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 strips 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: photos-public-domain.com)
“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?