Life is not a series of stops and starts, it’s a continuum. The past never goes away. Even when it appears that we have washed our hands of it, there it is beneath the surface like a current moving us along.
Two summers ago, I sat on an airplane from Los Angeles to Boston, flying from my old home, where I spent the first twenty-five years of my life, back to my current one. As it often does when I make this trip, my mind was by turns conjuring up the past and pushing it away. Here were my roots spread out on the table before me like a fortune teller’s cards. And yet it was no mistake that I decided to settle and raise a family three thousand miles from everything I had ever known. Sitting there in my cramped coach-class seat, I happened to be reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, when I stumbled over these words of Terri St. Cloud’s:
“She could never go back and make some of the details pretty. All she could do was move forward and make the whole beautiful.”
As I read and reread those two sentences, something in me released. I had a vision of my life, everything I had ever been, done, or witnessed, as a great mosaic. I literally saw myself piecing together the fragments, using the chips and shards to create a work of art: a life that was a work of art. What a concept this was. This meant that no color or shape or texture was wrong. Every last drop had meaning. I knew that much of my life had not been pretty, but perhaps, when viewed within the context of a whole, there was flow, or at the very least, a unique design.
At some point my vision drew to a close, the plane touched down.
It’s now two and a half years later. I am sitting on my daughter’s bed, blankets askew, and the cat purring contentedly in my lap. I’m thinking about how these words still ring true, and how also, not much has changed.
My preference, just as it’s always been, is to slam the door on my past. And, like the dutiful handyman I am, apply caulking around the edges where anything might be capable of seeping in. To give you an example, I have kept a journal over the years on an almost-consistent basis. But once these journals are filled, they no longer feel alive to me. There is an odd detachment that takes place after that final sentence has been written, so that instead of storing my old journals in a drawer, or high on a closet shelf, I tear them up.
(I recently thought it would be a good idea to begin saving my journals, so that’s what I’ve been doing. But the idea of rereading them still isn’t digestible. Just yesterday, I was alone in my house and opened one for the purpose of witnessing my reaction. I read one segment. The writing seemed childish and foreign. I looked over my shoulder, embarrassed, as if someone could actually be watching me, and then promptly closed the cover.)
In a similar vein, it is also characteristic of me, every couple of years, to embark on, not minor, but massive wardrobe overhauls, purging myself of any item that reminds me of a different time, that doesn’t feel current, and I don’t mean in the fashion sense. Throw it out. Move on. Clear out the old, the worn, the excess. I revel in that feeling of newness, of a slate that has been wiped clean. The relief is unmatched. It’s what I imagine a snake feels after shedding its old skin: lighter, lifted of a burden. But What, I ask myself, is really going on here?
I am not about to suggest that one should never, heaven forbid, clean out her closet, or that one doesn’t have the right to do as she pleases with the pages of her own diary. However, I have given these habits of mine some thought, and when I trace them back to their roots, both point to an element of distaste for the past. Get it away from me. To the idea that, back then, I was doing it (life) wrong. I wasn’t really living then. Now, however, I’m on the right track. I’ve finally got my act together.
Where do such thoughts come from? Of course I was living yesterday, a year ago, ten years ago, twenty. The living might look different, in some cases drastically, but it was, without a doubt, the best I could do at the time. I know this, and yet.
There’s so much talk these days about living in the present. But what are we to make of our pasts? I have no desire to get stuck in mine, though it’s clearly not worthwhile (and I don’t think possible) to completely do away with it, either. To bag it up, heave it over my shoulder, and toss it into some bin at the Salvation Army. No. In order to understand who I am now, I must first understand who I have been.
Make the whole beautiful.
Can one ever really move forward without first accepting what has been?
And so, something is calling to me again to unseal the door. To let all that I have shut for years out to come trickling back in. To lift up the pieces, like a child curiously plucking stones from a riverbed, and run my hands over and around them, feeling the weight, the ridges, the soft spots. To say, This is my life. The whole thing matters. There are cracks, yes. And there is also beauty, so much beauty.