The power of the past

December 20th found me on a plane heading back to the United States for the first time in over two years. Like countless people around the world, I hadn’t been able to see family in all that time because of the pandemic. It was such a joy to finally see them again and to spend a Christmas with loved ones for the first time in maybe five or six years. And with opportunities like this becoming rarer, I decided to stay for a good long visit. We watched Christmas movies together, listened to Handel’s Messiah, baked lentil shepherd’s pie, homemade sourdough bread and cookies. I laughed with my sister over funny old anecdotes from our youth. When January rolled around, I made a couple of galettes des rois (below, a chocolate version that turned out really well), something my parents had never had. I took their cat Alfie Kitty for walks on a leash through the snow.

Once the holiday festivities were over, it was also time for me to start sorting through my stuff. 30 years of stuff – everything I’d left at my parents’ house before moving to France – had to be sorted and condensed in preparation for their move to a new house. In addition to a huge bookcase full of volumes I’d accumulated over my entire life, there were no fewer than 50 cardboard boxes containing old school notebooks I’d decorated with collages, binders full of teaching materials, aprons and wine keys from my waitressing days, a colored-pencil sketch I’d made of my calico kitty sleeping on a sofa-top, letters from foreign pen pals, little folded-up notes passed to me in class by high school friends, and countless photo prints from the days of film cameras.

There were countless snapshots of a happier, more confident me, a me who’d been full of hope and excitement for the future. A me that had boldly headed off to live in California, striking out on my own, unworried about what would happen next. A me I could barely recognize from the vantage point of the me I’ve become these past few years.

I found the cavegirl Halloween costume I was wearing the night I had my very first kiss, age 15 at a school dance, with a German exchange student whose last name I’d forgotten. A list of the students in that same box jogged my memory. Two boys on it had that same first name I remembered, and after Googling them both I found the right one. Seeing his face again after all these years, more recognizable than I expected, I was pulled farther through the portal into the past, revisiting another one of the people I used to be.

Digging deeper through the boxes, excavating more strata from my past, I became an archeologist uncovering the history of who I’d been. How was it I’d done so many things? Written so many essays, put together so many term papers and projects, earned these degrees and learned things I’m not really using now? How did I do all that and hold down several jobs all at the same time? How did I also attend so many parties and maintain all those friendships that these stacks of old Christmas cards now bear witness to?

I unearthed nearly forgotten memories as I pulled out objects – a little china teacup and saucer, a prop for so many hours spent as a hostess to my childhood cat and dolls. Ceramic Christmas ornaments made in elementary school art class. Elaborate illustrated letters from my two grandmas. My age-seven diary filled with scrawlings about my little classmates and favorite TV shows. The framed embroideries my mother’s friends had given her for me when I was born.

Going through these relics of my earlier incarnations was like the part of a near-death experience where your whole life flashes before your eyes, but in slow motion. These precious anchors have reminded me who I was and who I perhaps still really am, underneath the careworn outer layers: a joyful, adventurous and creative person who is loved.

Eckhart Tolle famously promotes the power of now to free you from your problems. I humbly submit that power can also be found in the past.

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