The Victorians I study were, it seems, always having bonfires, destroying personal correspondence before it could make private secrets public knowledge. Readers and scholars have been lamenting (and lampooning) such bonfires since basically the dawn of the twentieth century. The worst story I know in this vein is of a young woman who, while she was in medical school, was invited over to a prominent critic's house for tea. This man had known her father (who, by this point, had been dead for more than thirty years). And on this day, he had invited her round so that he could tell her about how he and another old friend of her father's had just burned all of his remaining papers. She never went back to this man's house.
Today, I'm getting a sense of why it is that this critic might have felt the glee he did when he burned his dead friend's papers. Partway through my third can of shredding, I realized that my zeal for the task was mounting--and simultaneously I realized that whatever I shred will be gone for good. Recognize that the papers I'm shredding are a decade old: they are now things like bank statements from my first semester in graduate school, or my first graduate school auto insurance, or co-pay receipts from my first years in Ithaca. These are not papers that I have any reason to keep. But those simultaneous feelings of transgression--I'm destroying these!--and of anxiety--what if I need them later?!--are strong nonetheless. I'm overriding them at every turn.
Among the papers through which I sorted this afternoon, I found the printout of my five chief strengths, courtesy of the StrengthsFinder test I took during the year in Rochester. My Ohioan/Iowan/Ohioan friend had used Now Discover Your Strengths during orientation for her job in Des Moines and sent me a copy, curious as to what my strengths would reveal themselves to be. I may have mentioned that I have a freakish love of personality tests. When the book arrived, I went straight to the companion website, entered my product key, and got to work. The five strengths I was deemed to have seemed spot on to me, and as I read through their descriptions now, I can see just why it is that I gravitate to the kinds of tasks I do--and why others are so difficult. It's the strength in the middle--"Input"--that feels almost uncannily right today:
Input: You are inquisitive. You collect things.... Whatever you collect, you collect it because it interests you. And yours is the kind of mind that finds so many things interesting. The world is exciting precisely because of its infinite variety and complexity. If you read a great deal, it is not necessarily to refine your theories but, rather, to add more information to your archives. If you like to travel, it is because each new location offers novel artifacts and facts. These can be acquired and then stored away. Why are they worth storing? At the time of storing it is often hard to say exactly when or why you might need them, but who knows when they might become useful? With all those possible uses in mind, you really don't feel comfortable throwing anything away. So you keep acquiring and compiling and filing stuff away. It's interesting. It keeps your mind fresh. And perhaps one day some of it will prove valuable.Indeed. Though today I'm feeling more comfortable throwing away the useless things that have accumulated in my life, I'm also reveling in my rediscoveries--not the least of which is my Certificate of Live Birth, whose whereabouts I knew (roughly) but which I haven't actually seen in years. And, lo and behold, my birthtime is listed differently on the birth certificate than in my familial memory--6:04 p.m. instead of 6:03 p.m. And my mother is away from the Cabinet this week, so it may be a few days before we can get a verification. (But she'll tell us. She was there. She'll know the answer.)