I lived in the same house for the first 18 years of my life. 542 Sheridan Ave., Roselle, New Jersey. When my parents finally moved from there in 1992, I wrote a letter to the house. I was that nostalgic about bricks and mortar and wood. When my school celebrated my 20th year of teaching, my speech was an ode to my music room, the place where all the miracles I had witnessed there were stored in the beams and walls and the old mirror (still there!) from 1975. When the new construction plans some years back included the possibility of demolishing that music room, I threatened to chain myself to the doorway. Only once after graduating did I visit my old high school, which had moved to the new campus. The photos on the walls were the same, but there was nothing else recognizable about the place. It moved me not.
Note the pattern here? I have a deep affection for places and the wisdom of preserving them, the pleasure of revisiting them as they were. And yet I know time marches on and things change and war or natural disaster can wipe out an entire field of stored memories. Every day at school, I walk down the hall where the old elementary school used to be and wonder where I am. And then turn the corner to the preschool and feel welcomed into the familiar space that housed my same self in all its changing faces these past 39 years.
And so the photo. A childhood friend who I now know only through the annual Christmas card send me the devastating news and this photo. My childhood home was no more. There were two massive oak trees in the front yard, the ones that had perpetually pushed up the sidewalk and posed a danger for mailmen, the ones who kept me company outside my bedroom window, home to countless squirrels and birds, provider of leaves to rake and jump in the piles, markers of the seasons, these two trees fell during Hurricane Sandy and demolished the house. And so they rebuilt entirely. Now this bizarre building stands next to my familiar neighbor’s houses and the sight of it hurts me to my heart. (Oddly enough, the old rickety garage in the back apparently survived, the last remnant of my nostalgia.)
And so the question arises. “Where does the Soul live? Does the loss of my house make a dent in my cherished memories? Haven’t I survived the demolition of the elementary school space I knew for so long and adapted to the new building? Does it really make sense to mourn the loss of physical spaces?” Well, the heart doesn’t pay attention to questions like this, it cares not for philosophical justifications. It feels what it feels and that alone is real and truth be told, I am so sad that my house is gone. I really am.
The Buddhist doctrine of non-attachment is so often misunderstood. People think it means some kind of calm detachment, some kind of jazz cool, putting a distance between yourself and emotional involvement so that you’ll never get hurt and accept everything as it comes with a philosophical shrug. But I think it’s the opposite. To love things and people beyond any reasonable level, knowing that the time will come to say goodbye, to let go, to shift from physical presence to precious memory, be it houses, experiences or people. Mary Oliver says it perfectly:
“To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
Goodbye old house. I love you.