In the Basement

First, let me say clearly and unequivocally that I’m not a hoarder. My house doesn’t look anything like the houses of those people on the reality TV show. It would not require a family intervention/professional counseling to help me clear a pathway from the front door to the back door. On the other hand, I’m not a neat freak. I simply keep things clean-ish and organized-ish in a non-OCD way.

That said, I have a problem getting rid of papers. This pretty much applies to ANYTHING made of paper that has writing on it. 99.9 % has some writing. But sometimes there’s no writing. I save plain paper that’s handmade. I save gift wrap, maybe the last tiny square of that gift wrap I got at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seeing it reminds me of a wonderful trip to NYC that I took with my sister, my mom, and my aunt. Bottom line: it’s both paper and memory.

More examples? Well….

Example #1: A two-inch pile of notes and old exams from the Geology 101 class I took in the early 1990’s (having finally decided, as I approached middle age, to finish my B.A.) I found Geology fascinating, loved every lecture,  took copious notes, worked my head off and got a perfect score on every exam for that class. It was such a thrill to be back in college that the papers I produced for my classes became endowed objects, full of magic. So yes, I have a 2-and-1/2-inch stack of notes from Geology 101… and more inches from the History of Photography class I took (alongside my college-age son), and the Physics of Music class I sat in on unofficially, and all my English Lit and Creative Writing classes, and hand-scribbled notes on the backs of programs from lectures delivered by special University guests like architect Rem Koolhas and poet Seamus Heaney. All those papers are in a box in the basement. I don’t read them, not even from time to time, but I know they’re there, glowing in the dark, saying “Knowledge! Scholarly effort! Success!”

Example #2: I have many many boxes full of articles torn out of magazines and newspapers. Strange news items are my specialty. If someone sees the face of Jesus in a grease spot in an auto repair shop in Hoboken, N.J., that is tear-out-and-save-worthy. Ditto an article about a baby born singing Christmas carols. Ditto one about the legend of an Italian fresco-painter who fell off scaffolding while painting the Virgin – locals swore the Virgin he was working on swept down and caught him in her arms, breaking his fall. No bones broken! A miracle. Yes, something like that I tear out and save. Ditto an article about how the Koch Brothers are buying the American elections out from under the American people. I tear out lots of political stuff when I’m mad. So – political stuff, weird stuff, news of scientific import (What? Birds have wrists??? Who knew?!), reviews of upcoming books I want to read (that way, when they come in at the library three months later, I can remember why I wanted to read them), lists of the best places to a) get a good view of San Francisco b) find a Reuben sandwich in NYC or cheesecake in Chicago c) say “butterfly” in 147 languages….Well, you get the drift. When I tear these things out, I mean to file them in The Right Folder in a file cabinet in my office, but more often than not they pile up on one side of my desk or on the dining room table, and I end up throwing them into a grocery bag and storing it all in a closet when friends come over (mustn’t give people the impression I’m a hoarder!) By the time friends have left, I’ve forgotten all about that bag full of papers, and only weeks later do I find it and decide I’ll sort the papers out “later.” Somehow they end up –  guess where – in the basement.

Example #3: Newspapers with Big Important Headlines: JFK Shot in Dallas!  Eleanor Roosevelt Dies! Men Land on the Moon! Nixon Resigns! Clinton Elected! Clinton Disgraced! Shuttle Explodes! O.J. Not Guilty! Twin Towers Fall! War in Afghanistan! War in Iraq! Obama Wins! I’ve even saved campus newspapers from Berkeley in the late 60’s: Students Occupy Sproul Hall! Gov. Reagan Calls Out National Guard! Tear Gas on Campus! Curfew Imposed! Police Take People’s Park! Draft Enters Lottery Phase – Exemptions Cancelled!)What can I do? I’ve always loved history and I’m fascinated by The Art of the Headline. Important newspapers, though, do not get tossed around – those go straight into old vintage suitcases I buy at thrift shops around town. And then they go down to the basement.

Sometimes I go look at all the boxes and suitcases full of papers down there. It’s  a little exciting, the mess – stacked willy-nilly, kind of a metaphor for my brain. I tell myself creative people do this. Save papers.

Other times I look at the boxes and think “This is scary.” Not out-of-control-hoarder scary. But probably enough-to-make-your-grown-children-worry-about-your-mental-health scary. Or enough to make them angry at you if you should die suddenly and leave it all to them to clear out.

The logical side of my brain tells me to just go down and toss the unsorted papers out. Be brutal, Julie, don’t even look through it all. You haven’t needed anything in that box for a long time. Into the 50-gallon recycle bin, all of it, for pick-up next Tuesday! And the Tuesday after that, full bin again. And a few more Tuesdays. Better yet, a trip to the dump.

The illogical side tells me that the story about the fresco painter and the angel would make a great poem – better not throw that little fascinating tidbit away. Multiply that by  100,000 other fascinating tidbits, all on pieces of paper. Mustn’t lose out on the chance to write the Best Book Ever Written and include that little-known fact about birds having wrists …or the one about how scientists think whale sounds might rhyme. Unbelievable. I have that here somewhere, give me a minute….

My kids remind me that most of this stuff is findable now on the Internet, and it’s true. I don’t tear out as much as I used to. Once in awhile now, when I find a great bit of trivia/great article/great essay/great review of a great book/ great New Yorker cartoon online, I email it to myself. Pretty soon, Google Mail will tell me I’ve accomplished the impossible: running out of space on Gmail. By the time my grandson is my age, technology will have eliminated the need for paper. And then all our basements will be clean and orderly. Why don’t I find that comforting?

To make myself feel less guilty, I’ve assigned myself the task of writing a poem a day from facts found in the hundreds and hundreds of articles I save. The other day I wrote one from an article torn out of The Smithsonian about an iceberg that had flipped upside down. The photographer who took a photo of it (beautiful thing!) said that its “underside was breathtaking.” Oh, when I read that, I knew I would save it. He said its underside was glassy and aqua green. He could see water flowing inside the upside-down iceberg, and the water looked “almost like an ant colony.” The world is a strange, strange place.The articles I tear out remind of that fact.

There, I said to myself when the poem was finished, I knew I should save that.


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12 responses to “In the Basement

  1. Julie, I love this and find it oddly reassuring that someone besides my husband stores paper in multiple suitcases. Alas, they are not always vintage. Any unattended empty baggage may be confiscated. But now you’ve given me a reason to collect those beautiful old cases (I am not a hoarder, either) because adding a musty smell to such archives just adds character, right?

    Would you please share your daily poems? Perhaps with a copy of the inspiring clip?

  2. Abby Aguirre

    Loved reading this, Julie. I have piles of paper too, but they aren’t nearly as interesting as yours. 🙂 Mine drive me crazy.
    I’d love to see your poems too …
    I’ve been reading a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo. Have you read it? It is very different from any organizing book I’ve ever read … she thanks the items that she no longer needs for their work and then discards them. She believes that you should only hang on to items that truly spark joy and everything else you should discard. You should check it out if you haven’t read it already. I’d love to hear what you think of it!

  3. Thank you, Julie. I was just cleaning out my file cabinet yesterday, feeling a bit of nostalgia as I threw away the instruction manual to the baby monitor and the instructions to assemble my daughter’s first tricycle. (She’s 11 now.) Paper is more than paper, and things aren’t merely things. My heart expands but my house won’t, so…out they go. (Sometimes.) Abby, I love that idea about thanking the things for their work. Was it Louise who gave the lecture describing how she shakes hands with characters and plotlines she no longer needs, thanking them for their time, before cutting them?

    • Abby Aguirre

      I hadn’t heard Louise’s lecture, Erin, but I think that is a wonderful idea!

      In one of the passages in the Kondo book, she gives an example of an article of clothing that you bought and never wore. Most people, like me, hang on to it with a feeling that they must get some use out of it some day. Kondo says that we should thank that article of clothing for teaching us something (e.g., what doesn’t look good on us) and to discard it. I have to say, as I read the book, my jaw dropped several times. For example, she feels that you should discard all papers pretty much and she is equally extreme about books – although she suggests that someone who loves books will have more than someone who just holds on to books swearing they will read them again one day. She talks about not coupling socks together because socks need a break after all their hard work. It’s totally OCD but I was fascinated by some of the Zen aspects of it.

  4. Julie, we are kindred spirits. Or at least kindred paper-keepers. I’ve spent the past week trying to clear paper out of my office. I haven’t gotten very far.

  5. This moved me to have a look in my “funny file,” which is where things go that just delight me but don’t seem to fit into any other category. Example: recently retired federal govt. employee’s wry column in which he threatens to start an organization called Fonctionnaires sans frontières (Bureaucrats Without Borders) to bring bureaucracy to those without. Triplicate forms! Organization charts! Overhead projectors! I enjoyed it all over again.

  6. louisehawes

    Abby and Erin, I can’t remember which lecture it was, but I did, indeed, pass on the idea of thanking characters I have to chop–er, cut–er lay off. I say “pass on,” because it’s not my idea, but came from one of my very first student’s at VCFA: When I suggested that a character of hers was neither advancing the plot nor shedding light on her m.c., she was loathe to let him go. But she DID, and when I asked her how she’d managed it, she reported, “I just looked him in the eye, saluted, and told him, ‘Thanks for playing!'”

  7. Martine Leavitt

    Julie, your mind, your mind!

  8. Julie, I’m with you there! I have trouble throwing meaningful papers away.

  9. Julie Larios

    Oh, it is good to know that so many people have the same compulsions I do. One other quick observation: My DNA is devoid of any Zen markers. Can’t thank things and throw them away. In fact, I usually thank them for sticking with me so long, and then I put them back in the box and keep them some more.

  10. Pingback: Bits and Pieces | Books Around The Table

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