`WHERE'S my old sports jacket with the leather arm patches?'' I asked my wife in that anxious tone of voice which hovers between exasperation and apprehension. Surely I couldn't have mislaid it again? The silence from my wife deepened, ``You mean the old sports jacket which you kept meaning to give to your odd-job man?'' ``Yes,'' I replied tersely. Another silence. ``Well, I've just given it to him. It was all part of our spring cleaning. Remember?'' My look of incredulity died slowly in a dawn of resignation. It had to happen, sooner or later, but I really loved that old jacket.
This is the time of year when spring-cleaning is much in fashion, but in Ireland we go a stage further by ``shedding.'' Webster defines shedding: ``to rid oneself of, temporarily or permanently, as superfluous or unwanted.'' But the Irish definition of the term is as enchantingly vague as the old Dublin policeman who, when asked the way to a certain part of that great city, replied with a sorrowful shake of the head, ``Sure you can't get there from here!'' Shedding, Irish style, is a little like that - it's difficult to start from where you are, but a start has to be made, somehow.
Some people find it notoriously difficult to start shedding, to cast off temporarily or permanently, to shrug off an old skin or a way of life in order to allow new growth. This is difficult in even the most mundane of areas such as our wardrobe. How many of us have locked ourselves in an agonizing state as we try to throw out that old dress which to our eyes still has a trace of our youth, or that scruffy jacket which reminds us of our salad days?
A professional man of my acquaintance is a human magpie and stores in his lumber room every conceivable and inconceivable object of sentimental value. This includes planks of wood which he might use ``some day'' as a do-it-yourself builder.
Recently he agreed reluctantly to his wife's much-repeated request to throw out his oldest and most favored suit. Two days later an itinerant man called at the door for food and castoff clothing. With alacrity the lady of the house skipped up the stairs to bring down her husband's now castoff suit. But she couldn't find it anywhere. That evening he returned from the office wearing, of course, that same old suit. ``I thought I'd give it just one more outing,'' he explained lamely. To my knowledge, the suit is still there.
Sadly, I am just as bad. Even my suits have that dated look which makes my sons murmur, ``Dad, if you keep them long enough the styles will come in again.'' In a cloakroom off our hallway, there's a brown bundle which looks like a faithful old dog. In fact it's an old brown Sherlock Holmes overcoat which has seen me through 15 icy Ulster winters and countless chilling news stories, and I look on it still as an old friend. Every time I go past, it seems to wag a tail and say, ``Please don't part with me.'' Not yet, not yet.
Whatever the difficulties, clothes are rather easier to cast off than people. According to a 17th-century English proverb, ``There is no better looking glass than an old friend,'' and therefore friends are in that rather special category of people who are not diminished either by time or circumstance. The value of this friendship was underlined by Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote, ``I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I find them, but I seldom use them.''
But what about people who are acquaintances rather than friends, and at what point does acquaintance merge into friendship, or does perhaps an ill-repaired friendship lapse into acquaintance? Dr. Samuel Johnson, that doughty Scot who was full of words and wisdom, put the point well, ``A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.''
There is no greater test of friendship or acquaintance than in ``shedding'' a large box of visiting cards or in filling in the address section of a new diary. It is amazing how many names are redolent of a past that has no present or future, and yet there is always the temptation to leave somebody in ``just in case.'' It takes a big heart and a stout nerve to decide that one's life is not necessarily impoverished by closing the old address book on the past.
Some people find it extremely difficult to ``shed'' old books or records or collections of colored bottles or holiday postcards or school essays or any of a score of objects that seem to give physical life a permanence but which point directly to the opposite. My own most difficult form of shedding is much more subtle. It is the shedding of old attitudes and casting off old thought forms which inhibit inner growth.
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher, pointed to the challenge of free thought, ``People hardly ever make use of the freedom they have, for example, freedom of thought; instead they demand freedom of speech as a compensation.'' Perhaps the best kind of ``shedding,'' Irish-style or anywhere else, is to know how to cast off the comfortable and the known to make way for an idea or set of thoughts whose time has come. An old French proverb says it well, ``One must draw back in order to leap better'' - but not of course in one's favorite old overcoat or jumping shoes!
Nevertheless, when the leap has to be made, unlike the pessimistic old Dublin policeman, there is no better way to get there than by starting from here! Sometime....