Whenever I go back home, my parents tell me it’s time to clean. They’re talking about my room, the one in which a rainbow ship-shaped kite still hangs from the ceiling, and the animal stickers still cling to the bedside table. It’s juvenile, to say the least, but I’ve never been one for re- decoration; there’s an unnamed betrayal in making one’s childhood room presentable. The most I could do for the walls was leave the giant poster board covered with cut- out graphics from newspapers and cheap song lyrics where it fell behind the radiator. To throw it away would be crude.
We have a problem with clutter in my household. My mother has kept a couple boxes of her favorite clothes that fit neither her nor me, just so she can pull them off the top shelf every once in a while. She has every medical report I ever received in a yellow binder in the closet, next to a tiny shoe my grandmother knitted for me when I was first born. She has kept every report card, congratulatory certificate, music playbill in overstuffed folders with Sharpie taglines on the covers: MAYA, 5TH – 8TH GRADE. They fill most of a shelf next to an extra bed. They have come in use only very rarely, if at all. I wonder when she will throw them out. I wonder if she was lying when she said she still has my baby teeth in a jar.
In another form, this article could detail a family saga about all the things we have not cast into the gnashing teeth of the garbage truck that wails outside my window— but what I really want to say is this: don’t be like us. The purging I undertook in my room last month involved a few too many dust mites and trips to the trashcan to be entirely favorable. There were some sharp paper cuts. There was some unnecessary figurative tear-wiping. The whole endeavor, which took several hours and involved only one corner of the entire room, was not particularly successful. At least half the relevant materials were just shifted to the back of the attic. The ceiling is so low that it’s impossible to stand up straight. There was a moment of horror when I thought of having to single-handedly clean out the entire house, after it has emptied, but let’s leave the morbidity aside; it’s not worth dwelling on.
A catalogue of the debris: at least 17 glossy-covered playbills (my mother once suggested that I keep a record of every performance I attended in a notebook which is now chock-full with stapled booklets); a set of red-pen-marked pages on the grammatical intricacies of the Spanish language; a spiral-bound booklet on neurobiology and another on the AP Calculus exam; planners with neatly checked boxes next to each finished task; several extended sections of notes on the structure of foreign governments; two sets of schedules with the room numbers marked; and several examinations that nobody really wants to talk about again.
I kept the English essays, of course, and the political philosophy notebook with the one essay of Hannah Arendt I intended to—but did not—remember, and the notes from calculus as proof that I once drew the most elegant derivatives before everyone decided that I was only a humanities student, and the booklet from my summer course with stories of Latin American authors whom I wish I could quote. Afterward, I pulled the playbills out of the trash for a moment and wrote the names on a sheet of lined paper with the idea that at least I could mention their names in an article, and that would be memory- device enough. Then I felt disgusting for doing so, and I left the list at home, where I cannot refer to it. It’s on the left-hand side of the table, if you really want to see it.
I called my mother after I hauled everything up the at- tic stairs, wiped dusty hands on dusty jeans, and put the peg back in front of the door so it looked like part of the wall again; my father must have been reading spy novels when he designed it, or maybe he was just being practical. “I’m doing the same thing!” my mother said over the phone. “There are all these papers from thirty years ago in my old office, and I’m not sure what to do with them.” Why had she kept them in the first place? She found an excuse: perhaps she would write a survey of the transformation of scientific language, quoting from the documentation. To my knowledge, my mother has never written anything of the sort. But, to be fair, I also found more than enough scraggly-armed justifications for preserving the now-worthless artifacts of years past.
We have a problem with memory in my family. We are afraid of what we will miss when people ask us about our- selves. The records of our work remain so we can say we have worked, even if we forget the exact content of what we have said. There’s something juvenile about it, but it is easier to gather proof than to redecorate our forgotten places. At least now I can cross from the entryway to the broken fan in the middle of my room in two steps, without tripping on a dog-eared textbook of facts unlearned.
We were, and still are, mistaken about what it means to save. We upload thousands of photos, never delete our e-mails, and stock-pile files like munitions in wartime. We say it is easier this way, without considering what we will need when our mothers finish cataloguing our existences. We are comforted by the millions of unseen square feet in data storage centers of Nevada, and Utah, and Georgia. We assume these monstrous buildings can hold us and the collections we never managed to organize. We think we will even- tually sift through all the materials with the whirring of our own internal CPUs. It takes cluttered rooms, the ones we outgrew while we were away, to remind us what is finite.
If you want to read this article in the future, it will be in the bottom-right drawer of my desk. But you should feel free to discard it, along with the rest of the items that have stacked up on your table. It will not be a loss.