I spent last evening sitting on the living room floor of my childhood home, letting go of hundreds of pages of old letters. This is something that I never thought I could do.
For most of my life, I have been exceptionally sentimental. I suppose it comes with the writer’s temperament, because you’re always collecting experiences to capture in words. And once you write about them, there they stay, preserved forever. Romanticizing and immortalizing the past makes it harder to let go.
Darren‘s mom, Jill, pointed out to me that Catholics may be especially likely to hang onto physical representations of the past. Much of the Catholic ritual centers on sacred objects: the Communion wafer, the priest’s vestments, or relics from the Holy Land. Unlike the Buddhists, whose monks may travel around with only a robe and rice bowl, Catholics bundle up much of their meaning in things. Do the math: Cradle Catholic + romantic writer = memory packrat.
I’ve found that things have taken up a lot of mental and physical space in my life. Until last fall, my childhood bedroom was a museum to my past. I’d plastered the walls with old photographs and posters from my adolescence: Pulp Fiction, Ethan Hawke, Kim Anderson’s black and white photos of cute little kids. The walls themselves were still painted with the clouds and rainbow that my parents painted when I was a baby. When I came home to visit, I was constantly surrounded by reminders of who I once was, and it’s no surprise that I found myself clinging to the past. My parents were, too. Eventually I realized that in order for all of us to move forward, I needed to get rid of my stuff.
As soon as I moved back home in July to prepare for reschooling, I updated my bedroom. I replaced my old furniture with what I was bringing from my own apartment. I cleared the walls and painted over the rainbow with a bright yellow color. I asked my parents to help me, not only for practical reasons but also so they could be part of a ritual that would symbolize my growing up. I imagine that it was easier for them to see me as a 28-year-old and not a child when my room stopped looking like a toddler’s nursery.
This week I’m staying with my parents in Sonoma, and my little sister planned her own visit to coincide with mine. Being married now, she’s on the same mission as I am: to clear out as much stuff as possible from the house we grew up in. It’s helpful that she’s as dedicated as I am to guerilla decluttering.
Getting rid of keepsakes has been a challenge, but it has been one of the most liberating things I’ve done during my reschooling. Before last fall, I had kept nearly everything over the last quarter of a century. Scribblings from kindergarten. 10-page love letters from high school. Folded gossipy notes from my girlfriends. I had a habit of writing long letters of affirmation to my friends and teachers, telling them just how much they meant to me, and I’d saved copies of all of them. I cringed at some of the words that filled the pages upon pages of flowery script. Here are a few examples for entertainment value:
Exhibit A: Cheesy descriptions. “When you sauntered up to _____, looked her right in the eye, and spoke the kindest words in a honey-coated voice, the cloud above my head lifted…thank you for being so pensive and deep; you are truly a precious gift.”
Exhibit B: Fixations on immature boys. “Why ____ and I Are Completely Incompatible: He’s egotistical, uncommunicative, jumps to conclusions, ignores me often, refuses to be consoled, loves rap, wears backpack over 1 shoulder…..” (The list goes on for a page and a half.)
Exhibit C: Gossip and snarky comments about classmates and teachers. “Yeah, we should raise $ for his makeover. The celebrities on game shows should play for their favorite charity — him!”
Exhibit D: Horribly dramatic letters to boys that thank GOD I never gave to them. “People are so complex. I am too analytical and keep my feelings bottled up until one day everything comes out with a bout of yelling and crying. Sound psychotic? Not really. There really aren’t very many people like me, it’s strange. I’m kind of exhausted of being me.”
Dear Lord, did I really write that stuff? Last night as I read it, I thought:
1. I am SO glad not to be in high school anymore, where my emotions were on overdrive and I was wrapped up in being different from everyone else. Since my experience was limited, every bump in the road seemed like the end of the world.
2. I’ve changed. A lot.
3. I don’t have the patience to read all of these letters carefully.
The last one was a surprise. Of course I felt bits of sadness and joy as I remembered the major events of my past, but they didn’t carry the weight that they once did. I didn’t long for the old days, or miss anyone terribly. I realized that I’ve moved on. Eventually, I got bored of reading the old letters and put them in a trash bag. I’m hoping to burn them, as a ritual. I did keep a small stack, including a poem my friend Katie wrote about our friendship, and heartfelt cards from my grandma, who died when I was in college. I’m not quite ready to part with these yet.
In sorting through my box of letters, I saw how clinging to the past has made it harder for me to evolve as a person, and for my relationships evolve naturally. For a long time, I expected that I would relate to my loved ones in the same way I did when was 16, and I was setting myself up for disappointment. In reality, it’s neither sad nor wonderful that things have changed. It’s just different.
As I mentioned in my post about memory walks, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron writes that in meditation, we “touch the breath and let it go.” In order to move forward, it’s important to touch the past and let it go. Recognize that these experiences and people shaped you into the person you are today. But they’re not you. Read the old love letter, laugh at the list of inside jokes with your high school crew, groan at your maudlin teen poetry. Then let them go, and move on.
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What relics from your past have you been able to let go, and how did you feel about doing so? Which keepsakes do you still have, and why?