“The world can’t give us serenity,” he said. “The world can’t give us peace. We can only find it in our hearts.”
“I hate that,” I said.
“I know. But the good news is that by the same token, the world can’t take it away.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
What stands between me and the peace I seek?
Paper … piles and piles and piles of paper. Spreadsheets and charts for projects yet to be completed. Stacks of articles for research yet to be started. Hastily scribbled handwritten notes about pieces yet to be written, ideas yet to be pursued, dreams yet to be defined.
In the garage, the filing cabinet is full. Cleaning out old files is boring, yet soon, nothing else will fit. In some cases, the choices about what to purge seem too hard. In others, the papers are similar or all mixed up and sorting them feels daunting, boring or both. Occasionally, the decisions involve others, and those calls and emails require too much energy, organization or effort.
There are papers in the basement, too. Stored in plastic tubs, stacked in rows, one on top of each other. An entire container full of old medical files from the eight years of Jimmy’s cancer journey. After he died, I couldn’t bear to part with anything connected to him, not even the reports on scans with concerning changes, the tests with worrisome findings, the endless back and forth battles with the insurance company.
I added to my paper collection after Mom died, and I sold the house I grew up in. Hand lettered ledgers from the 1930s and 1940s from Dad’s real estate development company. Each transaction carefully entered in his bookkeeper’s neat, spidery handwriting. Monies received, monies paid. Reimbursements for small expenses, trips, his salary. Fees paid to friends and business colleagues, some of whom I met over the years. Names I know and many I don’t. Evidence of the life he lived, long before I was born.
I am the careful filer and retainer of paper my father taught me to be. But if I don’t tackle the tubs, Molly will have to face these mountains of paper when I am gone, no longer able to ask what she needs to preserve and what can go to the shredder.
With Molly in mind, I finally make time to face the tubs of paper and the filing cabinet in the garage. I part ways with the ledger books and most of the files from my father’s business. I discover I’m ready to let go of the proof of Jimmy’s medical odyssey and put the entire tub in the pile to go to the shredder. The filing cabinet, tackled last, goes surprisingly quickly, perhaps because I have no emotional attachment to the contents.
I set aside a small stack of cancelled checks, written in my father’s beautiful penmanship to people I don’t know for reasons I don’t understand. Letters my mother wrote her parents in the 1950s when she worked and lived in Copenhagen. Missives my aunt sent to Mom and their parents, full of bitterness and complaints. A window into her marriage and automobile accident, caused by her husband falling asleep at the wheel on the way home from a New Year’s Eve party. The crash into a telephone pole breaking her leg and inflicting life-long injuries. A trauma that fueled her simmering rage, resentment and misery, leading to a life that offered little serenity or peace until the very end.
As I sort, I find pieces of buried treasure. Cards from Dad to Mom for birthdays and anniversaries. Short messages of love, funny comments, even a doodle or two. A single handwritten love letter from their courting days, addressed to “Miss Kilgore”. A precious, private glimpse into the sweetness of their long distance courting. Each of them battered and bruised by past events and relationships. Stronger and braver together, they built an enduring bond that enabled them to love and parent me in ways they hadn’t been themselves.
The piles are gone, but the memories remain. Of another time, a different life. Of lives other than my own. One more way to hold my parents close. To remember how hard they fought to be and stay together. How fiercely they loved each other, how much they loved me. How much they taught me, and how much of them I carry with me still.