The last 3 of the 37 boxes here on the kitchen counter. I reach into yet one more box crammed with paper and pull out a letter from years ago. As I scan through it, tears that break into sobs, that find me leaning against the counter holding my head in my hands.
You all know that letter – it’s the words said, and the words left unsaid. It’s what you said or what was said to you a long, long time ago and feels like yesterday.
Perhaps you’ve carried the words of your life like I have carried mine, in the weight of 37 boxes of your past that you haven’t been able to let go of, haven’t been able to put down.
I confessed to friends what they already knew – I was a paper hoarder. Twenty some boxes of papers, journals, notes, that I could not let go of, an externalized self made of scribbles as I sought to sort through my feelings and find my way.
And in those boxes as well all the projects I’d been putting off to an elusive “someday” that I know will never come, all the possibilities I’ve packed away even though I know I’ll never have time or inclination to complete them. In the boxes, volumes of remembrance that I can never sort through long enough to answer mysteries I will never solve. Boxes of all the books half-finished I know I’ll never complete and the books I bought that I’ll never have time to read.
The 37 boxes contain all that’s on the other side of the questions – Will my life really matter? Will I be remembered? What of anything will I leave behind? Is there something to show for the fact I have lived and loved?
Those 37 boxes have sometimes felt like all the evidence I’ve got of a life and my struggles to make meaning of it.
It’s only recently that I’ve realized that the 37 boxes also contain all that keeps me from living fully in the present.
“It’s sometimes like you continue to carry around your past like a present reality,” a friend told me, “Like there is something there in your past you think you can still go back and fix.”
Perhaps he’s right. The 37 boxes containing the futility of all I cannot change and the frustration that it is so.
I’ve been carrying them around for a long, long time.
I carried the boxes to my friend’s garage where they sat collecting dust for a year. Returned to carry and ship them where I carried them once again to the basement, box by heavy box, where they have sat unopened for the past year and a half.
Oh, I’ve carried them with good intentions. Vowed to sort through them – made a plan like so many plans I made this past year that never came to fruition. But instead of boxes to sort there were more interesting things to do than sorting through boxes. Present relationships to nurture, responsibilities and joys to discover, new stories to write.
We do the best we can. These processes of leave-taking take their own time. And last week, time.
Perhaps it was the reality of another move. The question again of what I really needed to set sail into the next chapter. Would I need a U-Haul or a storage unit to put off facing yet again what I could not face?
Sometimes you have to make your way into a new story yourself. That was me last week crawling my way across the Knife Edge on my way to Baxter Peak, one bloody knee at a time, present to this breath, this moment. A word of encouragement, “You’re doing awesome!,” all anyone can offer even if you are not sure if what you are doing is “great” or “awesome” but knowing only that you are making your way through, ridiculous as you must appear.
But there are other journeys that you cannot take alone. For years I’d been trying to do it alone. For the past year and a half here in Maine saying, I should… I must…I have to….it would be good for me if I did… open the boxes and sort through the past to empty out all I do not need to still carry to find the treasures and the few items I wanted for a new home.
I tired, but I couldn’t. Got so far as to haul a box out of the basement, open it up only to find myself rearranging the papers and stuffing the box into the back of the closet upstairs.
In the past month as I found myself talking more and more about all my issues and considerations about my 37 boxes, I knew the time was coming, a turning. No longer were the boxes something I had to do or should do but something that I realized I was ready to do. I was done with them. It was time.
The anticipation of a visit of friends became an opportunity to get the help I knew I needed. When they arrived, I joked that their visit was not “rent free” but came with a project that I needed their help with. They graciously agreed.
It’s funny how sometimes when it comes down to doing the things you have put off doing for years, that it in fact takes only a few hours to accomplish that which you never had “time” for. In the few hours each morning over the next two days, Marlene and Judy helped me open the boxes and find the treasures, heard my stories carried in the rocks (yes, I brought rocks with me….) and yesterdays knickknacks, looked at the photos, sorted the papers, helped me say thank you and goodbye.
I was doing well, did well, surprised myself by how well I was doing with the process, until those last three boxes. It always seems to come down to that – you’re almost done and then realize you’re not done yet. Everything that you thought you had done such a good job of releasing comes back and grabs you as it grabbed me on Saturday morning.
And perhaps like me as you lean against the kitchen counter holding yourself in a grief the depth of which you cannot understand, you too will be gifted by the friend who helps you do what you have been unable to do alone. Surrounds your tears with an embrace, your sobs with a gift of words and release that you have been unable to give yourself…You can let it go, you don’t need to keeping holding on to it. You can put it down. You can let it go.
I wonder what it is we are afraid of that is waiting on the other side of letting go? Perhaps, like me, you too are fearful of being light. For who would we be without the weight of the past, the stories that drag us down, our disappointments, our hurt? Who would we be if we were light and let it all go into arms of forgiveness and grace, all that we have done and all we have left undone? For all that unfolded not as we might have wished but as it did. To let go of our endless desire to sort through those 37 boxes as if there we would discover the secret to fix and solve the mystery that is our life and what we’ve made or haven’t of it.
Who would we be if we were light? And who might we become if we took in the embrace of forgiveness, the leaning in of love, the wetness of tears, and let it go, let it go?
I do know this: if all we call God is only a God of judgment none of us could stand. But there are stories of others like me who have had a hard time of it, of letting go, that give me comfort and strength.
It’s a story like I was sharing the other day about the scoundrel Jacob, the louse and cheat who hoodwinked his brother out of getting his father’s blessing. Now 20 years later he’s called to go home, but not so sure of what he’ll find there. He fled for his life decades ago carrying with him his 37 boxes of his past, his guilt and shame, his fear of his brother and the stories he’s told about him, those last words of his brother still ringing in his ears, “I’m going to kill you.”
But as he at last puts down his old tired story that has weighed on him all these years and walks into the possibility of a new one, he meets his brother who has also put down an old story into the possibility of finding a better one. His brother Esau who vowed to kill him, runs out to meet his brother Jacob with kisses and tears, a wet embrace he cannot let go. In one of the most beautiful descriptions of God in scripture, Jacob says in his brother Esau’s face, scratchy and tear streaked next to his own, he has seen the very face of God.
It’s the warm embrace of mercy received that empties the boxes, unburdens the weight, frees the past, cleans it all out to the emptiness and freshness of Now.
Why do we hesitate? Why do we cling? We may never get to the bottom of that mystery.
Today pictures I need no longer carry decorate my sister’s home. A carload of treasures will bring joy to customers at the thrift shop, books that I have never read will have the chance to be. Yes, there will be boxes and reams and reams of paper made from all the paper I have recycled for the scribbling of new stories. Yes, the boxes emptied, a lightness embraced, a dream I’ll live — to drive out of town with just what I need.