We live in what is rapidly becoming a paperless world. Or so it is said. But a lot of us won’t give up our newspapers and print magazines. And even though we write letters online, and keep lists on line and calendar events online, paper still seems to proliferate. Maybe not only despite but because we can do so much without paper, we do more record keeping than ever before: commemorating, listing, reminding ourselves. We certainly immortalize far more in photos of everyday life with selfies and sunsets and ski slopes. All of it seems to be taking up no space, but I would bet that our lives on the record exceed what we generated in notes and letters by hand, and photos that had to be developed and framed. Nowadays we open a file for just about everything because it’s so easy, including a file with all the passwords and user names of all the other files. And then, because we realize that the time will come when we will forget the passwords and usernames and be locked out of our own files; and because we have come to understand the complexity and unreliability of The Great Machine (which includes computer, tablet, laptop, smartphone), what do we do? We back up with a hard copy. Paper.
So now we’re changing jobs. We’re moving. We’re downsizing. Or we’re just sitting quietly, in the seventh decade of our lives wondering what in the name of Gutenberg we are going to do with the papers in the file cabinets, or the photos in our photo albums, and if we are contemplating it in our eighth or ninth decade, what our offspring and heirs are going to do with all of it. So as soon as we can, we begin to…try to begin to get rid of the papers. Shredding at home, on a rainy afternoon. Slowly but steadily, we divest old bills, old car lease agreements. Tax returns we saved way beyond the seven year requirement, asking ourselves why. Why? Because we are collectors, and it seemed right to have a whole SET of income tax returns starting in 1982. If we’re writers, we’ve got drafts and manuscripts. Musicians have lead sheets. Painters have sketches. We find a place that shreds by the pound.
Photos are not so easy. They say we pay in old age for the excesses of our youth, and if you count profligacy in picture taking, boy, am I paying. Summer at some beach. Winter in the snow. Australia, Orlando, San Francisco. The four of us smiling, the four of us serious. Doubles of everything, because I used to check that little box on the Kodak envelope. I don’t even know who is in half of them anymore. There have been so many stops down the long corridor of time, it isn’t possible to remember all those people. How many jobs back was that? Which office party? Which office, for that matter? Have you ever tried to throw a photo away? You feel guilty. The photos can’t be sent to the old folks pictured in them, since they are all dead, and the young people don’t want them, since they’ve gone digital.
But say you do. Say you shred all that needs to be shredded, and somehow overcome your aversion to getting rid of old photos, too.
You are still left with the digital files – and suddenly you will see, as I have suddenly, that it isn’t quite the paper or photos you are getting rid of, it is the illusion that things get frozen in time and will matter forever. Some things don’t. Some things simply come to an end.