Archives or Dumpster?

This winter’s unusual length and ferocity have forced me into a week-long reckoning with my entire literate life.  No, I’m not on a spiritual retreat; this reckoning is material–full of the stuff of life.  An ice dam on the roof in December sent water cascading down my study wall and bowed the ceiling.  The roofers and the indoor handyman are scheduled for next week, unless we get still more April snow.

And so I have been emptying out the room where I work, and where the physical evidence of my work is stored (except for the stuff in the basement that I’m trying to ignore).  Here is the first “story” I ever wrote, about Sally “hoping on the sidewalk” (which I’ve been doing ever since).  Here are the notes for the webinar on international adoption I’m set to do on Tuesday.  I’ve hauled the books out of the bookcases and hefted overstuffed folders out of the file cabinets.  And as I’ve watched my life pass before me–my years studying Scandinavian literature, my participation in the American and Swedish women’s movements; the years I spent teaching women’s studies and Scandinavian studies, depending on who had room for me in their budget; the interviews I’ve done and the conferences I’ve attended on chronic illness and on international adoption; the decade I spent figuring out that I was writing a memoir; my 18 years of teaching at the Loft–I’ve wondered, would anybody else ever be interested in this stuff?  Most  intriguing, I think, are the letters I’ve received from readers, many of whom have written me their own stories about chronic illness, international adoption, or growing up working-class.

When I’m not here choking on decades of dust and rubbing my achy muscles, I am often in the library reading room at the Minnesota History Center, reading the letters and diaries and account books of John F.D. Meighen, a lawyer in Albert Lea, who, as a brand new attorney in the 19-aughts, was hired to represent the outside real estate developers who drained “my” wetland, the intended subject of my next book.  The Meighen files are so orderly, so well labeled that you have to assume that he saw himself as a man for the ages.  I’m thankful that he prepared his stuff for the eventuality that someone might want to use it 100 years later.

Although I have lived a far more public life than any of the women in previous generations of my family, I have not thought myself a woman for the ages, and so I’ve saved things with all the clarity and order of a packrat.  So when the time comes to put it all back into place, what do I save?  What do I throw?  Even if it’s of no value to anyone else, it’s hard to let go of all this evidence of a life I’ve greatly enjoyed.

1 comment to Archives or Dumpster?

  • Neil Berg

    I almost hate to mention this to you, but my great-grandfather kept a scrapbook with diary entries. My cousin has it now. As a man for the ages he always referred to everyone, as Mr. or Mrs. – even himself second person as Mr.John P. Nelson. The exception being when my great grandmother died it says, “Ma died today” (underlined). He died when I was in Germany.

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