At my recent 50th high school reunion, a classmate posted a link to my blog. That rocked me, you can bet. Because I haven’t posted in a while, and I had been mulling and re-evaluating the purpose of the blog. When I transferred my blog to WordPress, I reinvented it as writing advice, but after a while I realized there was already far too much writing advice out there, and I mostly would rather read it than write it.*
At the same time, I’ve been more and more engaged in my “Memory Project,” which involves getting myself turned around and getting back out of a cul-de-sac. Or maybe following the string out of the maze. In a good way.†
You see, like many of us, I have too much stuff. Some of it is physical stuff.1 I have accumulated folders full of things like family trees, letters, and certificates. I have boxes and albums full of old photos. I’ve been writing essays and handwriting a diary–what I call “news of me”–for a very long time, most of my life. Some of my stuff is digital. I acquired a website when they first started selling domain names to ordinary people, and I started blogging in 2002 on LiveJournal. I also had other blogs.‡
I figured I would review my stuff and appreciate it in some mythical, possible “later on” that existed somewhere in my head. “Later on” would be when I would be this old person with free time to look back.
I thought I would be old when I reached my present age. It turns out it doesn’t feel old. But apparently, it’s a lot later than I expected.§
So instead of accumulating evidences of my life, I gradually started sorting, culling, and organizing them. That, it turns out, is a job.‖
The inciting incident was finally getting around to sorting through my mother’s papers a while back. It was hard, upsetting, and rewarding. Going through a life’s accumulation by a person with an archival bent is overwhelming. Much of what she wrote and photographed was rich, but much more of what she had saved was completely unnecessary. And my siblings, who desperately wanted her photos and writing when she first died, now don’t really seem to be interested.**
I stopped after I got everything boiled down to a few boxes of Mom’s materials, which sit in my cellar waiting for me to cull them one more time and scan the important photos.
And then I turned to face my own damned archives. ††
For some time now, I’ve been reviewing old handwritten journals and typing in the entries I wanted to keep. I also finally started using the scanner I bought for Mom’s photos, and I have put many of my old photos into Google Photos, which it turns out is finally the image archive I wanted.‡‡
Yesterday, I scanned a pile of loose photos I found in a folder titled “Memories.” Today I scanned my 1978 artwork portfolio album photos and uploaded them to Google Photos. Tomorrow, I’ll do something else. I’ll chip away until I’ve organized it all. It’s going to take a while.
Meanwhile, I’m still living my life and accumulating. Hopefully, I’m getting better. I continue to write in my handwritten journal almost every day. I still take photos. Recently, my daughter got married and the professional photos are spectacular and very moving. I browsed through the gallery and downloaded copies of the ones I really really wanted, and ordered a handful of prints and one framed photo. And I visited my sister in Myrtle Beach recently; the pictures from there are lovely, and I have a new photo of my dad. But the Memory Project has taught me that eventually, all I need is one or two photos from each event, and they are mostly only important to me. Only to me. §§
But still important.
* Just finished re-reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird which is still funny, unexpected, and useful.
† Yes, it’s the stereotypical senior citizen activity. Scrapbooking. Memoir. Organizing the albums. Yeah, there was a time when I used to condescend to older people. How sweet of Granny to want to record her life! Oh, isn’t that great, this old person knows rap lyrics and can get down with a walker! Turns out that old person is just me with wrinkles, like they told me. I sort of thought wrinkles would be decorative, but it turns out they come with blotches and loose bits along the jawline, and all those things you hated about your face get more so.
‡ My LJ was mostly private, restricted to a few people, and in it I tried out ideas and vented. I wrote entries about what it’s like to be the primary daughter for a vibrant, angry, intense, capable parent who was fighting Parkinson’s Disease and who eventually decided to stop eating and drinking. There is some beautiful writing in there. I thought for a while I might write a memoir based on the experience, but on reflection I don’t think it’s a good idea.
§ I was going to write that I was nearing the end of the snake’s tail and had to deal with the bulge in the middle, but then I decided that’s an unfortunate metaphor.
‖ And I mean a job. It takes hours out of my day to scan photos and organize them. Hours to try to type up old journal entries, even if I leave out the bits that aren’t worth keeping. Hours to figure out that my scanner’s OCR software sucks. Hours to figure out that Adobe Acrobat DC does a much better job, only to have my university cancel my free Adobe subscription because I’m an adjunct and I’m off for the summer so I’m not officially an employee.
** My brother wanted to take all my mom’s photos after the memorial service, and I was distressed and said, “Not yet” because it felt like even more loss, and grieving seems to involve an exaggerated obsession with possessions and money. Turns out “not yet” means I get to keep them FOREVER.
†† I’ve tried Amazon Photos, Shutterfly, Snapfish, and the precurser of Google Photos, Picasa.
‡‡ I belong to a “bullet journal” group on Facebook, and increasingly I have felt like an one of those placard-wearing end-of-days street preachers because they so desperately want to document their lives and I want to blurt, “Stop while you still can!” but I don’t, because I wouldn’t have if someone warned me. I keep a tiny bullet journal (about 2.5″x4″) in which I make daily lists, maintain habit trackers, make drawings, and document projects. I throw the books out after I have filled them, though I do, I admit, scan the doodles into Evernote. I will not discuss what a remarkable pile of minutiae I have saved in Evernote, though I did consolidate all my Zotero and Outlook Notes entries into it and it is very organized, with lots of detailed folders. Cleaning up Evernote is for LATER ON.
§§ I have been handing my own photo albums one at a time to my daughter so she can go through the pictures and tag the ones she wants so I can put them in a shared Google Photos folder. She enjoyed it the first couple of times but when she’s tired it’s more than she can handle. She doesn’t even want to look at her own wedding photos, let alone her baby pictures.
1 I am not even going to talk about my basement, which has been a focus of attention for years. My husband commented yesterday that I’ve really cleared it out. 2He’s one of those people who works on projects and then leaves everything out afterwards, who saves building materials and old paint just in case, and who is comfortable with muddled nests of wires and long-unused electrical accessories. I’m not there yet with the basement. When we moved, we got 1-800-GOT-JUNK to clear out our old basement, but some things inevitably came along with us. I have found that a dogged long-term approach is necessary. I donate clothes, or throw them out. Sometimes people take things out of my trash, which is nice of them. Last week, I put out a very nice IKEA metal parts cabinet that was never usable, for instance, and it was gone later on. However, I picked up a really beautiful Wardian case from someone else’s trash, so it was a trade. I really AM going to make a terrarium, I swear.
2 NO. It’s not there yet. But I can THINK when I’m down there. I still have my mother’s stuff, but it’s in a small neat pile, and my daughter’s stuff, ditto. I organized all the tools and small hardware in clear plastic bins recently. There are some places that need further investigation. I am trying not to think about them TOO MUCH.