With holiday airfares already high, I avoid checking bags at all costs. So I dust off my carry-on size suitcase and start packing to go home for the holidays. Winter coat, shoes…and my suitcase is full. But what about my dresses, pants, toothbrush, underwear, accessories, sunglasses, hair straightener, ear-warmers and makeup? Did I really need makeup? How much makeup? Who was I trying to impress, anyway? Okay, nix the makeup and the extra pair of shoes. In this exhausting pattern of unloading, reevaluating, and reloading, I finally settle for one pair of pants and a couple shirts. I stuff some underwear in my shoes and zip my suitcase. That’s all I ever actually needed, really, but the process makes me question my inclination to bring extra, to carry more than I need.
I’m a keeper of things (not to be confused with a hoarder). Particularly, a keeper of things that have sentimental value. Unfortunately, my definition of “sentimental” is pretty broad — birthday cards, ticket stubs, thousands of photos of my dog, half-finished scrapbooks, love notes from guys I never even dated, and journals dating back to sixth grade. It was only a few years ago that I finally threw away homework from elementary school. (…am I a hoarder?)
During a recent move into a new apartment with my boyfriend, I sifted through these boxes, each ticket stub resurrecting a different memory: seeing the Backstreet Boys with a best friend I barely visit anymore, watching the sun set at Red Rocks with my ex, the Coldplay concert that preceded our relationship-ending fight. Even if only for an instant, these memories came back to life, bearing emotion, nostalgia, and tears. Within five minutes, it was as though I’d welcomed my younger self, an old friend, and a lost love into my home.
Then came the birthday cards from my grandparents, some of whom have passed away and some of whom I rarely see because of the 1,800 miles between us. I opened a journal that just so happened to carry all of the abuse, depression, and self-loathing I endured during a past relationship. Remembering that year-long relationship, how I’d avoided mirrors because I no longer recognized myself, reduced me to a numb state of shock.
I sat staring at the piles of paper, unsure of how to host all the memories I’d just invited over.
For better or for worse, I don’t have very good recall. I carry these relics for fear of losing the memories forever, but their weight overwhelmed me. My boyfriend and I had just signed a lease for an apartment that would give life to our future together. While I should have been focusing on all the joy he has brought me and all that we have to look forward to, I instead isolated myself in a past life while he organized our new closet. I let a birthday card from my grandmother remind me that everyone I love will one day die. I let heartbreak caused by an ex breathe fear into my healthy relationship. By looking back, I’d become blind to my present and robbed myself of an otherwise happy day.
My memories, though valid, have already served their purpose. They exist only to bring me here, to this messy closet of his things and mine.
I fearfully cling to my past in hopes that it will insulate my future, that it will protect me from hardships that are both unpredictable and inevitable. But this clinging does nothing to help — it only discounts my ability to adapt and learn. I don’t need first grade math homework to remind me that I can count. I don’t need to relive my encounters with pain to know that I’ll survive the next time we meet. Yes, I’ve been hurt and I’ve suffered, but I’ve also changed, and that growth led me to where I am today.
I don’t need to remember the joys, because joy doesn’t live in the past. Joy only exists right here, right now. Otherwise, it’s nothing more than a memory, reframed and refracted, or a hope, imagined and idealized.
Lord, do I have baggage.
For 28 years, I’ve lugged the ever-increasing weight of mistakes and heartbreaks in a suitcase without wheels. And for what purpose? So I can dwell in a house of anger and fear forever?
As the holiday season calls upon us to reflect on another year gone by, I’m looking back with intention. I’m grateful for my past, for all of its successes and failures, its loves and losses. I remain thankful for all that life has taught me. It’s my story and I own it, but I also choose to approach every memory by asking, “Is this helping me find joy, peace, hope, or love?” When the answer is no, as it often will be, I exhale the memory and watch it evaporate.
But let’s be real, I often have to exhale the same negative thoughts over and over and over again. Sometimes, I have to sing “Let It Go” at the top of my lungs until the memories can’t hold me back anymore. When all else fails, I take off my shoes and focus on the way the grass feels between my toes. It’s a clumsy process at best, but at least my oxygen levels are higher and my baggage is getting lighter.
As a recovering “dweller,” I’m choosing to live with an open heart, welcoming all that is here and now. I’m choosing to notice the sun kissing my forehead. I’m choosing to close my computer and look my boyfriend in the eye when I ask about his day, because I want a life of love and connection. But love requires vulnerability and courage — neither of which have any place in the past. Vulnerability prevails only when I can show up in spite of all my trepidations, and courage does not dwell; it overcomes.
As I pack my bags for 2018, I’m packing light.
I’m not dragging 2017 with me or setting expectations. I’m just showing up, clothed in the vulnerability to be seen, the courage to stay present, and the ability to forgive my missteps. That’s it. Because checking bags gets expensive, y’all — and this heavy lifting has finally taught me that all I really need are the clothes I’m wearing.