The past few weeks have been a frenzy of house cleaning. I suddenly felt threatened by the piles of papers, magazines, toys, art projects, and clothing that have collected everywhere in the house, just growing and growing, encroaching on our living space, and overtaking our lives.
I don’t understand how a few years ago all my possessions could fit into one suitcase, and now a whole house isn’t even enough to contain them all. I’m not talking about the practical stuff like coffee makers and sofas – I have no trouble with those. What really weigh me down are the things that are precious and meaningful: family pictures, baby clothes, art works, and other objects that carry memories. I worry I’ll suffocate myself in attachment.
So last night, I decided to shift through all the art work and papers that Dina and Miki have brought home over the course of last school year. Every day, they brought back “homework” folders filled with scraps of papers, math assignments, handwriting practice, teacher’s notes, half-finished art projects, origami turtles, and notes they had exchanged with friends. In my daily busy-ness I never found time to decide what to do with all that precious paper – frame, store, or throw? – so, throughout the school year, I simply kept stuffing it all onto a shelf in my office, to be looked at later. On the last day of school, just as I thought I had it under control, Dina and Miki came home with bags so full of treasures that my shelf overflowed and spilled into two paper mountains on my office floor, which kept growing over the summer as Dina and Miki brought back more and more treasures from camps and travels. For the past four months, I’ve been feeling anxious every time I entered my office because I know Dina and Miki will just keep bringing in more treasures than I can ever frame or store. Those paper mountains will just keep growing.
So last night, I finally spread out a year worth of Dina and Miki’s schoolwork in piles in the living room to decide on its fate. I already had two 60-liter plastic storage boxes that were three-quarter full with Dina and Miki’s school work from the previous two years, and somewhere in the basement I have two more 60-liter containers that contain every scribble my children have ever committed to paper.
As I shifted through the piles, I first felt excitement about my children’s lovely creativity. I called Gil over to show him Dina’s poems and the funny entries in Miki’s class journal (“our pet is a fat cat”). But I already felt troubled as I placed these in the plastic boxes, knowing that as soon as I close lid, I won’t look again at the content in years to come, while these stories and poems deserve to be read and admired over and over. It occurred to me that I should make color photocopies and bind them all into portfolios to mail to the grandparents, who would properly treasure their grandchildren’s work – but I knew that I wouldn’t find time for this and that the papers would just be lying in my office for another six months, making me feel bad. So I compromised by placing the school journals on the bookshelves in our living room, which theoretically made them available for periodic appreciation, but which confronted me with another reason for distress: my piles of hopelessly unread books. I pushed the journals behind my unread volumes of In Search of Lost Time and continued with the remainder of the pile.
I uncovered half finished art works with promising beginnings that will never be developed into finished products, single-digit subtraction and addition problems decorated with glittering star stickers for excellent performance, lists of misspelled words for spelling practice, pieces of colored cardboard adorned with glued-on plastic buttons, and packets of extra assignments sent home by well-meaning teachers who imagine children to be eager for extra math and handwriting practice over the summer holiday. As I was about to throw it all in the trash, I wondered for which children these extra assignments were intended and I wondered if all parents throw these assignment straight into the trash or if there are other parents who make sure that their children spend the summer holidays completing math assignments, practicing cursive writing, and completing their unfinished charcoal drawings of sunflowers.
I even felt bad throwing away blank scraps of paper because I remembered reading accounts by former political prisoners who described how they had to compose letters and memoirs on toilet paper and tree bark because they were deprived of paper. As I deposited paper into the recycling bin, I could hear the disappointed groans of prisoners with minds full of words and nothing to write on.
I finally managed to reduce the treasures to an amount of paper that could fit, with some effort, into the boxes. But every time I pass the recycling bin, my throat constricts with anxiety that there may be treasures in there that some day I will regret not having saved. And when I look at the plastic bins filled with Dina and Miki’s work, I feel just as anxious: for how long am I going to keep all that paper? Will I now have to carry it with me until the end of my life?
And then I start thinking about everything in the world that’s being saved: all the scraps of correspondence between famous people, the sketches and scribbles by long-dead artists, old postcards whose senders and recipients have already decomposed, museum store rooms filled with art work that will never be displayed, computer servers caching every web communication ever created, the library of congress’s archives that try to preserve every sound bite and film frame every recorded…
I was reminded of an article I read some time ago, about a modern art conservator who specializes in restoring art works created with decaying materials such as elephant dung and donuts. It struck me as the saddest and most hopeless job: to be in charge of preserving works of art that were created with the intention of impermanence.