.

Constantly, I feel myself tugged between change and familiarity. Like a burr stuck on soft denim jeans, I cling to the past, hooking myself into the fabric of my life and clinging until something rips me away. Logically, it makes no sense to hold to the past as we try to move forward. We cannot complete the monkeybars until we let go of the first wrung, no matter how far we stretch out our other arm. Emotionally, letting go is so much more than that. It is a deep undoing of our emotional selves, of our framework of being.

Winnowing is equally a process and more importantly, winnowing is a lifestyle. It is a practice we adopt, like hygge or vegetarianism or minimalism, a broad worldview made of many tiny choices. Winnowing is a way of being.

And so, The Winnowing Year is a space dedicated to that – the process of learning to letting go. Winnowing is a practice of honoring the things we hold in our hearts and of setting aside the rest. It is a space for change, but more importantly, it is a space for sorting – for learning what to keep and what to let go.

Winnow: “to separate the heavier and lighter with a current of air.” – Wiktionary