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BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL

“Who knows where the time goes?”  –Sandy Denny/Judy Collins/Eva Cassidy

Credit: filmbuffonline

A Meditation and Reflection on Time:  All we did, all we have to do, all left undone.  Another year has passed, as have some friends and relatives.  Another year ahead, with or without resolutions.  But “Time Marches On…”

And:

Every person passing through this life will unknowingly leave something and take something away.  Most of this ‘something’ cannot be seen or heard or numbered or scientifically detected or counted.  It’s what we leave in the minds of other people and what they leave in ours. Memory.  The census doesn’t count it.  Nothing counts without it.”  –Robert Fulghum

Remember:

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”  –Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 

MEMORIES OF A TIME:

1941-2014

happy new year

Credit: rockingwallpaper.com

“When I consider how my light is spent…”–John Milton

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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

By: James F.O’Neil

I have become an Epstein-ite.  Joseph Epstein was former editor of The American Scholar and teacher of writing at Northwestern University.  Born and educated in Chicago, as I was, he came into my life through some of his familiar essays. 

Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein

These writings have helped shape me and my reading “habits” (definitely an “addiction” word).  Bored with some of the “masters,” I have learned to decide for myself what I want to do with the printed word.  I will not stop reading, that is for sure–“better read than dead.”

Espousing what Epstein means in writing that books “have become much more like family,” I have in my bookcases pictures of family on the shelves; intermixed with books, I have special photo albums and journals of travels and picture books–even special “family mementos.”  A mix, of poetry, philosophy, psychology, history; film books, Books of the Western Canon, a Bible here and there, pop “culture,” and art books; some law, an education treatise or two, architecture and humanities; and even a few books each about chocolate, Absolut vodka, and fairy tales.  This is my family–and, in my life, “family is everything.”

In his essay “Bookless in Gaza” (a takeoff on Eyeless in Gaza, a bestselling novel by Aldous Huxley, published in 1936), Joseph Epstein writes of his early reading experiences, which were not “friendly.”  John Milton wrote about the Biblical Samson, captured and later blinded by the Philistines–“eyeless”–then forced into labor in Gaza.          

Epstein relates how his “forced labor” reading [emphasis mine], like doing book reports–actually faking them–gradually became a labor of love, actually an “addiction.”  (No doubt, Epstein was able to outgrow and break away from the “ignorant and uncultured” philistine teachers of his childhood.)    

He confesses that he holds “a philistine assumption”: that everyone dies someday (not an intellectual matter at all).  With this belief, he writes (as he has written elsewhere) that he wants to be “as well read as possible”–“better read than dead.”           

“And now a philistine confession to go with a philistine assumption: I read in the hope of discovering the truth, or at least some truths.  I look for truth in what some might deem strange places: novels and poems, histories and memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, letters and diaries.”          

“. . .  I seek clues that might explain life’s oddities, that might light up the dark corners of existence a little, that might correct foolish ideas that I have come to hold too dearly, that might, finally, make my own stay here on earth more interesting, if not necessarily more pleasant.”

I, too, desire great things in life–especially to live long and prosper.  Reading, in my estimate, as an Epsteinite, will continue to reinforce this desire.

© James F. O’Neil  2013

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