A man (39) kneels in the gravel by a shallow river, under a pedestrian bridge, in the middle of a nature reserve, on a sunny summer day.
CLOSE-UP ON MAN’S HAND
He digs a watermelon-sized hole in the gravel using a sharp rock. Beside him, two big shopping bags, one cloth and one paper, are stuffed with stacks of hand-written documents.
A young family walks by, enjoying this holiday weekend. The girl (4) stares at the man clawing in the dirt. Her father (35) tugs her along.
The digging man glances up at the family, then returns to his task. He reaches into the paper bag, which has two broken straps, and pulls out a lined piece of paper, covered both sides in handwriting. He crumples it up and puts it in the hole. He crumples more paper until the hole is full. He pulls out a barbecue lighter and pulls the trigger. Nothing. Again. Nothing.
MAN: Come on, come on.
He grows impatient. A tiny flame finally appears. His pursed lips crack a hopeful smile. Soon, the breeze whips the flames to consume the paper. The man crumples more pages and pushes them into the flames, then jerks his hand back as the flames singe his fingers. He adds more paper as fast as it burns. He ignores another family that walks by, and they ignore him.
24 HOURS EARLIER
The man sits on a couch in his highrise apartment, downtown in a major city. The open windows let in traffic noises and a beam of sunlight, which illuminates two stacks of one-inch binders on a coffee table. The man reads one of the binders, scanning the words, flipping several pages at a time. The words increasingly disturb him. He fans quickly through the rest of this binder, tosses it to the floor and grabs another…
That man… is me.
Those binders are my journals from 1989 through 2004: 15 years (60 pounds) of anxiety, philosophy, theology, commentary, short fiction, unsent love letters, and utter crap. (The journals since 2004 are still in a box somewhere.)
I confront them because the clutter in my apartment has been bugging me. As my desire for simplicity has grown the last few years, the journals have morphed from a treasure chest of personal history into just another box of old papers. I have lugged those books through about a dozen moves since I wrote the earliest of them, and now they just take up valuable space in a life that I want to make lighter.
The last time I considered getting rid of them, my ego vetoed it. Those journals provide a written record of some formative years of my life. I needed to hold onto something that could confirm my identity after the memories fade. I needed to have something to say: This is where I came from. These are the stories I’ve written. These are the people and issues I’ve cared about. To say: My life has meaning. I got somewhere, and this is how. (And to my biographers after I become famous, here is some great raw material.)
But when I went back to re-read them, I found page after page of narcissistic ponderings I could no longer identify with: college crushes, old ideology, and long-forgotten anxieties over schools and bosses. My gut tightened with each page, the shame of the past coming back to haunt me.
Those journals now reflect a persona I’ve outgrown – a past I no longer need. They say you’re supposed to live in the present, and I couldn’t do that without forgiving and releasing my past. To find who I really am, I need to let go of the false identity of my past, and wipe the slate clean. Finally, to be honest, I need to forget about anyone wanting to read my biography, because I probably won’t be famous.
It took me a while to let myself erase the record of my past limitations, but I’m ready now.
Next up was the practical part. How would I get rid of the journals? I could simply throw them in the dumpster. I could recycle them. I could burn them.
Yes, I could burn them, releasing the old energy in the heat of the flame. Yes.
A romantic vision came to me: Sitting in the mountains, tossing the pages one by one into a roaring campfire, each flame forgiving a mistake or a belief that I’d held onto for too long.
And Saturday, August 31, was Burn Night. My friends down at Burning Man would light up a huge wooden Man as a symbol of releasing the past, burning an authority figure – whatever each of the 70,000 participants thought it represented.
I’d been there a few times myself, experiencing spiritual renewal. Burn Night would be the perfect time to release my past in flames.
For practical reasons, I decided to perform my little ceremony in a city park during daylight hours. Now, a summer long weekend is not a great time to find a public firepit. They were all booked with family barbecues. So, Plan B: I found a little barbecue stand and burned a few pages in there. It didn’t feel grand and romantic like my earlier vision. And the barbecue quickly filled up with ash. I needed another plan.
Plan C: I knew an isolated spot a mile or two down the trail, by the river, away from the crowds, in an adjoining nature reserve. I gathered my 60 pounds of memories and hiked out.
By the time I got to the base of the hill, halfway to my original destination, the straps on the paper bag started to go. The bag was not built to carry heavy documents long distance. It was built for raspberries and tortilla chips.
Meanwhile, with all these setbacks, my romantic notions of ceremonial release in a spiritual renewal quest were coming undone like the straps on my bag.
Plan D: Pull off the trail at the first bridge over the river. I found a spot by the river’s edge, crumpled up a few pages into a pile, pulled out the barbecue lighter, and pulled the trigger.
Nothing. Again. Nothing. Again again again. Nothing nothing nothing.
Another plan. Another plan. Another plan.
I was starting to snap like the straps on my heavy fucking sacks of shit from hell.
Matches. I’d brought matches as a backup. I’m a smart guy. Always prepared.
The first match flared… and died before it touched the paper. Second match: Flare. Out. Third: same. Four, five, a dozen more matches, all died cold at the paper’s edge.
It must have been the breeze.
I needed… I didn’t need another fucking plan. I needed a way to get that damned ballast of shame out of my life. And I needed to do that before lugging those damned bags back up that long lonely hill back to my car.
There was no way I was going to carry that burden back with me. I needed to release it. Immediately. Without a doubt. Forever.
But it wasn’t working this way. I needed a windbreak. So I found a dry, gravelly spot away from the river’s edge, and a triangular rock that I could dig a hole with.
I knelt under the bridge, on the bare gravel, stone-age tool in hand, and, like some crazed killer, began hewing out a pit in the dirt, to bury the body of my past.
Craig (39) is more determined than ever to ditch the past. Clawing at the dirt under a bridge, no longer caring about the perceptions and judgments of strangers, his knees dirty and his mind focused, he digs a grave.
In that hole, he… I… am finally able to bring a flame to that paper. I shove the next few pages in quickly, trying to keep the flame lit and the paper from blowing away in the breeze. I singe my fingers.
I need another plan, but that’s okay. I’m on the right path now. I can beat this. I find a good stick, and stab those pages into the flames so they light up and don’t escape.
I bayonet them like dying enemies on the battlefield.
Old college crush? Die! Teenage angst? Die! Useless ponderings about a god I thought I knew but totally didn’t? Die, die, die. Burn up all the old ego crap, the religious certainties, the victimhood, the blaming of friends and family, the insane depression and suicidal thoughts, the pain, the confusion, the small-minded theology and misdirected philosophy. All sacrificed to the flames, returned to primordial energy.
As the hot sun moved through the sky, I realized it would take hours to burn through all of it. I couldn’t burn the massive amounts of paper quickly enough in this small hole.
After two hours, I had emptied and burned the paper bag, and started on the cloth bag. I was too tired to finish burning it all in one afternoon, but not too tired to carry the lighter bag back up the hill, just one last time, to get rid of it safely somewhere else.
Another plan? The confidential shredding bins at the office. Perfect.
I shouldered the remainder and hiked back. Lighter this time. Bearable, for a little while. I drove home, showered the clay and ash off my body, and carried the old baggage three blocks to the office.
The last of the papers were dumped unceremoniously in a bin full of obsolete engineering drawings, misprinted spreadsheets and last week’s meeting minutes. Finally. Gone.
It turned out in the end that I didn’t need some big fireworks ceremony with cheering crowds to release my past and live in the present with less baggage. I just needed to let it go.
Because I could not carry that heavy burden up one more goddamn hill.