Winter Winnowing

At work in the basement with shredded paper, photo by Margy Dowzer

Every couple days I go down into the basement, to sort through my old boxes. I cover up with an over-shirt and apron, cotton gloves and mask, to protect me somewhat against allergies to dust and old paper. I pull out a box and open it up to reveal treasures and trash, scribbled notes and carefully typed poetry, cherished memories and forgotten moments. I have no idea when I might finish, but it helps to think of this as my Winter Project.

Sometimes I think of it as death cleaning, as in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, a method of organizing and decluttering your home before you die to lessen the burden of your loved ones after you’ve passed. But I am not following any methods put forth in this book. What connects is that I am weighing everything against the question “What value might these things have, after I am gone?”

When I became a feminist in 1979, I became aware of how women were hidden from history, how most written history prioritized the deeds of white men in power. Wonderfully, feminist historians, and those of other marginalized communities, have been bringing to light these hidden histories/herstories for several decades. Along the way, I internalized the belief that our own lives are part of history, too. My life is part of history.

As a childless lesbian woman, I won’t have descendants that would value my writings. But that makes it feel even more important to preserve my stories, especially those of lesbian activism, lesbian community, lesbian spirit. And so I have been thinking about what might be valuable for an archive, and in fact, I have already communicated with an LGBTQ archive that expressed interest in my papers. So this becomes an important measure for what to save, and what to shred.

But beyond what value these papers might have after I die, it has also been so valuable for me as a method to reflect on my life as a whole, revealed in what was saved, deliberately or accidentally, during various parts of my life. So far I have been going through boxes from the time I lived in Boston, from 1986 to 1999. I guess I started in the center of my life. There is a lot of shredding-I reduced the first three boxes to just one. I think after I finish with Boston, I will likely go back to the earlier boxes, and only then return to the more recent ones. Perhaps then it will be easier to put it all in perspective.

I don’t know why it has taken so long to begin this project. I don’t know why now seems like the time to do it. But in the middle of winter, in the midst of a pandemic, in this liminal time after retiring, my spirit feels called to this remembering, this winnowing, and so I keep going down into the basement to see what I will find.