After several years of active retirement, I find myself engaged in what has become an increasingly futile and frequently interrupted effort to "put my house in order." My purpose is not to write a memoir, so I am not quite sure what order I should put things into. I justify this endeavor as an effort to somehow organize my papers accumulated from a lifetime as an academic -- student, professor, administrator -- so that my survivors will not have to wonder what to do with all this stuff.
Most often, after gathering, reviewing and even refiling seemingly related materials in new folders, I simply toss them into the wastebasket. This is so unbelievably painful that I often retrieve them, thinking that surely I had a good reason to save this in the first place. Almost without exception, several days later I would leave no room for doubt by taking resolute and immediate advantage of my condo's magical trash chute, where I can hear the files, now wrapped in a plastic shopping sack, clatter several floors below, truly and forever gone.
Now and then I think that I ought to give a collection of papers to a friend who might find them useful. Gracious friends have accepted, usually followed after delivery by a long or eternal silence. One such file consisted of handwritten, detailed notes I had taken of several books for a reading course while I was a graduate student more than 50 years ago. The recipient, a recognized leader in the particular field covered by the notes, marveled at the pre-computer effort of my work and clearly demonstrated in subsequent conversations that he had actually read the file.
In self-indulgent moments I conclude that certain collected information would make a terrific article, but on second look, that file joins others in the trash. By tossing it I am deciding either that I am really no longer interested in what I once considered important, or, more often, that I no longer have the professional standing on that topic to be taken seriously by potential publishers. The ease of downloading materials from the Internet is revealed by numerous files that I am sure would not have been accumulated in the "old days" of just 10 to 15 years ago. This reality seems to intensify my feeling that much of what I have may really be of some significance since I either created or personally received what is there. With the Internet, I casually print and file anything of potential use or interest, most of which is really useless.
The toughest decisions involve those things that I conclude might interest my children and grandchildren about my activities. This would include professional activities of note, community service involvements, job searches, speeches (either text or notes), news clippings and correspondence from pre-e-mail days. I have no idea what most heirs do with such stuff, and frankly I am hesitant to ask. My vision is that they will look at it, wonder why it was saved, decide to hold on to it for a while and then when they reach my stage of life, wonder what they should do with it.
As I go through old files I am jolted by a memory, a letter, a speech I gave, an honor I received, an article I wrote, an invitation to a major event I attended and numerous souvenir items that undoubtedly carried some significance to me, many of which I had truly forgotten. Some recall unhappy moments or embarrassments that I wish I could forget. A precious few items serve as important and treasured markers in my life unrelated to my professional life, such as my experience in the military during World War II.
Now and then the "impostor syndrome" hits me -- the belief that you do not deserve the position or honor you have, common among people who are successful in cultural environments far different from their family backgrounds. The most frequent reaction I have had is surprise that the life reflected in these scattered papers and files, stored in cabinets, boxes, old suitcases, closet shelves and desk drawers, was mine.
I wonder out loud sometimes: "Was that really me?" Was that really me who, for good or ill, experienced these things, some requiring physical courage, some reflecting intellectual achievement, some perceived by others as worthy of recognition and reward and, in some cases, criticism? I find it hard to believe that I could replicate those things even if given the chance to do it over. So much depends upon the cliches of life -- the luck of the draw, being in the right place at the right time and the like. One cannot really put one's house in order because it has no order. Rather it is a series of stories reflected in what tangible pieces of evidence we choose to save and which of those, given the opportunity, we choose to leave behind.