Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Ah, the joy of organizing: going through old papers

I don't know about you, but I'm not the most organized of people.

Oh, I'm not all that bad. My desk doesn't pile up too much before I clear it. You can walk a straight line through my house and not run into any large obstacles, such as stacks of magazines or old clothes.

No, the house is relatively neat. The parts that aren't are mostly safely hidden away in my "office." I'm not really sure why I put in the scare quotes--it is an office, a small bedroom with a skylight revealing a view of a beautiful old birch tree on this rainy day (which, through the magic of digital photography, I can show you even as we speak):

The office isn't as photogenic as the tree. So I'll post no photo of that. Best to leave it to your imagination.

This is what you would see, though, if you were here (besides neo-neocon herself, sans apple):

A bookshelf filled with literary and poetry journals, as well as books on poetry and writing, a dictionary, thesaurus, and rhyming dictionary; some framed prints on the wall featuring old pens and books; a calendar with paintings of women reading; two poorly functioning remote telephones (I can't seem to find a good one); and a bed for guests. There's also a large flat desk that holds my shiny newish computer. And a chair for said desk.

But on that desk we see the first evidence of problems to come: an old Brother word processor, circa--oh, I don't know, maybe 1980-something-or-other? I still remember when I exchanged my old electric Smith-Corona for it; the Brother seemed the latest word in typing advances. The ability to make corrections without needing erasable typing paper! Spellcheck! No more white out! Oh, it was wonderful, wonderful--although now it seems about as modern as a Model-T.

Why is it here? All my writing from the 80s and early 90s is still on it. I've been told there's no way to transfer the information except to laboriously enter it into my computer in the old-fashioned way, by keyboarding it. Needless to say, that's not my top priority now. So, there it sits, gathering the proverbial (and metaphoric) dust.

And those two file cabinets up against the wall are only half full. On the floor next to them, and spread out on the guest bed, are piles of papers.

I've got a master plan. Quite a while ago (how long ago I dare not say) I bought a system of files. Hanging files and regular folder files, tabs and accessories, all color-coordinated to allow me to separate my papers into categories: writing, memorabilia, photos, medical, financial, etc.--you get the idea.

I'm going to do it. I know I will. And yesterday I actually started. But one of the problems with starting is that it makes me confront what I already knew--that this is a large task. I know, I know--like hitting one's head on the wall, it will feel so good when it's over. But it's very far from over, despite my having put in about five hours last night.

But I've already realized some benefits. No, I haven't located everything I was looking for. Some official papers missing from my "offical papers" file, for example, are still AWOL. But I found the text of a children's book I'd written about twenty years ago, which had been lost for the last five. Some papers I need in connection with my license were, remarkably enough, in a large envelope marked "For license," which had been buried under a pile of others.

Going through much of it is a strangely emotional experience. Old cards--birthdays, anniversaries, loves gained and lost. Photos of me and my boyfriend who went to Vietnam, and his last letter, the only one I saved (for those of you who haven't read my posts on that subject: yes, he did return, but no, we didn't marry). Photos from college--me, impossibly young, sporting one of those long flippy "do's" that required setting on rollers the size of beer cans; old friends from that era, some of them now dead. Poems that make me cry when I stop to read them. My diplomas. A photocopy of the check from Central Casting Corporation I got for doing a "silent bit" as a dancer in the film "The Turning Point" (see this).

In one file entitled "School--grades and awards" are all my old report cards (height: 48 1/4 inches, weight, 51 pounds, first grade). Even now those report cards have the power to stir a hint of anxiety in me, remembering the drama of the reading of the names and the doling out of the little cardboard squares representing so much work. My SAT scores. My GRE scores. My scholarships, and some newspaper clippings announcing same. A little card of commendation with a gold star on it, given to me in third grade for a bunch of poems I wrote, illustrated, and compiled into a scrapbook for extra credit and for fun ("Snowflakes falling, down, down, down...)

Letters from a few famous people I wrote to who had the decency to write back, some at great length (Oliver Sacks, for one). A huge file of poetry I like that isn't anthologized in any books I own. My own poetry, with many different alternative drafts (ah, my biographer will be so grateful!) A folder filled with the condolence letters people wrote my mother when my grandmother died in the late 60s, which still have the power to evoke her warm presence and vitality.

So the benefits of going through papers aren't limited to getting organized. And in fact, that has yet to happen. But the folders are now in stacks, roughly sorted out. The next step is to toss about half this material--although not the half I just listed, of course. Wonder when that will happen.


At 2:02 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger SC&A said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:04 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger SC&A said...

Impressive. I can barely find my papers to file my tax return.

I do however have an a twenty year old electric razor I use as a paperweight. The empty battery compartment is now my secret hide-a-key location.

I usually need that key when I lock myself out.


At 2:07 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger nyomythus said...

I used to live in Tuxedo Park, NY -- ahh sometimes I miss New England.

At 2:49 PM, May 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that you wrote to Oliver Sacks. What was that correspondence about?

(If you've already blogged about it, just point me to the right page...)

At 4:07 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger camojack said...

Yeah, I'm lazy and disorganized too. But I manage...

At 4:32 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger Joan said...

The "archived" work on the Brother WP machine could be scanned in quite easily and "read" by an OCR program (optical character recognition? that sounds right), and then saved in a modern word processing format.

Of course, that means you'd have to print and scan everything, but that's still probably less work than re-typing it all in. Depending on the content, it's the kind of thing you could hire a high school kid to do. That assumes that you can get print copies from the machine, which may not be true?

Just thought I'd mention it. OCR has really come a long way from its first incarnations, and the few times I've used it, I've been impressed.

At 4:32 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger Jamie Irons said...


I found this account of your "space" very moving.

As to all you have to organize, I don't know whether to envy your still having things like report cards from grade school (!!!), or to pity you for all the work it's going to take to organize everything.

For better or worse, my entire past, before the age of thirty or so, is already the dust which I will all too soon join.

My dad had a saying, "Two moves is as good as a fire," when it came to possessions, and he (we) proceeded to prove it by moves in my childhood between Ohio and Illinois, and then moves to Mexico, Argentina and Brazil in my college and medical school years, all of which eventually lost everything.

My father is still alive, at 84, but his memory of all this is gone.

It all makes me think of a story about one of the Zen patriarchs (I think) who, on watching the line of smoke rising from his mother's funeral pyre, achieved sudden enlightenment.

Jamie Irons

At 8:37 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger goesh said...

When all is said and done, you will probably discard little of it, but it will be, ah, better organized.

At 8:37 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I remember the story about one house where a woman was buried in the trash, and died due to suffocation before they found out what had happened. The woman was a pack rat and was collecting stuff in her house to the decks.

At 8:53 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger The Saturnyne said...


I was looking for a philip larkin poem and found your blog first...

When i saw your words about changing your political religion, i was all ready to roll my eyes and top it off with an arched eyebrow... from over this side of the Atlantic, the Republicans are viewed as extreme right-wing, and the Democrats as right-wing. mind you... our so-called left-wing party (Labour) is also now viewed as right-wing, too! Bloody Tony Blair... we really really hate the guy, and his spin, and his strange eyes hinting of madness, and his righteousness... ugh!

But reading deeper into yr writings, i find i quite like you and your blog, regardless of any political leanings.

Pleased to meet you.


At 9:52 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger Fat Man said...

Seconding Joan. I have found the OmniPage that came with my Canon multi function 5500 to be very good. On freshly typed copy, it should be almost flawless.

At 9:56 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

The Saturnyne: Your reaction is very gratifying. One of the reasons I write this blog is in hopes that people will realize that those on the right are not demons (although I still don't consider myself to be "on the right," I've grown used to the fact that others define me that way).

Very glad you stopped by.

At 10:03 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

And thanks to all who offered suggestions on transferring the writings from the Brother.

Although at the rate I'm going, the technology will have been totally transformed by the time I get around to doing it.

At 10:04 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

sb: I wrote to Oliver Sacks about a memory glitch a friend of mine was having involving the words to songs. Sacks wrote back a 4-page letter, longhand!

Anyone who wants to read an excellent book of his--his best, IMHO--should take a look at An Anthropologist On Mars.

At 10:05 PM, May 02, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Why don't the Brits or the Europs "get it" and stop talking about Republicans and Democrats being right/left wing? Why don't they talk about what issues they have different from their own politicians? Is that too much "cosmopolitanism" to ask of the mightily cultured Euros and Brit lands?

Why's everything have to be centered around their own little village and scale of balance, anyway? What happened to cosmopolitan's natural tolerance and understanding of foreign cliques, customs, and politics? What happened to "All politics are local"?

I don't know. But I do know that cosmopolitanism is a good thing and parochialism is a bad thing.

At 3:31 AM, May 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...I feel my dis-organization guilt rising...

At 11:56 AM, May 03, 2006, Blogger Farm Hand said...


Scan it into your computer. That's what I did with my old stuff that I thought I might want to keep. Better than nothin', and you can then toss all the paper.

At 7:10 AM, September 14, 2006, Blogger moonchild said...


I came across your blog when looking for one that might relate to the one I've just started. I too am a woman in my 50s, with an office that sounds like yours and politics to match. Amongst my papers are some bits and pieces of my mothers writings, poetry she'd had published, diaries etc, decaying further every year, so I thought what a good idea to make a blog as a sort of tribute to her and her creativity. She wrote a charming family newspaper called The Sparkling Brook starting in 1938 when she was about 10. So I scanned some pages, scanned a few postcards sent from a POW camp in WW1 by my grandfather ... and had every intention of next adding the diaries my mother wrote as a teenager in the 1940s. Except that now they've disappeared. I know they are in this house, probably in one of my 'treasure' boxes. And I know I will have to go through piles of papers to find them and along the way find the memorabilia you talked about, all evoking various memories.
It's a big job and I'll do it ... soon. First I have to stop reading blogs and pack my bag to catch a flight first thing in the morning. But when I come home ....

At 11:51 AM, May 19, 2007, Blogger Sparroweye said...

I have the same problem, multiplied.
Before I could print out all my poetry and my daughters from my Brother WP 5500, it died. I was needing a Sara Teasdale. Luckily a fellow blogger knew the poem. For the other ones, I am ####.


We are two eagles
Flying together
Under the heavens,
Over the mountains,
Stretched on the wind.
Sunlight heartens us,
Blind snow baffles us,
Clouds wheel after us
Ravelled and thinned.

We are like eagles,
But when Death harries us,
Human and humbled
When one of us goes,
Let the other follow,
Let the flight be ended,
Let the fire blacken,
Let the book close.

-Sara Teasdale


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