I tame my paper past

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I'm not sure just when my dreams and ambitions changed and my concept of an ideal life was altered, but it must have been fairly recently. I remember that just a few years ago I thought what I'd really like to have was my own photocopy machine. For some years I looked at photocopy machines, coveted them, and once or twice we nearly bought one. But now that I'm more mature, I no longer want a photocopier. What I want is a paper shredder.

This paper epiphany came early one morning when I had awakened too early to get up but too late to get back to sleep. For some reason the vision of my attic office hung eerily before my eyes in the gray dawn - my office, with its two file cabinets and the deep file drawer in my desk, all brimming with paper.

I knew what was in there: years' and years' worth of bank statements, income-tax returns, insurance policies, credit-card statements, grade transcripts, auto-repair bills, warranties for machines we no longer own, letters, manuscripts, and National Geographic maps. I felt the ceiling over my head sagging with the burden of it all. What were we ever going to do with it?

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My next thought brought a glimmer of hope. A paper shredder! The technology that brought us the home copier and the laptop computer has finally brought us the home-use paper shredder as well. It's no longer just embassies and corporations and politicians that have paper-shredding capabilities. I could have it, too! My heart raced, and I tossed and turned and came to a decision. I was going to buy a shredder! I was going to clean out everything at last!

As soon as I announced my intention to various others of my ilk, I found that most of them had already come to the same decision. Several already owned paper shredders and could chat knowledgeably about various models. I suppose it's not odd that many of us of a certain age are suddenly seized by a desire to shred paper. We also hanker to clean out closets and dresser drawers, and we cast a weary eye over various oddments and gadgets and knickknacks we've accumulated. We wonder how long we've had that stuff, and why we got it, and how we're ever going to get rid of it before our children have to come and clean out the house for us.

This yearning to unclutter life, to get things organized and simplified and comprehensible after a certain time in life is probably common to all generations. I remember that when I was about as old as my younger daughter is now, my father wrote me a letter in which he described his afternoon activity of standing out by the burn barrel in the backyard, tossing in old papers.

He said he thought it was time to clear things out, but that the experience of watching so many pieces of evidence of his lifetime go up in smoke put him in a reflective mood. Old love letters, odd bits of poetry, mortgages, tax forms, job applications, all were vaporized, becoming a slender column of smoke that rose in the evening sky.

What a peaceful, romantic scene that is. How fitting to have this little ceremony, to savor the memory, feel the loss, watch the smoke of lost dreams and forgotten loves and old ambitions rise heavenward, at peace with one's past, content with the present, unafraid of the future. But we're not allowed to burn things in our backyard any more.

I don't have the gentle breeze, the twilight, the wisp of smoke ascending to the sky. In my attempt to get rid of the evidence and unburden future generations, I have a machine that grinds, screeches, and shreds mercilessly and efficiently.

That's how we do things these days. Tickle it with technology. Forget the poet, just get the job done. We can hardly do it any other way, since there is so much of everything in the world these days: paper, pollution, people. It's hard to find time for ceremony, for reflection, for savoring the moment.

I'm grateful for the technology. I went out and bought it. But as I stuff things in the machine, I remember my father and think how fortunate he was.

He had time to think: Dreams and ambitions change; concepts of the ideal life are altered. Having unburdened himself of all that paper, still he sat down and took out another piece of paper to write about the experience. Remembering that, I took time to sit down to write about it, too. Some things not even technology can change.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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