There are a few things that people should know about me. One of the first is that I am a compulsive archivist. This might be a pretty obvious thing to see for those on this site. One of the reasons that I write so much is that I am desperate to not let slivers of experiences fall through my fingers. I want to take snapshots of my life, want to freeze moments in amber. Some of the ways this happens is obvious: when I write about the North Dakota caucus, I preserve the objective outline of that exciting event for posterity. But although it isn't obvious to the reader, when I read this, I think of myself on my hands and knees, lifting up paving stones with a crowbar inside of a courtyard that reflected light off of bright white walls directly onto me, because that is where I was when I "wrote" it in my head. Sometimes reading something I wrote will give me total recall of where I was when I first had the idea of it. This compulsive archiving of mine is not a terrible habit, although I do realize that it might cause negative effects when I wish to store physical objects.
The second thing I want to say is that my cat died five days ago. This has caused me a lot of grief. It has also caused me a lot of guilt, because this has been a death-heavy year for me. Four people I have known in varying degrees have passed away this year, but for the immediate tactile impact, the absence of my cat is the most disconcerting for me. In the best of times, I am afraid to change things around me, for fear of losing something ineffable. After a death, things become even worse. It took me several days to clear up the little tupperware lid of cheese crumbs I tried to feed him in his fading days, before realizing that my cat, fastidious even for a cat, would have been annoyed at such a thing being left alone. But I am afraid that every change in my environment is obliterating the past.
Shaking myself out of this blank sense of grief, I have tried to straighten out and remove some old paper. As a volunteer GED tutor, I have reams of scribbled on notebook paper in which I have tried to lay out mathematical concepts. I can't carry around these papers through all the moves I might take in my life. And what will happen to them in the far future? Will I pass them down as valuable heirlooms to my family? At some point, they have to go. But looking through them, it was hard to decide what to throw away, because every piece of paper brought back flashes of memory for me. Me and my student, sitting around a conference table built for 22 people so that we could stare at what I etched on notebook paper. Some of them bring back specific memories of specific days, some of them left me scratching my head wondering what I was on about, and some just gave me a general sense of work accomplished, connections made. How could I throw this out?
The answer I have to come to, for my own sanity and for my own logistics, is that these papers do not show what I have done. Sure, it is great to have a memory, but I don't tutor students so I can have a sheaf of ragged looking lined paper to leaf through, admiring my own doodles. The point of what I am doing is that in some way, I am changing someone. (And changing myself). I am teaching things that they can take out into their life, and improve it, objectively or subjectively. I can never know what results might spring from teaching, but I know they aren't confined to what I felt around that table. While my memories are great, when I hang on to the memories, I forget what was behind them. The way for me to really appreciate what is not present, is to remember that even when it was present, its presence was not all that was there.
At least I have to keep telling myself that.