7.5 Editor's Pick
April 24, 2019

The Beautiful (& often Painful) Truth about Forgiving, Forgetting, & Finally Letting Go.

 

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Escape and Embrace: First the Mementos, Then the Moment

Mom and Dad keep asking me to come down to the house to go through my old things.

I’ve been out from under their roof for years, but there’s a collection of my ancient belongings taking up space in their basement and they want it, at the very least, minimized. I keep putting it off. I still want these things, still need them—because one day I’ll make a quilt out of the old T-shirts. And a scrapbook with the concert tickets, movie stubs, and photo strips. And I’ll use all the notes and letters as material for a book.

You see? I can’t possibly get rid of all this stuff. 

I’ve attempted it a few times, though—the cleaning out—but I never finish, and I rarely part with much more than a third-place track and field ribbon. Because when I go down into my parents’ basement, I connect with my past, revisit my old self, tap into the emotions and the motivations of days so far gone.

One box turns into 12; five minutes turns into three hours. Time bends around me, and I sigh, telling myself I’ll finish another day. I can’t stay any longer; I must get back to reality. The basement is cold and my eyes are itchy from the dust. My heart is racing from the conflicted emotions that accompany nostalgia; my mind is exhausted from the regret, the wonder, the question of who was I then?

And, the even more important question: Who am I now?

This is for the people who have boxes, or storage bins, or baskets full of what you call memories and what others call junk—reminders of childhood friends, old loves, birthdays, summer vacations, tragedies. Reminders of growing up.

This is for the people who, every time they clean, add more things to the stash, because it’s impossible to let go. Maybe it’s just about being sentimental. Or maybe it’s more about being scared. But these things—this stuff—somehow made me who I am, as yours made you who you are. 

These keepsakes that have been tucked away, buried in my parents’ basement, are souvenirs of times I’ll never get back. They’re proof I was happy once, proof I was broken more than once. They remind me of who I was then, and take me away from who I am now. 

I open the cardboard time capsules and regress, and depending on the contents, I either close my eyes tight and try my hardest to go back, relive it again—or, I shake my head, thinking how grateful I am that it’s over, grateful I survived. Because when I open these boxes and smell the T-shirt, feel the sand, listen to the CDs, see their faces, read their words, my words—I return.

And sometimes, I laugh. Sometimes, I scream. Sometimes, I rip the letter into pieces and instantly regret it (so I keep the scraps). Sometimes, I call a friend, tell her what I stumbled upon. Sometimes, I wish I could go back in time and apologize. Sometimes, I think about burning it all. 

I never do.

Each item elicits a different response. The pictures are the most painful, and the notes are my favorite. I unfold them, breathe them in, think to myself things like:

Her fingerprints must still be on here.
Her DNA is scattered across this college-ruled lined paper.
We were so young; Jesus, we’ve come so far. 

Language of the past—it’s magic, really. It’s like I’m reading about someone else’s life, someone so damaged, someone so naïve. But with each unfolding comes, well, an unfolding. Each note fuels a different fire, but a different reason to smile—because, thank God, it’s over. 

Maybe you don’t know what I mean. Maybe I don’t. Maybe speaking of this in abstract terms makes it easier to deal with. Because the concrete of it is sort of sad, isn’t it? That what’s done is done? That I can’t go back? That I’ll never be that 14-year-old girl with her whole life in front of her ever again. 

Ever. Again. 

But it shouldn’t be sad. And it shouldn’t be scary. It should be—well, it really shouldn’t be much of anything other than an indication that I’m still holding on to the past, which means I’m not living in the moment. And that, of course, just might be my greatest struggle of all, and what all this is really about anyway. 

A friend told me not too long ago, “Let go of everything but the moment you are in right now—the past, the future, all of it. Find something to love and enjoy right f*cking now. Whether it’s the AC, the roof over your head, the beautiful night. Live there. Not the past or the future.”

This was her response to me sending her an old video of her and me and some other friends who are now, unfortunately, more like strangers. Maybe more like enemies. I told her the video made me both happy and sad. She told me, “Life can be like that.”

I sighed, maybe even rolled my eyes, told her I was just reminiscing, like it was no big deal. I brushed off her response, even laughed at it. She’s such a hippie, I thought to myself, smiling. It took me some time before I could admit to myself how right she was. Not to say this was a brand new idea—to live in the present. It is, of course, advice I’ve been given before. But now, as I think about the piles of stuff collecting dust down at Mom and Dad’s, and re-read her words, I feel I’m closer to saying goodbye to it all.

And it doesn’t hurt as much. 

This is for the people who need help clearing out their parents’ basement. Or for the people who need help clearing out their minds—because that must come first. We can’t let go of anything until we detach from it, and I think I’ve figured out what I need to do. Finally. 

I never thought this would come down to a cliché, but I can’t help but think that all this seems to be about forgiving, and of course, forgetting. It seems to be about letting go of the past, about moving on, and about finally allowing ourselves to heal from old wounds and be free. Be happy. 

It’s about being able to look at that picture and smile despite their absence now. And being able to listen to that song and still break into dance, even though all you can think of is the first time you heard it in her apartment when you didn’t think a world would ever exist where she wasn’t your friend. It’s about decluttering your mind and making room for all that is happening right now—today, in this moment, underneath the dust, the pain, and the I should’ve done this or that.

But more so than anything else, it’s about us finally being able to grab a garbage bag and walk down the stairs into our parents’ basement, close the door behind us, and say goodbye to our past, knowing that nothing has changed, but everything will be different. 

~

author: Sarah Michelle Sherman

Image: @elephantjournal/Instagram

Image: Sarandy Westfall/Unsplash

Editor: Nicole Cameron

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Amanda Millar May 8, 2019 6:41pm

This is very beautiful.

legerl Apr 28, 2019 7:57pm

Thanks Waylon 🙂

candibrook Apr 27, 2019 9:30am

I love this post & thank you for sharing! This is an emotional, very personal collection of thoughts that I’m sure will help others.
I completely understand everything you said & feel the emotions behind EVERY WORD. Unfortunately, I was forced to let go of my boxes, bags, & collections of my life’s memorabilia. I lost literally EVERYTHING I had in a storage unit that got sold out from under me, despite the massive payments I was giving them monthly. (Their poor business practices is another story..*Advice:Don’t Miss a Storage payment!

Not much has lasted ,aside of the few things my grandmother kept. I doubt there’s anything left at my dads. I still collect & keep sentimentals. Especially for my daughter, but looking at it this way, makes me wonder “Am I enabling her to get stuck like I did?”
Maybe not. Balance is key.
It took me a LONG time to get over losing everything, & maybe I’ll always feel slight regret when I think about my great grandmothers jewelry & the blankie that she made my father when he was a baby , that became my cherished blankie even into adulthood. But it’s so FREEING!

I see others fret over their stuff. Someone dies & families become enemies over Stuff! It breaks my heart! We can’t take these things with us & like the author tried to show above, the ‘stuff’ is representations of us hanging onto the past.

Thanks again! Peace & blessings!

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Sarah Michelle Sherman

Sarah Michelle Sherman lives in Albany, New York, where she writes, shops (even though she shouldn’t), spends time with her puppy, Sundae, and her husband, Joe, and explores a lot of feelings on a daily basis, which she both loves and hates. Her work has been published in Nailed Magazine, Thought Catalog, Elephant Journal, and Ploughshares. Her column, “Between the Sheets,” appeared biweekly in Metroland, the former alternative newspaper in the N.Y. Capital Region. She has her MFA in creative writing from The College of Saint Rose and currently works as a ghost writer.