Beginning to See the Light?

Posted on May 21, 2010


I can’t tell you how many times I’ve moved a stack of extremely important papers, things I’ve been meaning to either deal with or file, only to find the stack a year later — undealt with and unfiled. Sometimes I don’t even remember what the papers are or why they were important in the first place.

When I look for last year’s tax return, or our life insurance policy, they’re never where they’re supposed to be. During my frantic search I find a receipt for a pair of shoes I bought in 1997, and maintenance records for a car we no longer own.

We have boxes stacked on shelves and in closets. They’re filled with objects that are too essential to get rid of, but not essential enough to keep in the living room. Someday someone will throw them away or sell them, without an inkling of what made them worth keeping.

There are scraps of paper on my desk with names and telephone numbers on them. They’ve been there for months. At some moment in the recent past, I wrote this information down because I knew I would need it, but now I have no idea why. I want to call these people up and say, “Who are you?”

When I was six, I got separated from my mother while she was shopping in a small department store. It may have been seconds or minutes, but it seemed like hours. I can still feel the panic in my chest as I frantically ran up and down every aisle, just as I can still feel the combined emotions of relief and shock when I found her and realized she didn’t seem to be looking for me.

If you’re walking down a street in a crowded city, you’re invisible, except to a handful of family and friends. Minutes later, buried alive under the rubble left by a sudden earthquake, you become the center of everyone’s attention. The world watches and prays for you, or for the child who’s fallen down a well, or the men trapped in a mine. But they’re not really rooting for individuals; they’re rooting for life.

Until a certain point, I could have been classified as a simple worrier. Then we all learned that stress can affect our lives in the form of high blood pressure, heart attack, depression, and stroke. Well, that took it to a new level. Now I was worried about worrying, stressed about stress. As vicious a cycle as I could have imagined.

I was with a friend once and we were visiting a very old cemetery in New York. As we looked at the thin, flat headstones, worn smooth and illegible by wind and time, I asked her, “Do you think anyone will remember us in a hundred years?” She said, “No one remembers us now.”

There’s a lesson in all of this. I wish I could say I’ve figured out what it is. It has something to do with perspective, I think, and with wasting a lot of time fooling ourselves with the illusion of importance. We bury ourselves. Or at least I do. I bury myself with things that appear to be essential, in the mistaken belief that if I handle enough of them, I will be essential. This must be an example of the baggage people talk about carrying around. I’ve stopped carrying my baggage. I’ve piled it up and tunneled underneath.

This all sounds pathetic, I know, but I don’t see it that way. No matter how deeply I’ve buried myself, I’m aware of it, and I know there’s hope and fresh air out there somewhere. And I’m working my way out, slowly, one scrap at a time.

Hey, look what I found. It’s last month’s bank statement!

Wait, sorry: April 1993.