It goes with the territory: you leave the job, you leave the office. For the last nine months, I’ve half-heartedly approached the task of dismantling an office crammed with 24 years of accumulations. Hello, my name is Lezlie, and I am a hoarder. Actually, don’t believe that. I’m not really. In fact, I’m a complete believer in the concept of minimalism, and my home is a testament to that. But it seems that no matter what principle we embrace, there’s always one little dark corner of our soul that steadfastly shows no regard for said principle. And my office, I am sorry to admit, is my dark little corner of shame. It just happened!
So, yesterday, I attacked the chaos in earnest. Pulled books off of shelves for about thirty minutes. Then spent ten minutes returning some of them to the shelves. I cannot let go of my collection of Edna O’Brien’s early writing. I simply can’t. Someone, tell me you love Edna O’Brien and that you will love and take care of her while I continue my minimalist practices.
Anyway, after working with the books for a while, I tackled the file folders that fill four filing cabinets. Four. (How does this happen?? I’m just a teacher, not a doctor’s office. But you would not know it by these filing cabinets.)
Resolute to continue the task before me, I threw away dozens of folders filled with prep notes, exercises, articles, and agendas for classes that I have taught over the years. And I tearfully rifled through hundreds of file folders on individual students, filled with papers and comment sheets on their writing. I don’t even want to think how many pages of comments I have written in my career. If pages were pennies, I’d be a rich woman. I held each and every folder, thought about each and every name, and though I certainly didn’t read each and every paper, I held them in my hands. I thanked each student for his or her offerings, and I honored their hard work. I sat in the middle of my office floor, surrounded by papers of former students, and sobbed.
After a while, I got a grip. What on earth was I thinking? Who does this? I wondered if this is normal. Is this the way retirement goes? This pain at releasing the detritus of a career? Why did I save this stuff? Did I think I was going to go back and read this material? Was I going to do something with these papers? The sheer heft of the papers was overwhelming, but more overwhelming, or maybe confusing, was my motive. What did saving all of this writing mean? After a while, I had to go off someplace like a little wounded animal and sit and stare. I was, for sure, in a state of shock.
The motive, of course, is the creation of meaning. My courses have been my primary creative outlet over the years, my way of ordering ideas and structuring responses to ideas. The devotion and efforts of my students represent their creations of meaning. So many stories inside these folders. So many feelings. So many admirable attempts to make their experience count on the page. A lot of pain, and even more love. And now, I have to throw these musty folders away? Dispose of these passionate words? How can I do it?
But here’s the truth: in spite of all those pages, those represented moments are over. So why keep the residue?
Maybe I did it on behalf of this very moment, when I would be put in the position to reflect and remember all the hours of reading and commenting, of encouraging and correcting. Maybe I knew I would need some sort of tangible remnant of the energy and intention it takes to foster good writers. Maybe, in some sick way, I thought this was a legacy. Maybe I thought I could hold on to experience, I could make it last, or make it concrete.
But I can’t, can I?
Experience just keeps on moving; that’s why it’s called experience. The purpose of life is to “experience” your experiences and then scuttle on to the next moment. I can’t pin them down, or make them tangible, but I sure have tried: I’ve collected them in file folders; cut and pasted them into books and articles; photographed them and filmed them; put them into blogs; I’ve shelved the remnants of experiences of 44 years. I’ve done what every creative does, tried to make real and solid those fleeting sensations of mind and body, tried to convince myself that this living I’m doing is meaningful and tangible.
But it’s not. It’s all fleeting stuff, this life. It’s little whisps of clouds that sail above the surface of the earth and dissipate almost immediately after forming. You see them for a moment. They bring you joy or pain or pleasure or discomfort, makes no difference whether the sensation is good or bad. It’s all mere sensation, a momentary experience in the body or in the mind. And it will go away, as all things do. My creations go away, my students go away. Their work goes away, my work goes away. My body goes away. It all goes away and as joyful and rewarding as my life at Rollins has been, and as kind and generous as all my colleagues have been in congratulating me on my good service to the college, in a few months, no one will be saying my name. No one will remember me. No one will care that I have all the papers that Jana Steele wrote in 1999 and all the pages I wrote to her about how to be a better writer. I throw her file folder in the pile that covers my floor, pick up my purse, and leave the building. I cannot do any more.
This is a complex emotion I’m feeling. I can’t define it, explicate it, or map it. Is it nostalgia? Is it yearning? Is it remorse? Is it the fear that what I do comes to nothing so easily? Letting go of things like this causes the mind to reel with wonderings and what ifs and could I haves.
But too late. It’s all done now. It’s over. And it’s time to go. Don’t make it more complex or more sad or more important that it is. It’s another experience, this leaving. It’s here now, and tomorrow it will be gone. Let go of these physical attachments which shift and shimmy in meaning depending on the moment one constructs such meaning. Even that is ephemeral.
Let it go, dear one. And then, go ahead and be a little sad. A little anxious. A little hopeful and a lot pleased. Be it all, right here and now.