Preserving The Past One Old Email At A Time

2010 October 21

This week, I went through some old messages on a forum I used to frequent with the intent of scrapping them before the site itself closed up shop. But I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t hit delete and wipe ’em out permanently. There’s something to be said for a paper trail, ya know? Heck, I still have a Hotmail account dating back to 2001 that I don’t use any longer, but that you’d have to pry from my cold dead hands. If you’ve sent me a message in the last decade, I probably still have it somewhere. F’reals. I sorted through my old inbox recently and there was a whole lot of smincing (my newly-invented word to describe the smile + wince that accompanies bittersweet remembrances of times past) going on.

Photo by Sham Jolimie

Many of the emails predate moves, marriages, babies. There are emails from people I truly miss having in my life and from others with whom I can hardly remember ever having been friends. Exchanges from group projects in undergrad, every Martha Stewart recipe my mother has ever sent me, stories and anecdotes that I don’t remember being a party to, but that must have happened because I deemed them important enough to warrant a dramatic three-paragraph recounting.

And I’m not alone. I posed the question on Twitter as to whether folks held onto their correspondence or deleted them in a timely fashion and all of the respondents indicated that they too were email accumulators. Some went as far as archiving old messages, while others, like me,  just never hit delete. Is it because these missives don’t take up any physical space? It’s not like collecting Beanie Babies or shelves full of Depression glass after all. Or is it something more? How else can you see at a glance who you were, where you were and what mattered to you at a given point in time with such ease? Pictures still make you do the legwork of trying to conjure up the emotions represented in the tableau, but words, words spell it all out for you, quite literally.

It’s not the kind of piling up and squirreling away that will land you on an episode of Hoarders, but it provides a certain psychic security in allowing us to surround/immerse ourselves in our stuff at a moment’s notice. The past isn’t underfoot and stacked all around us, but it’s still there waiting and we can sink into it and revisit the feelings of a particular place and time (from the breathlessly new and exciting to the quotidian) with only a few clicks. Call it time travel for the prose-minded packrat.

Given that allure, is it really any wonder that so many of us are loath (for better or worse) to part with such easily accessible historical lifelines to who we once were and how we once lived?

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2 Responses
  1. 2010 October 21
    Ty Unglebower permalink

    I actually delete frequently. I can’t stand in general to see and be reminded of years passed, via correspondence, because in many cases it is just a showcase of failed friendships. And I have never seen anything positive in recounted friendships that no longer exist. It makes me angry and depressed.

  2. 2010 October 21
    Anonymous permalink

    I like the sense of perspective that dipping into the past provides. The fact that I was ever OMG, THE WORLD IS ENDING over something in 2005 and can hardly recall the specifics now tells me that whatever I think is urgently important and game-changing at this moment will probably turn out to be just as banal (in a good way) in a couple of years.