Cleaning Out the Files 

Memories are not made of this

Years ago, Julie and I sold the larger of the two houses we owned and moved into the smaller. We went from 3,000 square feet of space to less than a thousand. We had a potlatch of sorts, giving away bulky items and anything we hadn't used for several years. Even so, we ended up with way too many material possessions.

We've adopted rules that have slowly made things better:

If you buy something, you have to get rid of two similar somethings.

Recycle obsolete electronics ASAP.

Anything not used for a year is subject to unsentimental storage-benefit analysis.

Don't buy anything you don't need. Ever. A corollary to this rule is not to confuse what you want with what you need, as per Bob Dylan's remarks on debutantes.

We haven't obeyed these rules as well as we should have, but economist friends have pointed out that if every consumer were to do what we've been doing, civilization would collapse in six months. We've replied that by middle age, you don't own stuff, stuff owns you, and we don't want to be owned.

Emerson said it better: "Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind."

Lately I've been looking at old computer files--fiction, essays, killed articles, limericks, incomplete novels--and have realized that cyber-stuff can possess you as completely as the more tangible crap compacting in your bedroom closet.

Last month, before sending an old Power Mac off to the recyclers, I removed its hard drive, smashed it with a hammer, and tossed it onto my landscaping slash pile. It will be torched some snowy morning in January. I'll try not to breathe the fumes.

Trust me when I say that what I'm doing isn't anything like burning the Library at Alexandria. I'm getting rid of knowledge, but it's mostly the knowledge that it took me near forever to learn to write. After decades of teaching writing, I know false starts and pitfalls when I see them, and when I go through my files, there are lots of both. There are moments of excruciating naivete, moments of cloying self-indulgence, moments when my author's persona spills wetly onto the page, pleased with itself only because it is itself, which in retrospect isn't anything to be pleased about.

Most of the good work I did in my early career got published. What didn't get published didn't get published for a reason. I've been deleting right and left, sometimes saving a paragraph because it contains an idea possibly of value to someone else. A characteristic separating my published material from the stuff I've been deleting is that I had an audience in mind for the former. I had myself in mind for the latter.

Writing is sometimes seen as an act of pure selfishness, and sometimes it is, but the best writing is conceived as a gift. It's not always received as a gift--think Little Drummer Boy Ensemble Album--but even reluctant recipients will say it's the thought that counts.

A story:

When I was growing up in Sawtooth Valley, my parents were good friends with an older couple, Bob and Cotzi Young, who owned the Triple H ranch west of Stanley. Cotzi was the former Catherine Huntington, of the railroad Huntingtons, who had bought the Triple H about the time another railroad family was buying up Island Park and Jackson Hole and Sun Valley.

Cotzi had visited the Triple H as a high-society debutante and a Radcliffe student. There, she fell in love with Bob Young, a poor Idaho boy and one of the ranch's hired hands. When her family discovered the romance, they packed her off to Boston and married her to a Harvard man--a suitable fit for her station in life. The marriage was a big, expensive, formal affair, designed to be irreversible.

Cotzi didn't take to forced marriage. She filed for divorce within a year. Once free, she returned to Idaho and eloped with her cowboy. I don't know the details of her subsequent negotiations with her family, but they included the Triple H and a lifetime annuity and, from the looks of it, total estrangement.

For the next 40 years, Bob and Cotzi lived year-round at the Triple H. They never had children. They leased their pastures to local cattlemen and rode and hiked the Sawtooths, only selling the place when Cotzi's heart failure forced them to a lower altitude. Before that, while I was still in grade school, I had begun working for them, helping Bob around the ranch cabins, fixing fences, mowing lawns and irrigating. One day, while we were digging a post-hole, Bob told me that Cotzi had been a poet. She had written a 200-page epic poem her senior year at Radcliffe.

"I came in one day and found her in front of the fireplace," he said. "She was reading each page and then burning it. Tears on her face. She told me to go away, so I did. It broke my heart to watch her." He paused. "There have been things I can't help her with."

It was an odd and adult thing to tell to a 13-year-old boy, but I did get a picture of a woman who had sacrificed a life and a family to be with the man she loved. Maybe she hadn't known that sacrifice never reveals itself fully until after you make it.

Years later, I decided it was Cotzi's heart, not Bob's, that was breaking that day in front of the fireplace. These days, I count myself lucky, as I delete words I wrote when I didn't have a clue about sacrifice, that I never had to choose between the person I loved and the person I dreamed of being.

Adapted from the MFA in a Box blog, mfainabox.com.

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