A recent house move has necessitated a ruthless clean out of those old boxes lurking under stairs and in the loft and which contain memories of a past long gone. My dream of living in a very small space is about to become a reality but more on that later.
I opened the letters: "I wish the word 'sadness' didn't exist," wrote one former lover (he was French and we were in love), "Why don't you respond to my letters?" wrote another (he was German). "I'd love it if you came to the ball with me on June 21st," (he was English) and so it went on. How I am holding on to these rusty mementos of a time long disappeared is really one of those quirky things I can't explain. You see, I've moved a total of 23 times in my life- sometimes around the world. My late mother would usually facilitate these moves by arranging packing and shipment of my things (and I am deeply indebted to her for humouring me for so many years). And so another few boxes would arrive. Even I would be amazed at the letters I received in my life- and moreso the ones I wrote. I remember sending a lover envelopes filled with rose petals I had grown myself- the most perfumed and a deep, dark red- need I say more? Pathetic or a hopeless romantic?
Anyway the point of reading old letters is exactly that- they belong to a past that has little if any bearing on the present. "I shall miss you so," one opined. Well, where exactly is he now? There were former lovers who remained friends and it was their wishing to maintain contact in spite of everything that was their own doing and not mine. Now when I read their letters, I see that they were genuinely in love. But I wasn't. That halfway house of half-baked friendship after the end of a love affair is quite an heroic thing to do.
One old lover wrote : "I have never been lucky. Honesty gets you nowhere. Fate has not been kind to me." Was he a manic depressive? No. Just someone who longed to be living a different life to the one he chose. Did he ever find happiness? No.
Another lover advised me to treat men badly - or rather, don't show them I care. That way, they'll love you more. True- looking back I can see that was absolutely the best strategy but I was never very good at playing games. In fact, my no-nonsense directness leaves zero room for subtlety. Men enjoy the chase so why hand them everything on a plate and when you do, they don't hang around. But this article is not intended to be a guide to love rather an exploration of times past and the relevance of the present moment.
It occurred to me reading those love letters that the present moment is a type of recurring episode in one's life. We never un-live the past but we are effectively living it every day whereby in its recycled form it becomes the present.
I re-read letters from my father and my sister, written thirty years ago and there were signs then of a storm brewing within our family. There should have been no surprise when the 's....t' eventually hit the fan. I also saw in those old letters how much I had squandered my good fortune- there were men who were deeply in love with me and for whatever reason, I tossed them away like an unwanted rag doll. But surely that is the riddle of life? What we think we want is what we don't know that we need. Yet.
The truth is looking back at one's life one sees how crystal clear all those signs were. Yes, he loved me and I should have never let him go. Yes, our lives are a type of groundhog day every day. Not that we re-live the same situation every day but everything we fear will happen does unless we resolve the issues our intuition is screaming at us to address.
Do I regret any of it? It's a strange, strange sensation to open a box one hasn't touched in thirty years. Everything somehow falls into place but the awakening that occurs looking at the mirror of the past is this: we do not value the moment in time that is our life. In the grand scheme of things, we are mere specks. But in our lives we have had the chances and opportunities that mostly we squandered. Not just in love and not from a solely material perspective- but what we should have done, could have done and for whatever reason, didn't. We let time pass. We never made amends. We didn't say sorry. We just let the river of time flow around us as if we were demi-Gods, and who like Moses, could change the tide at will. Not so. Time and chance wait for no man.
And so I'm moving yet again. Will I take my boxes with me? No. I am getting old, certainly, but I do not relish spending more hours re-reading any of these letters in the time I have left on planet earth. What's done is done and relegated to what has been lost forever. In thirty years once was quite simply enough. Some memories are worth keeping but the rest remain too abstract lacking not only a pulse but a beating heart.
The rose I grew. Photo copyright S. van Dalen