Sunday, 9 March 2014

It was just my imagination, running away with me

[Written January 24, edited February 27]

I recently experienced what many would consider to be the most symbolic end of childhood: my parents sold our house, which the five of us moved in to in early 1994. It was not a surprise, except that the looking, buying, selling and moving all happened while I was living abroad, so I never got to say a "proper goodbye". Less than three weeks after my parents moved to another part of St Albans, my boyfriend proposed and we began looking for a house of our own, albeit in another country. After a decent amount of drama and stress we found a suitable place for us to start married life, in a historic district in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I'm sitting in that house right now, but I won't be moving in until after I graduate in May.

My parents love me enough that they did not dispose of all my belongings, but they did request I sort through what could go, what could be boxed up, and what I wanted to take to my own house. I had wisely done a clear-out after I finished at UEA, disposing of old schoolbooks, an enormous collection of classroom notes (the question remains: how did I get in to university?), expired cosmetics, ill-fitting clothes and any ornaments that could be described as childish but not sentimental enough. But I admit I wasn't thorough, and I still found more to do this time around. The process of clearing out is one of remembering, of choosing what to remember and what to forget, and choosing what becomes part of the future, too.

Clothes are easy enough. If I live without them in America, how much can I possibly need them to remain here with my parents? I let go of a few bum-inflating pencil skirts and promised myself newer, more flattering ones; I salvaged a skirt that I may never wear again, but was part of the dark angel costume I had on the night I met my future husband. I kept a school shirt with writing on it from 2000. I kept an unforgiving dress I wore in 2007, which says a lot about my optimism.

Books are not so hard either. My method was to create my bookshelf exactly as I would want others to discover it (not just an imaginative exercise, as my fiance's parents will be staying in that room soon). The top shelf is for my collection of children's books, dominated by Harry Potter and The Princess Diaries series, with others such as Jeremy James, The Enchanted Horse, Heidi and Little Women. I boxed up far more, to keep for other children one day. My mother has truly excellent taste in children's books, and her love of them was passed down to me. I threw such things as Boy and Going Solo aside - Roald, you're coming to America with me. The second shelf was a collection of categories. Young Adult (welcome, Sarah Dessen and Ann Brashares), classic English literature (Thackeray, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, Austen), non-fiction (Bill Bryson and Michael Palin, Howard Zinn). The third is perhaps an homage to my degree, filled with American literature, mainly twentieth century (Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald). There is only one Faulkner novel, because the rest live with me in Oxford. My poetry collections and writing how-tos are bound for South Carolina, eventually.

Photographs are the main way that we all use to look at the past, and we're of course the generation that went from developments to digital and internet sharing. I'm lazy about physical photographs. They're all sitting in a drawer. I don't want to look at them, nor do I want to throw them away. One day, maybe? The most I did was sit with two secondary school friends, Anna and Robbo, and examine our yearbooks. We observed that for just about everyone you could pick, we know each person has grown more attractive. I guess that exercise will only be exciting when this ceases to be the case. (And thank you, Facebook, for giving us access to such information.) I don't recognize myself in the yearbook photos. I'm thinner now and my hair is longer and all that, but mainly it's that I smile differently. I hadn't even thought that could change. My dad told me I am so much happier now than I used to be, so maybe that explains the smiles.

The waters are murky when it gets to correspondence. There's probably no need to keep birthday and Christmas cards, unless there's a letter inside. I have singled out ones that I want to remember from friends, but I'm content to let them stay in St Albans; I only like to look at them every couple of years anyway. I keep what will make me laugh, and there are many from my teenagers years, practically written in a different language of slang and codewords for boys we fancied. Which brings me to my next question: what do you do with old love letters? It's madness, surely, to take them into your married house. But with a finished relationship, these old letters are not about reminiscing about the other person - they are for reflecting on how much I have changed. I'm not so keen to dispose of them, yet I'm mortified at the idea that anyone would keep mine.

Hey look, I got into UEA! I got into Chapel Hill! I got into Ole Miss! Let's throw out any and all rejection letters.

My writing, oh my writing. I was entranced by Anne Frank, so for 3 or so years in primary school I handwrote a named diary of my own. I kept a journal from around 2001 to 2010, after which I began to write less frequently (another symbolic marker of adulthood?), but this one is stored and password-protected online, meaning I don't have urgent decisions of what to do with it. For I don't wish to burn the girlhood diary, or handwritten entries of distress that I wrote as a teenager, but I don't want someone else to come along and read them either. I'm keeping the script and accompanying portfolio for the Beaumont School play, The Madness of George King, which I still have great memories of working on. I'm keeping the travel journals from 2008/09 in the USA and France (semi co-written with Katharine, as we liked to intrude on each others notebooks during the long train rides) and 2011, where Faye, Jess and I repeatedly get into trouble in American cities.

It's amazing to me how much time I spent living in my own head. All the writing is proof of that. It is partly cultural, partly individual. My fiance had such a different experience of high school. He played baseball, he dated, he studied hard to get in to the University of North Carolina. He thought a lot about what people thought of him, but by his own admission didn't do much looking inwards. I was kind of a lone wolf in a lot of ways. I had a lot of friends, I had a lot of crushes, I spent time doing drama and ice skating and running wild (we are so lucky to have public transportation and to get to experience London) but I was thinking thinking overthinking all the time. I had friends and family say, you know I love you, but you have to stop thinking so much. There was a lot of mental torture that came with being introverted, but the gift was my writing, and I'm so happy for that. The tradeoff for being happier and healthier these days is that it's hard to be 100% immersed in my stories, the way that I witnessed my summer camp teens being. It's interesting trying to find a balance between my real life and the lives in my head. Either way, I think we should all remain at least a little bit childish as we age.

Speaking of writing, there were plenty of fictional pieces lying around. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I have 4 folders that are chock-full of stories. I found old stories/novel ideas and poetry, but my favorite was finding little scraps that I would later develop. I'd written a couple of paragraphs about a girl called Hayley who was apparently dating an older lawyer. I've no idea when I wrote that, but she eventually showed up in "We Can't Go On Like This", a story I wrote for Randall Kenan in Chapel Hill. I found a timeline of events for a summer love triangle between three graduates that years later morphed into "Gooseberry Pie", which I wrote last semester for Megan Abbott. It's funny to me that I physically stash the ideas somewhere and often forget I've done it, yet they float about in the back of my mind until I'm ready to organize them. I wonder if my husband-to-be will be driven mad by the unintelligible notes on the lives of made-up people.

I have two things to finish off with. Anna's family have moved house recently too - coincidentally to the same road as my parents! Our families just can't separate - so she's been engaged in a similar reckoning with the past. I found it hilarious that she came across two stories from when we were young teens, one by me and one by her; she is sure that she was just copying me. Hey, I've always liked to inspire others to write! I am sure that we made different choices in remembering and forgetting, just as we can recall different childhood memories (a hysterical activity regardless). So tell me: what do you choose to keep and throw away, both mentally and physically?

Lastly, I wanted to share a scrap of a story that I started in Chapel Hill. I must have been homesick because I set it in St Albans, which I'd resisted writing about before. It's about a rumor I heard many years ago, but I never found out whether or not it was true. I remembered it without deliberately trying to. I brought the scrap back to America with me, and for better or for worse I was going to type it up here - but now I have no idea where it is. It's probably hiding amidst Southern Studies notes. I wonder what will become of it? Maybe it will live in a drawer forever, or eventually be thrown out, or maybe it will inspire a fully-fledged story or novel.