Yesterday, on one of my breaks from the computer screen and the research/writing project that is absorbing much of my time, I went over to the old house to sort through file drawers.
We have three metal file cabinets, all of which are so badly rusted from decades of cats peeing on them, that we do not want to move them into the new house. We are replacing them with sturdy modular plastic files. But first I have to go through everything and make the appropriate disposition into "keep," "throw away," and "burn/shred" (for old financial documents, an option that was unnecessary before the age of identity theft).
Some of the decisions are easy. Financial records older than seven years get put in the "burn/shred" pile, those more recent get kept. Warranties and instructions for appliances and gadgets we no longer possess go into "throw away," those that are still relevant go in the "keep" pile.
Other decisions are agonizing. What should I do with the many drawers full of research articles, government documents, interviews, newspaper clippings, and other materials that are the raw data for the dissertation that was the primary focus of my life from 1980 to 1984? Or the later research I did on the National Environmental Policy Act in 1990-1992?
I kept everything, because I always assumed that someday I'd come back to that research, up-date it, extend it, publish it. But it's been twenty years since I've done work in the field of state theory. For twenty years, that field has passed me by. For twenty years, I've hauled all this pile of paper around with me, from one house to another.
The time to throw it away has finally come. If the day comes that I have more time for writing, I would rather spend my time writing fiction, essays and poetry, not trying to rebuild an academic writing career.
So yesterday, drawers of paper went into the big dumpster outside. Given that there was six inches of water standing in the bottom of the dumpster, and heavy rains this morning, that decision to trash all that material is now irrevocable.
An even harder decision centered around letters. I have drawers of folders, each labeled with a friends name, holding letters and cards going back forty-five years. Should I keep them? Throw them out?
There is, of course, the pull of sentiment. Every correspondent was at one time or still is, a loved one, friend, relative, lover. Moreover, as a person who has depending upon saved correspondence for sociological and historical research, I am sensitive to the possibility that some future historian might be looking for descriptive data about everyday life; descriptions at which some of my correspondents over the years have excelled, with humor and insight. On the other hand, I've seen the burden that a life of collecting stuff imposes on children, family and relatives when a person dies.
How to balance those two concerns and the tug of sentiment? Finally I compromised, going through each file, keeping only lengthy descriptive letters and photos, and throwing out all the years of accumulated brief notes, birthday and Christmas cards. Into the dumpster those bags of paper went as well. Also now irrevocable.
Life moves on. Some things have to be let go.