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Hildy NeumannLessons from an Alligator Wrestler

One of my favorite novels is Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. The exclamation point is part of the title, but I would probably have added it if she hadn’t – it’s a great read. Swamplandia! follows Ava, the youngest member of the Bigtree family, who run an alligator-wrestling theme park in the Florida swamps.

One of the buildings in the park is their museum, which houses a collection of the miscellaneous detritus of their lives. Whenever they outgrow anything, they just put it in the museum, so what’s in there is mostly a random collection of useless stuff. (Hmmm – does that sound familiar to anyone?) The main distinction between the stuff they’ve saved and the stuff many of us save (besides the fact that theirs relates to alligator wrestling) is that they’ve added explanatory plaques to make theirs seem more official.

I don’t want to give the plot of this wonderful story away, and I’ll try not to, but there was an aspect of the climactic scene that caught my organizer’s eye. Ava, our heroine, is in big trouble. As she tries to find her way out of it, she clings to a few things: a piece of her sister’s ribbon, a scrap of her mother’s dress. She thinks, “I couldn’t have held onto their real bodies more forcefully.” But she has to focus entirely on what she needs to do to escape the danger and (spoiler alert!) – “At a certain point I realized that my two hands must be empty, because I was swimming.”

I think this is wonderful illustration of the power of letting go. Sometimes we cling so tightly to memories of the past – and the objects that embody those memories for us – that we’re prevented from seeing clearly and living fully in the present. It’s hard to recognize, and even harder to do, but sometimes we need to let go to move forward.

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