Two corners of a white sheet are taped to my wall. With books, the other two corners are weighted on the ground at just the right angle to create a makeshift home photography studio. I recently moved and decided I'm going to sell my old stuff on Craigslist. Today is the photoshoot. I then place items from my past in the middle of the white sheet - carefully. I think we must treat the past carefully lest we give it too little or too much power.
With an old sock I wipe the dust from a guitar, then snap some photos. I try to recall how to play Hot Cross Buns on a recorder. I attempt a few double unders with a jump rope I've used only once. I blow into the cartridges of my old Gameboy games and of course, they work afterward. All these things get photographed, plus another guitar, a camera, a harmonica and a half-dozen more items I only touch when moving to a new dwelling.
I like moving because it asks us to reckon with the things we've accumulated along the way, and forces us to decide whether or not they'll continue to occupy the space of our lives. When we hang onto things - whether they take up closet space or heart space - it's a conscious choice to be defined by them. Even if the implications of their continued presence aren't weighty, our decision to keep certain things must say something about what we want out of life.
As I post the listings on Craigslist and shove everything back under the bed, praying it's the last time, I remember each season these old things represent. A time when I thought I'd be a musician. A time I thought I liked video games because my friends did. Books I read and movies I purchased because I wanted to be the type of person who read and watched those kinds of things. I can look back over each of these phases as chapters marking my desire to discover some new part of myself I'd yet to understand. I believed navigating life well meant I needed to sift dirt in the right stream or dive down to the right shipwreck to find who I really am. Lots of searching. I'm obsessed with being my truest self - so much so, I think I actually miss it most days.
But some days I don't miss it - and the best days are when I remember what it's all about: It's not about discovering who we are, it's about recovering who we've always been. Isn't this why the hero's journey is so compelling? This is why Bruce Wayne protects Gotham - because he is Gotham. This is why Simba returns to Pride Rock to fulfill his destiny after his father reminds him from the clouds of these exact words: "Remember who you are." This is why every episode of Chef's Table follows a chef learning how to cook like someone else, gaining mastery, getting frustrated because it doesn't feel authentic, having a crisis of identity, then returning home to remember who they are. Then - and only then - do their true culinary gifts blossom.
This is tough stuff because it's not easy to believe we already have what we need. It's hard to understand we are called to be who we've always been. Why do we have such an aversion to believing some of the most beautiful truths can be so simple?
I find solace when I remember Miles Davis' line: "Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself." It takes a while. It takes straying for a period, then refocusing. It takes doubt and frustration, too. But most of all, it takes daily participation - this is a big one. Many days I don't want to engage in the process of recovering who I am because I'm worried I'll never find what I'm looking for. Then I remember again - I don't have to find anything.
It's about recovery, not discovery.
Michelangelo is rumored to have said about his work: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."
It's about recovery, not discovery.
I'm not big on owning things and this last season of purging was a welcome reminder I don't need much. Regarding the possessions remaining - it's nice to sit in my chair on a quiet morning and hear the artifacts of my life echo back to me who I am, who I've always been.
So what did I keep? Magic tricks, books of poetry, camping gear, a skateboard, a yo-yo, a stack of journals tall as me, photos of my world travels, a pile of old plays. And a bunch of Batman stuff.