So much paper. Countless birthday cards. References I printed and annotated while writing my undergraduate honors thesis on the transport of dinosaur bones in ephemeral streams. Postcards from Utah, Idaho, France, Phantom Ranch. My mother’s cheerful notes. Break-up letters. “I will always love you” letters, sent in response to my own.
Photographs of the Stanislaus River in the early 1970s. Poems to the river, when it was clear that the New Melones dam couldn’t be stopped. Cards from friends sending solace on the loss of my mother. Holiday greetings.
Handprinted cards. Hallmark cards. Amusing cards. Custom-made cards.
Agendas from decades-old meetings. Failed job applications. About twenty-five different versions of resumes from the 1980s, when I left the river. Articles about guitarists, poets, favorite authors, upcoming writing contests, state and national parks. Outlines and prewriting for books long since finished and published. Marked-up manuscripts, with margin notes written by me and others.
Pages and pages. Boxes and boxes.
Offers of help. Unsolicited advice. Apologies. Residency information for programs never applied to. Handwritten sheet music by me and other family members. The lyrics to “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Jazz charts, with my analysis of chord changes written over the measures. Photographs of North Canyon, Havasu, Matakatamiba, the Inner Gorge. Photographs of me at the oars, tying on a bandanna, reading a book, sitting in the back of a pickup truck, kayaking a river.
Most are going out today. I’m sifting through them and releasing them like petals from long-dead flowers. They’re going into the recycling bin, the shredding box, the U.S. mail. I’d burn them if fire danger weren’t so high and smoke weren’t a concern for air quality. They’re all going away, with the rare, rare exception: if they bring a smile.
The much-mocked book by Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is helping me release these old papers. They’re the last of what remains from sorting and thinning personal papers through the years. Now, I’m looking at them once last time, or some not at all, as they go to their final resting place.
I feel a stab of pain as I read the goodbye letters from my first big love. I miss my mother as I read her generous prose, the loss of her as close to my heart as if she’d passed last month. One by one, I slip lovely, thoughtful cards into the bin. I recycle an article about a friend I fell out with decades ago. I recycle friendly notes sent from countless river passengers who had the time of their lives on a Grand Canyon trip, on a float in Utah, in the River of No Return wilderness in Idaho, or on a day trip in California.
The overarching feeling is that I’m glad to be letting these reminders go for the last time. These are the ones that have escaped discarding before. These are the ones I felt I needed, at some later date that has still not come. “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past,” says Kondo. “If you just stow these things away in a drawer or cardboard box, before you realize it, your past will become a weight that holds you back and keeps you from living in the here and now.”
By these decisions to let things go, I vow to live in the present. “The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” Perhaps I’ve believed that my best life was behind me, or that clinging to the past would somehow inform my future, or that if I let these things go, I’d lose the people who gave them in love and care.
Now I feel their weight lifting as if freeing myself from stones attached to every limb and, more to the point, to my heart. Now in my letting them go, I hope the givers will feel as liberated as I do, perhaps, as the boxes empty. “I still miss those I loved who are no longer with me, but I find I am grateful for having loved them. The gratitude has finally conquered the loss.” — Rita Mae Brown
With these small liberations, the losses feel farther behind me, somehow. The lightness of the day shines in.