Friday, January 02, 2015

The Archives of My Past

It's the second day of the new year, and by rights I should be writing about my resolutions. But this year I didn't make any, This year, I decided to get a jump on the new year by doing at least one thing I resolve to do every year before the old year ended. I decided to clean my clutter between Christmas and New Year's Day and start getting organized. I have to confess that my willingness to take on the task was directly related to my inability to string more than a few sentences together with a deadline looming for a short story I'm writing for an anthology. I also needed to finish an academic review essay, and I was stuck on that, too.

Since I read about the relationship between physical clutter and psychological log-jams, I've taken to cleaning whenever I'm stuck. You'll notice I said cleaning rather than decluttering. Usually just cleaning is sufficient. I work out my frustrations and sure enough my brain starts working again. But this time, I knew I needed to go deep. And I thought why not do a preemptive strike. No need for a resolution if I've already gotten it done. This time I promised myself a major treat yet to be named if I cleaned out the closet in my office and sorted through the boxes of old papers stored there. This time, I made an appointment for a junk removal pick-up while I was still working to make sure I wouldn't stop. I spent three days doing something that I would usually hate -- reading each piece of paper and every file to make sure I was shredding what needed to be shredded and keeping what needed to be saved.

I still need to buy a vacuum that will pick up my new cat's fur and drop off some clothes at Goodwill and take books to various other places. But I made it through most of the decluttering.

Not quite this good yet. Still empty boxes and a bit of a mess. But nothing a good cleaning won't fix.

And I had a wonderful time doing this because I rediscovered bits and pieces of my past. Some of the papers I had in those boxes dated back to the 1990s. I found a cache of real, honest-to-goodness, put-in-envelopes-and-mailed letters from my best friend from grad school. Since we are still friends and I know how it all turned out, I could settle in and follow the ups and downs of her life -- marriage and motherhood and divorce and the new man who came into her life (and has been her husband for years now). I had forgotten some things like the gift I sent her when her son was born. I had even forgotten some of the things that she referred to that I was doing at the time. But the letters were fascinating because she was responding to what I was telling her about what was going in my life and what I was asking about hers. And sometimes she offered good advice, some of which I should have taken.

And then there was the baby book that I found. My own baby book -- pink for a girl -- in the box of family photos (all in frames) that my brother had packed up and sent to me when our mother died. I was supposed to make copies for myself and return them. But somehow the box had gone into my closet and never come back out except when I moved and put it into another closet. I knew the baby book was there, had seen it in the box, but never really looked inside. But this time I did -- and to my delight, there in the middle of the slender book was a family tree that someone had filled in. That family tree had the answers to my questions about my great-grandparents names and places of birth. Now I can do that genealogical research that I made a half-hearted effort to do a while ago. I had put it off until I could follow up with my cousins and aunt and get the names that were there in my baby book all the time.

There was also the course that I had completely forgotten. Four years ago when I bought a small house and moved in, I had the passing thought that it would be a good time to pursue my interest in interior design by taking a course. But I was busy and got no further than buying some decorating books and checking out the really expensive ones from the library. You can imagine my surprise when I opened a box and discovered that not only had I registered for an interior design course but received the materials. This happened years ago when I was a grad student. Since it was before the rise of online courses, I had signed up for a correspondence course. I had completed the first lesson and submitted it and received comments from the instructor. Apparently at that point, I got busy with criminal justice and never completed the course. But as I was flipping through the booklets on furniture, etc, I happen to look over at the lower shelf in the bookcase in my office that I could now see because I'd emptied and removed the storage bins that had been obscuring it. There on the shelf was a textbook about interior design. That book must have been sent along with the other materials that I had received and forgotten. Obviously, I had packed it into a box at some point -- at least three times over the years -- and never really stopped to think about where it had come from.

There were other odds and ends from my life -- other letters, books that I'd bought and forgotten. Even more interesting, the many journals that I'd started each year, usually with my short and long-term goals recorded. The surprising -- or perhaps disconcerting -- aspect of those journals is how consistent I've been over the years. Always wanted to write and be published, always wanted a house in the country with a housekeeper who would clean and cook my meals while I wrote, always had a vision of the people who would complete my life. The disconcerting aspect was the things that I still haven't done -- learning French, going to Australia, becoming a black belt.

When it comes to writing, the fun part of this search through my archives was the discovery of all the notes to myself I'd made about ideas for short stories and books. I pulled all those notes out and put them in a folder. Some of them I think I've already used in one way or another. Others will probably not pan out. But several look as if they might be worth exploring. And -- an experience I'm sure many of you have had -- I discovered the original names and bios of some of my characters. My crime historian "Lizzie" was at one point "Sarah". I certainly didn't remember that. In my version of her naming, she was always "Lizzie" because I named her after "Lizzie Borden". . .well, I did, eventually.

I also find my social security card that I hadn't seen in a while and my birth certificate and all of the cancelled passports I've accumulated over the years. And then there were the checkbook registers and those entries for courses that I took and things that I bought and payments to people I can't remember.

In the midst of this, I did get an idea for a short story. As you might imagine, it has to do with looking through ones clutter -- or maybe someone else's -- and discovering something unexpected.

Happy New Year, everyone. Forgive me for feeling virtuous because I've almost completed the resolution that tops my list every year. . .well, I do still have all those archived e-mails on my computers. But I'm going to get them, too. Declutter and done.  Yipee!

1 comment:

Eileen Goudge said...

Great post, Frankie. Yes, cleaning/decluttering can be very therapeutic. I always feel better after. My reward is a potted orchid to dress up my desk. What do you end up treating yourself to?