“Read Before Tossing”

In cleaning out old (paper) files, I found those words on a folder with my dad’s initials. He was an incorrigible saver of almost everything, including clothes and shoes. He made a practice of clipping articles from magazines and newspapers, scribbling in the margins the names of one of his seven children whom he thought should find this article interesting. After his death, we found stacks of articles he had saved, which somehow never reached us. Because these missives often were tinged with my father’s biases, they weren’t entirely welcome, especially since my father and I had different, if not polarizing, political views.

Yet, I inherited the need or desire to save articles from magazines or newspapers, stashing them away in folders and large envelopes, which have been sitting for decades unbothered until I embark on a cleaning project in the basement or the back of my closet. I have found articles I saved 10, 20, even 30 years ago on subjects that no longer mean anything to me. In a file folder in my cabinet called “Articles, interesting,” I found a 2001 interview with former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and an article about “Truth in Advertising” from 2001. I can no longer  remember why I found those articles from 20 years ago interesting, but you can be sure I won’t be rereading them to find out. Today, I need to educate myself on new issues and challenges—the Ukraine war, gun violence, climate change.  

The articles I saved when I was younger appealed to me at a certain time of my life, addressed my emotional state at the time or validated some political or social issue I was passionate about. Similarly, I have books (too many) that seemed profound in my 20s but are meaningless to me today. The passions of youth are not the concerns of old age. In my younger years, I was preoccupied with finding work and buying a house, finding stable footing with my parents and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My parents are long dead, and, although I’m still trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, my choices have narrowed, and I’m now focused on how to make the most of my remaining years.

I wish I could go back to my younger self and tell her: things change, you’ll change. Don’t save so much. Donate that book instead of putting it on your shelf. Throw out those articles after you read them. But it’s too late, and I’m left to deal with a lifetime of accumulations. So, as I continue what seems to be a never-ending project to get rid of things and simplify my life, I’ll toss before reading. Sorry, Dad.

11 thoughts on ““Read Before Tossing”

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  1. Thanks for posting this, Kathy. I’m turning 70 next month and am going through so many mixed emotions. I’m also bogged down with a lifetime of accumulated books, papers, articles, etc. I’m finding that my possessions–even the ones I love and appreciate–are now a burden. My children won’t want them, and I wonder where the many objects will find a new home. At the same time, I cling to them because they evoke sentiment. I’m too attached to clothing that my mother bought me, along with the artwork that I’ve inherited, etc. I’m striving to fit into my life the things that truly make me happy in this old-age phase of life.


    1. It’s not an easy process, I agree. I have fine china teacups from my grandmother, which I never use, but remind me of her. For me, the issue is that I can’t find what I need because it’s buried under the old stuff I don’t use. I need to simplify my life in order to make it easier, especially as my memory gets worse. So maybe I’ll save one of the old china cups, but, as you said, who do I give the old china cups to? I don’t have children, and even second-hand shops don’t want the teacups. And so we persevere.


    2. One thing I like to do is take photos of clutter-ish that have sentimental value, then get rid of them. I can always look at the photos if I wish, and those won’t take up any space online. Once I started doing this during my “purge modes”, I actually found that I don’t feel the need to look at the photos much! Strange how that works. 😀


  2. I have so much “stuff”! I’ll bet I could part with 50% of it and never miss it. A few months ago I thought I’d hit on a plan — once a week fill just one large trash bag with anything at all and put it in that week’s trash. It doesn’t take long to fill one trash bag. The first one was quickly filled just standing in my closet. … but I haven’t filled another one since. So much for that plan. Besides, there’s a lot of stuff that just isn’t trash. Unused, maybe long forgotten, yes, but not trash. I still have high school and college yearbooks, for Pete’s sake! Not fair to leave all this for my son to deal with. Maybe I need to get that book about death cleaning.


    1. Susan, I hear you. I like your plan about filling a garbage bag each week. But, like you, I probably wouldn’t keep up with it. There are too many other things to take care of. I could probably get rid of 70% of my belongings and never miss them. I guess I just need to make a commitment to myself.


    2. Susan, I have that Swedish death cleaning book, and I think it’s very good, but the trick is that you have to read it! The few pages I’ve read have flags all over them, so I’m sure it will bristle with flags by the time I’m done.


  3. Ah, Kath, I’m going through this right now. I found about 5 file folders all labeled “Poems.” They contain my poetry from a workshop I was in PLUS all the scribbled-on drafts. What was I thinking! This is a good thing we’re doing, trying to lessen the load for whoever will be left to deal with our “stuff.” But oh there is SO much! And you really nailed it with this line: “The passions of youth are not the concerns of old age.” No kidding.


  4. I started writing a diary when I got married, 54 years ago. My husband was away half of the time and, although I worked all day in a library and was finishing my degree, I felt very lonely. The diaries were a company. I became a lawyer, I retired, and kept writing diaries until last year, when I decided to destroy them. I read them all, for the first time. It was my life, my own, not anybody’s else. Why should I leave them behind?
    Like Barry, I photographed the important pages, relating to the birth of my children and grand children, special holidays, death in the family, the adoption of a much loved dog, and so on, and sent the photos to the persons involved. They were delighted (with the happy pages), sometimes they had forgotten the events. It was a painful and joyful journey through my adult life, but I don’t miss those 54 note books at all! I can say that I feel free:-)
    The photos come next!!


    1. Conceição, I admire you for getting rid of your diaries. Like you, I started keeping journals when I was young. I wrote to record my life but also to untangle my own thoughts. I don’t want anyone to see them, but I’m not ready to throw them out. I’m hoping to reread them again and get some sense of what I did with my life.


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