My parents are visiting me in Pennsylvania. That’s a good thing, given how long the pandemic took them from me. What came as a surprise, though, now that I’ve bought a house, it seems they decided to bring with them everything I owned from the time I was born.
It turns out I was a bit of a packrat.
The last day has been one of sorting through old yearbooks, notes from ex-girlfriends, photos of old fraternity brothers or camping buddies–some forgotten, some I’m happy to say I’ve spoken with in the last month or so, some I’m sorry to say are no longer with us.
I’ve turned up old poetry, a letter to the mayor, postcards from my cousin from all over the world, the plush toys I couldn’t sleep without, academic papers from college and seminary, baseball memorabilia, my grandfather’s art supplies, and the overwhelming list goes on and on.
I suppose I can see how glancing through old faces, recapturing old memories, should fill us with warmth, and there is a lot of that, don’t get me wrong. But I’m also struck at how being bombarded by the paraphernalia of the past brings with it all the ugly old feelings you felt back then: an old crush, a short-lived love that’s no more, the nastiness of the way kids treated each other in elementary and middle school, especially, and with it all, there’s almost this misplaced nostalgia as if I simultaneously want to go back to that time but also want it forever forgotten, memories erased.
I’m having trouble sorting through that, frankly. I found among the items a note from my third grade teacher, Miss Carter, whom I absolutely terrorized. She nearly expelled me for how awful I was, and at one point, my mom and Miss Carter had it out with each other. But the note was a simple, sweet, “Keep up the good work and you’ll go far. I love you. Miss Carter.”
The years that have gone by painted Miss Carter in my head as an early archnemesis of mine. I assumed she hated me. The yearbook note suggests otherwise. Time and feelings can so completely alter the past that it’s unrecognizable. I just remember that third grade was a painful year.
I saw this again in a letter I’d written to the Jackson, Tennessee mayor for a citizenship merit badge in Scouts, laying out my concerns about the need for having police in our schools to take care of the riff-raff, and I’m struck by how much I disagree with myself now, some three decades or so later. Who was this child that thought policing would solve everything? The same person I suspect who at times had been bullied and so desperately wanted a hero to replace his own despair. When past fear brings desperation to the forefront, self-preservation replaces all sense of ethics, if we ever even had them.
How many of us never escape the world where our old and new fears make all the rules?
This deep-dive into the past brings those same fears back, I think. But I have a different response to them now. I need not rely on the same desperations I did in the past. I don’t need heroes or simple solutions. I know the world is complex. I may hate that it is as complex as it is, but I’m not willing to live in a fairytale either.
I can reconsider my past, fess up to my own mistakes, rethink how to problem solve. The struggle for me these days is that even in the places I’m privileged enough to “work through,” I find that I wish so much it all wasn’t so painful still. It’s that trade-off between owning the truth and living in the vulnerability and sadness of it that I can’t resolve.
All of it, it’s a bit like rereading ‘A Separate Peace’ or ‘Billy Budd,’ this dive into the past, with characters so caught up in “micro-dramas” that, despite being so seemingly miniscule at the time, were nevertheless taking place while our brains were still forming, when every “micro-drama” was character-defining and inescapable. A little jealousy becomes murder and spilt soup, mutiny. And so much of the rest of our lives are spent trying to forgive ourselves, or others, for those little things that became big things, or maybe… the little things that had bigger things behind them we weren’t as aware of then.
Now, as I’m glancing at faces and wondering what traumas they were carrying, I see them in a different light, maybe because I see myself in a different light. I want so desperately to go back in time and whisper wisdoms they can carry with them to get through it all. I also want to have never known them. I love them, deeply. I hate them, too.
I understand why someone riddled by fear, unable to climb out of it, would need a fairytale world with simple answers, a false reality even, to get through their day.
I can see in myself the desire to maybe have chosen a more superficial path–you know, ignorance being bliss and all that. And yet, no matter my ability to comprehend why people turned out the way they turned out, my empathy does not extend to forgiveness. Maybe it could person-to-person, if we could ever really hear each other. But as a group, I’ve little respect for the way fear seems to have won the day, the way we let that happen in this society of ours.
Then again, time can change all of that. How might I think differently thirty years from now? Maybe I’ll be the one living in a false reality, a fairytale world of my own choosing, because in the end, it just got too tough? That doesn’t seem like me, now, but we change so much when weathered by time.
Or maybe an old letter is just an old letter, an old yearbook photo, just a snapshot in time, a plush toy nothing more than a past comfort, and looking forward is the best any of us can do. That seems like a good enough place to start, as I pack these things way, packrat I am, for some attic or basement hole, relics of what could have been but wasn’t or what was and shouldn’t have been, lost now to a museum of sorts for someone else to worry with. I’ve got new faces to grace, new photos to take, and a mountain or two to climb between now and the next time I decide to look back.