Magazine article The Christian Century

What's Worth Saving

Magazine article The Christian Century

What's Worth Saving

Article excerpt

LAST MONTH I MOVED from a large; dusty office into a smaller one that promises to be friendlier to my sinuses and lungs. The move presented a daunting task: sorting through 25 years of books, papers, and memorabilia. Even with a dust mask on, I had asthmatic chest pains, headaches, and tearing eyes with dark allergic shiners. I looked like a raccoon who has been spending too much time poring through old academic journals.

My subconscious got involved in the project, too. One night I woke up absolutely convinced that there was a five-drawer file cabinet next to my side of the bed. It was growing taller by the minute, like the Christmas tree in The Nutcracker. There never has been a file cabinet in our bedroom--let alone one tall enough to hit the ceiling or wide enough to keep me from rolling off the bed--but this image had come forth from a file cabinet in my own mind, with the sole aim of rebuking me for having collected so much stuff.

I got the message. I set out to perform what organizing guru Marie Kondo calls the "life-changing magic of tidying up." I dutifully discarded a mountain of articles that had once seemed important to my research, along with some weather-beaten writings of my own: manifestos for liturgical conservation and spiritual renewal; reviews of books by radical theologians whose celebrity days are long past; proposals for books I no longer want to read, let alone write.

As Kondo's KonMari method dictates, I focused on saving from landfill, shredder, and recycling bin whatever "sparks joy."This included a drawing by one of our sons, dating back to his preschool days, of two stick figures set against a pastel field, with their twig-like hands just barely touching and the inscription (presumably dictated to his teacher), "I like to walk with Mommy." Then there was a cache of several hundred handwritten pages of stories written by another son, arranged in folders sealed with duct tape and marked "TOP SECRET"--a buried treasure I discovered stuffed into the bottom drawer of a seldom-visited file cabinet.

There were also unclassifiable items--such as an article speculating about the acoustics of the Second Temple--that seemed more likely to provoke curiosity than to spark joy. I kept many things of this sort; my criteria were inevitably haphazard.

What struck me with the most force, as the mountain of discards grew, was the visceral awareness that so much of what we academics and writers pour into our books and articles is destined to crumble to dust. …

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