Looking Back and Letting Go
This summer, I graduated from university in the UK and returned to my home country, Singapore, for a month-long sunny respite. As with many big moments in life, this came with a whole lot of mundanity. I found myself at many points knee-deep in cardboard boxes, packing and cleaning my room in preparation for my move back to the UK, where I will be spending another year working as a church intern.
As I wiped the dust off old books and knick-knacks and sorted through musty clothes, I found myself avoiding an unassuming pastel yellow biscuit tin in a corner of one my cupboards. Every time I thought about what it contained, I felt an emotional weight—I knew that opening the tin would require emotional investment and I just didn’t have the energy for it.
I often try to be pragmatic, but really, I am irredeemably sentimental at heart. That old biscuit tin is the result of the battles between these two sides of me—it is a time capsule of sorts, its contents carefully curated. Covered in pictures of brightly-coloured cupcakes, the tin is filled to the brim with Christmas and birthday cards, friends’ notes from school and church camps, and farewell letters from my first year of university. If I didn’t limit myself to this one biscuit tin, I know I would end up keeping every hastily written note I ever received.
It’s sometimes nice to crack the tin open and reminisce. For instance, it contains practically every single thing my childhood best friend has ever written to me. There is a postcard she drew for me in primary school, silly notes we passed on the bus, and more than a decade’s worth of handmade cards. The tin is also a record of how my sister’s handwriting has changed—she once wrote with teenaged-girl-uniformity, now her script flows with a vet surgeon’s precision and grace.
Other times, opening the tin unearths the unexpected—letters from friends which I never reciprocated, or people from different seasons of my life discussing events I no longer remember and interests I no longer have. Worst of all to find are the letters from lost friends, people whose paths have diverged from mine. It can be strange to examine the physical documentation of my relationships—the artifacts of my various friendships evidence the good times we had together but never how we lost touch or fell out. Stumbling upon happy notes from friends to whom I am no longer close always fills me with unease, and is the reason why I’m often reluctant to open my biscuit tin of memories.
When I cracked open the tin this summer, I came across a letter exactly like that. Written before either of us had an inkling of the falling out we were about to have, the tightly folded letter was filled with inside jokes, pop culture references, and heartfelt well-wishes. As my eyes swept across the creased page covered in shaky blue marker, a wave of sadness washed over me. That single sheet of paper pulled me starkly into the history of what happened between us—but it was more than that.
It’s often easy to cast the people in our lives as one-dimensional characters, just like in one of those big-budget Hollywood action flicks where villains are unequivocally and simply evil, while the hero is complex but ultimately good. The friend who wrote that letter has, for a while now, been a bit of a villain in my story. Missteps were made in our friendship that drove a wedge between us seemingly too deep to ever remove, and our differences overshadowed all the other parts of our friendship in my mind. Reading that letter brought back the happy, genuine, and caring person I knew at the high point of that friendship, and made me realise anew that, no matter how difficult it is to imagine, that version of my friend still exists. I’d forgotten about the times when we just worked, when we made each other better. Finding the letter didn't erase the hurts, but it did allow the joys to shine through just a little more.
Maybe it’s good that my time capsule doesn’t show me any of the bad experiences I’ve had with friends—and my brain does that enough for me already, replaying hurts and disappointments when I least expect it. I have found that it’s easier to "demonise" a person in my memory and so much more challenging to hold onto a nuanced understanding of their intricacies. If I allow myself mistakes, conflicting motivations, and various complexities, but deny the same to the others in my life, I lose any appreciation for their humanity. Choosing to remember both the high and low points is important, less judgmental, and more honest.
Finding that letter was uplifting and sobering all at once—it’s unfortunate how quickly things can change between friends. All the same, I’m not likely to organise a reunion where my estranged friend and I run towards each other and embrace in slow motion as “Chariots of Fire” plays in the background any time soon. Looking back on the artifacts of our good times together has shown me that it is alright to let go of the friends I have lost. Allowing them to travel down the paths they have chosen, without holding a grudge, is part of embracing their complexities. Lifting the lid of my yellow biscuit tin can be emotionally challenging, but is a good exercise in accepting the past for all its ups and downs, and moving forward with an appreciation for everyone who has been in my life.
[Photo by Julie Bloom.]
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