Learning to Set Things Free

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been teaching my global literature students the work of Yiyun Li. In particular, we’ve been reading her collection of short stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl—as well as from her various pieces in The New Yorker.

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl is a challenging read for my students because much of the content is bleak in a deeply human, mundane way. Li paints meticulous scenes of human negotiation with the ultimate reality of our singularity, our loneliness, and the inevitable reality that most people will end up quite alone at some point in their lives. Some of the stories are about how people manage to eke out some kind of joy or to find some kind of gift in togetherness or, at the very least, self-reconciliation. Many are about how people are imprisoned by their loneliness, doomed by it even if they thrash desperately to escape it.

I love all of the stories in that book even if I don’t necessarily agree with Li’s seeming treatise on the inevitability of loneliness. I don’t see life in such bleak shades. Then again, despite all that I do know, there is still much for me to learn. Perhaps when I am older and less hopeful, I will agree with what I have read in Li’s works. That said, I did want to point to a particular sentiment and story as I navigate this next year of my life.

In the book’s inaugural chapter, “Kindness” (you can read here it in Li’s magazine, A Public Space), Moyan—the protagonist of that particular story—states that she “has never forgotten a single person who entered her life”, even if only briefly. Prior to that, she remarks that “people we keep in our memories rarely have a place for us in theirs.”

Moyan is a forty-one-year-old teacher who lives alone in a modest apartment on the outskirts of a city. She has no close friends there, does not particularly love her students, and finds a sense of connection to other people only through the books she reads… books that belonged to people she loved, but who she never let herself say that to, really.

I am a man in my mid-twenties who works in marketing, but teaches on the side. My students sometimes irritate me for not minding their studies as closely as I feel they should, but, though I know little about them, some part of me loves them as I love any young person. I want them all to do well. I want their lives to be filled with possibility and adventure. I want them to feel like my class was a stepping stone to a better life for them somehow, although I recognize that this is a delusion I likely carry to romanticize a relationship that will likely be a meaningless but necessary motion that most of my students had to go through.

Still, I cannot help but feel I have much in common with Moyan somehow. In particular, I think about how I tend to keep artifacts—books, clothing, perfumes, photos, whatever, tickets… Whatever. I keep mementos from moments of my life that have long passed to remind me of what it was like to be whoever I was in that moment, with the people I was experiencing it with. I have sweaters from old lovers and half-lovers, books I read when I was experiencing the euphoria of a new friendship, journal entries and sketches from when things were bad between myself and people I loved. I hold on to them as evidence that these things happen. I never let myself forget anyone—and, as I grow older, and making new connections becomes more difficult, I realize that maybe holding onto all of these things is making it hard for me to make room for new memories.

As I talked with my students about “Kindness”, I asked them what they thought about Moyan. Generally (I think), because they are young (I think), they told me that they felt sad for Moyan because she was trapped in a prison of her own making—living with the memories of people she once knew but never really living her life beyond that.

Sometimes I feel like I am letting myself become a Moyan. When I think about how I decided to move to New York in a tearful fit because someone did not love me in the way that I thought they should (I am now grateful that they did not; I know now that if we were to share a life, I would resent them because I loved who I thought they were, not who they actually were and certainly not who they were on the path to becoming). I chose to come here because I knew I could be anonymous in a way that I could not be anywhere else in the world. I wanted to diminish the meaningful connections and live in some lonely apartment on the outskirts of a town, where I could work out my feelings and otherwise make something of myself.

However, I am not content to become like Moyan. I am still young, and even if I weren’t, I am still optimistic—like my own students—about life’s possibilities and the connections I might make with new people as I expand my horizons, accomplish more things, lean into life and love more, and enjoy all of the doors to adventure that have been opened for me.

One of my students remarked that she felt that Moyan was imprisoned because she’d never allowed herself to forget anyone she met. She never let anything go, and so she was dragged underneath the tide of her memories.

I think that I agree.

And for that reason, I have decided to gather up my old things and dispose of them.

I am giving myself permission to let go of mementos—and of memories, too. If I need a totem to remember it, then maybe it isn’t so important. If I cannot resurrect the feeling of a moment on my own, if it is not that important to me, then why should it occupy my space like a cell mate? My life is not a prison.

So, to all of the memories I loved before: I thank you, and I set you free.

I set myself free, too. What’s next?

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