02 November 2011

Giving up ghosts

Dirty confession time.

I've never been particularly skilled at either forgiving or forgetting. This is not something I am proud to admit but it's the truth, and it's something I have wrestled with my entire life. Silently to myself I sometimes think, "Yes, I am done being angry at...", or "Yes, I have moved on from...", or "No, I'm not harboring resentment about...", but mere days after being so certain I'd moved on from unresolved past issues I prickle back up over those things I'd insisted I was already over and done with. I've tried to make sense of the way I'm obviously not done being mad even when I thought I was done being mad. While all this angry/not angry forgiven/not forgiven simmers away, I also have become more cognizant that I don't really let go of stuff. Stuff, meaninging all the extra crap that lives in the basement. Stuff, meaning the piles of papers and empty boxes I save just in case. Stuff, meaning pieces of lint and other detrius that I keep to remember them/that/then by. Stuff, meaning the things I cling to, the things I've moved from home to home with me over the years. Y'know, STUFF.

Several months ago in a fit of can-do-ism I energetically piled through overflowing file folders and shredded two paper grocery bags' worth of receipts and billing statements from companies I hadn't patronized for a decade or more. It is a slow process of understanding that those documents won't ever be necessary. My emotional self is certain they will at some future point be a lifesaver while my rational self is sure they won't. After the file folder cull there remained a number of fat file folders and overflowing binders whose contents I haven't feel prepared enough to go through, files with deep emotional ties, files that I kept so I'd have something to pat me on the shoulder and supply me with a "there there you poor dear" any time I felt defeated (or angry, or misunderstood). Justification. Cause to nurse past ills. That's really why I've been holding onto them.

One of those overflowing binders has been dedicated to holding all things child support related. My child is now 22 years old, a man, living in the realm of grownuphoodness. But from his 18th year all the way back to the "I'm pregnant" days his father and I butted heads. The one issue we could agree on was that neither of us had any inclination to be married -which, at that time, is generally what responsible young people who found themselves accidentally pregnant did.  Through all those years it felt as though his dad was determined to make the dumbest, least child-beneficial choices possible. Over and over, just when I thought he'd reached his lowest point he'd dive just a little deeper to mark a new lowest rung. I was always prepared at any moment to go to court on behalf of our kid's best interest, and the documentation file keeping became as constant a reflexive action for me as breathing. Overstuffed with legal records, that binder provided me proof that I was right and he was wrong.  In recent years it became clear that I was passively feeding my own hurt, that I had to do something to let go of past ills done.  I was too big a chicken to throw the works into a shredder but I purposefully put that binder out on a desktop in my office, right there in my face, right there saying c'mon, you're going to have to deal with me eventually why not now? with the hope that I'd take the note and get past whatever was holding me back from letting the papers go but I couldn't do it.
I just couldn't do it.

Recently, during a discussion with my beloved about solving the world's woes -specifically, releasing anger and maintaining personal equilibrium- she shared a quote gleaned from Oprah's Lifeclass show on OWN:

Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different.

(Oh please don't tell Oprah this, but) In general I am a little Oprah weary.  I can only hear so much about healing the past and staying in the now and reaching out to others and buying hundreds of people cars and sending them on trips, and  saving the world and feeding the world and making one's mark and erasing one's other marks and being impeccable with one's word and sharing meaningful text with one's book clubs and dressing just so and Tolle and Statler and Waldorf too. Beloved shared the ways in which that sentence was important to her, how letting go of the past doesn't mean one agrees with everything that happened, it just means that one commits herself to proceeding into the future without dragging the past along, starting now. That clicked something on inside me.  I dunno what the click was, but I felt it.  It wasn't clear but it was specific.  

With this in mind, last weekend as we looked out the window at a crisp breezy autumn Saturday Beloved and I mulled over what to do with the rare beauty of the day.  She said she wanted to have a campfire somewhere.  I said I felt like we haven't been attending to some really necessary home maintenance projects all summer, even after we insisted at the beginning of the summer that we'd get them done (this year!  we can do it!  we'll get organized!).  I said I wasn't eager to do that: I'd feel guilty hanging out fire side if I knew I hadn't done anything to shorten my to-do list before the fire'd been lit.  After some discussion we eventually met in the middle by agreeing to have a fire on Saturday and then we would accomplish (specifically named tasks) on Sunday.    We scurried around the house gathering what we'd want to have with us.  Clothes we wouldn't mind getting ashy.  The fire pokey stick.  Firewood.  Snacks.  Reading materials.  Beverages.  On an unexpected whim, I also grabbed the fat angry child support binder.  I don't have to do anything with this of course just, I dunno, bringing it along for the ride.  

We landed at a gorgeous county park 20 minutes or so outside of the city where we met a group of boy scouts and adult supervisors on a campout.   The park was otherwise empty, and it was quiet quiet quiet.  No sirens.  No engine revving.  No car stereos thrumming bass lines strong enough to make steel rattle.  No shrieking.  No Beltline highway noise.  No industrial equipment.  Just the wind and the birds.

Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different.

I kept hearing that quote in my head, like the Field of Dreams line "If you build it they will come".  I pulled the fat angry binder out of the back seat of the car.  Sat down next to the fire, opened the binder, read the top page.  Holyshitholyshitholyshit I am not ready to do this.  (I'm not?)  I can't let go of this.  I've kept all these papers in one place for so long.  (You can't?  Why hold onto it now?)  Slowly, I flipped through a few more pages, reading back through my dusty copies of our family court proceedings, and finally laid a few sheets onto the fire, then I sat and watched the flames catch the edges of the pages, curling the burning pages around one another.  It was exhilarating in a roller coaster ride stomach bottoming out kind of way.  I was so tempted to reach into the fire to pull the pages out, maybe blow the flames out or stomp on them, pat them down or something so I could put them back into the fat angry binder where I've kept them for years and years.  Reading the documents was a very important part of my process - I didn't anticipate it would be important for me to relive in order to release, but it was.  Also, not all the pages dropped so easily into the flames.  The very first piece of personal correspondence I received from 1988, the year before my kid was born, was the hardest to let go of and it took several false starts before I managed to make my fingers ungrip.  And then, liberated, it set aflame.  And then, the words became murky though still legible.  And then, the words were ghost letters on ashen paper.  And then, they were gone.  We were both quiet.  I stood up to take a break and we began chatting about something entirely unrelated to the ceremonial burn.  All of a sudden I began crying.  Little choked sobs.  Big teardrops.  I thought I'd managed to keep my cool so I was not at all prepared for that blindsiding emotional surge.  I said, "Well I bet this is not exactly the day you'd envisioned when you said you wanted to have a fire earlier today".  Thank goodness we both laughed.   I finally fell into a good rhythm - read a few sheets, held onto them for a few more seconds, dropped them into the fire, watched them burn until there was nothing left.  Stood up, walked away, took a brief break, sat down and pulled out a few more documents... over and over, until there were no papers left in the folder save one, one of the paternity-proving blood test results.  I figure that one may be an important medical document down the road, so even if the information is retrievable elsewhere this copy is staying put.

Without being too creepysmarmyloveygross, I doubt I can ever sufficiently thank my Beloved enough for having been there with me to listen and to talk and to crack jokes.  It was especially meaningful to me that she stayed right there next to me and witnessed me do this Really, Really Hard Thing That I Never Thought I'd Be Able To Do.  It was surprisingly exhausting for both of us, and I am grateful that she braves the unknown by encouraging me to walk my talk.  I'd expect no less.  The older I get the more I understand how love isn't about acquiescing to everything whether you agree with it or not, but it is the encouragement we give to one another to pursue being our best selves.

I'm in no hurry to race to whatever my next challenge is (cripes, this is exhausting and makes my hair smell smokey!!) but with this experience under my belt I feel somewhat better equipped to face the next episode of becoming my better self.

Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different.

Yep.  That.  

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