It all started with a plastic folder. No, wait, it started with magazines. “Seventeen” was my first, with “Glamour” and “Mademoiselle” following close on its heels. My mom subscribed to dozens of magazines, so it’s no wonder I did, too. Each would arrive in the mail, and I would pore over it, mentally trying on the dresses, wondering if I could afford the beauty products, wishing I could travel to the exotic places featured in their pages. Then the next issue would arrive, starting the excitement all over again.
This was long before recycling, and I shudder to think how many layers my discarded magazines contributed to the local landfill. Sometimes, I might save just one article, or maybe a picture of a haircut I admired. What a waste.
Clipping magazines became something I really enjoyed, something bordering on obsession. As soon as I finished an issue, the real fun would begin. First collecting my tools – straight-edge razor blade, scissors and stapler – I would sit down at a table and set to work.
One day, I found a plastic folder with its own plastic zipper, not unlike a Ziploc bag, which hadn’t been invented yet. I began storing my clippings inside. When the folder got kind of full, I bought a scrapbook and glued my favorites in. I still have that scrapbook – I only made one – and it’s a revealing look into the mind and heart of a 60s teenage girl. Here’s a picture of John Lennon, still a Beatle; there’s a clipping about growing out bangs. And here are pictures of my favorite colognes – Love’s Lemon, Yardley’s Oh! de London, Houbigant’s Emeraude.
Eventually, the whole enterprise of clipping and storing cried out for a better system. Rather than ending the whole production, I bought my first file cabinet, a nifty two-drawer piece of furniture that I would fill with dozens of neat manila file folders. Oh, what fun it was to decide on the labels. From Art and Beauty to Cartoons and Essays, there was a place for everything, and, once I developed a little discipline, everything in its place. If a folder didn’t yet exist for whatever it was I’d cut out, I created a new one. Health, say, or Family Tree. Essays, or Poetry (written by others, not by me – that would come later).
As I aged out of one magazine, I subscribed to a new one. So I said goodbye to “Seventeen” and welcomed “Ms.”, the voice of feminism’s second wave. I dropped one fashion magazine only to replace it with another, more “mature” title.
With every change in my life, every milestone achieved, it seemed I needed new periodicals. Post-wedding, I graduated into the kind of thing my mom used to buy, like “Ladies’ Home Journal” and “Redbook.” More articles entered my files – recipes for weeknight chicken, tips on removing grass stains from your toddler’s jeans. A growing family warranted a whole new file cabinet, so I moved up to a four-drawer model.
It was ridiculous, because, really, how often did I consult these files? Some of those clippings could have been filed under “In Your Dreams” or “Not in My Lifetime,” because I knew I was never going to buy a coat like that, or do my nails that way, or see Venice in person. (I was wrong about that last one. But did I consult my files? No. I bought a book.)
I loved the way my apartment-mate in grad school labeled her cabinet. The top one said “Library School,” the bottom one, “Real World.”
The problem was, I kept on razoring and yanking and scissoring out articles and not filing them. What started as a small pile kept in a pretty basket with the promise to file later became clusters of snow-capped mountains cluttering up the place, poised hopefully near the file cabinet in which they belonged (because by a certain point, like right now, I had three four-drawer cabinets and at least two smaller ones).
One of the big ones holds letters, mostly letters to me, but also, in the case of my mother, letters I sent to her. Next to that is a hybrid file. Drawer one is for poetry, written by me. Drawer two has business papers, ranging from Divorce Decree to Marriage License, from Employment History to Tax Forms. Though business has little to do with writing, I put those files there so I could access them easily, something I’m afraid I don’t do as often with the others.
Drawer three is for plays, which I don’t write much anymore. Drawer four, of course, is for Other Writing (one step up from the dreaded Miscellaneous), including some essays the Des Moines Register published years ago, and talks I have given in church, which I like to call UU Sermonettes.
In another room is another big file. Drawer one and two are the overgrown files that started as that lone plastic folder. Files on my health have subdivided until they cry out for a drawer of their own. Drawer three is full of warranties and owners’ manuals, some of which have actually proven useful. Drawer four? All about my sister. Medicaid, Medicare. Payee reports, school papers. Don’t become someone’s guardian unless you’re ready for files. Lots of files.
Among the papers awaiting filing is an article about organization. (File that under Irony.) Among its words of wisdom are these: “Everything in a pile is a deferred decision,” and also, “What’s best is to make a decision before anything hits a basket.” I plan to put that article directly into the recycling bin. I like to think that’s some kind of progress.