Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Past is Officially Over

"The Universal Game", A. Díaz, (detail)

  This year I took on a big project: the redesign and rehabilitation of a room in my house. It has been an office and an enormous closet for homeless objects.  It has taken me months, and it is not yet finished, but I repainted every inch myself, and in taking out two four-drawer filing cabinets, I must have recycled 50 pounds of paper.
            The value of this project was not actually clear to me, when I started. I know I was tired of seeing the room as it was, and it was pulling down my energy.  Actually, there was a structural aspect that contributed to the situation: the room has a fireplace that has no damper. Air swooshed in and out freely in spite of a makeshift dam of my own design. It was always freezing in there, so I kept the door closed, keeping the space as my personal North Pole annex. But a heater insert installed in the fireplace, changed the whole bioregion, making it a habitable part of the house.
            I had no idea when I began that the hours of labor and the process of clearing and purging was actually an internal project. I had a helper for the first day, so it seemed like a house project. But immediately a death in her family took her from the work, and unexpectedly, I was left with an enormous job on my hands. All the books had been taken off the shelves, over 300 of them. They were in boxes and big shopping bags all over the floor along with boxes of files I’d taken from the filing cabinets. The desk that so many years ago had belonged to my father, was an island with more boxes and piles of notebooks on top of it, about four feet long and two feet wide.
There were mornings when all I could manage was to stare at the accumulation of it all.  I wondered where I would find the energy for it. At night, trying to get to sleep, I felt a terrible sense of anxiety caused, it seemed, by the disorganization of my books. The whole idea of this project seemed to have been foolhardy. How was I going to do it all by myself? It wasn’t something I could hire out because I had to personally go through every file to determine what to keep and what too throw away. Over thirty years of teaching, and much of it before computers (I know that makes me seem very old, but it was a significant factor) had accumulated lesson plans, lecture outlines, evaluation forms, handouts, and letters and cards from students and readers of Freeing the Creative Spirit. It wasn’t going to be a matter of throwing out bunches of meaningless paper, it was going to be a process of letting go, in some cases, one by one. Only as I got into it, did I realize how deeply personal and internal the process would be.
            Keeping a journal for most of my life has given me a sense of bringing life along with me. I can go back into the pages of my life at any time to resurrect or remind myself of my reality. The North Pole Annex had become a squirrel’s nest of keepers I thought of as resources for the future. I had newspaper and magazine cuttings on significant subjects like women’s studies and art history. Newspaper clippings about Latinos who had achieved significant success, and women’s firsts around the globe. Over and over I said, “I can get this stuff and more on the Internet”, and I threw it away.
            The hardest things to part with were the cards and letters from students and readers. Even if it was a card from someone I’d never met, it was a reminder that I had impacted someone’s life. It was evidence, hard evidence, that I had made a contribution to the world. Eventually I had to ask myself, why did I need this hard evidence? Why didn’t I trust the work that I had done? Why didn’t I trust my memories?
            As the room took on the smell of fresh paint and the boxes and files disappeared, sleep came more easily. Pound after pound of paper went out. Some went through the shredder, some went out in reams. The desk went to an appreciative cousin. The space became calm and the ambient air was welcoming. Then, one day, after releasing the things I’d put off until the end, I heard myself say, “Well, the past is officially over.” I felt lighter. Even though I have the record of my journals, I have let go of everything I’d been clinging to for the sake of proving that I’ve had a significant life. I’ve had “a career”. That may seem strange to people who were groomed or groomed themselves to have a career from the time of their youth, but for me, it took all those files and letters to prove that I had indeed gone beyond what was expected of me. Even though I have done many different types of jobs to support or subsidize my work, I’ve never settled for that nice little rut of a job envisioned by my parents.
            Obviously, I came to this realization the hard way. But I share it in case there is someone reading my blog who has a closet or a room, or a space in the back of your mind where you are questioning your accomplishments. Trust me, a good clean out and a fresh coat of paint can do wonders.