As I was feeding canceled checks, 1993 tax returns and 1975 newspaper clippings into the shredder, the Dumpster and the fireplace, I was filled with the kind of satisfaction that comes only with a thorough spring cleaning.
I was ridding my life of decades of accumulated paperwork. I was liberating myself from encumbrances. I was freeing myself from the dead past.
I felt very Zen, assuming a person can feel Zen while staring at an old 1040-A form and muttering, “Geez, how broke were we?”
But then, the horrifying thought occurred to me: Was I shredding my life?
In my zeal to clean out my filing cabinets and office closets, I had adopted an “everything must go” mentality. So I was getting rid of old check registers and tax receipts, but I was also getting rid of my old junior high yearbook and an envelope of clippings from my first newspaper job.
I was in the grip of a cleaning mania, ruthless and practical. If I hadn’t touched it, needed it or even wanted it in the last 10 years, it was gone. In clean-up mode, I refuse to succumb to weak sentimentality. I was sticking to this iron dictum: If you don’t dump it now, someone else will just have to dump it later.
And yet …
As I sat there and stared at old clippings from the 1975 Cody (Wyo.) Enterprise, I started to think, “Maybe I should hold on to these. Maybe someone, someday, will find these interesting.”
But then I snapped out of it and thought, “Who? My authorized biographer?”
And then I snapped out of it even more thoroughly and realized that even I did not find them interesting. A Cody High School swim meet. An annexation hearing. A police-blotter item with the headline: “Pea-hens reported loose on Circle Drive.”
So, into the recycle bin they went.
And yet …
Shouldn’t we hold on to our past? We are, I once read, nothing more than the sum of our memories. Our very identities, our very selves, consist of the experiences that we hold inside our heads. Isn’t all of this paper, all of this “junk,” a useful and crucial way of expanding and stimulating our memories? When we throw it away, aren’t we throwing away something precious and irreplaceable?
Oh, come on. It’s a clipping about zoning, for heaven’s sake.
But then came the ultimate test. I came across a trove of get-well cards, 17 years old, written to my wife when she had a health crisis. I asked her whether she wanted to keep them, and she, rationally and practically, said no. They had meant the world to her at the time. But they had served their purpose and it was OK to let them go. I concurred and started tossing.
Then I stopped to read a few. They were beautiful, eloquent and full of feeling. Were we absolutely sure they had already served their purpose? Weren’t they still doing their job, reminding us of how dozens of people had been so loving and supportive? If I had gotten rid of them, say, 10 years ago, wouldn’t I have been depriving myself of this wonderful memory today?
In the end, I settled on a compromise. I read them one last time and tried to burn them into my memory – and then I burned them. I don’t know if this compromise will work, knowing the unreliability of human memory in general and mine in particular. But I am comforting myself with the myth that nobody can take away our memories.
Meanwhile, I suffered no crisis of conscience with the rest of this junk. Canceled checks and old tax returns are not our lives – they’re just the paper that weighs them down.