What We Hold Onto

Yesterday, my Mail program on my Macbook crashed, and kept crashing. While I pursue attempts to fix it, I am pondering how I have used email, and what those possibly lost emails hold for me. One thing they hold is memory and relationships. I have some old friends that I keep in touch with through email, maybe once a year or every few months. The emails between us hold the long conversation, the details of events in their lives that I might otherwise forget, the cherished connections we make to each other. My emails also hold networking on issues I care about, future possibilities for workshops or activism, relationship building in the here and now. My emails also hold a record of these writings I post on the blog, to save on my own laptop.

But in the meantime, the Mail program is also clogged with thousands of emails that I never bother to read, never bother to erase. Not all junk, per se, but reports from organizations, updates on political issues, daily inspirations that I once thought would be uplifting, but I’ve stopped caring about. And it was much easier to ignore them, rather than try to go through and unsubscribe or move to the trash. Since I can’t open the Mail, I don’t have exact numbers, but I am pretty sure that there are at least 20,000 unopened emails in there. I wish I could magically extract the important ones and abandon the rest.

Yesterday evening, after giving up for a while on the computer fixing, Margy and I watched the movie Nomadland, with Frances McDormand. She plays Fern, an older woman who has lost her husband and her home, and who sets out in a van equipped with mattress and cupboards and cooking options, to travel to seasonal jobs in the American west. Along the way she meets other similarly displaced people, and in the film these are actual “nomads” playing fictionalized versions of themselves. It was powerfully beautiful in its closeness to the natural world of deserts and mountains and rivers, achingly solitary yet full of community in surprising places, and deeply sad in its indictment of our society’s abandonment of aging people.

It also got me thinking about what we hold in our homes, and what I might carry with me, if I ever lost this home and had to set out with only a van full of what I needed, what I cherished. We see Fern looking through a tin box of old photos, listening to music on her little radio, carefully repairing a broken plate, eventually giving up the stuff in the storage unit back in her old town. What would I hold onto, what would I leave behind?

I like to watch Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Finding Your Roots. There are times when the paper trail runs out for people on the show, there are no more records to be found to show the names of their ancestors, or the places they were born and died. Sometimes the paper trail ends because of slavery or genocide or oppression. Sometimes it ends because most people didn’t document their lives in ages past, like we do today. But I wonder if future generations looking for their ancestors of today would have different problems. They might have the problem of technologies changed or lost, such that they could no longer access the online records we so carefully accumulate. But they might also have the problem of getting lost in the avalanche of “paper” we now compile, the over-accumulation of words. Will they no longer be able to follow the trail of what is most important amid the towering clutter of what is not?

And so I come back to my own life, remembering the times I set out with a backpack, or a little car, starting a new life with only what I could carry. I got pretty good at winnowing things down, valuing the simplicity of it, feeling the freedom of it. But in the last twenty years, I’ve been able to settle down and really root myself in home. So things accumulate, some things cherished and beautiful, others practical, necessary, and then the stuff that serves no purpose any longer, but won’t magically disappear unless I do that work of taking it away, giving it away, sorting and erasing. What do I want to hold on to, what do I want to let go?

And yet, eventually, we all leave this life with nothing we can hold onto, all that is left is what we have given away.

Tree stump design-traces of all the years of life

Composting the Ministry

shredded paper for compost

It is January, and I am finally feeling the urge to clean up files and books in my basement office.  It took a while.  Many of these I had brought home after cleaning up my office at the church when I retired last summer, but even most of what was already here is from my work as a minister. Cleaning up the files is one way to make space as I discern who I am in this next chapter of my life.

I got a big boost in motivation when I learned that shredded white paper can be composted.  That’s right! I don’t even have to send it to recycling, I can add it to our composting right here. Composting works with a mixture of nitrogen sources (“green” for short) and carbon sources (“brown” for short.) Paper counts as a carbon source (brown), like the dead leaves or coffee chaff that we are already using.  Each time we bring out kitchen waste (green) to the outdoor compost bin, we also cover it with a pile of carbon sources (brown.)  (Usually, you want more volume of brown sources to green source, maybe about 3 to 1, but the exact ratio isn’t something to worry about.)

I don’t like the idea of throwing things “away,” which just clogs up landfills–since there really is no “away.”  So it makes a big difference that I can compost paper.  Somehow it seems so fitting to compost the remnants of my life as a minister into substances that can rejuvenate the earth. Not that I’ve stopped being a minister–but I will be a different sort of minister from the minister who led a congregation.

As it happens, on the same day I decided to start in on the basement, Netflix released a season of Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up show.  I like her guidance to hold each item, and if it “sparks joy” keep it, and if not, thank it and move it along.  What a beautiful idea, to thank the things that have served us in the past!  I think she also mentions asking, “Do you want to bring this into the future with you?”  (Please don’t quote me on the details–I haven’t read her book.)  Watching the shows provide another boost of motivation.  For me, the process of tidying up my files and books in the basement is about imagining what I will need for the future, what I want to “archive” from the past, and what I no longer need to keep.

(And if by any chance you are worried that I would compost the books–no, no, no–most likely, I will donate books I no longer need to the library, or to friends and colleagues that might want them.)

By tidying up and reorganizing my papers and books, I hope that a spaciousness will be created in which the future has room to be born.  May it be so.