January 27th, 2011

Going through the files

Yesterday I took on the chore of trying to tidy up and streamline my filing cabinets.

Not one of my favorite activities. But in a way it is—at least the fantasy I have regarding how the files will end up. Streamlined, color-coded, wonderfully organized so I can go there immediately, open the correct drawer, and find anything I’m looking for in an instant. All the extra stuff I don’t need gone, with only the essentials remaining.

Dream on.

In the meantime, I found myself stunned by what’s in there that I’d forgotten. Oh, I knew about the medical records and the old report cards and my passport and that sort of thing. But the rest!

The letters, for example. Notes from literary magazines rejecting my short stories (the more precious ones stating: “we liked this but,” and “please send us more of your work.”) The letter from the magazine that had accepted my story (for $3,000!) pending a few word changes, and then promptly altered its policy and stopped publishing fiction; no sale. Postcards from my husband-to-be when we were courting (quaint word, that). A copy of my father’s will, probated when he died in 1977, beginning with what must have been the standard subject heading whenever it was composed: “IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN.”

On and on and on it went. Lists and lists of projects I’d thought of starting—now I’m old enough to know I never will do most of this stuff. Things I hadn’t known I’d had in the first place, or that I’d forgotten I’d saved. And all of it made of paper.

It struck me how archaic all this was, and how very thoroughly the computer has taken over. Letters? Who gets them anymore? And yet they seemed so much more real than any email possibly could be. All these years later I can still hold them in my hand, and they partake of the essence of the people who wrote them. Time has not yet made them so fragile they’re in danger of disintegrating.

But till then, they will sit in my filing cabinets. Who’s to say what’s essential and what’s not?

27 Responses to “Going through the files”

  1. vanderleun Says:

    Ah, the power of “The Letter”


  2. vanderleun Says:

    And we’ll never have songs like “Return to Sender” again:


  3. Perfected democrat Says:

    “It suddenly struck me how archaic all this was, and how very thoroughly the computer has taken over.”

    Once everything is in the “cloud”, it won’t take much to realize what sitting ducks we are; meanwhile the Obamatoids work to control the internet…

  4. SteveH Says:

    Hey i’ve still got love notes from Marlene Holt in the 6th grade. I’d like to say i’m the sentimental type. But getting tucked inside a folder that was my wish list for go carts and mini bikes is probably what saved them. :)

  5. Artfldgr Says:

    Lists and lists of projects I’d thought of starting—now I’m old enough to know I never will do most of this stuff. Things I hadn’t known I’d had in the first place, or that I’d forgotten I’d saved. And all of it made of paper.

    should have taken a lesson from pink floyds dark side of the moon (there is a reason why it was on the charts longer than any other album)


    Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
    You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
    Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
    Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

    Tired of lying in the sunshine
    Staying home to watch the rain
    And you are young and life is long
    And there is time to kill today
    And then one day you find
    Ten years have got behind you
    No one told you when to run
    You missed the starting gun

    And you run, and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking
    Racing around to come up behind you again
    The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
    Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

    Every year is getting shorter
    Never seem to find the time
    Plans that either come to nought
    Or half a page of scribbled lines
    Hanging on in quiet desparation is the English way
    The time is gone
    The song is over
    Thought I’d something more to say

    imagine realizing all this when young and being frustrated by people all around you moving slowly and preventing you from saying more…

  6. Susanamantha Says:

    After my grandmother died, I found a stack of small diaries written by one of her ancestors, a farmer in Indiana in the late 1800′s, early 1900′s. Some days, only a few lines are written; other days, a few paragraphs.

    I was struck by the beginning of each day’s entry. It was always about the weather which controls farmers’ lives to this day. There was very little information concerning family or relationships.

    “Snow again. Icy. Bought flour from Charles. Hazel is poorly.”

  7. Parker Says:


    I have an ongoing 40 year correspondence via letters & postcards with a boyhood friend. We grew up on neighboring farms and graduated from high school together. We parted ways at 18 and headed off in different directions. We live 1,500 miles apart. We rarely see one another in person.

    Every 3 or 4 years we meet in Wyoming to spend a week hiking in the Wind River Range or the Bighorns. We talk on the phone every few months. Mostly, we write to each other; typically twice a month. So the written letter traveling by snail mail remains important to me.

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    Parker, you are fortunate.

    I think such things are quite rare these days, though.

  9. neo-neocon Says:

    vanderleun: and via Ann Althouse, we get the sad news that Gladys Horton, lead singer of the Marvelettes, has died. Leaving us with this apropos video:

  10. Jthoits Says:

    In my family (immediate and extended), only thank-you notes are still hand written and posted. And I think that is the right thing. All other news is exchanged via email.

  11. Mr. Frank Says:

    I recall that when I was in the service far from home, a letter was a big deal. When I was young my mother used to say that if you want to get letters you have to send letters. In her later years when her children out of state would call her on the phone regularly she would ask us to send a letter sometime so she could find one in her mail box.

  12. Parker Says:


    Please Mr. Postman… what a blast from the past. I have it on my Ipod. BTW, the Beatles did a good cover of this classic.

    Mr. Frank:

    Bless your mother. Write a letter to someone you love. “The sooner the better.”

  13. Baklava Says:


    As a computer person, I was shocked to find out I can’t get my utilities statement mailed to me anymore when I sign up for autopay.

    I like the paper record. I am a computer person yet I stack these things in a file in a drawer in a cabinet.

    Am I sick?

  14. rickl Says:

    That’s sad news about Gladys Horton. I love the Marvelettes.

    I still haven’t gotten around to cleaning out my father’s filing cabinets, and he died in 2002. As for mine, don’t ask.

  15. LAG Says:

    neo, when I retired a few years back, I was able to do something I had always wanted to do. A part of that includes volunteering at the local historical society. My advice is colored by that experience and is this: “PLEASE DO NOT THROW AWAY A THING!”

    And donate your papers. Archivists do toss material that they , but they can choose with a practiced eye to save the good stuff. Choose your repository carefully. If you were a collector of train couplers, you might want to offer your collection to a transport museum.

    But don’t imagine that you must have a formal collection or a theme or even much organization, though those things can make the material more valuable. Letters that discuss serious topics are always interesting.

    I think you’ve got a great potential collection if you consider what that really means. Your blog and all your writing and possibly other material constitutes a tremendous body of work that reflects on the events of the day.

    Don’t forget to include it when you consider what to do with your papers. (You might want to make sure the material is in a good long-lived medium, though. Most archives don’t have much of an ability to deal with 5 1/4 inch floppies anymore.)

    I recommend not waiting until the last minute or leaving the job to offspring/executors. Ask a professional.

  16. rickl Says:

    That’s the thing. Most of the things we save thinking they might be valuable someday usually aren’t.

    It’s the routine mundane useless junk that invariably turns out to be important to people in the future.

  17. Terrye Says:

    I still have all the letters my Grandmother sent me along with the Birthday and Christmas cards. Every now and then I get them out and I remember her. An email can not bring back the same sense of a person.

  18. ELC Says:

    The Carpenters too did a fabulous cover of Please, Mr. Postman.

  19. Deborah Says:

    Blessed are the letter-writers, for their words will be saved, to be read again and again.

  20. Parker Says:

    I write my children (usually a postcard) once a month. My kids are 40, 33, & 29. They rarely write back, preferring to call or e-mail, but they all tell me they save my missives for their children.

    The written letter/card is much more warm and human than the binary arrangements of electrons. Shakespeare on paper is richer and more alive than Shakespeare on your e-book.

  21. texexec Says:


    You reminded me how much a mess MY filing cabinets are. Next thing I know, you’ll be going on about dusting around your TV,DVD player, audio entertainment center with all those CD’s and DVD’s stacked up on the shelves.

  22. Wry Mouth Says:

    I have letters of correspondence from my best friend in high school, and to friends and family, circa the late 70′s and 80′s.

  23. Simon Kenton Says:

    Cleaning up the filing is too much. I make it a practice to toss 2-3 files each time I open a drawer. 1987 checks, where are you now? Gone to landfills, every one.

  24. Oh, the joys of things actually written on paper! | Cultural Rumbles Says:

    [...] post is fun, but the comments that follow are even more fun. Enjoy! This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← One of the bad things [...]

  25. Cap'n Rusty Says:

    We used to say “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Remember the song “Anticipation”? Being a G.I., overseas, and waiting for a letter from someone you loved . . . But now, with e-mail, twitter, Facebook, skype etc, there is no absence. Will there be no fondness?

  26. IgotBupkis Says:

    > But till then, they will sit in my filing cabinets. Who’s to say what’s essential and what’s not?

    As someone who has retained probably 95% of all the non-spam e-mails he’s ever sent or received, I can state that the computer has not harmed this, it’s even made it easier.

    Modern storage media is so vast — a CD, with 700mb, easily holds most, if not all, of a year’s e-mails — and a DVD is substantially larger, that there’s literally no reason, really, to ever toss out an e-mail.

    You’ll probably need to keep a copy of the program that it’s stored using, and it may become difficult to recover it at some point, but, trust me, if someone wanted to access it, it’s still possible even without the program.

    Contrast that with NASA’s retention of early data from the first space probes — it’s all on mag tape, the specs for the tape machines themselves, and thus the formatting used on the tapes, largely gone forever.

    It may be possible to use forensic recovery/computing techniques to re-cover that data, it’s probably never going to be done.

    So those probes no longer “exist” except as ephemeral memories of mankind.

  27. Susan in Seattle Says:

    I hand write letters, for several reasons. I love good paper and its pull on the ink from a decent fountain pen.
    Whenever I receive a handwritten letter in the snail mail it feels like a treasure. The stamps are an altogether different story!

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