We have recently done something I really couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. We did something we’ve never done before. We did something we ought to have done, with great frequency, over the last 26+ years. And in doing this, we initiated a virtual archaeological dig, an extreme makeover, and a wrenching awakening to a new stage of life. A midlife crisis, perhaps? A reckless adventure in imagining a different future?
Such drama. With an introduction like that, you’d think I was talking about packing up and plunging into the jungles of the Congo instead of merely packing up and temporarily moving into an apartment while we do some home renovations. But still. The process of digging out the corners of our house, our cellar, our garage, our crawl space unearthed layers of our story, memories laid down in strata like short-lived civilizations buried one on top of another. It was a discovery process in reverse time, recovering things like:
- last year’s student work from seminary
- a file of Patheos correspondence
- old syllabi from teaching at Mines
- a box or two of photocopied articles from late 19th-century French journals
- CDs with the drafts of my dissertation
- the two dresses I wore to the kids’ weddings
- college tuition bills for both kids
- Hilary’s prom dress
- a list of the baseball roster at LHS Riley’s senior year
- a large box of wigs, masks, and Halloween garb
- notes and cards from the kids over the years, tucked in a variety of curious places, some of them covered with red crayon kisses
- various dioramas, watercolor paintings, a clay version of Mesa Verde, a calendar of inventions…
- a large box of the children’s shoes, from wee little soft-soles to high heels and cleats
- a bag of the babies’ bathtub toys
- The Mountain That Loved a Bird
- the bumper pads for the crib
- my own wedding dress
- journals and letters from college, and my own college tuition bills
- an envelope full of postcards collected from my first summer in France
- a long-abandoned and fractionally complete needlework project I started 40 years ago
- a high school paper I wrote on Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer
- a painting of Venezuela I was given in junior high by a visiting missionary
- the broken beads and bangles of my mother’s costume jewelry
- my first Bible, a small white King James given by my grandmother
Don’t judge me. You have your relics too, those curious, completely valueless items that evoke some specific and powerful memory, memories that are yours alone and cannot be transferred. These unique memories, unsharable because so personally interpreted, are elusive and fleeting, revealing themselves most powerfully in snippets, in a whiff of Chanel No. 5, in a melody learned on the piano or the sound of a high school locker slamming shut.
The deeper I dug into the corners and closets, the more I encountered different versions of me, all of them colliding back into one another, jostling for recognition, refusing to collapse into the present me. Like the way I’ve managed family photos—which is to say, I haven’t; they fill boxes and bags in random order, like pages ripped out of multiple books all thrown together—the stories fail to fall into linear order, and the jolting juxtaposition of all these haphazard iterations of my life feels wild and chaotic and confusing. Some of the recollected episodes were particularly wretched, but even the good ones, the beautiful ones, are tinged with sadness because they’re past. The whole move is a vote of confidence in the future, but it’s hard to relinquish the past.
There’s no point in blathering on about the oddness of time and the pain of its passage. No one lives unscathed. But what makes me me? How is the today-me connected to the child-me? To the college-me? To the mom-me? to the Patheos editor-me? To the professor-me? It’s nice to think I’m the sum of them all, but I’m not sure that’s right. There are additions, but also subtractions in this equation. And multiplying and dividing. My life, as is yours, is a veritable algebraic equation.
And amidst it all there is that x factor, that strange, immaterial, and wholly alien substance we call grace. I can’t solve for it and pin it down; it shows up unexpectedly and serves its own purposes. It shines in the darkest nooks and crannies of my life, my thoughts, my work, my house, my family, my memories, and my hopes. It shows up in this small apartment we’re waiting in. It persists and pursues, it sneaks and slides around my dullness of heart and mind. It makes me wait, and makes me willing to wait. It defines me and then doesn’t tell me what that definition is. It functions, like x, as an unknown quantity that permeates every version of me.
I’ve thrown away an awful lot of “relics” over the last few months, realizing even as I did so that some of those memories will go with them. I found one picture of me in a dress my mother made for me, and I haven’t thought of that dress since high school. But immediately I remembered it, its soft fabric, white with a blue print, boat collar, blue sash. And I remembered her making it, on the sewing machine I recently gave away. And that made me remember the fight we had about the dress I wanted her to make but she thought was too short. (And it was.) And that made me wonder about the versions of my mom, only one of which I really knew. And that makes me wonder if I write and journal so that my children will know some versions of me besides that of their mom.
As the 80-year-old house gets ripped apart, exposing its own layers of existence and hinting at stories I’ll never know, I trust that all of it will be gathered in grace, sifted, sorted, and solved. Like I said, wild and chaotic journey, even though it’s only to an apartment a mile away.