The Art of Letting Go: On the Path to Willful Abandonment

3 May, 2024
Should we forget our failed attempts to capture fleeting moments to better serve our souls and poetry?


Nashwa Nasreldin


A few weeks ago, while clearing out the attic of my son’s early years’ belongings, I came across a parenting book I realized I had never read. It was a guide on how to regulate your baby’s sleeping and feeding times by following a strict routine.

I remember how I’d plucked the book off the shelf at a second hand book sale, looking around to make sure no one had seen. Maybe I was ashamed to admit I was struggling to manage life as a new mother. My baby had become the boss of me, leading on decisions over when I could eat and sleep. Or maybe I was embarrassed that I was giving in to a method I had so far abhorred, willing our mutual affection to lead my baby and I to simply synchronize with ease. Whatever the reason for my discomfort, the book clearly remained unread because when I happened upon it more than seven years later, two of its front pages came unstuck and a small envelope dropped to the floor.

Neatly sealed, the envelope was marked with the distinctive red and blue diagonal stripes along the border and an “Airmail” tag. Jotted in pencil on the front were the words: Chris’s* first haircut, August 2010. When I held it up against the light, long and thick curlicues of blond locks lay flattened between the folds of paper, compressed and trapped for all those years. I thought of the mother, who had so carefully held on to a memento of a milestone I had personally overlooked, and what a moment of forgetfulness might have meant for her.

Forgetting can be dangerous…can lead to irretrievable loss. But it can also be a force for good.

Samuel Beckett famously said of Marcel Proust that he had a “bad” memory, for “the man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything.” How much literature would never have been written if our beloved authors felt no urge to remember?

And what if we were gifted the power of not forgetting would we accept, knowing that we would never again experience the joys of retrieval?

There can be pleasure in intentional forgetting, or losing oneself, in the way meditative practices allow us to slip away. Or in sleep, when the details of the day slide, appearing in distorted form in our unconscious instead, tangled with symbolic images, as though the brain has forgotten the order in which events took place, presenting us with a mashed-up gift it doesn’t realize we don’t want, like the mutilated remains of a bird or a mouse a cat brings in. And so we — the sleeping we — grapple to make sense of the scenes we are forced to encounter, a virtual reality that is inescapable.

But sometimes the dream is so surreal it is enjoyable, entertaining, activating parts of our brain that had seemed dormant, as memories arise from dusty corners. This small miracle occurs night after night, with each of us finding ourselves balancing unharnessed on a rickety dinghy in black waters, a few shadowy profiles around us, a ticket in our hands we never asked for, to embark on a journey of ecstatic misremembering. 

Waking is another experience of involuntary shedding; those first transitory moments when thoughts are still soft, malleable and open to possibility. Dawn is my favorite time of day, early enough that in my household I am the only one awake. Although I know it is far from true, it feels like no other human around is up. And when we are in the minority, it is easier to imagine ourselves as subservient to nature, as just one being amongst many, the birds, the insects, the flora and fauna, inhaling and exhaling in their beds, growing with each breath like my little boy, who seems taller and riper after each night he’s slept. 

This is the time I forget the what, when, why, how and where of it all, and experience once again what it means to be a human in a world we convince ourselves we crafted.

Poet and psychoanalyst Nuar Alsadir deliberately tapped into these unmoored moments as a “method of accessing [her] interior.” During “a creative dry spell,” she set her alarm for 3:15am each day and wrote down whatever came to her mind at that time, producing a series of “Night Fragments” which appear in her poetry collection, Fourth Person Singular.

I reoriented my process so that, rather than trying to construct thoughts, I was listening for the thoughts that were already there,” Alsadir says. She compares this process with the work of psychoanalysis, and to the craft of the poet, the artist, or clown, as she learned when she enrolled in clown school, an experience she writes about in her more recent prose book, Animal Joy:

The late psychoanalyst W.H. Bion, writer Samuel Beckett’s analyst, advises that a psychoanalyst approach each session without “memory, desire [or] understanding.” As the analysand free-associates and puts into words the leaps their mind takes, the analyst takes in the analysand’s train of thought through an equally unguided thought processSimilarly, [as a clown] when you take the stage, you’re not supposed to use something that worked in the past, or want to make the audience laugh, or to have an idea of what you’re going to do.

Alsadir explains how her clown school instructor told them “to ‘soften your brain,’ perform without an agenda, at ‘the speed of fun, faster than your worry, louder than your critic,’ and trust whatever gets dislodged. ‘By not planning, you train yourself to listen.’”

When I walk alone, I experience a similar state of willful abandonment. The rhythm of my footsteps lulls me into a trance, cushioning me from the logical world and allowing me to burrow into the soft ground. It is a highly addictive habit, when practiced mindfully, this act of losing oneself while walking a familiar path — it has to be familiar to allow your mind to disengage completely from its navigational duties, just as poetry urges us to disengage our brains from its incessant sense-making and follow what Alsadir describes as “the free associative path your mind takes.”

Instead, we allow the senses to engage, breathing in the scents of the forest on that particular day, whether damp and earthy from a recent rain, or a sweet and blossomy headiness perfuming the air. Identifiable sounds of bird call mingle with invisible sources of scurrying and scuttling, while walking boots squelch, crunch or pad across the ever-changing ground, where my gaze is usually focused — or un-focused — between brief interludes of glancing up and around.

I remember the thrill I felt the first time I realized through daily walks that each day is unique, in more than just subtle ways. The shape of the clouds, the way the branches on the trees hold themselves against the relative coolness of the air, or hang in heat, the angles of the sun’s blades, the sharpness of its sting, the shadows it portrays. That we allow other matters to take precedence and neglect the privilege of experiencing each single day of our existence if we can, is perhaps the cruelest crime of forgetting we can commit.

I wasn’t always a walker; in fact, it hadn’t been long at all since I discovered my love of the outdoors, before walking became both a habit and choice, my own personal re-orientation.

In Autumn 2020, during the second Covid lockdown in the UK, I experienced symptoms of burnout. The spiraling death count, the gripping fear, global anxiety, the futility of it all. Juggling work and childcare before nurseries reopened — sometimes quite literally as I rocked a toddler on my knees while typing at my laptop — felt bearable at first, especially in comparison to the struggles of others. The stress ratcheted up quickly nevertheless and became overwhelming, unexpectedly. Before long, I had turned into an unrecognizable version of myself.

But I was in the fortunate position to stop. I booked a month off, with the support and blessing of my network. Before my sabbatical had started, I was online, researching and purchasing my first ever walking gear — windproof jacket, walking boots, a smartwatch, a lightweight backpack. I mapped out various routes in my locality, places I had visited briefly or passed, others that I had simply heard of, even though they were nearby.

And the world responded to me with open arms. The maps were interpretable, landmarks drew nearer the more I sought them. My perception of the horizon evolved as my muscles acquired a newfound awareness of their potential, recognizing the speed and time it would take to cover each distance.

Along the way, I found myself attempting to sketch out the landscapes I was seeing, using words to capture the particular configurations of light, clarity and color. I felt like a painter showing up for her daily practice, canvas after canvas. Except that I was so amateurish at this new, liberating, out-of-doors version of my art, I would barely create an outline based on notes I scribbled or recorded as audio on my phone. While my attempts constantly felt like falling short, they were at least a scattering of crumbs on a track to guide me back.

The impressions I noted were often of the sky; I liked to mark out the relative proportions of its layers, defined as they were by a different shade and texture, in a single snapshot of time. As I walked down the hill into town one afternoon that winter, I was blasted by the sight of the horizon above Ten Acre Field to my right, the lower third of the sky swimming in the red of pale blood, raspberry squash, hibiscus tea.

Further up, the clouds were the white, fluffy kind I always drew, ever since I was a child, with perfectly curled edges, rather than a mist bleeding into the palette from behind. A row of bare trees lined the edge of the field so the picture seemed two dimensional already, like a painting or photograph presented to me on a platter. In the foreground, the contrast of colors was sharp, with the ploughed field in its rich brown, pocked with rocks so small they looked like debris. In fact, the soil was so dense with them, it was as though it had been pulled up deliberately to unearth them.

Another day, a short slice of crimson lined the very tip of the horizon on a walk by the fields. Sandwiched between a huge sky of articulated clouds above, and the expansive brown of the tilled fields below, the view immediately targeted my core. From the belly up, I felt I was being drawn upwards and far into the distance.

What did it mean for me to try and remember these scenes? What made me care to record them? Representing the image faithfully was already challenging, as I was discovering. Not unlike the work of a literary translator, my attempts to interpret the landscape precisely, I knew, were bound to be futile. Was this “our unstoppable need to make experience have symbolic meaning” that W. N. Herbert wrote about in his essay, “Polystylistic”?

What was the point of recording the sky at a particular moment in time, when immediately after it would have already moved on? Should I heed Herbert’s warning of forcing things to become “fixed” that ought to be “fluid,” since “poetry is almost always in the surprise, not in yet another certainty?” Was I trying to psychoanalyze myself?

Like another time, later that same winter, as I walked past the water meadows, waterlogged, surfaces iced up. Despite myself, I wondered if this was a metaphor for something. I still hadn’t fully healed. I wondered if the fact that I wanted to reach out and see whether the surface would crack, was similar to how I viewed my subconscious, or how my conscious viewed my subconscious — something inaccessible in my waking life.

Eventually, I let go of the pressure to depict what I was seeing with any great accuracy but continued to attempt to recreate the mood. I approached the task less seriously now and more as a form of play, expressing the landscapes in a number of metaphors that rendered the outcome at least faithful to my vision of the source. So, in my private journaling one day, I described how the sky I saw was a cup of cappuccino, stacked in layers of creamy espresso and froth, a perfect brew. And why not? No one else would ever see the sky I came across that winter’s day anyway. 

Once I’d entered the state of play, I felt immense relief. No longer did I have to work my brain doubly hard, both experiencing the imagery and memorizing it so I could later decode it, laying the result out as an autopsy of my inner thoughts, captured at a critical moment.

I resolved to simply try to immerse myself in each scene as deeply as I could, allowing it to seep into my future writing in whichever form it chose — as a thought, a feeling, as poetry, a joke or a song. To have faith that its impact would not be lost, but absorbed into the great pool of experience where memories settle, until they are called, like my memory of the day I couldn’t help but stop and stare at the way the branches pointing upwards like a devil’s stake, on each of a dozen or so trees, silhouetted against the fiery sky. How this both dazzled and comforted me, with absolutely no need to find meaning or clarity, nothing more than to say to myself: This.

It took me a while to decide what to do with the long-lost envelope of baby Chris’s hair, but less than 24 hours to find the mother. A Facebook post on a local community group had her at my door for the envelope (and the book, which she decided to also reclaim), grateful and gift-laden.

But I was surprised at how conflicted I felt by the unexpected turn of events, which concluded much quicker than I was able to process. The story had taken a new and surprising turn. Somehow, I — a stranger — had entered into the mother’s intimate story with her child, now 15 and still blond, I was told.

Did I want to become a part of their story, which just a few weeks earlier would have ended with a lost set of golden locks? Had I interfered with fate, like a message-in-a-bottle retrieved by the owner, or a time-capsule opened in the lifetime of its creator?

For what is more special: the actual strands of hair that may be tangible but represent nothing more, or the boundless memory of them, which now was truly lost?

And if so, in order to better serve our souls — and our poetry — should our precious memories, our detailed journaling, our doomed attempts to express a fleeting moment, in fact best be left forgotten?

 *The name of the boy has been changed


Nashwa Nasreldin is a writer, editor, and translator of Arabic literature whose book translations include the collaborative novel by nine refugee writers, Shatila Stories, and a co-translation of Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria. A former current affairs documentary producer and journalist, Nashwa has reported on stories from around the Middle East and North Africa. She holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and her poems have appeared in a number of literary journals in the UK and further afield. As well as translating and writing poetry, Nashwa writes feature articles and reviews for literary and cultural publications.

memorymindfulnessnaturepoetry and literaturethe psychology of walking

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