I drove to the recycle station the other day. I often go there. This trip was different.
I had literally filled the trunk of my car with a lifetime of correspondences, workshop designs, communication involving friends and children, family letters, publishers’ contracts, graduation and ordination certificates. There were letters from mentors, pictures of teachers and supervisors who shaped my life. There were many pages from my embryonic attempts at writing a book and also photographs I planned to use in it. I found letters and cards written to me by appreciative people to whom I had ministered in my capacity as a pastor. Other letters expressed gratitude for the help I had offered in a variety of spiritual and writing workshops over the years. All very satisfying. However, there were other papers as well.
There were letters of rejection from publishers; some abrupt and perfunctory. There were a few others leaving a thin a ray of hope: “Sorry we have to pass, but try us another time.” There were divorce papers, death certificates, two of my report cards from grade school that revealed miserable school performances. I’d often wondered why my mother kept them. I found them in her papers only after her death. I discovered acrimonious letters written back and forth from me and the senior pastor of my first church. It was a bitter time begun with all the hope and promise of “firsts” and then the crushing disappointment of discovering I was part of the worst kind of clerical dysfunctional. The church is a noble institution. When it goes bad, it really goes bad.
There were many more letters, notes, and documents. Of all these artifacts, what should I surrender and what should I keep?
On a good day, my personality doesn’t lend itself to being decisive. The decision-making in this instance of intense harvesting and culling of my past was agonizingly laborious; at times, I got sufficiently obsessive to almost immobilize myself. However painful, the process of reviewing the material and deciding what to keep or get rid of provided me with a hands-on review of my life that was more intense and vivid than anything I had ever experienced before. I alternately felt grief and gratitude.
I suppose I was like the crab in the process of shedding his shell. The crab knows intuitively that it’s time to shed it and get on with new life. I imagine the crab feels vulnerable and lost for a while since the old shell had been such an intimate part of his beginnings. These papers were the symbolic remains of my past.
The papers filled two huge boxes: I was feeling encumbered by them. The difference between the crab and me is that the crab knew instinctively that he would grow a new shell. I was less sure of what was ahead of me so I had, for reassurance, been clinging to the certainties of my past.
When I arrived at the recycle center I thought, this is where people take the pieces of their lives for which they have no further use. The papers I delivered to the recycle bin would soon be taken away and lost to me, but they would also be transformed, not destroyed as such, but transformed. Into what is anything transformed? Who knows? It’s the mystery at the heart of the universe. Matter is neither created nor destroyed; only transformed. I suspect that in matters of our spirit, similar laws apply. All these artifacts represented the many events and people influencing my life. The artifacts of my past would soon be gone, but gone only in the state that they were when I delivered them to the bin. I’d retain the essence of their contents in my heart.
As I drove to the recycle station I thought about some of the ironies in this existential mission. Here I was with my past strewn, page by page, all over the trunk of my car, scattered like fall leaves. I did not want to rid myself of the papers bound up in heavy packages because I might damage my aging back lifting them. The spiritual and the physical realities meet at the significant moments of a life.
On my way back home, I felt a strong wave of grief and then a fleeting impulse to return the bin and retrieve the papers. It was a feeling I recall as a boy when some of my relatives died. When leaving the gravesite, I’d feel a wave of panic. I wanted to go back and retrieve them. I did not want to surrender these people who had been a part of my life. The circumstances of surrender differed in this way: on my trip to the bin I made the choice to let go. As boy, I had no choice when loved ones died; they left and I had no say in the matter. It was harder to let go.
In order to make room in the trunk for all the papers, I had taken out some odds and ends I keep there routinely: a flash light, a first aid kit, some cloth shopping bags, two umbrellas and a bottle of water that I’d always hear rolling from one side to the other as I made turns.
Back home I opened the trunk. It was eerily empty, nothing there. Whatever had been there only minutes ago now existed only in me. Artifacts of my past were gone. What remained were all the stories they told, now woven like a thousand threads through the fabric of my being.
I put back into the empty trunk the things I knew I’d need for now.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.