Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I stayed in (or The Methodical Sound of Ripping)

In the end I stayed in Boston this last weekend, really stayed in, leaving the house only once in the entire weekend.  It was cold; there was snow on the ground; I had just bought four very nice wedges of cheese from my cheese monger and taken the precaution of buying a few bottles of red and a baguette as well. I was well stocked to wait it out.

While I was waiting, I decided to embark on the long overdue project of clearing through some accumulated papers. If I had known what I was starting I might opted for a television-induced coma instead. You see, the last time I had deep-cleaned my papers was somewhere between 10 and 20 years ago. Now I don't want to convey the wrong impression. I'm not one of those people who collects coasters, packets of sugar, TV guide, or just any old thing. Nor was it that I was living in chaos. Instead, I have perfected the art of ordered chaos. I take a chaotic situation, break it into semi-coherent pieces, put it into a box, and then forget about it for a decade. Everything looks tidy, and with some twisted logic might be.

For example, one box contained papers that used to be on the upper left corner of my desk c. 1995. Given the strange way memory works, as soon as I opened the box, I knew exactly what to expect.  And despite expecting it, I was still surprised by how small things triggered such powerful memories: old address books; postcards from friends; the study calendars I used to make for myself in the month leading up to an exam; a fax I had received from a friend. Some of the memories were just small moments remembered vividly, and others were large, dramatic moments in life that had become like genies in the bottles of these little scraps.

When I said that I don't collect just any old thing, it's true. But it's also true that I do (or did) collect a few things that I thought would be worth hanging on to:
  • Long ago I used to keep all my correspondence. It became impossible to move around with so many papers, no matter how well filed, so I stopped doing this many years ago and hung on to just a fraction of this old correspondence. The hard part is deciding what to keep and what to discard, a sometimes random, sometimes thoughtful process.
  • Then after I began traveling, I would collect postcards from every art museum I would go to. Just a few each time, but it was like my own visual reference library, except that I never filed them in any way. They were just stuck in bags. So I finally took them out of their bags, and put them in a stack, like a deck of cards, appending the receipts when I had them. It was like a visual flashback -- paintings I had seen, places I had been, with whom, when, in what weather, all coming back in a jumbled but exhilarating mass.
  • For even longer I have been hanging onto concert programs, as a kind of personal musical archive. But again, there were so many by now (10-15 concerts a year x my age - 5 years = an impossible number). so I made the painful decision  to keep only the program page from each. Suddenly 15 boxes was boiled into one. And though I didn't remember all of the concerts and operas, some came back so vividly all these years later. The process of ripping off the program page reminded me of something my father used to do every Sunday -- rip through the week's correspondence, keeping only what he needed.
  • And finally I had the scraps. The problem with any system is what you do with something that doesn't fit anywhere. A receipt from a café in Paris in 1997 reminded me right away of the cashier who was flirting with me (or was it the other way? or was it only in my mind?) Actually I have the spot in the Marais imprinted on my mental map, and whenever I'm in Paris and happen to be walking by I always remember that small episode. Surely that's a receipt worth keeping. And so I did, in a scrapbook, another habit I picked up from my father.
In curating all these documents of my life I realized that I stopped keeping and collecting  a number of years ago, of necessity. But it's a pity. Though it took me literally 18 hours to sort through these things, it was a sample of my life -- beautiful, bizarre, happy, melancholy, sad, joyous. While I have e-mails and digital images from recent years, will those bring back feelings in the same way a decade from now? I'm not sure. Let's talk then.




If Jane said...

oh it seems we have similiar er curating habits...;)) (i have started as well...first of many...)

Camille said...

I had the same habit that I had to break recently as I live in an apartment with very little storage space, although I inconspicuously put concert tickets, business cards or odd receipts between the pages of the books I was reading at the proper given time. I think it is important to keep some kind of a paper, physical archive as much as we can, even when it's possible to find online images of places we've visited. Memories are not the same without those little detailed reminders we stuff in boxes or glue in scrapbooks.

mary R said...

Whenever i go home, I always read through my old journals and letters from friend. They are like time capsules! one letter talks about Gorbachov and the politburo even! I don't hold on to much paper these days, but I love to reminisce about my past too...

Bombay Beauty said...

Jane, Camille & Mary: I'm glad you've not (yet) concluded I'm crazy! xo bb

shopgirl said...

Hey Sweetie, I really enjoyed reading this post. I know exactly what you mean and how you feel. For years, I kept all old correspondence, bought postcards everywhere I went and kept concert tickets. I finally let most of that go when I was back in Vancouver in August. I spent two weeks going through all of my "stuff". It was so hard to let go. The only thing I kept really....were the postcards. So sad. :-(( I didn't find it cathartic at all.

Have a wonderful weekend whether you're in Boston or New York!

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