The Past as Prison: Burn It, Bury It, Leave It Behind

d9690d573ad77fbea7340de43607eb58Whether you’re into the woo-woo of the supermoon or not, it’s hard to deny the allure and power of a moon as big and bright as the one we saw last Saturday. One line from the various interpretations we read that night stood out at me: Whatever your prison, you’re preparing for a daring jailbreak.

It got us talking, and asking each other this question:

What parts of yourself or your life do you perceive as prisons?

  • A feeling of powerlessness to change conditions you perceive as less-than-ideal?
  • Getting mad instead of feeling the vulnerability of hurt?
  • Spending energy talking yourself out of your feelings rather than feeling them?
  • Working to change your perspective on circumstances you don’t like–rather than just not liking them?
  • Wanting to control things that are simply beyond your control?
  • Not having enough (time, money, patience, talent, luck, discipline…)
  • Fear that you aren’t a “real” ___________, and one of these days everyone will find out?

One place I imprison myself is the past. For me, it can be a black hole for creativity, a total 180º to the glory light of a full moon.

While going over and over the past can take many forms–regret, guilt, nostalgia, and revision–it can also serve as a powerful reminder and affirmation of how you got here. It can fuel your creativity and renew your faith that everything happens right on time and for a reason. Or it can hold you back in ways both apparent and subconscious, from taking risks, from taking action in the directions your heart longs for.

Living in the past can keep you from really living.

As a child and teenager, then well into my 20s and 30s, I collected mementos and tchotchkes and notebooks and journals; it was as if I needed to surround myself with evidence of who I was and what I was. Even now, after many periods of purging–out with the old, in with the new–I still revisit how things happened, wondering or worrying about other people’s feelings long after the fact, or reliving moments of intensity and change.

Ruminating on the past is a kind of addiction. And it is a shield, against fear–fear of what will happen if you truly leave it behind.

External, material representations of the past can be imprisoning; if your home is a Living History Museum, how will the future to find you?

There is no room at the inn for change, for discovery, for creating, when your primary relationships are with younger versions of yourself or previous chapters of your life. It’s funny, some people read and re-read their favorite books, whereas when I read and love a book, I devour it in a day, bask in the glow for another, and then promptly forget everything I just read, remembering enough only to say, “I loved that book.” If I don’t love a book, I can’t for the life of me finish it. And other than poetry, I rarely re-read anything.

So, the night of the supermoon, after some internal mulling, I shared something Big and Scary with my beloved. I told her that the ketubah (Jewish marriage document) from my first marriage was rolled up in our bedroom closet. It wasn’t that I had concealed this from her so much as I had stashed and ignored it. Now that she and I are preparing the text for our own ketubah, knowing it was there, that some part of me had been holding onto it, felt extremely significant. I teared up as I spoke to her about it.

The glass that encased that paper was smashed four years ago, a stand-out among many painful moments. My divorce was finalized nearly two years ago. And Monday marked the two-and-a-half year anniversary of a one-night stand that turned into a life commitment to the woman I will marry in just over two months.

Holding onto that relic of the past, crammed between bins filled with other relics of the past, no longer made any sense. It felt like being a voluntary hostage to vestiges of guilt or betrayal or loss, an inadvertent withholding of the heart that beats in my chest and in her hands. So while I may already have done the work of “letting go,” clearly there was still something that needed to be done.

I burned it. In the front yard, under the midnight full moon.

Watching the paper crinkle inward and up, smoke pouring through the center of the scroll, all I could think was, “Thank you, thank you.”

Gratitude to what that paper once meant to me, and how the years it hung in bedrooms long gone witnessed so much growing and becoming. And gratitude, too, for the readiness to stop grieving ghosts and turn fully towards life as it is.

Walking away from a self-perpetuated prison where I hoard objects and memories opened something in me. Something honest and vulnerable and strong and empowered. After we went inside, she asked if it was hard. I felt quiet. No, I said. Not hard, but beautiful in a way that didn’t call for elaboration.

To break from the past is to be free. A thousand poets and survivors have said it better–that the only prisons are the ones we create, the ones we chain ourselves inside of, lamenting or angry or bitter or sad.

Sometimes you have to visit in order to sift through what you left behind. And there also comes a day when you can stop visiting, when the past can rest and the present can breathe. 

A daring jailbreak sounded good to me on Saturday night, to light a match and walk away after the ash smoldered and the flame went out.

To claim freedom is not to disown but to honor how you got here, and to create space for what wants to come into being.

What prisons are you ready to break out of? What symbols of the past could you burn or bury? What are you holding on to that you could put down, making your hands available for whatever creative work is calling you?

What is Broken is What God Blesses

Jimmy Santiago Baca1952
   The lover’s footprint in the sand
   the ten-year-old kid’s bare feet
in the mud picking chili for rich growers,
not those seeking cultural or ethnic roots,
but those whose roots
have been exposed, hacked, dug up and burned
		       and in those roots
                           do animals burrow for warmth;
what is broken is blessed,
       	not the knowledge and empty-shelled wisdom
       	paraphrased from textbooks,
           		not the mimicking nor plaques of distinction
		           nor the ribbons and medals
but after the privileged carriage has passed
	       the breeze blows traces of wheel ruts away
	       and on the dust will again be the people’s broken
                            footprints.
What is broken God blesses,
       	not the perfectly brick-on-brick prison
	       but the shattered wall
	       that announces freedom to the world,
proclaims the irascible spirit of the human
rebelling against lies, against betrayal,
against taking what is not deserved;
	       the human complaint is what God blesses,
	       our impoverished dirt roads filled with cripples,
what is broken is baptized,
       	the irreverent disbeliever,
	       the addict’s arm seamed with needle marks
                   is a thread line of a blanket
       	frayed and bare from keeping the man warm.
We are all broken ornaments,
              	   glinting in our worn-out work gloves,
		        foreclosed homes, ruined marriages,
from which shimmer our lives in their deepest truths,
blood from the wound,
                              broken ornaments—
when we lost our perfection and honored our imperfect sentiments, we were
blessed.
Broken are the ghettos, barrios, trailer parks where gangs duel to death,
yet through the wretchedness a woman of sixty comes riding her rusty bicycle,
		       we embrace
		       we bury in our hearts,
broken ornaments, accused, hunted, finding solace and refuge
		       we work, we worry, we love
          	       but always with compassion
		       reflecting our blessings—
			    in our brokenness
			    thrives life, thrives light, thrives
				 the essence of our strength,
				 each of us a warm fragment,
				 broken off from the greater
				 ornament of the unseen,
				 then rejoined as dust,
				 to all this is.
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