Wednesday, May 17, 2006

You move me

Commentary by JoEllen Collins


JoEllen Collins

A few weeks ago I finally said goodbye to a box of mildewed student records kept since teaching at Beverly Hills High School 25 years ago. I have carted them around for several reasons. First, I couldn't bear to part with research papers from junior honors' American Literature class: they were such vibrant examples of my students' talents. With those handwritten or typed papers were copies of the many letters of recommendation to prestigious universities I had written on behalf of those bright kids. In my usual dram queen fantasy, I fancied one of them becoming President, Ambassador to the U.N or a Supreme Court Justice: I pictured myself finding the old papers and appreciating incipient signs of grown-up success in those teenage masterpieces! Nonetheless, I decided to toss them out, along with 10th Grade lesson plans from teaching in the 60s in Santa Monica, lecture notes for classes taught at CSI when the new Blaine County campus was opened in the 80s, and a plethora of other teaching aids. I have finally realized that whenever I teach it is always from a fresh perspective. I don't need those notes. Furthermore, dragging with me the roll books and notes of former students is not going to insure my immortality!

In moving from one condominium in Elkhorn to another in Ketchum, I was chagrined to realize that, despite what I thought was a pared-down, simple existence I have SO much junk. As I've said before, I stay friends with former husbands, keep sending Christmas cards to my Kindergarten buddies and can't stand to let a relationship go. I want to carry my experiences and friends with me, as though the long chains attached will assure me the luxury of connecting with them whenever I wish to. Thus, it is not surprising that even after so many years I still have these boxes nearby. I don't know why I have been afraid to let them go, but at last I have summoned the courage to do so.

At one time in the moving process, I confronted a mass of paper goods and office supplies: dozens of pencil remnants, stray pieces of notepaper, unmatched envelopes, hundreds of paper clips and other messy items. I am reluctantly forced to think of myself as harboring a hoarder's instinct: how many rubber bands do I have to have cluttering up drawers? Eventually I got rid of most of this stuff and donated some of my nicer clothes and other unneeded goods to local charities. My new closets will no longer hold clothes I haven't worn for 8 years, nor will my shelves contain unneeded items I keep out of guilt because someone I love gave them to me.

Is my instinct to accumulate based on living a frugal life as a child when my parents' fortunes declined, or on a basically messy nature, or on some kind of insecurity that I may run out of some "necessity" someday? Whatever the reasons, I am determined to stifle it in my new digs: no more "junk drawers" or saved folders of witty New Yorker squibs and emailed wisdom, and no more thin packets of ancient love letters that still occupy a corner of a chest containing family photos (and newspapers covering JFK's assassination and Nixon's resignation, and photos from a Hemingway seminar I conducted...and, and, and...).

My penchant for not disposing of many things may spring from a hopelessly sentimental nature (does that 40th-birthday greeting from my best friend really need to be preserved, along with dozens of other cards?). When I lost all my possessions in a brush fire I learned a fundamental lesson: it's not the thing but the person behind it that matters. My Uncle Doc's beautifully crafted photo book commemorating my childhood burned in that conflagration, but never did I lose my memories of the man who took the time to make that for me.

As I unpack my boxes, I notice my new storage space holds items I still couldn't abandon. I hope I can yet say farewell to more of the detritus of a long life and move on, I hope, to a cleaner, less possessive period of freedom from the kind of things that do indeed become real chains.

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