Living with less is an important part of embracing a sustainable lifestyle. I’ve been writing about the benefits of letting go of material things, but I would feel fraudulent if I didn’t explain my life-long semi-phobia of loss.
For me, letting go of anything—old calendars, greeting cards, clothing, used school books—has been a challenge. Since childhood I was deeply averse to loss, and my adult frugal-mindedness is likely a product of that. Waste was a version of loss that I couldn’t (and can’t) stand: wasted resources, wasted money, wasted energy; lost time, lost potential, lost opportunity.
Early on, this aversion to loss motivated most of my actions, leading to habits of uncompromising thoroughness—resulting in harsh internal self-reprimands if I failed to do something “perfectly.” Making decisions entailed leaving no microscopic depth unplumbed before I could reluctantly face the hazardous “no” that came with any “yes.”
I have never been able to keep up with the passage of time, fighting it ferociously, constantly behind and holding onto the ephemeral. I hated turning another year older, even as a kid. I resisted and procrastinated all the milestones of adolescence because it meant leaving behind the warmth, nurturing, and playfulness of childhood.
This fear of loss planted its deepest roots in the idea of losing my parents.
Maybe because I hadn’t experienced real loss in childhood, I was keen to sabotage this ease by channeling the grief of an impending version of myself—one that had already lost. As a 12-year old, I found a way to grieve with future Yenny, looking at my parents with paralyzing sadness, for periods barely able to believe they were presently there, as their eventual loss felt so tangible. It truly seemed like the present was a nostalgic memory.
As artists, my parents worked from home and prioritized doing everything as a unit, encouraging expressions of creativity and engaging with an observant and compassionate eye. To them, everything was valuable. The lint from the dryer was valuable because who knew when it would be perfect for a project? Most things were too dear to get rid of, resulting in a home of beautiful clutter.
My dad had single-handedly built our little house with doting detail and artistic ingenuity, using found materials to decorate the interior. With my sister in college by the time I was born, my parents and I shared everything. We existed most of the time within two rooms—I slept on a fold-out couch in the living room, which I loved for its caressing centrality. I was a shy kid, and somewhat ill-fitting when it came to social endeavors and understanding pop culture. The way I processed the world and communicated with it didn’t seem to be fully grasped by anyone except my parents; they saw me—especially my dad.
He was an older dad, raising my sister for 19 years before I was born, and inhabiting his role of father with the entirety of his being, for both of us. I won’t go into all the ways he was a wonderful dad or how he was extraordinarily creative, intuitive, and thoughtful, because it would fill a book, but I trusted him completely; I adored and idolized him.
There were times, seeing my dad sitting alone, hunched quietly over a drawing he was working on and making several small, swiping additions to the paper per minute, when I simply couldn’t leave him to play with friends in the other room. The loneliness he seemed to emanate would make my heart ache. He may not have felt lonely at all, but I felt lonely when I looked at him. Too conscious of time’s passage, I was terrified of the moment the chair he sat in would be empty.
Now that I know the term “separation anxiety,” I assume that’s what made it so hard to walk away and play with my friends, but it was deeper than that. If I had a negative thought about either of my parents, keeping it to myself seemed a betrayal; so I had to verbalize it to them. I couldn’t say anything negative about them to others without being riddled with guilt, so I didn’t.
When I wished on a fallen eyelash or birthday candle, I would silently chant the same memorized thought—praying for my parents to live long, happy, and healthy lives. I loved them with single-minded devotion and was deeply protective, as they also functioned somewhat on the fringes of society: my introverted dad was not easily understood by less sensitive folks and his kindness could be taken advantage of. It was my parents’ money and resources and I was so averse to losing.
It took me until college before I was able to relax a bit. For the next few years, my parents traveled between the Bay Area and Beijing, spending time with my mom’s family, and thriving. Within this time, my dad was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma.
My experience of letting go started when my dad died at the end of 2014, two weeks after I graduated from college. What I was most terrified of losing, had gone—my dad and the treasured bond of our small family (and with that the cherished remnants of childhood and cascade of related losses; art-making, friendships, and previous aspirations)—so there was no point in being “precious” anymore.
Attaching things with too much weight had, up until recently, kept me from fully living in the present. That prolonged and premature grief for my dad when I was younger didn’t dilute the grief I felt when I finally lost him. It hadn’t served any purpose except diminishing the joy of my time with him.
Until then I had taken experiences, situations, emotions, and possessions as seriously as if they were permanent, infusing sentiment into areas where it was unnecessary. Now I tend to find catharsis in moving on with gratitude for what I had, for taking a breath and pushing forward, instead of lingering in the past. There is nothing to be served there.
Today I’m ruthless with my pruning. First boyfriend’s handmade stuffed animal from childhood? Gone! (I gave it back.) Documents on my old laptop that I didn’t have time to rescue before donating? Gone! (I regret that now.) 80% of my possessions when I moved back to the West Coast? Gone! (In the hands of friends).
I’ve been slowly understanding over the years that everything is fleeting, and now I look forward to what else enters my life. I’m over being afraid of what leaves it. There is nothing permanent, and I find that thought soothing. If there is nothing you can ultimately hold onto forever, then why battle with so much desperation to hold onto a single inanimate thing? Time can pass and you can say goodbye, because with loss comes renewal.