Who Am I Without These Ties to the Past?
And other questions that arose while deep cleaning my childhood bedroom at age 30
While in Texas at the end of November I noticed my Google Drive was above 85% full, so I began a digital spring winter cleaning. I organized documents and files in My Drive, deleted all my old work emails from university, and whittled my 100+ Feedly subscriptions down to just 23.
Many emails were easy to delete, while others made me pause. What if you’re writing a piece or a memoir one day and need to know who said what at this period in time?, I asked myself. If you delete these emails, you’re erasing the past irreversibly.
I sat with these thoughts, then began to wonder why it was so important for me to preserve some sort of record of past iterations of myself in the first place. If there’s no documentation of Rebecca at 22 or 26, what consequences does that have? If I can’t look back to see what the heck I did when I was part of Associated Students of Madison my sophomore year of college, for example, what then?
This digital decluttering from afar got me thinking about my room at my parents’ house in Wisconsin, which I’d last visited in April. Wouldn’t it be great to paint the walls bright blue? Fresh scenery so I can be my current-self in a familiar past-space! I emailed my mom and asked if I could do so. I didn’t think it would be cleared so easily, but she responded with an enthusiastic “Go for the painting!”
The Towel Hook
When I’m in my parents’ home I use the upstairs shower because of its proximity to my bedroom, and I like to reuse my towel several times before tossing it in my laundry bin. Since I shower maybe once every four days, my towel hangs from the towel rack in the bathroom for a while between washings.
At some point in the last year or two, whenever I was home I noticed some days a wet washcloth would appear draped over my towel in the upstairs bathroom. All the water from the washcloth — which had been who knows where — would soak into my towel, saturating the poor thing and leaving me uneager to ever want my body pressed up against it again.
I tried to address the matter with the parent it concerned, and even took to clipping my towel with a clothespin to distinguish it whenever there was another hanging by its side, since our towels upstairs are all blue. But a wet washcloth would still inevitably end up on my towel.
Now since my parents live here 100% of the time and I only pop in sporadically between seasonal gigs or years abroad, I just accepted the fact that this would happen from time to time and let it be.
(Sometimes I think I’m too adaptable, especially when the situation at hand is impermanent.)
So last week when drying off from a shower here — my first shower at home since April — I paused before hanging my towel on the rack, dreading its impending damp doom.
Then I had an idea.
I remembered that in my closet I had one of those plastic hooks you attach to any wall/surface with a double-sided adhesive. I got the hook, adhered it to the back of my bedroom door, and voila. My towel now hangs inside my bedroom, safely protected from the wicked wet washcloths!
This single action cracked something open in me. I realized that while it may only be for weeks or a month at a time that I’m staying in this room at my parents’ house, that’s still time of my life. I can make a space that really works for me, even if it is temporary. A space in which my towels can be reused as many times as I want between washes without becoming the crash pad for wet washcloths. A space where I feel like myself. Because after all, it’s all the temporaries which add up to make months, seasons, and years of my life.
With that thought in mind, I took a look around my room.
It needed a little cleaning and decluttering, sure. But beyond the surface mess, my eyes noticed elements which had blended into the background over the years. String still hung around the window in front of my desk to display photos and mail via paperclip, but the faces looking at me in those photos were people I hadn’t seen in ages. The books on my bookshelf were the same as always, but I didn’t feel a connection to a number of them and there was no room for the books I’d mindfully picked up over the past few months on the road.
This is the house I’ve lived in since seventh grade. And while things certainly didn’t look the same as they did when I was in middle school, my bedroom hadn’t kept pace with me the past few years.
It looked how it did in the spring of 2017, when the conservation world was unknown to me and I still ate animal products.
It looked how it did in the fall/winter of 2016, when I identified most strongly with the expat life, creativity was only just starting to creep into the picture, and I hadn’t yet turned my attention to yoga and body mechanics.
It looked how it did in 2015, when I spent 8+ hours a day by myself in front of a computer screen working from home, rarely left the house, and didn’t yet paint.
I am no longer any of those people, and I don’t want them squatting in my room!
I want my space to reflect present-day me. The me who eats plants. The me who paints. The me who creates. The me who hikes. The me who sleeps outside. The me who builds trails. The me who is aware of the waste I create. The me who tries to be mindful of my movement. The me who plays ukulele. The me who reads and writes poetry.
So I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the whole string from the window. Down fell the photos.
I took all the books off my shelf and started a box for St. Vinny’s.
I pulled out every single drawer from my desk and removed the contents of each one.
Before I put anything back on a shelf or in a drawer, I would often have to consider one of the following: Does this serve me? Does it bring me joy? Does it energize the me I am today? Do I actually have a sentimental attachment to this item, or have I only kept it for so long because I’ve kept it for so long? Can someone else use it today, instead of me potentially using it “some day”?
This deep clean took f-o-r-e-v-e-r. Forever! I wasn’t cutting corners this time around. And boy did things get messy before they got better. And then they got messier still.
The Yellow Folder
For four days my room was in complete disarray. It was on day three that I came across the yellow folder while tackling my closet. The folder had actually been on my mind, since I was going through old schoolwork, but I hadn’t realized I would likely stumble upon it. Yellow folder in hand, the emotions came back in a flood.
Suddenly there I was, sitting on the steps leading into the garage, frantically flipping through the contents of that folder the summer before seventh grade.
What? This is all there is?!
I rifled through the papers once more, holding off the panic until I was absolutely sure.
Graphing project. Tessellation illustration. Geometric yarn creation. That was it. Those were the only papers I’d kept from my seventh grade math class at the end of my sixth grade year.
I’d been a year ahead in math since first grade, but since my family moved to a new town that summer, the Pathways specialist at my new middle school needed to decide which math class to put me in. My parents and I were scheduled to meet with her the next day, and I was supposed to bring along my math papers from the previous school year to show what I had learned.
But here I sat essentially empty handed, horrified to discover that I’d totally cleaned out my math folder at the end of sixth grade, save for a handful of artsier projects.
Maybe they’d gotten misplaced in the move, I thought. Perhaps if I looked hard enough, they would show up. I wasn’t ready to accept the reality that they were long gone.
I performed an extensive search of my bedroom and the last remaining unpacked boxes. But there were no other math papers from that year to be found.
My stomach dropped. I was full of panic, worry, and regret.
What had I been thinking? Why hadn’t I foreseen this situation at the end of the school year? Why hadn’t I kept even a single syllabus from that class?! What was I going to tell this woman tomorrow? How could I show up without the things I was supposed to bring?
The feelings from that afternoon over 17 years ago resurfaced as I went through the schoolwork in my closet last week. I had papers, folders, notebooks, and binders from high school, college, and my English teaching days. (Elementary and middle school are stored underneath the basement stairs — a project for a different day, thankfully.)
I looked at notebooks I hadn’t cracked open since the last day they were written in, and questions once again flooded my mind.
When will I ever need this? (You probably won’t.)
What if one day I’m curious — maybe my future children will ask — what I learned in eighth grade science? I mean, the content is kind of historical at this point, if you think about it.
Or what if I’m writing something and need to reference dates/content from any of these points in my life? I definitely dug through this stuff and used it when I wrote about my spinal fusion and digestive disorder.
I tossed stacks of tidy math notes into the recycling bin, but still held on to my college math assignments and tests into which I’d put so much effort. I easily let go of high school Spanish worksheets I hadn’t referenced since, but kept all of my coursework from the year I was a student at the Complutense University in Spain.
I couldn’t help but wonder how strong the connection was between the papers I kept during this clean-out and that yellow folder all those years ago. Is that why I’m so attached to my schoolwork? Or is it mostly because of all the time and energy and importance I’d given the assignments?
The Scarf au Naturel
By the fourth day, my driving motivation to finish had now become the reward of getting to decorate and make my room aesthetically pleasing — once I could see the floor again. When the topic of painting came up, though, my mom’s answer had changed to, “You should ask your dad about that; I shouldn’t have told you yes without talking to him first.”
That’s the answer I’d expected after my initial email, to be honest. But before I even had the chance to talk to my dad about painting, another idea popped into my mind. I quickly recalled the walls of Victoria’s apartment, where I’d spent my week in Flagstaff over Thanksgiving. Two of the larger walls were each covered with a huge, thin, decorative cloth that was simply pinned to the wall with thumbtacks in the top two corners. I could find cool fabric or decorative scarves from St. Vinny’s to hang from my walls, and that’d be so much quicker (and more easily changed in the future) than painting the room.
In fact, I already had a scarf that would probably cover the wall space to the left of my bookshelf window. I’d gotten it while living in Montpellier, from my roommate’s friend who let me look through a bag of clothes she was going to donate. I had been drawn to the colors — teal and blue — and ended up getting tons of use out of the scarf, since I could wear it around my neck when it was chilly, throw it over my shoulders to block the sun, or lay it down like a towel at the beach and fold it up into a tiny pouch when in transit.
It was only upon opening it last week that I remembered what was actually on the abstract design of the scarf, which isn’t obvious at all when wearing it: two naked women.
I smiled to myself, like I’d uncovered some delightful secret, then ran into my parents’ room to show my mom. “Hey, look what’s actually on this scarf,” I said, as I excitedly did the big reveal.
My mom audibly gasped.
She must have smiled too, but I most remember that reflexive gasp.
Her reaction gave me slight pause, but then I grabbed two tacks from the bulletin board in our kitchen, returned to my bedroom with the scarf, and pinned it to the wall.
If I were living by myself I wouldn’t have given second thought to hanging up this artsy scarf — I would have just put it up. So if I want my space to represent the me who paints, who eats plants, who hikes, and who writes poetry, then I must put this scarf up — even if it’s not necessarily something my mom would want her name tied to publicly.
And so in hanging the scarf that day, I didn’t just push two thumbtacks into my bedroom wall. I also gave the tiniest push on the barrier between who I am and who I am around my parents. It was the gentlest of taps, nothing more than a nudge really, but the boundary expanded a breath nonetheless, the two zones overlapped a hair more. And in that moment, I realized I need to let my parents see who I am, rather than whoever it is that they’re seeing — likely some comfortable combination of past iterations of me.
Being around family is often one of the more challenging parts about coming home. These people who have “known” me my whole life already “know” me, which means they’re not trying to get to know me… but then they don’t Know me.
It’s a complex subject which I’m continually trying to wrap my head around and pin words to, an issue that won’t be cleared up by simply hanging an abstract scarf in my bedroom. But I can continue to take little steps in the direction that will push the boundary back to encompass more of my true self.
By the end of the week I had filled our big blue recycling bin with papers, filled four big boxes with stuff to take to St. Vinny’s, and had also filled my mind with questions about my identity.
Who am I without these ties to the past — without the records that held memories?
How big of a role is the yellow folder incident playing in my present choices?
What other sorts of “wet towels” have I accepted over time, and how can I put up door hooks for them?
How can I become someone whose nature is to display the full scarf around my family without second thought?
I don’t have answers to these questions, and that’s okay.
What I do have is space in my desk drawers. Space on my bookshelf. Space in my closet. Space for me to question. And space for the future selves I will become.