For the Week of January 29, 2017: Opening the Boxes of Memory

 “The effects of moving are experienced in the body, in the imagination, in the realm of desire. What the eye sees, what the body feels, what the heart yearns for, what remains and what has been lost — these are difficult at first to describe.” ―Louise DeSalvo, On Moving:  A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts and Finding Home Again, 2009.  

There are necessities in the process of relocating and moving across the country, and downsizing one’s belongings is a major one, but so is it, from time to time, in life. I’ve begun the process, yet despite annual spring cleanings, I am overwhelmed by how much “stuff” is stored in plastic cartons and cardboard boxes, stacked on shelves in our garage.  There are many and several containing mementoes of the past, I must open and go through, one by one.

Last week, however, I tackled the many books lining my shelves, deciding which to keep, which to donate or pass along to friends and writing groups.  I spent two days sorting through four bookcases in the front room, filling a few boxes marked “Keep,” with favorite volumes and leaving the discards on the shelf to box later.  It was a slow process, and I have yet to finish, because as I pulled the books from their shelves, I often paused and thumbed through the pages, noting what I’d underlined or pages I’d dog-eared, and re-reading those sections again.  Between the pages of others, I found old birthday cards and notes from friends.  I lingered over those too.  Each book, card, or note triggered a memory, reminding me of who I was then, during earlier periods of my life.

The smell of moving,

combing over flailed books—sea shells
beneath a forgotten tide.
Occasionally we’ll wrench something up,
not what we are looking for, and read it anyway.

(From:  “Search for Robert Hayden,” by Charles Rowell, In:  The Listening, by Kyle G. Dargan, Ed. 2004)

My bookshelves are only the beginning of slenderizing and simplifying our possessions.  Daily, I eye the many boxes in our garage and return to the house feeling utterly overwhelmed by what I know will be a slow and difficult sorting through of each.  The boxes are filled with “stuff”—things once thought necessary for some later time, keepsakes, photographs , materials I’ve used for classes I no longer teach, journals, boxes of art supplies purchased for myself or for grandchildren visits, and things I’ve long forgotten, all waiting to be opened and dealt with.

It’s not going to be easy or fast.  Like my books, the boxes contain evidence of the past, keepsakes from places visited overseas, old journals full of my morning musings or comic sketches, drawings from children and grandchildren, even an old plastic luggage tag, labeled in my father’s handwriting, something I found after his death.  I know I will need time and solitude as I succumb to the memories contained in each box.

Unpacking the Boxes:  A Memoir of a Life in Poetry,  by former U.S. poet laureate, Donald Hall, begins with his description of unpacking of the seventy or eighty boxes stored in his home and cottage since 1994, shortly after his mother’s death and a year before his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, died from leukemia.  He writes:

For a longtime, I could not open them… From [the] … boxes my childhood rose like a smoke of moths–a 78 of Connee Boswell singing “The Kerry Dance”; all the letters I ever wrote my father and mother; photographs of my young parents on the boardwalk at Atlantic City; my father’s colorless Kodachromes of Long Island Sound, snapshots of cats dead for fifty years; model airplanes and toy cars and a Boy Scout manual, a baseball, and a baseball glove with its oiled pocket chewed by mice.  I felt the shock and exultation of exhumation… Remembered scenes flashed like film clips… (pp. 2, 3, 10)

Whether stacked in a garage or closet, tucked under the bed, we all have boxes filled with fragments and remembrances of our pasts. We turn to them sometimes, recalling feelings, smiles, nostalgia, even heartache, all reminding us of who we were then.  But there are other boxes, virtual ones, tucked into the far corners of our mind, taped shut, yet carried.  These are the ones we are reluctant to open, fearing what we might find.

Minefields of the Heart,  A Mother’s Stories of a Son at War, a memoir  by Sue Diaz begins similarly to Hall’s.  Her memoir is a touching portrayal of a mother’s experience of a son fighting in a distant and dangerous war.  Some boxes she describes are filled and housed under her bed; the others, virtual, memories and the horrible experiences of war that are in virtual boxes, housed deep in the mind and not  of war that are in virtual boxes—housed deep in the mind and not easily opened.  She begins her story by describing the boxes she and her son each possess:

This is a story about boxes. Mine contains news clippings about that day in Iraq — what led up to it and what came after. It’s a brown leather box where I’ve also stored notebooks, journal entries, essays published with my byline, photos, letters, and printouts of online conversations. A scrapbox of sorts, filled with bits-and-pieces connected mostly to R. and to the past few years.

My son has his box, too. It is the one that soldiers returning from war carry within themselves, the box that holds everything a combat vet has seen and felt and heard and done in the line of duty.

As the daughter of a World War II veteran, I know it’s not uncommon for vets to want to keep the lid on their memories. Opening up can take some time. Years, for some. Decades, for others. Many never do.

But it’s important to try. …

 Diaz also describes her experience of helping veterans tell their stories of the trauma and costs of war—some recent, others decades past:

What they’ve written in their spiral notebooks … has given me a glimpse into the boxes they have carried with them from places like Danang and Fallujah, Saigon and Sadr City. 

The words “Open at Your Own Risk” are stamped all over their boxes, because what’s inside can be scary as hell.

Scary as hell. Those are the boxes that contain memories of the difficult, painful events in our lives, whether trauma endured as a child, war, horrific events like 9/11, the bombing in Oklahoma City or the shock of hearing, “I’m sorry…  It’s cancer.”  Memories we’d rather push away than revisit again.

But it’s important to try.  We know that there real costs to health when traumatic, painful memories remain locked inside of us.  Healing may come in small steps, but to begin, we have to summon the courage to open the lids on those memories.  As Pennebaker’s groundbreaking research demonstrated, when we suppress negative emotions, it takes a toll on our health. Long buried trauma can have adverse impact on immune system.   Self-disclosure or expressive writing, even in the case of old emotional traumas, can help us heal.  His research on the healing benefits of writing spawned many expressive writing groups across the country over two decades ago, for many different individuals, including cancer patients and survivors.

Remember Pandora and the box she was warned never to open? How curiosity got the better of her, and as she lifted the lid, evil escaped and spread over the earth?  It’s a good metaphor for the boxes filled with painful or frightening memories we sometimes hesitate to pry open ourselves, because remember too, that after the evil escaped, Pandora discovered one last thing left lying at the bottom of the forbidden boxHope.

This week, explore the memories or mementoes tucked in your boxes, whether concrete and stored in your attic or garage, or memories pushed back into a far corner of your mind. Take one out. Open the lid. Explore the contents:  images, sounds, smells—and the emotions they evoke, and write exploring the memories and stories inside.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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