You’d think that cleaning out miles of files, shredding acres of papers would be lonely, boring work. But no. For me, it’s yet another life review. I’m still trying to adjust to the idea that Mom is gone, so this is a perfect task for me today.
I saw my son’s first W-2 form go by, from the Empire Kosher Chicken Restaurant. And all my old tax forms--dating back to the 80’s! Our college records, medical records, receipts for important purchases, tear sheets from magazines. (Remember magazines? How many subscriptions we had!) I went slowly through the letters and cards sent by family members and old lovers. Hand drawn cards made by my little boy? Yeah, those got re-filed. There were poems I fell in love with, and old versions of my own writing and musings, before all that became digital, now saved in my Mac’s hard drive, or increasingly, in the cloud. “Back in the day,” as my students say, it was all on paper, and organized, stored, saved in tabbed folders in my files. Repeatedly, I asked myself “Why did I save all this crap?”
But when I walked away from the shredder for a minute, to make another cuppa tea. The answer swam to the surface of my consciousness: it all helped to form my identity. I needed to save it in the file drawers.
The early adult identity I had inhabited as a wife and mother, a homemaker, was destroyed when my ex beat me up and I left him, without even a pair of shoes on my feet. Literally. Muddy, bloody, middle of the night, stumbling down the sidewalk of my hometown to a friend’s house to seek shelter. My own condition was unimportant to me, at that point, I was intent on getting help to "rescue" my son away from my husband. He was so crazy that night; I was scared he’d kill himself, and burn the house down around them.
This was not just the stereotypical "Saturday night in Irish-town/knocking the auld wife around..." That night, I believed he wanted to kill me. Fortunately, it turned out that my fears for my kid’s safety were unfounded. Once I left, my ex settled down and was just sad. If I had patched things up and gone back to him, as my mother told me I should, that relationship would eventually have ended in a homicide. We were a volatile compound when mixed. And, as it turned out, I was playing for the wrong team anyway.
My struggle, when I healed from that night, physically if not psychically, was to find work. If you came from the working class as I did, you were nothing unless your name was on a paycheck. Without it, you were a bum. To end up "on the dole" was beyond shameful.
And so, I worked. Off the books and on, as many hours as I could arrange childcare for. And it seems I saved every pay stub. They helped me to know who I was after that trauma, and the ensuing upheaval. My self-worth was reflected in my tax statements. And I’m certainly not talking about accruing wealth here—rather it was about my identity, and about surviving.
While doing this clean-out, (Shred/Save/Recycle) I also came across folders that held reams of paper, about “The Gay.” I had old Lesbian newspapers, materials about Womyn’s Festivals, gay and lesbian civil rights stuff. After I fell in love with Alice, a woman I met at an I-House "Talk & Listen Group," I was off and running. Saturday afternoons, when my son was with his dad, I took the subway into "The City," and furtively darted up the stairs, to the aptly named Identity House. Initially, I was there as a client. I spent all my spare time there for the next ten years. I made friends. I found a therapist. I learned how to facilitate groups, participated in clinical supervision groups, ran and co-chaired numerous women’s conferences. Mary Rose and I even designed and built the new loft space on Fourteenth Street that we moved the organization into, and I served as the Executive Director before I left. God bless the group of Gestalt therapists who originally opened I-House. They totally helped me get my head together.
Some people are “Cradle Gay;” they know from age four that they prefer their own gender as friends, heart connections, and lovers. I was approaching my thirties when I finally figured it out. Mine was quite a bit more complicated than some women's coming out stories, with a young child in tow, but I had tons of help and support, both from friends and professionals, and here I am. Still moving towards wholeness. Still trying to figure things out. But I no longer need this huge paper trail to steady me, to ground my identity. I know who I am now, without all this.