This weekend found me sitting in my mother’s basement, sorting through a gaggle of boxes that had sat undisturbed for almost twenty years in a tiny room under the stairs. My mother is thinking of moving and so it was finally time for my sister and I, on a trip home for a family event, to sift through the paraphernalia we’d successfully avoided until last Sunday. Let me say first that I am not big on “stuff”. Every time I move (which has averaged out to once every two years since the age of eighteen) I get rid of a little bit more. I like my living space uncluttered and my boxes light. So when my Mom first proposed that I sort through everything, I assumed I would take a quick look and leave it all, still neatly packed, on the curb, ready for the dump. I thought it would take me about an hour.
As I have aged, the past has become something to let go of, to overcome. Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad writes, “Childhood is a knife stuck in the throat. It cannot be easily removed”. I find this to be a little extreme (he was writing about war-torn Lebanon, I grew up in a quiet middle-class suburb) and yet, I understand the sentiment. In my thirties I have found that moving forward really involves going back to heal the past; gently cleaning and bandaging old sores that have festered, and then moving on. I had started to see the past as a murky no-man’s land full of potential dangers; lessons to be un-learned, pain to be released. Simply leaving the boxes on the curb seemed like the best thing to do. I’ve spent so much time getting over everything that happened,why not just dump it all?
And yet, after literally blowing the dust off the first box and opening the flap, I found some unexpected surprises. There was jewelery my grandmother had made. Letters from a pen-pal I never met spanning grades five to the early years of university; her concerns revolving first around a beloved guinea pig, then a lack of boyfriends, then her new life at Oxford. Report cards that looked so much better now than they did when I received them. And of course, the inevitable diaries where superficial adolescent concerns mingled with deeper ones in entries like, “I had the worst week ever. Here’s what happened: 1. I dislocated my knee on the ice, 2. Gabby likes Herald, 3. Herald doesn’t like Gabby, 4. No one likes me.” Treasures that had patiently sat waiting for me to re-discover them. Mementos of kindness and love, and artifacts showing evidence of a shining inner self, still unaffected by the world, that is still with me.
And so, instead of brutally culling, I began sifting, slowly separating the gems from the junk (because there was junk), carefully choosing what to bring with me, and what to leave behind. Six hours after I began, I emerged with two boxes that will follow me to Vancouver. Nestled in amongst the Chinese-dragon book-ends, photos and old letters are my youthful romanticism and passion for life, optimism, and a new appreciation of the love between friends and family that transcends time, distance and drama. The rest went out with the trash.