Monday, July 24, 2006

Shredding The Past

I shred my past last week. Not entirely, as it turned out, but a sizeable portion including most of last fifteen years or so.

All of this effort was in anticipation of moving to a new home that will likely be half of the size of our existing residence. Among the first casualties of such relocations are the drawers and boxes of documents one accumulates. In my case, this meant both business (I work at home) and personal records, those generated on my own and the collected works of my marriage.

In an era of hyper-consciousness and sensitivity with regards to identity theft, one must go to extra lengths to insure nothing of use to the criminal mind is discarded intact. Financial statements. Bank statements. Cancelled checks. Credit card statements. Correspondence from the IRS. Each document must be inspected to determine if it must be retained or can be safely discarded as is or must be reduced to slivers of paper.

Some documents escape the shredder. Investment transactions showing cost bases are a must lest one wants to risk paying the maximum capital gains if audited. Correspondence regarding legal matters lives to see another day, though hopefully not in court. Depreciation schedules, any accountant will tell you, merit a very long shelf life.

Of course the most fascinating aspect of this exercise is the opportunity afforded to review one’s life. There’s really nothing quite like a stroll through a given year’s business records to jog the memory regarding a certain client’s parsimony. And who would imagine that a simple invoice could stir recollections of a difficult project and its successful execution? Receipts for purchases long since discarded or outdated reminded me how quickly tastes and technology change. Did I really pay over $1400 for a fax machine in 1987?! How many times did we use that treadmill?

A few boxes contained personal correspondence, some of it with people whom I hardly recalled or with whom I had lost touch long ago. There were numerous letters from the potter from Lopez Island via Cambridge and Nairobi who drifted in and out of my life over the course of a year or two. I reread a few of them before concluding there was nothing they could add to the already faded memories. There were newspaper clippings from a boyhood friend who inexplicably stopped talking to me after fifty years. One packet contained all of my report cards from elementary school through high school, dutifully saved by my mother. When she moved into a retirement community several years ago, my brother and I helped her discard some of her own past (and ours). The report cards, among other items, escaped the waste basket then and made themselves comfortable in my home. Now they had to go, but not before I reviewed them carefully for signs of who I was to become.

By the end of the week I had produced sufficient recycled matter to require seven separate trips to the town dump. Each time, I filled my car – trunk, back seat and front passenger seat – with 30 gallon garbage bags brimming with shredded paper. And each time I returned home to survey the situation, looked around and much to my chagrin realized I’d hardly made a dent. By all appearances, nothing had changed. Everything looked more or less the same as when I started. After all, virtually everything I shredded had been out of sight in the first place, in file drawers, cabinets and storage boxes.


Blogger Amy said...

Tom, Alex and I have been going through these same motions over the past 2 weeks. An email crash has also necessitated reviewing & archiving nearly 10 years of email. Considering all that is going on in our collective family life right now, it's a particularly loaded time to box up, toss out, or hold on to the past no? In any case, the idea that often, this painstaking work of shredding personal archives is invisible to the naked eye cannot be a coincidence.

11:14 AM  

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