My sister started it, and now my mother has embraced it too, the push to clear my parents’ attic of all the flotsam and jetsam stashed there.
As a pack rat by nature, I approach this enterprise with caution and only when prodded.
Several months ago I duly spent hours opening boxes and revisiting elements of my childhood: notes my friends and I had passed during class in the days before texting. Looking now at the paper, with messages written in several different hands, the communiqués scrawled every-which-way, I am no longer able, or interested, in following the conversation that at one time seemed worth saving.
Other items, like my childhood teddy bear I brought home to show my family. See, I said, I wasn’t exaggerating. She has hard plastic ears and a perpetual frown. I spent countless fruitless hours devoted to trying to turn that frown upside down. Having shared this element of childhood, I am now ready to part with it.
Other refound items I have saved, like beloved books and the carefully preserved tree leaves from some long-forgotten elementary school project that are of use to me now for my environmental classes.
Some boxes have held delights. The white esprit-brand pants with the Jackson Pollack-inspired black paint splashes, I felt so glamorous when I wore them. The hot pink heels in which I strode across the stage at my high school graduation. Some newspaper articles I wrote. In rereading them, I applaud my younger self for the level of professionalism I demonstrated.
But yesterday, I unsuspectingly opened a box that thrust me back into a dark time. Although I don’t remember doing it, I can well imagine my younger self carefully boxing up these objects and stashing them in my parents’ attic in an effort to close the door on that chapter and find a fresh start.
At first I questioned my wisdom in holding on to these mementos. My instinct being to close the lid and push the box away.
But this was decades ago. My life has not been derailed by this challenging time. So I decided to embrace the guidance Andy Puddicombe offers via my headsace app. I would look inside the box. I would observe the contents. I would see if I could let them go. It was time to touch the bruise.
So, with curiosity and a cautiously open mind I reread the letter from my professor that at the time seemed so cruel, so inappropriate. I looked at the comments the reviewers wrote on my paper. It surprised me.
Yes, I still found the letter upsetting and could easily understand my emotions years ago, but I also saw things I didn’t see then. My teacher wrote she could understand my disappointment in the grade. She invited me to come to her office to yell at her, to rage at her. She concluded by saying that if our friendship could survive this, it could survive anything.
This struck me as so wrong. She was never my friend. I had never thought of her that way. An advisor. A mentor. Yes. But, a friend, no.
As a parent I know I am not my children’s friend. I do things they are unhappy about, but I do them because I am the adult. I am the responsible party.
Perhaps this teacher proved to be such a disastrous advisor because she had forgotten the distinction. Perhaps as my friend, she didn’t feel comfortable pointing out when I was taking a wrong turn in my research, when the support I mustered for my arguments was insufficient.
And the idea that I would find relief by going to her office to yell and rage at her just underscored how little she knew me.
She wrote that my grade would’ve been worse except for the strong track record that I had in my previous work. And I can see now that it was that strong track record that was the true me, not this episode in which I poorly chose my advisor and had a bad outcome.
I recycled those papers. I don’t need to see them again. By finding the courage to revisit that time, I am hopeful that I have come to terms with it. It’s no longer a monster under my bed or a fear that’s too large for me to face.