Even the neatest among us have loose ends stashed somewhere. A second closet full of clothes. An attic full of old furniture and toys. Paint cans in the basement. Old parts and garden tools in the garage. Out-of-battery watches in the bedside table. Hand-knit baby sweaters in the cedar chest.
They’ve been there for years, perhaps almost the whole time you’ve lived in that house, since your children were babies at least. You know where those leftovers are: which box, which corner of the attic. In your mind there floats a vivid image of the folded stacks of baby clothes, the jumble of toys, the keepsakes wrapped in tissue.
Knowledge of them and their location is a weight. You want to get rid of them yet you are afraid that these items, which you haven’t needed in ten years, in twenty, will someday be needed.
In my house, there is a box full of notebooks on a shelf in the basement. Calling the contents “Jane’s Junk” when I was consolidating them was easy. That they belonged to me was more important than what they were: stuff I had archived; ideas and observations I had recorded.
Here, a sketchbook in which I had rubber-cemented magazine and catalog images of clothes I liked. It was a wish book, for how I could look if I had the money or if I were a different person with a different body.
Even more, there are notebooks filled with dated entries. One captures ideas:
11-9-90: Company that takes all store returns, then returns in bulks to the stores. (Name ideas from Jimmy: Take Me Back or Return to Sender.)
12-7-90: There are ice cream shops, and frozen yogurt shops. Why not pudding shops? “Puddin’ Heads”
7-15-91: Story idea: Old woman in nursing home. Young woman comes in once a week to give knitting lessons. Makes old woman think she will not die as long as this continues — it’s like a hope holding her to earth. One week young woman does not come in.
1-20-92: Maps for the car that do not have to be folded — roll into a tube, or a window shade
11-8-92: Baking sweets without sugar, for local sale or catering. Or, a “sweet of the month club” for diabetics.
^Eventually sell to Harry & David.
2-24-93: “The Medical Consumer” — a consumer mag. to cover medical industry — does Consumer Reports already do this?
4-6-93: Christmas present for Brian. Call Yosemite gift shop. “Go Climb a Rock” t-shirt.
I never became an entrepreneur even though this little book is FILLED with random business and product ideas. I look back on these notes, and they have no present-day use. I have no plans to become one, ever. Good thing — I don’t see a pudding cafe generating a lot of business.
The book with commentary is slightly more interesting, and reminds me of speakers I listened to (a lot of author talks), memories they prompted, and related story and essay ideas I generated.
From a July 25, 2003 author talk:
Kevin Hawkes — he’s great — recalled his childhood dream of flying over low, rolling hills.
I’m remembering my recurring dream of flying through our house, almost like swimming but no water, parallel to the floor always, me horizontal, about 3 feet above floor.
This is not the only box of Jane’s junk (that is, old notebooks, print-outs of poems and stories with revision notes, articles razored out of the newspaper). In my mind, I can travel to the basement closet, with another such box filled with writing; to a bookshelf with a green gift box filled with the papers I wrote in graduate school; to the cedar chest and a parcel, wrapped in brown paper, of my childhood and high school diaries. I’m not even counting my work notebooks or paper files at home or on campus. There are even folders of letters — real letters — written to me by others.
If I were famous, these would be my archives. Someone might want them.
But I’m just me. Just Jane with her junk.
The knowledge that I am in possession of all this paper shackles my psyche — that’s what it feels like, a tight band around my head or heart. I fantasize about going from room to room and filling a huge carton with ideas, poems, papers, stories, clippings, and correspondence and dragging it to the back yard and burning the whole pile of it. I picture it as a new start, mainly as a writer.
I’m probably as scared to do this as I am eager to. I mean, if I wrote this stuff at some point, I should do something with it, right? This is raw material, and I generated it.
Furthermore, what if I died, and people who loved me want to find out more about me, hold onto some scrap that I created when I was alive? Wouldn’t they want to pore over my notebooks and say to each other, “Wasn’t Mom cute?” Wouldn’t they feel sad at the wasted potential, the shortened life?
But what if I really burned it all and started from scratch, or started from where I am now? The most ominous fear may be that I would end up with nothing. At least now I have boxes and file drawers full of artifacts of having thought or notice or wanted or created something that is particular to me.
Do I want to be a continuation of the old things, or do I want to be the beginner — the maker — of a new thing?
This is not over yet.
6 thoughts on “Jane’s junk: keep or torch?”
OK – this is the archivist in me speaking. Just because you are not famous does not mean that an archives will not want your letters and diaries someday, especially if you have long runs of them. These sorts of writings from “regular people” are some of the most sought after items in archives for use by historians, sociologists and K12 teachers. This may be even more true in 50 years since people aren’t doing such a good job at archiving electronic documents and the web.
No one will want your school papers. Not sure about the random business ideas. I find them fascinating, but I’ve known you a long time and can hear you saying these things. But keep letters and diaries if you can.
I am keeping the letters. I do have ones from you, Susan!
But my diaries don’t really seem to capture daily life. Maybe they more capture “this is what an adolescent thought about in 1980.”
When I was at Simmons College, teaching there, I had my students do a research and writing project in the archives. Many of them were fascinated by student diaries and letters, from the 1920s and 1930s. The details were mundane but somehow touching and informative. For example, I remember one diary entry when I student wrote: “Mother came to visit today and helped me wash my hair.” It gave a sense of what a project hair care was before showers, shampoo, blow dryers, and more manageable length haircuts.
Haven’t burned anything yet…
I return to this personal wrestling match over and over. Very, very gradually I have been able to reduce my boxes of old manuscripts somewhat — but only somewhat. I have all the same thoughts about what if someone, e.g., a grandchild, got interested in finding out what my life was like, or what I wrote, maybe not because of me or because it was great art but to learn more about the times in which I wrote the stuff. I have boxes of old photos that have meaning only to a few people. I have a couple of boxes of things of my father’s that I saved because I know what they mean — but what am I going to do with them? Am I going to write a book about his life, my life, any of it? Am I going to leave this stuff for my kids to throw away? What a pain for them. But how do I decide that I’m not ever going to do anything with these mementos? There is some feeling of “okay, that doesn’t matter, that me doesn’t matter, documenting my past doesn’t matter” — and this is not entirely unwelcome. I do want to do a new thing. But that doesn’t make it easy to unburden myself of the old things.
There is, or at least was, somewhere in my house a box labelled “vaguely keepish stuff.” I do hope I’ve thrown it out.
But I do like that you labeled it “vaguely keepish stuff.”
Will our descendants still find our paper scraps and printed photos as fascinating as we find those things from our ancestors? I keep, for example, a scrap of paper on which my grandmother had written a list of things she needed, “hearing aid batteries” as one item. I am so touched by this. But maybe my kids will not find my “To Do” lists — they’re everywhere, esp. used as bookmarks once no longer needed — to be fascinating.
when I have gotten ridden of a thing that has a lot of sentimental value to me, but I don’t need it and someone else can use it, I photograph it to make a postcard of it. An example is some sequin sneakers that Grace wore a lot when about four years old. They were quintessentially her. Of course, she had outgrown them.
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