If I still had them, they’d be yellowing by now, like leaves, turning dry and curling at the edge: the letters; the photographs; the yearbooks; the oversized, preposterously formal “lawyer’s diary” my father proudly handed me on my eighth birthday, whose high, important pages indifferently bore my little entries, crowded together at the top; the heavenly face of Barbara Katz, the first girl I truly loved (and thus passionately and loudly insisted I hated), there, in the third row, over on the left, of my sixth grade class picture; the high school newspaper that carried my first byline, raised like a flag on a new land. . . .

If I still had them, how often would I look at them? Not very often, I think. Probably, they’d sit untouched, in a box, in a closet, yet there might be satisfaction in that. How like leaves our memories are, strewn across the past, so easily scattered — and thus we rake them, into albums, scrapbooks, letters saved. . . .

Time carries away so much; we’ve lost so much; it’s natural to want to preserve the past. Yet how sentimental these thoughts would have seemed to me that night, thirteen years ago, when I tried to erase the past. Such a strange night, spent huddled around the fireplace with two friends in that crumbling mansion we shared. Such a cold night, in that old barn of a house, ghostly with its own histories, its slave shacks out back, its elegant bygone days. Such a long night, as the wind rattled the windows, and the flames leapt higher each time one of us threw something in: C.’s journals; hundreds of photographs K. had taken; the short stories I’d written the year before. The albums, the scrapbooks, the letters saved — one by one, I burned them all. On that unforgettable night — almost in a kind of spell, under the sway of a man I’d never met, challenged and perplexed by his odd ideas — I thought I was erasing my personal history, setting myself free.

Thirteen years later, mourning the loss of the things I burned, and realizing with hindsight that Don Juan, the great Yaqui teacher I was trying to emulate, would only have scoffed at me, it’s tempting for me to scoff, too — at my naivete, my spiritual pride, my faith in ideas I read about in books. But for all my regrets, I’m still moved by the memory of that night, and its enduring lessons for me.


Of the many profound and haunting ideas I’d encountered in Carlos Castaneda’s books about Don Juan — the Yaqui Indian sorcerer who initiated Castaneda into a new way of seeing as a “man of knowledge” — erasing personal history touched me, that dreary winter, the most deeply.

Like Castaneda, I had a strong attachment to my past. I could keenly imagine his discomfort when Don Juan chided him for believing that without a sense of continuity, life had no purpose, and for his habit of telling his friends and his family everything he did.

“Your trouble,” Don Juan scolded, “is that you have to explain everything to everybody, compulsively, and at the same time you want to keep the freshness, the newness of what you do.”

A true spiritual warrior needs to be transparent, Don Juan maintained, to himself and to others, “so no one can pin you down with their thoughts.”

“What’s wrong is that once they know you,” he continued, “you are an affair taken for granted and from that moment on you won’t be able to break the tie of their thoughts. I personally like the ultimate freedom of being unknown. No one knows me with steadfast certainty, the way people know you. . . .

“You see,” he went on, “we have only two alternatives: we either take everything for sure and real, or we don’t. If we follow the first, we end up bored to death with ourselves and with the world. If we follow the second and erase personal history, we create a fog around us, a very exciting and mysterious state in which nobody knows exactly where the rabbit will pop out, not even ourselves.”


Erasing personal history was, just then, appealing; within the past year, New Eden, the idealistic rural commune my wife and I had moved to North Carolina to join, failed and was abandoned; our first child, born prematurely, lived only three days; then our marriage died. Having abandoned a promising career in journalism for the uncertain rewards of going back to the land, I was now without a farm or a family or a future. I knew I’d come to the end of the line. I needed to walk away from here, but it wasn’t easy, carrying the past on my back. Trying to explain what had happened — not just to friends and family but, in an unceasing inner monologue, to myself — only added to the burden. It was easy to see that, as Don Juan said, I was recreating my painful history every time I talked about it, building a wailing wall around myself, with my sorrows as the stones and my words as the cement.

I knew that burning old albums and scrapbooks and letters wouldn’t in itself erase the memories nor would I, miraculously, stop thinking or talking about myself. The fire was, instead, a symbolic act. To be a spiritual warrior — free of the past, free of pride and guilt, free of routines, unpredictable, triumphant over my fears — is what I yearned for that winter. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, which was all the more reason to make a dramatic gesture — if not, like Castaneda, on some high, rugged mountain, swept by raging winds, then in my own way, in the way of my fathers, with a sacrifice, and a prayer.

Like myself, my housemates were eager seekers after truth, who recognized in Don Juan a teacher worthy of the name and, in Castaneda’s ordeals and visions and slowly-dawning comprehension, powerful metaphors for our own lives. We’d met only recently, as my marriage was coming to an end, and they’d offered me a place to live — a room in their big house, where we were sitting that evening, talking about what it meant to erase the past. Someone was telling a story — I don’t remember who — and, in the middle of it, threw something, a letter or a photograph, into the flames. It burned furiously for a moment and then — like the past — was gone. In silence, we stared at the fire for a while, then looked at each other conspiratorially, our imaginations kindled by the act.

All night, the flames continued to dance, our faces animated by the fire’s glow and by our own changing expressions, as we unburdened ourselves of our things and the stories they held. Was there an emotion not felt that night, as we relived and tried to release the past? Anger, sadness, joy, longing — they rose like mingled breath, they curled like smoke. We let them drift away from us, these stories, these souvenirs, hoping that a future awaited us which was more stupendous and unfathomable than our scrapbooks could possibly suggest. . . .


How many trips we made the next day hauling out the ashes! How many times I’ve sifted through those ashes in my mind, trying to understand what was lost that night and what, if anything, was gained.

It wasn’t the first and it wouldn’t be the last time I’d fervently imagine that a single act would redeem me. Many times I’ve wanted to believe that my life was nothing but a prelude to one fateful moment: the lightning insight; the trumpet; the guru’s touch. I’ve believed that my life needed to be redeemed, and this is true, in a sense: the confused mind, the closed heart need to be redeemed, forgiven, made whole. But I no longer insist it occur in a blinding flash. There are moments of illumination, during which I’m reminded of what real clarity and compassion are; they’ve come in dreams, or sometimes with drugs; or, perhaps most profoundly, when I’ve been in the deepest despair. I’ve cried out, and my cry has been answered — but life, with all its contradictions and ambiguities, didn’t end there. The thirsty man drinks and gets thirsty again. What is it Richard Bach says in Illusions — about how you’re able to figure out when your work on earth is ended? “If you’re alive, it isn’t.”

If our work here is to understand who we really are — to uncover, painstakingly, like archaeologists sifting through dust, what is buried and hidden in each of us — then what’s gained by denying anything that’s a part of me? Isn’t that a way of clinging to it all the more? The letters and photographs and albums are ashes now, even the ashes are gone, but are the memories gone? Where could they possibly go? Where does the present moment go? And when it returns as a memory, whispering tenderly, or pounding with its terrible fist, is it still the past? When personal history repeats itself — when I realize I’ve made the same mistake I’ve made countless times before — am I diminished by it, or reminded that I’m human? When I glimpse, in my daughter’s face, the shadow of my own, or hear her ask the same question I asked my father, and also never got a good answer for, does this bind me to something dead and best forgotten? I think not; I think instead it creates some humility in me, and perhaps, as a result, a different future for her.

Yet erasing personal history still intrigues me; perhaps, after thirteen years, I have a better idea what Don Juan meant. It’s not the past itself I want to drop now, but my habit of diminishing and thus distorting the fullness of what I’ve experienced, the pain and the grandeur and, most importantly, the mystery. For what are most of our stories but cartoon versions of the past? Our personal history is the well-worn version of ourselves we’ve settled for, in which we come across as pitiful stick figures, “bored to death with ourselves and with the world,” as Don Juan said.

But burning all my things had little to do with accepting myself more fully; it was, in a way, a denial of myself and all those painful memories which were an important part — but just a part — of my past. In retrospect, it can seem less like an act of liberation than of oppression — like the Nazis burning books, in a tortured attempt to redeem a culture by destroying its inner life, its history of ideas, its rich and varied past.


What brings these thoughts to mind is a letter I received recently from a friend who no longer reads my writing because, she says, it’s “too negative” and who scolds me for dwelling on the past, “the ghosts, the ancestors, the relatives, the critical and condemning friends, the little boy who cries in the dark (give him a quarter and tell him to go to the movies).”

She reminds me that it’s 1986 and I’m free to create my own reality, if I “throw away the garments of mourning” and live in the present. “Please wrap your heart in ribbons,” she says, “and let the wind blow through your hair. . . .”

I haven’t answered her yet because I haven’t been sure what to say. Her advice seems facile and a little unkind, but is it any different than what I once asked of myself? I know how tempting it is to want to be done with the past, to vanquish what I haven’t been able to accept. I can feel her frustration at my not having forgiven myself my all-too-human failings; she says she forgave them long ago.

Shall I tell her that of course I want to live in the present — but I know that unless I truly accept the past (and sometimes that means talking to myself or others about it, recreating it so I might better understand it, and even mourning it), then the present becomes a race in which I’m always trying to keep one step ahead of my partialness and my pain?

Shall I tell her I wrote this story because I’d never forgiven myself the mistake I made thirteen years ago? Letting myself mourn what was lost then, in my vain attempt to be free of myself, has helped me to accept that night.

— Sy