The paper clutter is driving me over the edge!

The “paperless revolution” we hoped for when computers first made their appearance certainly has not come to fruition. Apparently digitizing everything only made it that much easier to print multiple copies of everything. It seems as though I spend half my free time sorting through papers of all kinds, trying to figure out what to keep and what to throw away, and then feeling overwhelmed by all the papers I’ve held onto over the years, and guilty for the boxes and bags full that I’ve sent to the landfills and recycling centers. (Maybe I had the right idea, after all, the summer before college when I threw all my juvenile journals into a wire bin and set fire to them.)

It would be difficult enough if I only had to go through the papers I have collected myself over the years—journals and notebooks, poetry manuscripts, old calendars, school papers, scrapbooks and photo albums, postcards and letters, my children’s drawings, clippings of garden designs, brochures I’ve picked up along the way, maps of places I’ve been, address books, tax forms, insurance policies, old checkbook registers, and on and on. But in addition to all that, every day except Sunday the postman brings another pile of paper for me to deal with.  Ironically, today in my email, I received an invitation to register for a three-day workshop in Montreal for “professional organizers.” (Don’t even get me started on email clutter!)

Some weeks I try to go through the mail as soon as it arrives, but usually after a day or two of that, I get overwhelmed and just let all the bills, the fliers offering package deals on cable and Internet services, and those pleas for worthy causes pile up again. And then there are the magazines I don’t have time to read and the catalogs of things I can’t afford or don’t want. I admit I ordered some of these myself, deliberately inviting the clutter into my home, but I did not ask for the businesses to share my name and address with other businesses that think they might somehow talk me into buying even more magazines and ordering from more catalogs. But sometimes I fall for it, despite my better judgment. Just this week I accepted the offer of a free magazine called Yes!, which is printed on 100% post-consumer waste paper by some nonprofit organization called the positive futures network or some such. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

I should just go ahead and buy one of those monster shredders like my son, the ex-CID agent, uses—the kind that will shred an entire envelope full of fake credit cards, CDs, card stock, and multiple pieces of paper. But my shredder only takes six thin pieces of paper at a time (and that grudgingly), so I always open every single envelope and sort the contents. The bits that have my personal information on them I shred, and  the rest I recycle. Lately I have even begun taking the time to tear my address off the backs of catalogs before recycling the rest, although I know my address is not in any way private information and could easily go into the black plastic garbage bags that I put out on the curb each Wednesday.

Opening each envelope the way I do, and being a print junky as I am, means I tend to read all those “personalized” letters from environmental and political organizations, urging me to take action, quickly, before it’s too late, so in addition to feeling guilty for the sheer waste of all this paper, I also feel guilty for  not responding to the pleas to help such worthy causes. These marketers know that if they can get me to focus on just one individual prisoner of conscience or one oil-covered bird or one wolf pup about to be shot from a low-flying helicopter or one cancer victim or one child  suffering from cleft palate or orphaned by the latest natural disaster, I am more likely to write that check.

And yet, it’s not paper in general that I object to. It’s the cheapness of certain paper, the slimy, gritty feel of the sales ads; the garish colors of the catalogs; the invasive type screaming at me to sign up for cable for only $59.95 a month for life, although I do not own a television. But good paper is something entirely different. I love fine stationery, quality drawing paper, watercolor paper, well-made journals, clever scrapbook paper, heavy textured hand-made paper with deckled edges, marbled end papers, brightly colored tissue paper, delicate origami paper, clean new notebooks with unbroken covers. I value the paper for itself—the look and feel of it—but also for the promise it holds of beautiful drawings or insightful writings. I think about stories I have heard of people living under repressive regimes around the world, who dared to write in tiny script on precious scraps of paper.

Recently, my son, who is in Afghanistan with the Fourth Infantry, told me that the only thing the children in his village have asked for has been paper and pens. I can imagine how they must feel, to have something important to say but no place to record it. Even though I had plenty of paper and crayons and markers as a child, having been raised in a family of college professors, I loved getting new school supplies each year. Something about those clean notebooks and new pencils made it seem that anything was possible. I also remember when a shiny piece of white shirt board was a treasure, and I would take my time before deciding how to use it because it might be awhile before I got another one just like it. So when my son told me about the children wanting something to write on, I immediately went out and bought thirty composition books and sixty pens and packaged them up to send across the sea. I only wish I might have a chance someday to read what the children write.


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