Monday, February 21, 2011

My File Cabinet/Myself

In recent days I have learned a lot about identity.   Mine.

As we unpack our belongings: furniture, clothes, files, books, knick knacks, family photos, art,  in our new home,  many months and miles from our old home, I have experienced both the joy of reunion with  my “stuff” and the profound grief over “stuff”  gone forever.

Some of our “stuff” I haven’t seen for 3 or 4 months, some, almost a year.  As we put our house up for sale we were required by various “stagers,” consultants to the real estate industry,  to pack up beloved books,  family pictures,  and even art pieces that told too much about who we were (“too ethnic”).  Though I thought this was highly unscientific advice and was incensed by the implied criticism,  I acquiesced.

My house started to feel like an alien space.  It looked more like a “model home” than my
slightly cluttered, but very personal and, I thought, warm and homey abode. 

Due to a sluggish housing market and some bad luck,  it took many more months to sell our house and move into our new digs here in Maryland. 

The worst was the books,  followed closely by family pictures.  Both tell the story of our lives. I don’t see collecting books as a vanity project but rather a chronicle of where we have been with our intellectual passions our not so intellectual passions and indulgences, our journeys both geographic and spiritual.  Some books go back to college and graduate school.  The pictures and photo albums… well we all understand about the pictures.

What really threw me was my reaction to not having a place to unpack my files,  old patient files,  courses constructed and taught over the years, material from particularly treasured courses I took as a student,  research for academic articles long since published,  ideas for books not read,  projects never launched.

I had already wrenched myself away from boxes and boxes of this stuff.  This was the distillation  of all that torturous weeding process.

My crummy metal filing cabinets were sacrificed on the altar of expediency and the knowledge that new housing would be substantially smaller.   After all we were downsizing. 

I was really bushwhacked by how horribly upset I was when there was no cabinet to hold this aspect of my identity.   Where were my ideas, my life’s work,  going to live if not in those battered, garage-sale-quality file cabinets?  What would happen to them?   What would I do?   Who will I be?

This may all sound crazy.  I guess it is a bit,  but  I really think this aspect of my work life
was and is much more central to my identity than I realized.  My file cabinet and its contents  contribute to what makes me feel whole, integrated, and worthy.  Even if I never look at another piece of paper in those files their presence affirms me in a way that I really need.  Still.

I think its worth thinking about what there is in our lives that fulfills this role.  Sure there are our core people that play this role, spouse, children, grandchildren, extended family, good friends. And then there is art in all of its expressions that fulfills this function.  Even pets. 

What is it for you?


  1. Just for the funofit, I have to try getting into your attention, on the subject of the New Yorker article on life stories. Strangely, I connect with both examples--statutory rape (my wife's) and my high IQ (168) inhibited, mostly inferior feeling life history. The writing part relates to my attempt to deal with my wife's recent death. I have just signed on to an Osher course on memoirs. But my aged use of the internet will probably not connect. Que sera

  2. We are prepping to move in the next few months, as you know, and I have been madly purging. I feel overburdened by stuff lately. I can't stop throwing it out.

    Frighteningly, my most precious photos and memories are now housed in cyberspace, and the fear that they could all disappear in the blip of a faulty server somewhere terrifies me. I should have more photo albums. I should. And yet, it's so clean to store everything that matters in my laptop. No unpacking required...

  3. Thanks for writing this post, May. My crummy metal filing cabinets were also sacrificed on the alter of expediency and the knowledge that new housing would be substantially smaller! It took more than a year to reconstruct my professional life with new storage units. Until then I was missing a large part of myself, held, as it were, in suspension, waiting, expecting, hoping for release back into me.

    It is not crazy that work which is personal, and impacts one intimately, becomes part of who and what one is. Disturb it at your own risk - you discovered the truth in that, as did I.

    My reconstruction is yet incomplete, several years on; however, that 'work in progress' has enabled me to move more constructively forward professionally, retired though I might be, with special projects. I always thought of myself as a Constructivist, in the manner of Vygotsky: now I have proven that I am.

  4. to CFM: how about external hard drives?
    when i remember, I put photos there. and then you can always back that up.
    I asked my sister-in-law what was hardest for her when she lost everything in a fire. Everyone expected her to say "the pictures." No, it was the shoes!

  5. May, last week I began the same laborious process as you - cleaning out file cabinets, weeding and sorting, and wondering who I am these days. I recently made the very hard decision to retire from teaching after 33 years and now have to clean out my classroom. There are file cabinets, a large desk, closets, drawers, bookshelves I need to empty. I couldn't believe how many articles about literature, writing skills, vocabulary, etc. I had collected through the years as an English teacher and how much I had amassed about Rome, the Latin language, art and architecture as a Latin teacher. I tried to keep one copy of everything that seemed significant in case I would ever teach again.
    What was the most difficult was finding letters, papers, cards, photographs, etc., all kinds of remembrances of students. I was flooded with memories and questioned whether or not I was ready to retire. After all, who am I without my students? I loved watching them learn, mature, and become lovely adults with whom I sometimes have lunch or communicate with on Facebook, e-mail, etc. But that's not the same as having the daily interaction with them, along with the challenges, successes, and frustrations that come with teaching. I admit that I shall also miss the praise and respect from some of their parents who have told me that I was their child's favorite or most influential teacher.
    I know that I have affected the lives of thousands of students (hopefully, positively), and I shall always have the memories. But, I wonder, where are some of those students now? What are they doing? Are they all right? They are all part of who I am; they are my life's work.
    I now have to find some new ways to establish my identity. I will

  6. Hi May,

    This was a good blog and it occurred to me that folks could scan their photos and important documents and store them in a public email account and no matter what happened following a diaster they could access them from anywhere in the world. Yet, for those who endure through regional fires and are being ordered to evacuate immediately, so often they'll spend 30 minutes looking for their photos and important papers and by the time they leave their homes escape to safety for some has proven to be impossible, thus this process of saving photos and documents for some may prove to be a life safer in itself.

  7. my website is my second home, full of clutter