This post, drafted a month ago, is a work in progress, as is the unpacking it describes. Perhaps sharing with you will move me nearer to my goal of being unburdened, free. Peace to you as you put down the load you are carrying to open your arms for some new delight.
Inspired by my in-laws’ move this summer, I’ve been peeking into boxes in my basement–boxes moved to shelves in the corner eight years ago and not touched since. Some were labeled (“Jennifer: elementary, high school, awards and accomplishments;” “Jennifer: letters from friends;” and so on), and some were tightly sealed in plastic wrap, our own version of weather-proof archives in a water-prone basement.
On the first day, I opened all the boxes, unearthing my own mini-time capsule. I had report cards from every stage of schooling, certificates of achievement that began when I was a child and traversed all the years to come, musical programs from performances spanning decades in age and ability, and letters, letters, letters. Along with many layers of family memories hidden in each box, I discovered a shift in my need for what was inside.
If I’m honest with you, and I strive to be nothing but, these boxes were not really meant for me. They were indeed a time capsule, packed and put away for my children in the event of my death. I never said this aloud to them or anyone else, but in each of these boxes I had placed the evidence I wanted them to discover. “Oh goodness, our mother was smart–and what a voice she had! All those friends?! I can’t believe the letters she has here, filled with affection and gratitude.”
Our experiences mark and shape us. When I learned my mother was dying, she was sick to the point that she could no longer share the stories that mattered to her. My sister and I were left to forage through old boxes and construct her life from the artifacts that remained. Whether a conscious act or not, I had tried to make my own children’s foraging a little easier, a little more orderly.
So what was I to do with them now that I am less convinced of my impending death–now that I want to live for the present and future rather than the past? As I uncovered the contents of these boxes and my hidden motivation, I was seized with a driving need to let it all go–to get the boxes and all that they contained out of the basement.
The first clean-out stages were simple, and my motivation was high. I scooped fistfuls of letters into a “burn pile,” and after just a moment’s hesitation, I added the report cards, standardized test results, and, yes, every achievement award I had ever been given. I called the kids down to the basement and my sorting piles when there was something particularly poignant or funny to share. Their personal favorite was a childhood diary in which I called my mother, my teacher, and my friend Pam “b*tch,” all on separate dates but with the same amount of vitriol and the absence of an asterisk. When the piles were complete–keep/file (the smallest of the piles), recycle, give away, and burn–I instituted a 24-hour waiting period. Given that I could not possibly read all those old letters or peruse every college paper I had written, I wanted to leave time for the Spirit to compel me back to something, and I wanted to be certain I wasn’t clearing my past on adrenaline alone.
The night of our bonfire was one for the family memory book. We took turns piling pages on a roaring fire, pausing to look at an old yearbook photo or quickly read one last card. I pulled five or so pieces from the pile because I was drawn to them in the moment, and each has its own story since–but most everything went on the fire without hesitation or regret. As the pages burned, I prayed prayers of gratitude for the people, the memories, the accomplishments, the places, and the growing all symbolized in that pile. There were some hurts in those letters too, and, as the night grew dark, we made s’mores over the fire, my home-grown version of turning the bitter into something sweet.
The clearing out since has been more challenging–pictures and memorabilia of my parents, now dead, and their parents, the same. After my initial clearing out and the drafting of this post, I’ll admit I stumbled. I uncovered long-held but rarely-stated family rules: You do not throw away, recycle, or burn the pictures or belongings of people who have died. I’m breaking this rule with what I am doing, of course, and I am remembering how hard it is to shape new rules when generations have lived by the old ones.
When the sorting and the letting go get difficult, I remember our bonfire and the sweet taste of freedom. I remember the tears that flooded my eyes the following week when I turned on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday and heard Elizabeth Lesser say, “Our golden, radiant core is enough. This is what people want,” and knew it to be true. I am enough. You are enough. No evidence required.
© 2014 Jennifer L. Sanborn. All Rights Reserved.