For the longest time, I dreaded the ascent up the ladder into the attic above our garage. We had decided to sell our home and begin to take steps towards building a new refuge on our property. It was a process I intuitively knew would propel me headlong back into my story and through all the years I had spent trying to understand it. The first decluttering layer was not difficult. Large items, furniture, outdated décor, found it ways onto marketplace and out the door without much struggle. Entering the attic would be the final frontier. I would be faced with the many versions of who I had been and of those I still had not yet become. Woven through boxes of memorabilia, photographs and keepsakes were the evidence of the many lives I inhabited and of the parts of me I still hoped would find life. There would be whispers of painful losses, disappointments and regrets alongside the meaningful, poignant and beautiful experiences. I would need to wade through them both. Holding it all, while being emotionally present, had always been a challenge. Early dissociation had been the salve that had made it tolerable. Those early ways of coping were now thankfully healed. I would need to enter this space without the distance of this anesthesia.
These tangible tokens of my life, sitting silently in the attic, had always held my fragile memory together. They were my memory. Were it not for the fragments, letters, photos and important papers my Mother had held onto, assembling the pieces of our early life would have been impossible. The thought of losing their mapping of my journey, the evidence of what had happened in the past, my existence as a mother and other roles I had inhabited, felt unbearable. What if I could not give my children a rich, complete understanding of their own upbringing? Amidst the boxes were the evidence collected to confirm my chaotic childhood and the entire journey I took in my 30’s and 40’s to understand its impact. Without it, was any of it real? Did it really happen? Who would ever believe me? Would I disappear with it all in one of the many trips to the Good Will drop off site? Did what I experience really happen if the physical evidence was destroyed? The same felt achingly true for my adult sons. I had mastered the art of being the recorder and kinship keeper. What would they remember? Did they know how much I loved them? I deeply feared anything of significance being thrown away. I was invested in them having a full accounting and not being left with the “swiss cheese memory” of my family of origin.
We had combed through the boxes and stored memories twenty years earlier during our first move. It was overwhelming and worthy of copious amounts of procrastination then as well, but this time around it was an entirely other matter. It resonated in a much deeper, cavernous emotional space. In our first house, still parenting young boys, their memories were fresh and being recorded in real time. Their voices and touch were near and heartbeats palpable as the sound of their footsteps reverberated daily throughout the home. We managed their comings and goings, keeping them as safe as possible. We were only moving a couple miles away back then and would remain in our familiar neighborhood community. The nearness mitigated a portion of the change. The container that held our life was still secure and predictable.
This time however, twenty years later, the boys were grown men and had long since left to begin their own lives. They made their own decisions and their safety was out of our control. This second house now only held the echoes of our life and memories together. We would be moving into a temporary place for a year or so then be taking steps towards an entire other way of life in the country eventually. All markers and mileposts would be new. All daily roads traveled would change. I would need to select only a small collection of home and personal décor for our small apartment. Although there was extensive purging, trips to donation centers, a garage sale and giving things away, there remained two small garages filled with what felt like could not be parted with. That reckoning will come on a another day. Now, having entered the decade of sixty, time was marching towards me from a different direction. The opportunities I had left to actualize the other parts of me were slipping through the hourglass. New joys and roles had entered the living space, grandparenting, caregiving for an aging parent, and the changes in heart, mind and body that accompany my own aging. It was an untethering and a vast new opening for change.
My primary role of mother, caregiver and nurturer of the family had slowly dissipated. My identity was losing its bearings and a shapeshifting was underway. This trip up to attic would usher in depths of grief I was not prepared for. As I sat and looked at the sheer magnitude of what I had stored away in the attic and tucked in nooks and crannies throughout the home, I wanted to run. I felt a sense of shame for all I had kept. Others in my family did not seem to share my level of attachment and sentimentality. My sons didn’t want most of what I had found meaningful. Sports trophies, childhood art, high school writings, special notes and cards, beautiful dishes from my grandparents and vintage china cabinets weren’t the popular choice for millennials. They were much more able to leave their parents lives behind and embody the freedom to create their own. They each had much less baggage upon leaving for their own journeys than I had. Their own descent into reconciling their own pasts would come another day. I was simultaneously envious of that freedom and immensely grateful and proud of each of them and who they were becoming. I loved them and deeply missed their presence. I was aware of a growing, aching sadness.
I had always needed to create a womblike space in the rooms of my childhood homes that enveloped and wrapped me up…. protecting and keeping me safe from the uncertainty. The things I collected and surrounded myself with may in part have served as a barrier. It left me with an unrelenting need to make sure others felt “cozied in”, cared for and nurtured. Guests were greeted with lots of “little things”, art, treasures, tokens, cards and words, a bounty of pillows, blankets, to assure them they were cared for. Quietly, behind the scenes, I hoped all that was troubling their soul would vanish within the space….or at the very least offer a distraction from their pain…as it often did for the younger version of me. Although there was much kindness and gratitude shared with me over the years after each stay, I am more inclined now to trust that less may actually invite more. Openness and space may allow both myself and my guests to see, experience and hear themselves more deeply without my decorative layers of protection on their behalf.
My soul sensed that this time, entire collections and seasons, outdated beliefs, childlike hopes, roles lived and imagined would have to be released. This move was a farewell to the past and a seismic shift into new and unchartered territory. Space needed to be reallocated for new things. There were new choices that I would be given the gift of making. The rooms I imagined in our new build in the forest….didn’t have to be filled up entirely. Times of being alone could be restorative and life-giving. Quiet and alone did not mean forgotten, abandoned or unwanted. There could be great swaths of space left only to be present, breathe, gaze out the windows, listening for the wisdom of the trees. New margins could bring expanse. Moving forward in real freedom is only possible if the weight of what you have carried is understood, released and laid to rest. Entering the third and final act of a life invites a very different kind of goodbye. Leaving what was for what could be…with no guarantees for any of it…could be enveloped in the kind of freedom I had only imagined.
I would be faced with my story yet again as I felt the familiar growing fear of change and trusting goodness. I had grown up waiting for the other shoe to drop and for heart-wrenching pain to surprise me when I least expected it. I wanted to embrace the excitement and potential joy of finally moving towards this shared retirement dream with my husband. It has been, however, a conflicting risk that ricochets in my brain and body. Each moment an exercise in giving myself permission to hope. Each day an opportunity to let more things go. I remind my heart that I have grown to be a strong enough container to hold whatever may come. In the past, change brought about my seams coming apart. Whether plans now move forward or need adjustment, we can vacillate between these possibilities with more grace and ease now. Maybe I am not a fool for trusting and having childlike faith again. After all this letting go….rather than it feeling like it is all falling apart…maybe now is the time it may all finally be coming together.