Last weekend, with a song in my heart, I arrived home. What I then hoped would be a relaxing midterm break has quickly mutated into the fitful interregnum between our old world and a new one. The song, suffice to say, is over. Busy street corners which once stunk of weed now emptily reek of anxiety. Stoners heeding the advice of “the establishment”? The situation must be bad indeed!
I myself have been practicing self-isolation, not because I am afraid of that-which-shall-not-be-named, rather for lack of a better alternative. So far, my quarantine has been rather productive—and surprisingly cathartic.
In the week or so since I returned, I have finished a research assistantship, unpacked my belongings, baked two cakes, taken multiple personality tests, and started my Spring clean.
In this latter activity, as always during my clear-outs, I remembered just how difficult it is to rationalise the throwing-away of just about anything of emotional value. In short, I am a hoarder.
Actions do indeed speak louder than words. As I vow to purge this garbage, I am simultaneously compelled to keep it: my present comfort and sentiment for the past in a perfectly synchronised battle for my greater affection.
The way I see it, these objects—from oxidised badminton metals to dog-eared English jotters—are both trash and treasure. They take up space, sure. That I don’t mind: I only spend a few months a year at home, and of that time I spend just a fraction in my bedroom. Even then, it’s not as if my room is a pigsty. My mother would in all likelihood disagree, of course, but I’m not of the generation who made a pigsty of our plane. Let’s look at the bigger picture, mother.
What’s difficult is the emotional weight these objects carry. It’s not that the sentiment is a negative emotion as such. Far from unpleasant, sentiment rather evokes a sickly, wistful longing—an impossible compulsion to travel once more the roads in the rear-view mirror. This regret is of course irrational, and neglects that retrospective, “in hindsight” memories are almost always more fond than their multidimensional reality (pun very much intended.) With this in mind I adopted a new mantra for the clean: “out with the old”. The best way to rid the lingering regret, I said to myself, was to throw it out of the proverbial car window; by throwing away these physical manifestations, I can hopefully consign the associated regrets to the dustbin of history. If this sounds concerting, I urge you to think more Kondo than Stalin!
Goodbye algebra notes. Bon voyage French wordlists. As the bin bags got heavier, an emotional weight was lifted. In focusing on the future, I was leaving behind these relics of a past too far back to reach for, and in so doing crafting an identity exclusively of who I am now. And I was content in doing so. Until, deep into my clean, I came across some folded sheets inside an innocuous poly pocket. As I opened them up, bittersweet memories unfolded in my mind like the sheets of paper in my hand.
I don’t wish to give away too much before I present you with what I found, but some backstory is necessary. All through secondary school I had a mathematics teacher whom I often clashed with: we were too similar for our own good, like two electrons which can only but repel each other for their similarity. My teacher and I both shared a particular love of literature and she always joked, oddly, that I write her a poem sometime. Having never fully apologised for my arguments with her, I decided that there could be only one way in which to ask forgiveness. It’s pretentious and poorly-written, so you’ll know right away it’s my own work! I will let my two-years’-younger self explain the rest, with a cinquain on gratitude:
Credit Where Credit Is Due
(To my own) is
Not transactional, yet
I’m indebted to you for mine.
Learned so in accounting.
What I owe you, too, cannot be
I’m wealthier for it!
Debt is often a device for
In A Doll’s House)
Or a time bomb, ticking
Towards our denouement. My debt’s
An invoice which
Slips through the letterbox
Just once a year, detailing who
Zealous zeniths. Each A’s
An upside down for all sign—A
Work. Or perhaps
It’s a greater than sign—
Greater than a B! Or a not
A very timely
Reminder that you are
≯ Σ all
For teaching me
(More than) algebra. No
Of parallel lines, we
Oft. crossed! I owe > a thanks:
 ! ≠ n.(n-1).(n-2)…
This teacher had health problems, and would now and then have periods of prolonged absence. I wrote this poem after my final set of exams, hoping to give it to her before schools shut for summer and I had left for good. I sealed the poem in an envelope along with, just to overdo it, a “sorry I was a bit of a dick”-themed card. You know the type. Alas, she was off sick. I kept a hold of the card, making plans to return with it after summer when she would be back. I would no longer be enrolled at the school but I was sure they’d let me back to hand in the card and say a goodbye. The months passed and I returned. To my dismay and regret, she was still absent. I was leaving for St Andrews shortly thereafter and, deciding it best not to pester any longer, left the envelope with another staff member. I don’t know if the envelope was ever unsealed or if its paper lips remain closed—the story unfinished.
In the two years since I wrote the poem, I hadn’t until now recalled the events: I think my brain quite rightly filed the whole episode in the “non-essential information” drawer. But contrary to that, and the purpose of the clean-out, I’m learning that these physical objects and the lingering memories, can evoke forgotten feelings and reveal former iterations of oneself. From the distance of time passed, these objects spur us to develop our empathy, especially towards ourself and our own actions: past and present. This needn’t always be a pleasant experience—more often than not, it won’t be—but in remembering who we once were, we can positively shape the person we are becoming, taking stock of old lessons relearned.
So with my “out with the old” mantra itself becoming somewhat dated, I have decided to throw it out (along with most of the aforementioned garbage). The poem, I happily write, remains. It now sits cosily under a heap of other old papers I haven’t the heart to discard.
I’ll likely never know whether my teacher got the poem or not. I could just ask around if I really wanted to know but there’s no fun in that. Some of the best stories, after all, end in bitter irony: our “rule breaking pair of parallel lines” will never cross again.
That may not be mathematical in its sentiments, but boy is it literal. And I think, on balance, that’s probably good enough for the both of us.