Sorting Out Life
Six wicker baskets fill the shelves of the bookcase downstairs. For the last ten years, I’ve stuffed into these baskets everything I don’t want to deal with: funeral cards, old photos, death certificates, and letters.
I’ve been avoiding it, but it’s time now to sort through all these old memories that make a life.
I’ll start with the photos. I’ll throw away the ones that are unforgivably unflattering, those in which the subjects are unrecognizable, and those of mountains and skylines. I’ll keep the pictures that are significant, that capture a moment in the life of someone special to me and special to our extended family.
Now I have to decide how to organize these special photographs. Over the years, people have given me photo albums as gifts. I’ve got three empty albums conveniently at hand and, if I dug a bit deeper, I could probably exhume a couple more. That’s a start.
I won’t keep all these pictures for myself. As the only and eldest daughter in my family of origin, a lot of mementos end up with me. It’s my job to be a distributor now, and to make sure that the people who want these memories can have them.
Who will these photos hold meaning for? That’s the question I’ll ask myself while categorizing the pictures. Will they mean something to my dad, to my brothers, to my uncle, or to my cousins? Then I’ll start filling albums based on who will receive each one.
Of course, I’ll keep some old photos for myself. I like to scan pictures and fix them up a little so that I have good digital copies if ever I want them. By the time I’m done all this organizing and distributing, these photos will be accessible to the people who care about them.
There are scads of letters and documents and cards in those wicker baskets. I found a couple cute cards from me and my siblings as children to our mother and to our grandpa. These I’ll definitely keep. Maybe I’ll find an album with large pages or pockets that I can keep precious cards in.
Handwritten letters are becoming rare as e-communication replaces paper and pen, and discovering a letter from the past is exciting. Sorting these old letters into an album with large pages would be best. I’d like to display the letters opened up, not folded, so that they could be read without removing them from the album. After all, that’s the point of preserving the letters. Their preservation allows others to read them. If the letters aren’t easy to access, they won’t enjoyed.
Piles and piles of old documents! Some are outdated and unimportant while others are crucial. And they’re all mixed up in a deep jumble of paper. It’s my job to make heads or tails of them all. I can handle it. This kind of job just takes time.
Many of the documents are in the dreaded wicker baskets, and others are in folders in the filing cabinet located downstairs. In my new office upstairs, I’ve got a couple filing cabinets into which I’ll organize the documents I need. University transcripts, teacher evaluations, letters of recommendation, and publishing contracts all need to be filed in labeled folders.
Most other documents are clutter. I’ll throw them away and this will feel good.
Markers of time
All these papers and photos mark the passing of time. Many of the letters were written by deceased relatives, and many of the people in the photos are dead. Still, they speak to me, saying, “Don’t hang on too tightly. We’re gone, and someday you will be, too.”
Several predecessors of mine were way less philosophical than me. They were doers and not much into navel-gazing. They speak to me, as well, but differently. They order me, “Get your life organized! How can you find anything in that mess you call a filing system?” They were the unsentimental ones who spent their days getting things done and taking care of business. And they make a good point.
Some of the correspondence I’ve uncovered is vague, but there’s a river of meaning running fast right beneath its surface. I know it’s here somewhere, but I can’t find it right now. It was a note to my grandma from my grandpa before they were married:
I should have talked to you before I got on the train, Emma, but I didn’t have the nerve.
What was that all about? What happened between them? What made Grandpa lose his nerve? I’ll never know for sure, but that’s the nice thing about being a writer. My powers of speculation are strong, and I can easily weave just a few faded words into a story.
As in all of life, it’s beneficial to keep some things close and to completely let go of others. Sorting through all these photographs, letters, and documents has helped me remember this fact. This task hasn’t made me cheerful, but maybe it’s made me a bit wiser. It’s certainly made me a lot tidier.
Dear reader, if you have any sorting and organizing suggestions, I’d love to hear them! Please comment on this post and let me know how you’ve organized your life.
Love the teacher pic–too funny. I think I used mine to line the cat box. Anyway, this line felt like the heart of the beast: “Most other documents are clutter. I’ll throw them away and this will feel good.”
It will feel good, better than good. Clean and freeing. Years ago, paring down all the accumulated junk in the attic, I came across a box marked “Receipts 1970.” It was 2002! The box belonged to my then-husband, so I laughingly asked him if there was any problem with just dumping the whole thing. He hedged, then promised he’d give it a look. Months later, when I reminded him, he got very upset. You never know when you might need something, he said. It was just one box (albeit a LARGE box), he said. I should just clean up my own stuff, he said. Well, I finally solved the problem by getting rid of him.
We actually need very little stuff in life. You were wise, I think, to get rid of the mountain and skyline photos. It’s the people who count, and as you remarked, especially the living ones.
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