It was windy today. I could hear the windchimes’ frantic clatter in the distance. Every now and then the wind would whumph against the thin walls of the garage, or whistle around the corners, or come gusting in the open door to scatter dead leaves.
I am getting married in less than three months. Which means I’ll be starting a new home with another person. Which means I need to sort through my possessions to see what will be coming with me and what will be given away. Which, for me, means books.
I sat on a rickety old chair in the dimness of my parents’ garage, next to two 35 gallon Rubbermaid tubs, each full of books. One by one I pulled them from their resting places, considered them, flipped through them, and tossed them onto one of two piles.
Understand, these are the extra books. In my soon-to-be home there are already three and a half bookshelves filled with my books. There’s only about twenty books’ space left, and at least a hundred vying for the position.
Sonnets from the Portuguese–Keep. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer–Give. The Life You’ve Always Wanted–hesitate, remember Jessie has a copy, Give. The River Between–discover an old grad school paper written on the book, folded and tucked inside, read through, cringe in memory, Give. Wheelock’s Latin–flip through, smile wistfully at the handwritten note on the inside cover, Keep. Extra copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh–Give.
Then I found it. A battered old FiveStar™ five-subject notebook. I saw it and groaned. I thought I had thrown that away. I wished I had thrown it away. I wished it had never existed.
A ringing phone–Jessie’s lunch-break call. “Find anything interesting?” she asked.
My eye drifted to the horrid red-backed notebook. “My first journal,” I said.
“No. No, it’s really crappy. I’m going to toss it.”
“Are you sure? I mean, I know there’s bad stuff, but there’s got to be good memories in there too. Can I see it first?”
I hesitated. She said nothing too, and for a moment I felt guilty. She’s let me read all her diaries, both her younger ones and her more recent ones. She’s been almost wholly transparent with me. Shouldn’t I return the favor?
“Tell you what,” she said. “Tear out anything you don’t want to remember. But don’t throw out the whole thing. Keep the good stuff.”
“All right,” I said. “I can do that.”
I put it off as long as possible. I finished sorting the rest of my books first. But eventually there was nothing else left to do. The red-backed notebook stared at me from its perch on a stack of boxes. Outside, the wind howled.
I regretted my decision. Tearing out stuff meant I had to go through the journal, instead of just throwing the whole thing away unread. But reluctantly I opened it and began.
It started out silly. The silly little things that an twelve-year-old feels are worth recording for posterity. The petty little squabbles with childhood friends that seemed so important at the time. My twenty-six-year-old self can’t even remember that they happened.
In a teenager’s journal, you can almost hear puberty hit. The silly little topics suddenly narrowed themselves down to one topic, one repeated, obsessive topic. The writing danced around the edge for a while, then turned downright pornographic. I tore out a page without having made a conscious decision to; my hand clenched down around the page and crumpled it into a ball.
The writing turned darker. I remember being angsty, but I didn’t realize how very angsty I had been. A second page came out, then a third. Words I wanted nobody to ever read. Words I wished had never been written. All in that familiar, damning, sloppy scrawl that is my handwriting. Me. I had said those things.
An entire year’s worth of entries came out, entries that I could find no redeeming quality in, entries that I could not justify saving. The pile of paper at my feet grew deeper.
My now-sixteen-year-old self’s words became even darker, more profanity-laden. I snarled as I tore another page from the book. I found myself muttering, as though I was trying to talk to my past-self across the years. “I don’t like who you are,” I said. “I don’t like how you think. I don’t like the choices you’re making, the events you’re describing. I wish I could go back and do different. I wish I could go back and do better.”
The entries lightened as I turned seventeen. I could see hints of my younger self’s searching for God. I read entries recounting the junior prom, senior prom, college plans, uncertainty, high school graduation. The journal trailed off in 2001, with me eighteen. I would not journal again until I started Xanga two years later.
I put down the journal (now much thinner). All around me were crumpled snowballs of paper. All the parts of me I hate, all the memories of who I was and who I no longer want to be. Words I am ashamed to have written. Impulsively I scooped them all up, gathering them into my arms. In the corner of the garage was my rucksack–I grabbed emergency matches from an outside pocket, and rushed outside.
It was still very windy. The trees hissed and creaked above me. The crumpled pages kept trying to escape as I jammed them into the firepit. The matches I lit kept going out before I could touch them to paper. But when the edge of one page finally caught, the flames spread quickly through the whole pile, burning almost horizontally.
Pages turned from white to brown, then ran red. Crumpled balls glowed like coals. Ink vanished into black ash.
Within minutes it was done. Of a hundred pages’ worth of who I had been, only flakes and ash remained. One page smouldered still. I bent down and picked it up, unfolded it to see if anything was still legible. It fell to pieces in my hands.
We keep the good memories. We tear out what we don’t want to remember.
A gust, a sudden updraft. The ashes streamed from the firepit. The flakes of burnt paper spiraled suddenly upwards, dancing in the wind.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” –St Paul