A couple of weeks ago, I cleaned out my office. I don’t mean I neatened up, I mean I threw out half the papers and tchotchkes piled on every surface like so many snowdrifts. My innate aesthetic preferences are for order and harmony: I work better, feel better, breathe better under those conditions. But especially when things are stressful, my environment gets away from me.
It all started when I decided to transfer some of the papers to a filing cabinet which stood forlorn, serving only as a pedestal for more papers and castoff electronics (zip disks, anyone?). My husband has a gift for systems, so I asked him to help me reorganize my files, imposing categories that made more sense than the ones I somehow couldn’t use. He got inspired, and with the speed of a whirlwind, moved the heavy furniture into a much more graceful and spacious configuration. After I freaked out briefly from feeling out of control of my space, I confronted the paper demons.
You see, my husband is an archivist (not professionally, though he might like to be; more a driven amateur). So for the three decades we’ve shared, he’s hoarded every scrap of paper that might be useful to, say, an archeologist from Mars trying to assemble a comprehensive record of our working lives. This has become a significant issue: our garage holds 14 four-drawer filing cabinets, all full, plus perhaps 50 running feet of shelves stocked with three-ring binders, each one holding a complete record of a project—all the phone notes, correspondence, background materials, drafts, receipts, you-name-it. The last time we moved, half the weight (and consequently half the cost) was paper.
The thing is, it appears that posterity is not going to want the phone notes and receipts from every consulting project we undertook in more than 25 years of practice. Indeed, posterity isn’t going to want those 14 cabinets worth of files, either. I’m not just saying this: we’ve tried to interest the few archives that might want to focus on community cultural development, but every one of the exchanges petered out when the person who was interested moved on to another university or the whole question of just how notable we are (and therefore just how much scholarly interest there might in our papers) seemed too fatiguing to pursue.
I have my mind made up to chuck the lot (or to be fair, 90 percent of it; the rest seems like memorabilia worth preserving for at least my lifetime). So cleaning out my office was a sort of test run. I piled up the binders I’d obsessively created to mark every speaking engagement and project I’d undertaken since occupying this office, systematically culling out everything I wouldn’t need. Another way of saying this is that I eliminated all the papers the imaginary archivist tracking my work might save just for the compulsive completeness of it (What a thrill! Here’s Arlene’s boarding pass!). In the end, I had a slim file folder in the place of each binder: just a record of the event and a copy of my speech, perhaps, that sort of thing. They all went neatly into the reordered filing cabinet, and now my office is a panorama of clean surfaces, a joy to behold.
Each discard relieving me of a comparable weight of hubris, so that was nice too. And I haven’t felt a twinge of ambivalence. I’m going to start on the garage next week. There’s a little bit of sadness, of course: all that congealed effort to be thorough, all that schlepping for naught. But then I think how light I’ll feel when it’s done, and a smile begins to take shape.
In the spirit of cleaning, here’s a cool thing a reader sent. It has been clogging my brain waiting for the right moment to share it with you. If you want to save a tree and slim down your mailbox, Catalog Choice is a new free service that allows you to discontinue specific catalogs (like the one I got last week about mushroom artifacts). It’s brand-new and they’ve already eliminated nearly four million catalogs. Have fun and feel better!
I’ve been enjoying your blog and hope all is well!
A few years ago my elderly father was trying to help his partner Sylvia move her stuff to his home, so that they could live together. Both were in their eighties, both had lived through childhood poverty, and neither could throw anything away. Since Sylvia was very willful and independent, she refused to hire movers, and family members (myself included) were enlisted to do the hauling. Everything was moved, except for a large heavy metal filing cabinet filled with old papers. My brother was going to pick it up the next day, so we emptied out the cabinet of its papers, putting them into the only thing handy: large trash bags. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?)
The next day, the apartment manager came by and dumped the trash bags. The only thing Sylvia was left with was an empty metal cabinet. She lost her family papers, passports, death certificates, all because she had been unable to let go, unable to sort through insignificant from important papers, and because she didn’t trust movers. She had everything else, though, including ten huge bottles of fabric softener and starch.
Kol hakavod, keep up the good work!