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“What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning.  / The end is where we start from.”  –T. S. Eliot

“The past is never dead.  In fact it’s not even past.”  –William Faulkner

“…these statements express the realization that we can never access the body of the past, the physical experience that people now dead once felt in the very fiber of their bodies.  But we can also nevernot want to access that past, to think, imagine, and write our way back to an imagination of what those bodies must have felt [Walt Whitman’s referring to the Civil War dead].  Often our own past feels this way, too–we recall feeling pain or horror or terror, but it is difficult to ‘get it in the books,’  to write it so that others can experience in their bodies what we felt in ours (or so that we can once again feel what we know we once felt).  Writers often experience most keenly this notion that ‘the past is never dead’ and that we are always starting at the end.’”  [IWP © The University of Iowa 2012-2016]

MEMORIESOFATIME  are often written about past events which caused the writer to feel intensely and deeply and physically, then described in such a way emphasizing what the body felt–words being used to bring a dead past alive.

“Memories are the key not to the past, but to the future.”  –Corrie Ten Boom

“Fear not for the future, weep not for the past.”  –Percy Bysshe Shelley

“There is not past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present.”  ….  “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.” –James Joyce

“We can’t let the past be forgotten.”  –George Takei

“The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.”  –Simone Weil

© James F. O’Neil 2016 

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: 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?

a.milton works © James F. O’Neil 2013

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