I'm not someone who tends to throw things out. In my youth I proudly stacked my paperbacks in a corner of my bedroom to impress my brother with how many books I'd read and, except for occasionally giving some of them to him, I seldom got rid of any. Accumulating seems to be the standard activity someone like me engages in across the course of his life. But eventually things pile up to the point that they start to interfere with daily living, especially if you don't keep finding spaces to put the new stuff you acquire.
Since the first decade of this century, when my wife and I twice downsized our dwelling space in cross-country moves, we often engage in decluttering, reducing the mass of storage items in our home through nearly annual summer housecleaning. We've donated, sold, recycled, and trashed a multitude of possessions, most of it, if not all, easy to dispense with. Having winnowed things down so much, we're getting to the level where, increasingly, some of it becomes more problematic to let go. When I open certain boxes, the artifacts I encounter provoke involuntary time travel into the past.
Here are the records I listened to alone in my bedroom, often singing along and hoping passersby would hear only the recording, not me, as the music drifted out my window into the street. I often sang songs that captured my sense of self, the person I wished I might be or the person the lyrics reminded me I already was. Often the songs were about loneliness—that word readily evokes half a dozen titles: "Lonely Boy," "Lonely Teenager," "Lonesome Town"—about unfulfilled longing, about being desired or imagining being desired or about failing to be desired. I couldn't sing along to the album Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely; I choked up on too many of the lyrics. Even if I'm no longer lonely in that space I occupied then, I feel too intimately connected to these records to let them go.
Some of the albums are 78s with links to childhood and family. I have both Gene Autry's Western Classics albums and dramatized Western adventures starring Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy, all boyhood gifts; I also have my mother's Al Jolson album on 78 and the soundtrack from The Jolson Story on 33 1/3. Even though I no longer have a phonograph that will play them, I can't imagine not keeping them.
The situation gets even more complicated when I start considering the boxes of books. One holds all the plays and literary criticism I used to write my dissertation and eventually my first book, a treasure trove of English Restoration drama material that I haven't looked at in least four decades. Others hold volumes that guided me as a college professor teaching rhetoric, composition, creative nonfiction, and editing. I no longer teach those subjects and won't write further academic articles about them, since I'd need to acquire more recent research. I'm not sure what libraries or used bookstores would take them and I don't want them to end up recycled or shredded. Even though I'm unlikely to write about E. B. White again, I'll still not remove any books by or about him from the shelf and a half they now occupy.
Other people created everything I've mentioned, still resonating with me despite my distance from them. I've accumulated artifacts of my own creation as well, writing I initiated and wrestled with and sometimes sent out into the world. I scribbled in abundant journals across decades, some even older than I remembered, all confessing and recording and lamenting and pondering moments in my life. File boxes harbor handwritten manuscripts and typescripts of songs, poems, plays, short stories, unfinished novels, essays for radio, college newspaper columns, movie and book and theater reviews. The magazines and journals where articles and essays and poems and reviews and interviews were published are now all crammed unread into dusty boxes in our garage. So too are the extra copies of the books—the academic publications that advanced my career, the personal nonfiction that mined my experience and my memory—unsold at bookstore readings and unlikely to leave their boxes in the time to come.
All these things I value solely for their worth to me, if to no one else, all these things that occupied so much of my time across all those years, all that evidence that I once got both something personal and something professional done in the world. To obliterate all that evidence of my existence seems too much like a proclamation of my existence ending. I know it will. For a while longer, I'd just to like to feel as if I'm not agreeing to disappear, I'm only willing to declutter.