By: James F. O’Neil

Shredding the past can be traumatic: a violent act.  Placing a special document, such as a letter of application or a letter of resignation–or a letter presenting some award or gift–into a machine, then hearing the gears and chopping blades turn a piece of paper into cute, ruffled shredded-paper-documents-600x400strips of nondescript pieces of chaff, with now-unintelligible markings that looked like some ancient alphabets, can hurt.       

What was once a flat piece of 8 ½” x 11” or 11” x 14” now    becomes colored fluff,  expanded, with new life, now taking up more space, and more volume in a large black trash bag.   to be received unceremoniously, un-holily, by “The Garbage Men.”   

(Photo courtesy:

“The horror!  The horror!”

When I planned to retire, I knew the inevitable: I had to clean out and vacate the office I had for twenty years.  While an office occupier, I became the Collector, the Accumulator, the Filing Expert, the Organizer, the Archivist, a Librarian for many years.  During that twenty-year period, I had accumulated

  • A thousand books
  • Files and papers enough to fill five large 40-gallon trash barrels which I personally carted to the dumpster
  • Eighteen bankers’ boxes of “stuff.”

And what to do with “stuff”?  Books could be given away, donated, re-shelved at home.

But the stuff?

Class notes from college, course outlines, lecture notes, correspondences, newspaper and magazine clippings and articles, my term papers dating back to 1959, including a paper on the G.I. Bill, one on Fleming and penicillin, another on Froebel, the founder of the kindergarten.  [My C+ paper from graduate school on James Joyce and water imagery, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was thrown away.]

These papers had to be preserved in memoriam, et in saecula saeculorum: forever! 

It could not happen: I had to shred that “stuff.”

So I shredded, while watching old movies or football or whatever was available to me to distract me from the task at hand: destroying history.  Hours and hours of shredding, placing the fluff into those unmarked black plastic trash bags–33-gallon, for sure–then neatly piling the bags at the curb to await their fate at the hands of Waste Management. 

When the truck and its three workers arrived, I felt guilty for giving them so much un-normal work to do.  I helped them toss away some of my past by picking up and flinging a bag or two.  (The bags were not all that heavy, despite some philosophy and psychology within their contents.)  Then, as if magically, the piles disappeared.  I could not watch as the truck pulled away.

I was not yet finished, though.  In the next few weeks, I had a second and then a third shredding, the last pile of “stuff” put down into the awaiting jaws of the killing machine.  I did the shredding slowly, nostalgically, pensively, silently–except for the sound of The Shredder: for two minutes at a time, to overheating, then the quiet of the four-minute auto shut-off.  Then more chewing and grinding and swallowing.  Little by little, the deed was done.

I thought it would be more painful, but it was not.  In fact, it was not painful at all–except when I had to clean out paper jams caught in the tiny blades, and scratched or nicked my fingers.  No pain at all, generally.  I felt mostly satisfaction, and relief.  As I looked at the fluffed piles of my life that I gently emptied from shredder into the trash bags, a sense of calm came over me: A full life, bagged, tied, and waste managed.

Like Forrest Gump often says, “That’s all I’m gonna say about that.”

But about those undergraduate and graduate papers I wrote?  The ones with red ink, grades, and maybe some comments?  Maybe I should have saved that Milton paper?

a.milton works © James F. O’Neil 2013

  1. I have been lax in following you. Please follow me and my postings. We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. Want to know about Happiness?

  2. How come I never found the time to thank you for making a comment on my blog postings. It is never too late to say “I am sorry.” Right? Thanks for reading my post. I do hope you will return to my site. Things have gotten better.

    Jim O’Neil

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