Photographs and the Art of Letting Go

Personal photographs can be powerful entities. Instantly we are transported back to the moment the camera flashed. Silly grins. Outdated fashion. Awkward personal space. When we look at old pictures, we squint and ask ourselves, “Did I really look like that? Was I ever that young? Was I ever that innocent?” Old photographs may give us warm fuzzies, but they also require us to come to terms with past feelings of hurt and anger. There are people staring back at you who have hurt you, torn your heart apart. Time, though, has given you a gift. With age, you realize you also inflicted pain. Your regrets consume you. And as you gaze at these faded photos, you decide to let go, releasing the resentment you’ve hung onto for years. You begin to forgive others and yourself. You remember the sweet joy, the giggles, the softness that surrounded the moments in the photographs. 

A few weeks ago when I was visiting my mother, she brought out some pictures from my first wedding. “Do you want these?” she asked, “Because, if not, I’m throwing them away.” As I flipped through them I said, “Yes, I’ll keep them.” At first she looked a little shocked, but I said, “Mom, these are important. The formal album was lost in the divorce, and you possess the only copies left. Maybe the boys will want these some day. And man, look how cute I was back then!”

Later, after I return home, I spread the photos on our table. Taken almost thirty years ago, I spy glimpses of youth, of promises made, of hope. I remember my dad walking me down the aisle of Westminster Presbyterian Church, acting as though it was the red carpet as he smiled at all the assembled guests. I am reminded of how Bill and I giggled through the ceremony. I see the faces of my dear friends, most of whom are still extraordinary people in my life. Snippets of the reception float through my consciousness: our first dance, my dad enjoying the band, my mother’s smile, Aunt Bug and Uncle Jack, Bill’s parents, all of our friends, and the happiness of that day.

As I am perusing the pictures, I notice another one my mother had added. It is a formal photo from my sister’s wedding the next year. Staring back at me is us: Bill, me, and two month old Christopher. With a tilt of the head, I was transported back to the fog and joy of those first few months of parenthood. Onesies and formula and sleepless nights. Bill falling asleep on the couch with Chris on his chest. Our dreams of the future all wrapped up in this little human being. I see our family.

I begin to breathe, to forgive, to let go. Selfishly, I no longer want to feel the weight of it all. It requires too much energy to hold on to the old shit. I am lighter, almost floating with the freedom. Herman Hesse once wrote, “Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.” I am releasing into the universe all that I used to clutch and scream “Mine!” if anyone dared question it, because you see, I no longer require any of it. Most importantly, I am forgiving myself. I am stronger than my resentments, my anger, my gripes.

For now the photos will be tucked away in a drawer, but I am grateful for their gifts: reminders of joyful moments and the wonderful liberation that comes with letting go.

cold and broken hallelujahs

Easter used to be new dresses and chocolate bunnies and baskets loaded with candy. Patent leather shoes pinched toes. Children searched under bushes for hidden colored eggs. Hymns celebrated an empty tomb. The warm smell of glazed ham and cheesy potatoes wafted throughout the house.

Now children are grown and on their own. No visits from the Easter bunny. No hidden stashes of chocolate. Home is silent except for snores of cats and tumbling clothes in the dryer. 

This quiet gives me pause, and even though years ago I consciously stepped away from sitting in balcony pews on Sunday mornings, I acknowledge Easter as the story of redemption, of forgiveness, of hope.

Our messy, torn lives often invite judgement and accusations. We feel the scorn. We look in the mirror and hate what we see. How did everything get so hard? Where is the joy? Why is my story so wretched and tired and sad?

But then we take small, ragged breaths. We learn from the cracks which shine with gold, guiding us toward grace. Our scars are maps, no matter how fresh. We trace where we have been while knowing we’ll again get lost. New scabs appear. Our failures teach us patience. We slowly begin to forgive ourselves. This is our hallelujah. 

None of this is easy. I hold grudges. I loathe imperfection in others as mine slithers across the road. My finger points. My tongue clucks. I’m damn awful. I’ve hurt others. I’ve betrayed confidences. I’ve stolen trust. I’ve hidden away from the truth. I’m human.

This is who we humans are: defective, troubled, flawed. Full of shit. Full of unfulfilled promises, even as we wash the wounds, slap on a new bandaid, and hope for healing. But we are also glorious in our brokenness and this is our hallelujah. 

So on this Easter Sunday I am making a small vow to let go of at least one old hurt, to work on forgiving my own shitty transgressions, and to hold out a shaky hand to another who needs help up after a fall. This is my hallelujah.

Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

— Leonard Cohen

“Over and over, in spite of our awfulness and having squandered our funds, the ticket-taker at the venue waves us on through. Forgiven and included, when we experience this, that we are in this with one another, flailing and starting over in the awful beauty of being humans together, we are saved.” Anne Lamott, Hallelujah, Anyway