My fiancé Steve sent a sweet email on March 23rd, telling me about his correspondence with an old friend who was looking forward to our wedding, then noting he’d had a realization: March 23rd marked what would have been his and his late wife Karen’s thirtieth anniversary.
Coincidentally, I’d recently read a novella in poetic form by Lesley Wheeler, The Receptionist. In the chapter “A Ghost at the Thanksgiving Feast,” the receptionist’s stepmother flames out at a mention of her husband’s first wife during Thanksgiving dinner. Later she apologizes for her unseemly outburst.
It’s never occurred to me to be upset by the fact of Steve’s life before me. I’ve always seen his first marriage as evidence of his ability to commit to and care deeply for someone, a sign he possesses the strength and flexibility a long, happy marriage requires. He learned how to love a partner, and let himself be loved by a partner, from and with Karen. She and he raised two wonderful sons who are now part of my life. There are no threats here, only gifts.
Everyone has a history. If anything, not accumulating a rich store of experiences by the time you’re over forty makes you more weird than normal. Yet often we’re quick to label the bulk of our romantic past with the pejorative term “baggage” and attach all kinds of angst to it. Why? The end or loss of any relationship brings great grief, but before that, even in that, there remains love and joy.
Steve and I just saw Wild, the film based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of the same title, in which she recounts hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a way through the grief wrought by her mother’s death and the subsequent dissolution of Strayed’s marriage. The film’s final voice-over sent me back to the book to look up the passage it was drawn from: “What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? . . . What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what had got me here?” Strayed—whose psychic baggage is realized in the massive Monster, an enormous backpack that bruises her body until she gains strength and learns to let go of some of what she carries—calls forth the language of regret, too. But what resonates most for me is this: every experience, every choice, makes us who we are. To wish any moment away, whether joyful or painful, is to wish away some piece of ourselves.
I like to think of packing my past into a carry-on. For that is what we do: we carry on. The memories we hold, the lessons we’ve learned, the lived experience: these are what shape us, shape our lives. If we overpack, keep the heavy stuff close where we can access it easily, or hold on too tight and refuse to let anyone else help or share the load, a carry-on may become “baggage.” But it doesn’t have to. It’s how we choose to carry it forward, rather than the experience of the moment itself, that decides its bulk, its heft.
Humans are built of bone and blood, sinew and story. Share yours, and I’ll share mine.