Sabrina Baron: An Historian Looks at Holding on and Letting Go

What do we hold on to and what do we let go of in terms of emotions and possessions? Incessantly we are told we MUST let go, that letting go is the best course, in terms of dealing with, well, everything. But if human experience, indeed existence, is measured in sensation and interaction, how do we let go? What and who do we let go? Moreover, should we let go?


A few years ago I made a foray into Buddhism by spending a week at a Buddhist retreat in the Shenandoah Valley. Buddhism, of course, is all about letting go. I spent a lot of time in relaxation, contemplation, and meditation, including multiple sessions daily with a meditation teacher. But I could never understand, could never accomplish the emptying out of my mind, the expulsion of my thoughts that was supposed to be the achievement of meditation. I remember asking for more explicit explanation and instruction about the out breath, the exhalation that expels thoughts from your consciousness as air is expelled from your body. But the expulsion of thought remained something I could never achieve. How do you empty your mind? How do you let go of thought? Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. Does not thought define human existence?

Our culture has come to be permeated with notions of letting go. Fewer possessions lead to a more rewarding existence. Downsizing is both an industry and a lifestyle. The shaming directed at those who do not conform is considerable, as is the resulting guilt. Relationship has become a dirty word to a large sector of society, which views it as a human association that is limiting. Indeed, humans are more often encouraged to seek attachment to animals rather than other humans. Many current human attachments are determined in seconds by swiping left. “Men are like busses—another one will come along.” There is even a dating site called POF—Plenty of Fish. If it’s not the personal connection that fits your ideal, let it go. It’s better to be alone, unencumbered. But should such important markers of human existence be ephemeral and dispensable? Is it better to be alone? How do we know?

I should disclose that I am an historian by training, profession, and inclination. My ex-husband said I vastly prefer the dead over the living. Our understanding of the past is generally constructed of physical remainders, physical reminders in objects, documents, photos, books, etc. I’ve always collected and acquired things because they provide meaning for me—as repositories of information, reminders of people and events, my own experiences, lost ways of life. With life changes that have had me moving from one residence to another on my own, I can see the wisdom of downsizing possessions. Oh the times in the past few months I have opened a box and asked myself: “Where did this come from? Why did I ever want this? What was I thinking????” But I could not part from most of my possessions that came to me from much beloved individuals or experiences, in which my memories reside. They might mean something only to me, but the mean something important, something vital, to me. I recently decided I am no longer going to apologize or feel guilty about what I own, even though the social pressure to do so is immense and weighty.

Divorce is one instance in which I let something, a lot of things, go. I haven’t found a new romantic relationship since my marriage broke up. I’ve been told repeatedly from a variety of perspectives that it’s because I can’t let go, that I can’t move on the way I need to do. I have spent a lot of time, money, and emotional anguish to receive that opinion. (He has moved on to new trophy wife and baby. Does that make him more successful at coping with life than I am? And oh yeah, that means he’s not alone.) I am constantly abjured by people who are supposed to be my close friends that I do not appreciate the virtues of aloneness. Recently I read that we should not keep objects and letters from prior relationships, indeed prior periods of our lives, so we can move on and not be held back by memories. But should I jettison thirty years of my life? Am I obligated to do that as part of divorce? Should I jettison memories of the experiences that make me who I am? Another recent resolution is to stop feeling guilty about and apologizing for not wanting to be alone.

A large part of my love for history comes from my maternal grandmother who was the family historian by inclination. She held on to photos, newspaper clippings, small souvenirs, possessions and stories when no one else did. She remembered everyone’s name and dates and lives; in many cases, her memories were all that remained of another person’s existence. But her advice in times of difficulty was always: “Never look back.” Is that as contradictory as it might seem on the surface? How is it possible to do both of these things? Why is “never look back” sage advice? Does history not have valuable lessons, models, and examples for our present existence whether at the personal or cultural level? If memory is limiting, why is the human mind programmed to remember?

Without memories, whether they take the tangible form of possessions or the intangible form of emotions, what do we have? What then constitutes our existence? Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. I think, therefore I feel. I remember, therefore I feel. I remember, therefore I am. If we jettison thoughts and the emotions they conjure, or objects and the memories they evoke, what then remains?

Sabrina Baron grew up in the tobacco culture of rural Kentucky, but left to study history at the University of Chicago, where she completed a PhD. She has since travelled to and lived in a number of places in Europe and the US and has attempted to make a career teaching and writing history.

Do You Love Mysteries?

When you ask people what kind of books they like to read, one of the most frequent answers is…mysteries!  I think my first mysteries were of the Nancy Drew variety.  Recently, after hearing an interview with Jacqueline Winspear,  I have fallen in love with her series of mysteries featuring a British WWI nurse-turned-detective, Maisie Dobbs.

Ancient doorway in Rome
Ancient doorway in Rome

Why are so many of us drawn to mysteries? Why do we love sitting down with a book and getting lost, sometimes for hundreds of pages?  I think as humans, we are drawn to ideas, places, and people we don’t fully understand. We like the challenge of discovery. Even evolution tells us that we humans are constantly seeking novelty.

Mary Oliver’s poem “Mysteries,Yes” celebrates the mysteries of life in a compelling way. Enjoy!  And may you always be curious!

Mysteries, Yes
~Mary Oliver

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

Finally, here’s a link to Mary Oliver’s interview with Krista Tippett, the host of  the fine radio show “On Being.”

Poet Pat Valdata Explores the Mysteries of Revision

“Sometimes I go about pitying myself,
and all the time
I am being carried on great winds across the sky.”
~Translated from an anonymous Ojibway by Robert Bly and Frances Densmore

Dorothy Parker, bless her soul, was addicted to revision. She could not move forward with a piece of writing until the line she was working on was perfect. Although the end result was usually marvelous, this practice made writing a painfully slow process for her. Although I am not one to put down anyone’s writing process, especially not someone as talented as Parker, I would never recommend that any of us emulate her.

Pat Valdata

Writing is one process, editing quite another. They require different skills, and trying to conflate the two, I think, more often results in writer’s block than good writing. That’s why Anne Lamott famously urged us to give ourselves permission to write a “shitty first draft.” Poet Peter Murphy tells his workshop students to simply “lower your standards.”

Lowering one’s standards can be easier said than done for anyone who, like me, went to Catholic School and contended with formidable English teachers like Sister Jean (8th grade) and Miss Clark (9th grade). But it’s essential to let that internal editor go away (or at least go to sleep) when sitting down at the computer and facing a big white block of empty space on the screen, or when you first open a new notebook and see empty line after empty line of smooth paper waiting for strokes of a pen or pencil.

It can be helpful to remember that no one (except oneself) ever needs to see a first draft. It absolutely does not matter what that draft looks like, if it is punctuated, if it is grammatical, or even if it makes sense. The only thing that matters: putting words on a page. Any words. Nonsense words. Quotations. Words chosen randomly from a dictionary. (A paper dictionary, so I can close my eyes, open the book, and plunk a finger down. I tried it three times today, resulting in graphic, inauspicious, sequel. I can do something with those!)

Once the words are on the page or have been saved on the computer, the thing to do, of course, is let them go utterly out of your consciousness. Write something else, clean a closet, walk the dog. Come back to them tomorrow, next week, next month. Then you can let your inner editor go to town, and figure out which lines, or at worst, which words, are worth holding onto because there’s the germ of a poem in there.

Often, I start out with a shapeless batch of lines in penmanship that has only gotten worse since Sister Jean used to shake her head at it. Then I type it, which helps it take form. Maybe the lines need to be skinny. Maybe they need to be long. If I have a short poem of say, 13-16 lines, then I see if it wants to be a sonnet. Editor me and writer me alternate the work, usually pruning it back, sometimes needing to add. If I have to cut a line I’m crazy about, I’ll copy and paste it into a “hold” file in hopes of maybe using it someday. Other lines are easier to let go.

Sometimes, a poem will seem hopeless, but I still hold onto it. I put it in a file and don’t even look at it until I am so desperate to procrastinate that I actually let a fit of cleaning take hold of me, and then I sort and file and stumble across that draft that didn’t work. Most of the time, it still doesn’t work, but once in a while, I have an aha! moment and see what needs to be pruned or grafted on, and a successful poem emerges with deceptive ease—in some cases, years after I wrote the first draft.

Every writer has times when we sit in front of the computer, or tap our pen against an empty college-ruled pad, pitying ourselves because the poem/story/scene just isn’t there yet. That’s when we have to remind ourselves: let go of that internal editor, and lower our standards at least for a while, so the writer in us can be carried by those great, creative winds. Only then can we let the spirits of Sister Jean and Miss Clark back in the process as we turn that inauspicious sequel into something satisfyingly graphic.


Pat Valdata is poet and novelist. Her new book of persona poems in the voices of women aviation pioneers, Where No Man Can Touch, received the 2015 Donald Justice Prize and was published in June. Pat recently completed a two-week writing residency at the Dickinson House in Olsene, Belgium.

Ann Bracken, Barbara Morrison, and Pat Valdata will reading and signing   their books on November 14th from 2-4 pm at the Johns Hopkins Barnes and Noble

In the Company of Poets: Reflections on the Mariposa Poetry Retreat

Mariposa is Spanish for butterfly. In the mind of Maritza Rivera, Mariposa is also the name of a wonderful poetry retreat she organizes and hosts every year in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania at the Capital Retreat Center. This year I was lucky enough to attend with a group of marvelous poets and friends–Patricia Van Amburg, Sue Silver, Grace Cavalieri, and Stephanie Lowery. We renewed friendships, shared meals and wine, and wrote poetry together. Here’s a recap of two of the  featured faculty and a glimpse of the wonderful work we all did together. I’ll feature two more folks in a later blog.

Mariposa Poets, 2015
Mariposa Poets, 2015

Cliff Lynn, a poet from Annapolis, is also co-host of the Evil Grin Poetry Series and the Poet Experience, both held in Annapolis. Cliff has had over 50 poems published in both print and online journals and is an all-around poetry fan. Cliff’s workshop on persona poems, poems in the voice of an inanimate object or a character other than yourself, was popular and inspiring.  Using his usual blend of humor and sensitivity, Cliff led the group in both reading and writing poems. My favorite of Cliff’s poems is about his superhero, “One Sixteenth Man.” Ask him to recite it for you.

I offer Nikki Giovanni‘s persona poem  in the voice of a quilt as an example of a persona poem.


(for Sally Sellers)

Like fading piece of cloth
I am a failure

No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter
My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able
To hold the hot and cold

I wish for those first days
When just woven I could keep water
From seeping through
Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave
Dazzled the sunlight with my
I grow old though pleased with my memories
The tasks I can no longer complete
Are balanced by the love of the tasks gone past

I offer no apology only
this plea:

When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end
Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt
That I might keep some child warm

And some old person with no one else to talk to
Will hear my whispers

And cuddle


Robert Giron, teaches English and creative writing at Montgomery College and is the editor of several literary magazines, including ArLiJo and The Sligo Journal. He is the author of five collections of poetry. Robert’s workshop focused on the formal poetry of villanelle and pantoum. Robert provided all of us with several model poems to illustrate the forms and led us in a discussion. Then he offered everyone a bit of inspiration when he invited us to select a picture from his amazing collection of images and work on one of the formal poems  we had just discussed. As is standard with modern poets, many of us write free verse, so exploring formal structures was both challenging and fun. Many people produced wonderful pantoms or villanelles on the spot.  Once you read this poem, I’m sure you’ll be inspired to try a villanelle.

Here’s my favorite villanelle by Elizabeth Bishop called “One Art.”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Part two of Mariposa will feature Grace Cavalieri and Sarah Browning. Stay tuned!