By Jacqui BanaszynskiAccording to the adage, people don’t regret the things they did in life — only those they didn’t.
I don’t buy it — anymore than I buy the assurance that if we do what we love, we’ll never work a day in our lives. I’ve loved my career in journalism and teaching. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t required work. As for regrets, of course I have a few, both about things I did and didn’t do. Or maybe they could be more accurately called “I wonders.” As in, I wonder what that would have been like. Or I wonder if I’ll ever miss that X, Y or Z I just got rid of.
A recent such wonder, which borders on actual regret, has nagged at me since I cleared out my email recently. I was transferring files from a battered, barely functional iPhone to a spanking new one. In the process, it was impossible to ignore the backlog in my inbox, which syncs with my laptop. We’re not just talking casual clutter; we’re talking more than 62,000 received emails, and another 47,000 in the SENT file.
I had to sit there while files transferred, so figured I’d do a little housecleaning. I started methodically, calling up emails in groupings from frequent senders, scanning quickly, then hitting DELETE. After an hour of that, and a disturbing pain in my shoulders, I checked my progress: Barely a dent in the total. I had a chat with myself about the unlikelihood of ever hunting up an email stored since 2005 and I decided to go bold. I started to scroll more quickly, scanning as I went for anything precious. Then a non-hesitant DELETE.
Another hour. Another futile shoulder stretch. Another reality check: Maybe I missed an email four years ago asking for advice about a story pitch or restaurants in Seattle, but was I really going to respond now? A bit of writing counsel I sent a student one night 10 years ago might have been especially wise, but was I really going to find it to include in the book? For that matter, was I ever really going to write the book?
The scroll-scan-DELETE got faster. Until I remembered there was an ALL feature at the top of the file. You can guess what happened next. I moved on to the SEND folder, then finally the DELETED folder. ALL was now a thrilling ALL GONE.
Then I gulped: What about those notes I’ve saved from beloved editors or colleagues who are now dead? Or the sweet little back-and-forths with Mountain Editor? Or, indeed, the moments of clarity that could be part of a book someday?
I dove into the Google waters for instructions on how to restore lost files. There must be a way. If the NSA knows everything about everyone, surely I can recapture my own files that I had just disappeared. Two more hours — then I gave up and paraphrased a favorite moment from “The American President:” I’ll have to learn to live with regret.
That should have been the end of it. Over my lifetime, I’ve had a pattern of starting to do some thoughtful culling, then reaching a point where most everything goes. I don’t know if that’s impatience or practicality, but I’ve done it with clothes, kitchen linens, photos, even books. I’m no big fan of Marie Kondo, but I understand the instinct. Mountain Editor has even joked that if he hangs around too long during any given visit, he might find himself listed on BuyNothing. (I’ve suggested he not try his luck.) On occasion, I’ve had a twinge of wonder about something I’ve freed myself of, but seldom has it been more than that.
The one exception: Letters. I have five large storage bins of them stacked in the garage. Sixty years of letters and cards from my lifelong best friend. Small bundles of love letters, tied with ribbon, from a select few (very few) way-back boyfriends. Sympathy cards over the deaths of my brother, father and mother. Christmas letters from distant friends who invest time and thought to stay in contact. Thank-you notes from former students who have found their way. I have no idea if I’ll ever read through any of them again, but they are treasures, each and every one. Knowing they exist grounds me.
So maybe the feeling I have since deleting all those emails is not one of regret so much as disorientation. Hitting that DELETE button erased tangible evidence of the arc of relationships, the paths walked, the memories created. They were the frames around experience, the lenses through which I saw time and place. Some of them were what I think of as proof of love; all were footprints of existence.
Yet for some reason, because those footprints were digital rather than on paper, I must have valued them less.
While I feel this as a personal loss, it’s not only that. I have long fretted over what the lack of written letters, archived papers and physical documents will do to a historical record. I think of the troves of letters written during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and wonder: What personal impressions will remain of Iraq and Afghanistan, of the journey of refugees fleeing to the hope of better lives, of families disconnected by work and war? Even quotidian things, like recipes passed down through generations or ticket stubs from a lifetime of concerts, have become quaint. Does that mean they also are becoming rare to the point of extinction? What artifacts will exist to help us remember the world that was, and that led us to where we are in the whenever now?
This applies to news reports as well. My haste to clean my e-files reminded me of a piece I wrote in 2016, when I tried to hunt down my bylined clips — the paper kind that were stored in the morgues, or libraries, of five newspapers. The essay was prompted by the growing concerns over the loss of archived news as the world went through digital evolutions. Even if newspapers were stored electronically — and many never have been — those files apparently don’t always migrate with updated programs. That has proved the case with old files I have stored on back-up drives; they are there, in theory, but are too dated to be opened with existing software.
“Too dated” meaning, these days, barely a decade ago.
I might be wrong about this. Maybe librarians and researchers and historians are partnering with tech wizards to ensure that the electronic notes and letters and photos that record our lives aren’t lost forever. Maybe everyone else is better than me at dragging valued emails to that little ARCHIVE icon. Maybe the Cloud is everlasting, and even things we don’t send there find their way somehow.
I don’t want the NSA poking in my personal business — not that I have any secrets they’d be interested in. I don’t have illusions that anyone will be interested will be interested in most of my life once my time is done. Whoever has to clean out my garage someday has instructions on what to do with all those letters, which will involve carting most to the recycling bin.
But I do want the future to have a way to look back on some reliable account of what came before.
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This essay was first published Nov. 10, 2023, in a Storyboard newsletter.