I can see my lifetime piling up

Confronting the past in a storage unit full of Pandora’s boxes

“I can see my lifetime piling up / reaching from my bedroom to the stars”
 — Talking Heads

I save things. You know, for posterity. I’ve been doing it for years. It’s almost all paper: ticket stubs, journals, receipts, letters. In every era of my life I’ve ended up producing a couple shoeboxes’ worth of paper, maybe a crate. Not a big deal. Each time I’ve relocated — Texas, Washington, Maine, New York, abroad — I make an out-of-the-way trip to my storage unit back in California to drop off new boxes of ephemera I’ve amassed. And so it happened that my storage unit became a sort of life-bank in which I only made deposits.

I don’t think of myself as a particularly sentimental person. Everything I save is rationalized. I mean, it’s just paper, and paper hardly takes up any space at all. Plus the things I’ve saved are irreplaceable, which means they’re intrinsically valuable. Right?

As the storage unit filled up, though, rather than feeling rich with my own history I started to feel burdened. The size of those boxes in their $70/month concrete cell was far outweighed by the psychic space they took up. Though I may have been living an ultra-minimalist life in a tent in rural Maine, or an empty studio in Fort Worth, or someone else’s house in Brooklyn, I knew that my minimalism was a lie: I had a shitload of stuff. I had so much shit that I didn’t know half of what it was.

While in the process of another relocation across the country, this time for my first teaching job, I went to visit my family in California. I anticipated having some time on my hands and was excited to start preparing for my new classroom, my new career. But after a few days, the dread settled in. Now that my storage unit was only a few miles down the road, I swore I could feel it. My life bank was taunting me.

At first I tried to homeopathically cure myself by watching episodes of Storage Wars. It was no use. The unit, bulging with my unexamined history, beckoned me. Its boxes crept deeper into my thoughts. They sprouted antiquated metaphors, thumping on my psyche like the beating of an insidious heart. My boxes became Pandora’s boxes, full of all the evils of the world. These cardboard cubes of paper came to represent the emotional weight of my entire life — a life I didn’t know how to measure. A life I was admittedly afraid to really look at. All that paper, all that documenting and saving, proved I knew myself, didn’t it? Wasn’t it enough to just keep them, and keep the lid on them?

But even Pandora finally opened her boxes.

The next day I grabbed a box cutter and a flashlight and drove to the storage space. Then I put on Pandora and got to work.

I hoisted up the corrugated metal door and started opening things at random. One box was full of seventh grade notes (the kind we passed under the desk, meticulously folded like origami). Of course I saved those: the wannabe gangster handwriting and their proffered tween wisdom made them too anthropologically valuable to toss. Another box was full of mini to-do notebooks. I had to save those. The long-forgotten tasks with hand-drawn check marks next to them still fill me with a sense of accomplishment.

In matters of the heart, I’m a lightweight — two shots and I’m drunk. Within ten minutes, the nostalgia became overwhelming and oddly seemed to make me a little bloodthirsty. So I went for the kill, stabbing through the packaging tape on a crate that encased thirty years’ worth of journals and diaries.

Their covers were instantly recognizable. There were the cutesy Lisa Frank spiral-bound notebooks covered in childish script and the handsome leather volumes full of pretentious exhortations. Stacks of Moleskines. Ugly diaries with awful paper, ones I had been given as gifts. Just seeing them made me melt.

Then the dread came back, hard, like the hangover you have when you’re still partying.

I mean, what was I going to do with this stuff? Crates of photos, boxes of foreign maps: I’d been keeping it all for some future date when I would — what, work as an archivist for a museum of myself? Sell them as authentic relics on eBay once I became internet-famous? This wasn’t just about confronting my past, it was about reckoning with myself today. My inability so far to have made anything particularly monumental of my life meant that my shit was just shit — waste rotting away, worthless to anyone else.

This wasn’t just about confronting my past, it was about reckoning with myself today.

Yet those handwritten pages contained everything I was — everything I’d ever been, wanted, thought, hoped. They were just sitting there, collecting dust, taking up space. In the slow formation of galaxies, dust and space can eventually come together to form planets, they just need sufficient movement, time, gravity to do so. I felt the gravity, but I had no idea what to do with it. I’d either have to figure out how to harness it all in its ephemeral state and condense it into something solid, or I’d have to get rid of it, escape it, destroy it altogether.

There has seldom been a time in my life when I didn’t keep a record. Sometimes it’s taken the form of a diary. Sometimes it’s just a sentence with a date scribbled onto a silver cigarette wrapper. Writing down something novel from every single day is an instinct I didn’t need to develop; it’s always been with me. It may have originated with a casual remark my mother once made about it being hard to remember the details when you’re old; it may have simply been that I like to write and I like to collect, that when I was young and poor I had nothing else to write about and nothing else to collect but bits of my own life.

The recordkeeping started in earnest in my early teens. I’d write down or even draw in detail the outfit I’d worn to school, perhaps adding a sentence or two about the status of whatever social drama I was mired in. Of course I could say who cares to those details now, but then again they accurately portray my concerns at the time, which makes them admissible evidence in the ongoing trial of My Actual Self vs. My Idealized Conception of Myself. That theme continued, and though my self-reflections grew to incorporate the wider world, politics, theory, etc., they never stopped being vitally honest, viscerally me.

It’s one thing that I kept these records, but it’s another thing that I kept keeping them. I continued to record my days rather faithfully for the next twenty years. I still do. To quit would be to break the chain, to disregard the value of the work I’ve already done. Conversely, to continue is to invest in the idea that it is all building toward something. Or, more bluntly, to continue is to insist that it is something, that it has value, that there is a point.

As to that point, who the fuck knows. But the alternative––to go without recording, to live an era of my life without reifying it––sounds like such a waste. My memories are the blood of my life. They are a rich vein to draw from, a renewable goldmine. Past thoughts I’ve had and past selves I’ve been are my only wealth; they provide the foundation of what I can draw on today, if only I can access it. I’m out to capture it and preserve it, not just the highlights but the obscure, insofar as it’s possible.

In a short essay on life writing, author Zadie Smith wrote, “I realize I don’t want any record of my days. […] I never know what I was doing on what date, or how old I was when this or that happened — and I like it that way.”

Somehow I agree with this sentiment though it seems to run counter to my stance. Considering that she is a brilliant writer, someone who ostensibly has her own rich vein to draw from, forces me to consider that the vein, the blood, the memory that I am so driven to capture — that they are not so important after all, that the true lifeblood runs somewhere deeper.

So perhaps it’s all unnecessary. A contrivance, a vanity. Perhaps in the next great Northern California wildfire my boxes will burn along with all the potential I secretly hoped they held. Then I’ll never have to figure out what to do with the fortune I’ve been amassing. I would learn to go on as the rest of us do, those who never bothered to wring the value out of the rag that is the day.

But that day is not today. I have a flashlight in my hand and I demand to know what all this is for, why all the physical anthropology, why I have kept this storehouse of memory for so many years.

I sat down and peered into the crate of journals.

I reached for one of them. I opened to a random page. I started reading.

For five hours I sat there transfixed. I read journal after journal, cracked the seal on box after box. With every artifact I pulled out, my personal history came back to life in vivid detail. With every word I read, the self as a construct came into focus. My diffidence and trepidation at thirteen segued clearly into an overdetermined boldness at fourteen; my dissatisfaction at sixteen spilled into mania and extremism at seventeen; my views at nineteen set the tone for the following years, only to be denounced at twenty-four. The ensuing years in which I’d felt I’d lost my footing, the years in which I traveled light so as to escape the confusing weight of my history, were the same years I became burdened instead with loss, the loss of a clear sense of self.

And yet the touchstone was here. In this room are the collected works of my life. If I had a home, these are the things I’d have in it. Living the way I did, out of a suitcase, off the grid, traveling far and wide, prevented me from revisiting that touchstone, made it easy to become estranged from myself. For the first time in a decade I saw that my burden––all that weight––came from my attempt to resist it.

As I continued to read, all the pressure, all the gravity I had been consumed by fell away.

I didn’t move until the flashlight battery went out. In the dark, reality came back. My legs were numb. My stomach was empty, its growl echoing against the concrete walls. I started to get spooked out and began searching for my keys.

I had technically failed the day’s objective, gained zero ground in the Storage War. But I didn’t care. In the simple act of reading my own words I revived the past, restored my history, brought back all I had been into what I am now.

I packed up the crate and put it in the trunk of the car, looking forward to a long binge of staying up late and consuming the rest of it. And I did.

It took three months.

As I continued the excavation, the gravity asserted itself again, but this time it wasn’t just pulling against me, with me pulling against it. It was pulling me together. Even though everything I encountered was old, the event of finding it again was new, and everything from the past collapsed into the present, condensing itself into one great thing. It became imperative that I capture this also, and I did. I condensed all of it, all the facts of my history, all the names and dates, all the firsts, every memory, into a single book, a book that documents every single day of my recorded history. From all the whirling dust, this artifact was born. It’s not quite a planet but it is pretty heavy and it continues to grow.

As for the rest of my stuff, it’s still there in the storage unit. When I can afford to, I’d like to have a home to move it into. In the meantime, instead of treating it as a storehouse for deposits, I occasionally visit and pull a few things out of there and take them back with me. Today, opening a journal from 1999 is one of my deepest pleasures and never fails to restore me to myself. Next to me as I write is the book I created, the beautiful handmade monstrosity that contains some piece from every day of the year, every day of my life. It is a touchstone made of paper, a rich vein, a life bank that I draw from and add to all the time.

Every day of my life in one book.