This is scheduled to run in the Alameda Sun Thanksgiving (11/27) edition:
I spent last weekend clearing out a space in our home office to make room for the piano that joined our family on Monday. In the process, I took the first steps to making peace with my past.
My office has been in need of a clearing for years now, but nothing has really motivated me to do anything but shift the mounds of paper and the boxes full of accumulated stuff from one place to another. Sure, I’ll feel guilty and overwhelmed and try to clean it all out every so often, but mostly, I pack the accumulation up into more boxes and move some downstairs to the storage space under the house. Or, I just try to keep the piles neat—moving them behind doors, underneath the desk, fooling myself into thinking that it looks “lived in.” I’ve even had professional help to clear it all out, but there is only so much someone else can do with your stuff.
After a lot of consideration, I discovered the only spot in the house that can hold the five-foot-long upright Baldwin, which is basically an enormous piece of musical furniture, is here, along the wall behind my desk. Having it come Monday provided a deadline to make an impact and get the office—really this time—organized. I tend to work best under pressure.
I have a history of avoiding organizational activities, but even more so as the years pass. Archiving the boxes of my papers—personal, professional and financial—usually gets relegated to the bottom of the To Do list, right behind making dinner, napping, watching movies, cleaning the bathroom or getting a tooth pulled. The trip back in time is not nostalgic for me; it’s a painful stumble across the minefield of every mistake, every heartache, every boneheaded move in my life. Even looking at the old toddler photos of my now teenagers makes my stomach twinge just a bit. I don’t want to acknowledge how fast the time is slipping by or see the family that once was. I don’t want to see the list of things that never got accomplished. Let’s really talk about denial here: I have an entire bag of undeveloped rolls of film in the back of my refrigerator from a two-year period that I don’t want to re-live. I am not even sure if I can get them developed. (Does anyone even develop film anymore?) Why don’t I throw them out? Good question. That’s how I got to this cluttered mess in the first place.
Maybe I haven’t thrown any of this stuff out because deep inside I understand that you cannot just throw your past away. It’s a part of you. I can dump the papers in the recycle bin without looking at them, but I know that at some point, that act of exorcism will serve to haunt me. (There is a short story I wrote that got dumped in a clutter-clearing wipeout years ago and I still have not recovered.)
Accepting my past and its mistakes is just a part of life. I don’t think I can move forward until I realize how it has brought me to here, standing in my office, sorting through old photos, old reminders of me and the people I have known and grateful they have joined me for part of the ride. But, how can you be thankful for a past filled with heartaches and lost friends, names you cannot put a face on, children who are growing so fast it’s hard to keep up with them?
With a deadline looming over my head, I dove into each and every box, resolved, toughened up with an unsentimental approach. It’s just stuff, I told myself.
And, as I sorted through the terrible, black-and-white pieces of evidence of my time here, I discovered what therapists call a coping mechanism. I made a decision to do something with each item, even if it was only “just for now.” “Just for now, I’ll put the music CDs in this case.” “Just for now, I’ll put the girls’ photos in these photo boxes and stack them on shelves.” Just for now, I stored away in a special place the photos damaged in a flood in the garage. I found homes for all the chargers and cords that get tangled up on the desk; just for now, I put all the art supplies in a big basket for the girls to sort through. Because, it’s not just cleaning up the clutter on the floor, it’s going to take reorganizing the closets and cabinets to really get the job done.
It takes some time and distance to make peace with your—my—past. I have to admit that I did handle some things well. I have been rebuilding my life and each step has added character. When you leave your past in a box as you live your life, step by step, it gets easier to look back. Maybe I’m not so messy after all.
Just for now.
Here’s to a happy and truly thank-full Thanksgiving.