Out of the Closet

by Elizabeth Cunningham

Note: We are in the process of getting ready to move from our home of twenty-six years to an apartment at High Valley. I am keeping a journal of the process. Below is an entry.

I finally open a dreaded closet, the one in my office (that used to be part of the attic). I know there are boxes of Christmas ornaments there and probably manuscripts, but my long ignorant bliss of rest of the contents is ending.

I pull out a box with a tarnished silver tray and another also tarnished tray with a glass cover (for smelly cheese?) and six small knives. Unused wedding gifts? What to do with them now? Polish them up and give them away? Add them to High Valley’s eclectic communal stash of cookware and plates?

There is a more poignant box presided over by Glumph (a stuffed lion who was hard for a three-year old to haul around; the name denotes the effort) and Elsa (of later vintage, named, of course, for the lioness in Born Free). Their already-worn fur now sports embedded mouse droppings. Chewed insulation lies in clumps, dry dirty snow that will never melt to any spring. And in the rest of the box: all my writings from just before college till just after as well as letters from my college teacher and mentor who took lavish epistolary care of me long after I was his student.

So I sit and read and sift, marveling at all the spiral notebooks filled with the ink of cartridge pens and the academic papers painstakingly typed on onion skin paper with handwritten corrections. I made far more attempts at writing fiction than I remember. I am impressed with some of my papers and exams. Such an unedited trove, one I would like to discover after my own death, though my progeny may not feel the same way.

Now I compose on the computer. I have lots of word files, but I weed through them, every now and then, pressing the delete key with a fair amount of ruthlessness. I do write and receive a lot of email (most of which I don’t save), but I think I wrote more letters, certainly longer ones, and I received wonderfully long, detailed letters in return.

I have lived long enough to see the passing of an age.

What will be in the closets of the digital age? Will there be no more steamer trunks of journals? (I have one of those, too, crammed with all the journals I wrote till my journal became electronic five years ago.)

I find I like typing with two fingers and having my words so easy to store and transport. I don’t like the mouse shit (or the pee on some of the pages) or the dust of the ages in the boxes. I don’t like the space all my old writings require. But I do like the thrill of discovery, of a largely forgotten life revealed. I felt the same way when we found my father’s correspondence with his father. I knew my father had been hostile toward my ambition to write, but until we found the letters, I never knew his father had said the same awful things to him, almost word for word. (Therein lies another post).

Will going through someone’s computer files or Blackberry yield the same excitement or poignancy?

I am going to have to kiss Glumph and Elsa goodbye (carefully so as not to ingest the droppings). I will probably keep only a small sample of handwritten drafts of published work. But I will keep the term papers and the early unpublished strivings in a file box from Staples. Enough is revealed in these that the journals, as I’ve always intended, can burn.

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Elizabeth Cunningham May 3, 2011 - 7:15 pm

Hello from Maeve: An FYI for historic record. Eliz wrote two hand drafts of Magdalen Rising before typing on the computer. The Passion of Mary Magdalen was the first book she revised on computer going straight from the first hand draft. She composed Bright Dark Madonna and Red-Robed Priestess on computer entirely. No comment from me except to say that in performance, at least, she has returned to the oral tradition eschewing the written word entirely!

Meredith Gould May 3, 2011 - 9:52 pm

Ah yes, the Inward Ho Treasure Hunt that accompanies packing and moving. At this age and stage of my life I was perfectly content to read through lots of stuff and then toss it rather than schlepping it to Baltimore. Might have done otherwise if progeny were involved.

Kissing Glumph and Elsa goodbye? Really? Them I'd probably fumigate and keep!

Love abiding…

Unknown May 5, 2011 - 4:01 pm

I look forward to getting a dumpster! Truly. But I know I'll keep too much. I've already partly packed 2 huge steamer trunks in the barn's attic with photos of my father's (he was a wonderful photographer), parents' school, and my own boxes of slides. And another with typescripts of unpublished masterpieces(?).

And I haven't even started.

Brooke May 6, 2011 - 1:58 am

Beautiful. Thank you. So much to think about here. This post brought up a lot in me. Something feels so familiar through all aspects of my being, having to decide what to cherish–knowing that it feels so much better not to have to carry anything, but that there is a preciousness to something that you can handle, can track, even by way of penmanship.

I think the biggest change I've had to digest is digital pictures, from the change from developing from film and holding the pictures in my hand, to having them forever sitting in my computer, (as I have no follow through with getting them out of there) with the threat that they could be wiped out. Somehow it feels much less safe than a box of albums threatened by flood or fire, or mouse droppings!

Good questions. I wonder if my daughters will feel nostolgic for a Kindle, when something snappier comes out? Weird to think about.

Good luck with your move, and sending wishes that you enjoy your rediscovering, sorting, keeping and letting go.


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