Letting go of things long gone

Today I shredded old letters from my first love. It felt good, but not in the sense of getting rid of a long-carried emotional burden. Just in the cleaning-out-my-closet sense of feeling good. I dispensed with the emotional baggage a long time ago and was surprised to find, today, that I hadn’t dispensed with the letters.

Sorry if you’re my first love, happen to be reading this blog, and are offended because you’re still holding onto my letters. In some ways, I’d be surprised that you still had them, because you were a total asshole; but in other ways I would believe it, given that you kept on writing me love letters for months and months after you dumped me and continued to praise me as a gifted writer after that. So I suppose you could be holding onto them in hopes that I still become a famous writer and they become worth a lot of money after I die, or because despite your efforts at bravado you were deeply sentimental as only – in all my experience before and since – a drunk can be.

Newsflash: If you are reading this and thought you were my first love, but aren’t and never have been a drunk, and haven’t heard yourself described as an asshole by at least a half a dozen people – well, you weren’t my first love. I hope this news doesn’t shock you.

I found the letters while cleaning out the upstairs linen closet. I call it a linen closet because that’s the kind of closet that’s usually located in an upstairs hallway. But I’ve never used it as a linen closet. It’s 6 feet wide by 7 feet tall and only 10 or 11 inches deep, so you’d have to be a gifted sheet-folder to keep your linens in there. I turned it into a book closet as soon as I moved in.

But it’s not only home to books. I also tend to toss into it whatever is small and has no home. I decided today it was due for a minor cleaning.

The impetus was not so much my decluttering kick, but my need to keep boy cat upstairs. In case I’ve failed to mention it, boy cat and girl cat do not get along, so they have a time share on the first floor. When it’s girl cat’s turn to rule the kitchen and living room, it’s usually best to get boy cat thinking that it was his idea to be upstairs in the first place. I lure him there and lull him into a sense of safety. He falls asleep on my bed. I go downstairs and play with girl cat.

It was during the lulling period – after he had perched on my bed but before he’d fallen asleep – that I found the time to weed the closet. In it, I found:

  • three 5″ to 8″ pieces of electrical wire
  • two lightbulbs
  • a rubberband
  • a 7-inch piece of quarter round trim
  • my baptism certificate
  • a certificate for .6 Continuing Education Units from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary for a one-day class with J. Nelson Kraybill on the problems with premillenial dispensationalism
  • a return postage label from a Sierra Trading Post order I made in 2008
  • a Danish “No smoking allowed” sign – which means it says “Tobakskrygning forbudt”
  • a brushed nickel drawer pull
  • a dead 9-volt battery
  • a file folder label holder sans folder, with a label in it that said “credit receipts”
  • the aforementioned love letters

I shredded almost all my personal correspondence in 2007, so I was surprised to find these. At the time, I was going through an “I don’t want to have to move abodes with all these freakin’ papers one more time” kick, so I scanned everything I could get my hands on – old letters, financial statements, high school yearbooks – and then shredded them. My friend Clare said, “But what if your computer can’t read those documents in 30 years?”

“I never read this stuff anyway,” I said, “so I doubt I’ll need to read them in 30 years. But I can’t just throw them away or I’ll hyperventilate. So I have to trick myself into thinking that I’m holding onto them.”

In retrospect, it’s ironic that I held onto the hard copies of those old love letters but not to the ones of a good friend who would die two years later. Of course, I had no idea at the time that this would happen. (And, come to think of it, I have no idea if my first love is still alive.)

After that friend, Elizabeth, died last year, I dug out those digital files and read through them. I discovered for the first time that I’d scanned some of those letters improperly, cutting off words on the margins of her pages, so that every sentence was a puzzle to solve. In some ways, that saddened me; but in another way, it seemed fitting. It was the way I felt. I was one of those letters, full of all these things I had meant to communicate; but I’d let my clumsiness, or negligence, or naive trust in the beneficence of time, turn those things into choppy, semi-decipherable babble.

When I was younger, I loved writing stories. Stories at their best weave disparate bits into a seamless whole. They make meaning out of randomness.

But life is full of loose ends. I never reconciled with my first love, or said all the things I wanted to say. Justice never came. I don’t even know if that lover is alive or dead, drinking or not drinking, being an asshole or being a saint. But life went on, anyway. It started to hurt less.  I stopped looking for plot resolutions in the story of my life. I learned how to live.

Leave a Comment