Last week, I spent three hours decluttering my bookshelves. I culled four grocery bags of books to sell or donate. Many of the books were arty, french novels or experimental novels from my time in grad school.
It was hard to let go of the arty french novels and keep the more banal novels that I have actually loved. It was hard to let go of something that used to be important to me, but that I never really loved.
When we let go of our old stuff, what are we really letting go of?
The backstory: On our first date, when I told my husband that my dad worked in a factory he assumed that I meant my dad MANAGED a factory. He thought I was pretty and well-spoken. After all, I had made the financially unsound decision to go to grad school for art, when only a rich person would make such a foolish decision. Only a person with a trust fund, he thought, would go to art school.
But my dad worked on the factory floor. He wore steel toed, non-skid shoes and a hairnet to work. He worked second shift every day, 3 pm - 11 on a dangerous line where one wrong move could cost someone a couple fingers.
We only saw him on the weekends. Often after work, he’d buy us McDonald’s or biscuits from KFC or a loaf of Hawaiian bread from the grocery store and we’d wake up to a note on an index card on the kitchen counter, that said, “Kids – Please share. I love you. Xoxo, Dad.”
My mom worked in a hardware store, and then a Walgreens, and she wanted me to work in an office, I think. I imagined my life stretching out before me like this: Working as a secretary, married to a boy from down the street and then sitting at the dining room table drinking Miller Lite complaining about my husband for the rest of my life. Kill me now, I thought.
I was afraid that if I learned to type, I’d get a job at the local college and be NEAR college students and never BE ONE of them.
But I worked and got loans and when I moved across the country to go to a liberal arts college on scholarships and financial aid, I LIVED A DIFFERENT LIFE. I did a lot of independent study with my professors. I studied experimental documentary and literature and art.
I read and I read and I read and I kept a video diary and I wore costumes almost every day. I dated an arty boy who wore horn-rimmed glasses and dressed like he was from the 1950s and took amazing photographs.
At least once a day someone stopped me on the street to tell me that I was beautiful. I was terrified, but, hey, I looked decent and I was living the life of my dreams.
I had created this life out of thin air.
After I graduated, I was working in a coffee shop again – just like I had been before I left to go to college. So I decided to apply to grad school. I’d never shown anyone my writing before – not really – but I applied to a great writing program and I got in. I showed up in fancy stockings, with a fancy hair do, ready to BECOME AN ARTIST.
So, these french novels I let go of this week were hard-won. And it’s hard to let go of an old self, of paths I didn’t take.
Why is it so hard to let go of the past?
Now: As I drop these french novels into grocery bags, I find that I have been living my life like it’s a choose-your-own-adventure novel, like the other routes are potential paths from my past and that some of my energy is still tied up there.
The hard thing about letting go of those french novels is part of me pipes up and says, Oh, you mean I’m NOT going to move to New York when I’m 21 and be an artist?
News flash: I’m 43.
To that part of myself, I say, as gently as possible: Honey, no. You’re not going to move to New York when you’re 21.
I can let go of these old paths.
Maybe next lifetime. Maybe reincarnation will turn out to be a real thing. Who knows.
But the thing is, I haven’t read those novels in a long time.
I’m afraid to tell you this. I’m afraid you’ll think it means I’m not arty anymore, or I’m not creative, or I’m just not SMART ENOUGH to like those experimental novels. You may be right.
But my real problem is not that I’m afraid of what you’ll think – no, I’m afraid of what I’ll think. I’m afraid of disappointing myself. It’s that old devil – shame.
Shame is the idea that whatever I am is worse than whatever I COULD HAVE BEEN.
It’s shame when I am married more to my past-potential-self than my REAL LIFE, TODAY self. When I prefer some old idea of a self that I never quite was to the real, today self who I actually AM.
I thought it’d be so hard to let go of those novels. And it was hard to get them out of the house, but now that they’re gone, I find there’s more room here. There’s more air, and more energy for my goals TODAY.
And look at me: I’m not a secretary, but I’m typing for a living. Still. So maybe some destinies are inescapable. When he was four years old, my son would try to convince me to do things by saying, “It’s your destiny.” Maybe he was right.
God has made me into the person I am.
Not a smarter, artier girl. Not a girl who wakes up with makeup perfectly done and who miraculously avoids the inevitability of aging. God made ME with all my likes and dislikes, my preferences and my goals.
When I reject this self, my actual self, I am rejecting God, and then I am truly lost.
What's ONE THING you need to let go of from your past in order to be more who you are TODAY?
Let me know in the comments.
Let’s start letting go.