In my sorting and packing and decluttering quest, I was all set to start tossing old file folders from the basement into the recycling bin, but it is proving harder than I first expected. I haven’t looked at these papers for at least ten years (since we moved into this house). Because of my allergies, I would have to wear a mask and gloves to go through them. So the simplest thing would be to just toss them out. But when I start to take a peak, they are like windows into the history of my life as an activist. Here is a whole file cabinet about ally work that I was involved in, related to the struggles of the Innu of Nitassinan in Quebec, most of it from when I lived in Boston.
Then there is the box I haven’t opened in over 16 years, with this evocative label: “Boston/and Peace Camp Time: Political Groups /Resources/Issues/Conferences.” I am guessing I threw stuff in there as I was packing to leave Boston, but I don’t even know what it might include.
I also have a box from over 30 years ago, simply labeled “Politics, Etc.” from the time I lived in Grand Rapids and Chicago in 1980 to 1984. I’ve moved it so many times. My intention to simplify is crashing into my interest in the older stories of my life. When I look at these artifacts, I remember activities and connections and struggles that I had almost forgotten.
I think about moderately famous authors and activists whose collections of papers end up in libraries and archives. But I am not famous, and who knows whether any of this would have any value for anyone besides me. Do I really want to carry around boxes and boxes of old paper? I want to live in a small house, and keep doing activist work in the present rather than to document the activist movements of the past. But I just recently read about how one of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler, saved everything. Her papers are now available for research use in a library in California, I think.
When we give ourselves to the work of social change, we are “one in the number” (as Ella Baker said) of thousands of ordinary people lending our strength to a new vision. Are our ordinary activist stories an important part of a history that someone may want to write in a future we cannot yet imagine? Or will that future itself be the only record of our work that is needed?
I do have some boxes of paper that I have already labeled “Archives.” I would probably sort things differently if I had time to do it today, but when we moved to Maine, I made some filing and sorting choices about what to save and what to toss. It is just that that sorting never gets finished, and some things came along without that kind of careful attention. The boxes I always feel absolute clarity about saving are the boxes of my journals and writings and poetry. During our last move, I even purchased archival quality boxes in which to store my old journals.
When I go deep inside, I know it is okay to let go of some of this paper; but perhaps it is also okay to wait, to bring along some of these old boxes, stash them in another basement or attic, and revisit them in a quieter time. I don’t know. What do you think?
We are planning to move in two and a half weeks.