Exorcising The Ghosts Of The Past

What I used to record portions of the Live Aid concert in 1985

In the days before the Internet and FaceTime and Zoom and texting, people wrote letters. A stamp, a pen, and a piece of paper were all you needed to share the contents of your mind and heart with someone who was worth the effort of your time and questionable penmanship. As is the habit for many people, I saved quite a few of the letters I received over the years from friends and boyfriends. I kept them in a box that once held my cassette player (back in the days when cassettes were a thing). Over time, that box got rather stuffed with random correspondence. I didn’t open it very often to read its contents, but I dragged it with me each time I moved. It would relocate from the top of one closet shelf to another, from apartment to apartment. There was something about knowing those letters were there if I ever wanted to trot down memory lane or perhaps clarify a memory that had become distorted or foggy.

When my husband and I got engaged and decided to move in together, he was helping me move boxes into my car when he came across that one. He asked me why I was bringing it. After all, if these letters represented relationships that had long since gone defunct, why was I clinging to them? I honestly could not give him a suitable answer. If I’d said I was keeping them for sentimental reasons, that would only make the box more of an issue in our relationship at the time. I didn’t know how to respond. In the absence of a viable response, he asked me if I could add them to the dumpster along with the wooden case holding 100 cassette tapes I no longer needed since he had a CD player he was willing to share. I acquiesced because he had never asked for anything from me, we were getting married and he was my future, and it seemed like a small sacrifice I should be willing to make for someone who had never been anything but kind, loving, supportive, and patient with me. With a pang of disappointment, I lobbed them over the wall of the dumpster, turned around, and tried not to look back. I was twenty-six then, he twenty-four.

In the years since, we both have felt deep regret over that event. He has felt horrible for asking me to toss a box of papers because he felt a little jealous about its existence. I have felt anger at myself for not defending my right to keep them because they were harmless mementos from my youth. But there is no unringing that bell. They are long gone. So now we just carry around the shame regarding that missing box instead of carrying around the box itself, which we have both agreed is so much more emotionally cumbersome than that damn box ever was.

This decision, made in our youth when we were not emotionally mature and had no real experience to gift us with greater perspective, has laden us with invisible baggage that we have hauled for decades. It’s something he doesn’t like me to mention because he feels just that bad about it, but I don’t blame him because the box is gone. I blame myself for not being self-aware enough to tell him it was part of my life I wasn’t ready to jettison. But it’s time for us to unload our disappointment in ourselves and the choices we made when we were younger and not able to see so far into the future. Seriously. Who can see twenty-seven years into the future when they aren’t even twenty-seven yet? The guilt and shame we feel needs to go. That box has long since been replaced by countless wonderful memories and experiences as our life together has been filled with love and fun and two absolutely-perfect-in-nearly-every-way adult sons, not to mention dozens upon dozens of cards and notes we have written to each other and saved. Therefore, I am declaring it time to move on. I may not be able to read those missives again, but I have something much more important. I would never trade my current life, our family, our shared experiences for those pieces of paper and neither would he. It’s way past time for us to toss the shame and self-flaggelation in the dumpster and move forward.

Under Construction

Still on the merry-go-round and working on my exit
Still on the merry-go-round and dreaming up a great dismount

I haven’t felt like writing much lately, so I haven’t. I’m in the midst of some unsettling discoveries, which aren’t as much discoveries as admissions about myself. There are things that I haven’t liked for a long time. I knew they needed to change, but I was so paralyzed by the thought of admitting my weaknesses and so adept at focusing on other parts of my life that I kept pretending these negatives were invisible. They weren’t. Other people saw them. And I still knew they were there. They were like the mess you shove in a spare room right before guests arrive. You think you’re fooling everyone by having everything in order, but deep down you know what lurks just behind the closed door. And you remember it with nausea when someone asks you, “what’s in this room?”  You are vulnerable and imperfect and mere seconds away from someone discovering what a pretender you really are. It’s a terrifying place to live.

Human nature reacts strongly against what it sees in others that it suspects and fears in itself. It’s a predictable pattern. We chastise others for lack of compassion while we ignore that it’s our lack of compassion that allows us to criticize them. We accuse others of being selfish when it’s our own self that feels neglected enough to point out that we’re not getting enough attention. The thing that most deeply annoys me about others is the victim mentality…people who whine about the bad things in life, as if bad things only happen to them and not to others, and who stay stuck in their quagmire because it’s easier to be the victim than it is to leave that role behind and go forward boldly and change. I know many people who suffer from this affliction, so it’s something that makes me shudder regularly.

As I’ve been navigating this bumpy and unsettling road to Future Me, I’ve paid particular attention to how vehemently I react towards particular failings in others, knowing that my reactions towards them likely hold a mirror squarely back on me. So I’ve been sitting with that thought for a while, letting it bubble its way to the surface while I was able to grow in acknowledgment of it. With some introspection, I’ve had to accept that as much as I despise victims, I’ve quietly lived as one among them for years. The only difference between me and the victims who get under my skin lies in their honesty about their misery. They’re more in touch with their emotions, so they complain about it readily. Me? I’m an emotional stuffer. I’ve sat quietly while layers of shame and self-loathing accumulated like sediment at the bottom of a slowly dying river. Now I realize I’m too filled up to function as I have in the past. It’s time to have my own Frozen moment, dredge up the muck in my way, and let it go.

They say the only way out is through, so I’ve been going through. And through. I’ve been sitting, thinking, and crying in some sort of rinse and repeat cycle for weeks. And it sucks. What will suck more, though, is if I squander my ephemeral time on this lovely planet without finding a way to love myself for who I am, emotions, weakness, messy rooms, and all. I need to live with my whole heart free and my mind open and aware. I can’t forgive others their failings if I can’t forgive myself for my own. Pain happens. We grow up with the hand we are dealt, but where we ultimately land is our own responsibility. And while complaints and ignorance are strategic coping mechanisms, they are not useful to us in the long run. This is where the victim becomes the victor. I need to put in the hard work. Do my time. Eventually, I will be improved for my effort. In the meantime, when I’m not here, please know that I’m under construction. As with most construction projects, it will probably take longer than the first-promised deliverable date. I’ll be back and better than ever in time. I can’t wait for my grand reopening.