Notes on an archaeology of our selves

Lego Indiana Jones by Tim Norris, 2009, Creative Commons

Lego Indiana Jones by Tim Norris, 2009, Creative Commons

Clear out your living space and you clear out your mind. And vice versa. I don’t remember where or when I picked up that bit of wisdom, but over the years, it has proven to be true. I’m back in the de-cluttering mode, a task I started in the spring, and continued in fits and starts since then.

Most of the stuff I’ve collected over the years is made of paper: countless boxes of books, piles of notebooks and journals, file boxes of essays composed during various academic forays, and a few portfolios of drawings. Layers of artifacts. One trunk is even filled with genealogical lore. My mother was into that. I am not, and yet I don’t quite know what to do with these small black and white prints carefully pasted into albums nearly 100 years ago. I recognize very few of these aunts, uncles, and distant cousins. I’ve lost track of anyone who might value the prints, and yet, there they are, my ancestors. It doesn’t feel right to just pitch them into the trash. So they’ll sit a while longer in the garage, taking up space.

I believe this is a good analogy to some of what clutters the mind – there is much we are attached to that no longer serves any purpose. It just takes up space. What we need is the wisdom and will to make a clean cut, an energy shown in traditional images of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom, whose right hand holds a flaming sword which can cut through our knots of confusion.


While sorting through old books, journals, and papers, I find that most have lost their meaning. A few mark important phases of life, and I hang onto them like graduation or wedding photos, or a favorite old coffee cup. Only a very small minority of items seem current. A rare find was this personal statement I included in a brochure for a local storytelling festival in 2001. It would fit this blog today.

“I believe we all tell ourselves stories almost all of the time, largely unnoticed interior narratives of what we are like and what the world is like. Telling or listening to stories in a “formal” setting, besides being pure fun, can invite us to re-imagine our own lives. Our lives may not be so different from the lives of the characters of Story. Anywhere can be the crossroads, and any voice can be the helpful creature by the side of the path, and the Water of Life may be nearer than we think.”

Archaeologists uncover pot shards and skulls and try to figure out what vanished people were like. I periodically sift through these relics and find myself wondering what my vanished selves were really like. There are threads of continuity, of course, but I think they’re a lot more subtle than I ordinarily imagine, like a fluttering movement, glimpsed at the corner of the eyes.

In the end, I really believe that these day-to-day selves come down to a matter of just which stories we favor and tell ourselves over and over. Which papers, books, and pot shards we keep nearby.

I think it’s a lot like the movie, Secondhand Lions, which is all about stories, when Hub (Robert Duvall) says, “If you want to believe in something, believe in it. Doesn’t matter if it isn’t true. You believe in it anyway.”

6 thoughts on “Notes on an archaeology of our selves

  1. Ah, the personal archeological dig. I need to start one this summer. But don’t throw out the family history. Someone in your family will care about it. It’s your story, too. One continuous story stretching back and stretching forward.


    • Actually, I passed on the most important item a few years ago to an aunt. It was a big, thick 1856 family bible that belonged to a maternal great-great-grandfather. Very haunting in a way, with births and deaths written in the front, and locks of hair bound in ribbon between the pages. I copied what I could find of the genealogy, kept that, and passed on the bible. What made this so interesting was not the personal associations, for they were very few. It was the whole “circle of life” experience looking at this. Plus, it was a really fine bible, large, perhaps 4 or 5 inches thick, with Gustav Dore illustrations. You wouldn’t want to visit the hell realms that he depicted!


    • When you said “Good for you,” the thought that came to mind was the Augean stables – not nearly as smelly but piles of stuff. Some things, like a musical instrument I no longer play, take time and effort to find a good home for. But yes, starting is good, and I’m always surprised to find how much one can do in just half an hour of concentrated effort.


  2. Wow, you have put into words -quiet eloquently I might add- many of my thoughts. The things we collect are mirrors or perhaps windows of ourselves. As we change many of things we held precious and dear lose value, but how do we cast them off? It’s hard enough to cast of old emotions and thoughts, to physically cast the past aside is darn near impossible. It is hard to admit we spent money on something we no longer have use for, and by throwing it out or giving it away, we realize we have changed. I can see where this would lead to wondering who we were in the past.
    I went though a phase of cleaning out my past after a health scare. I realized I did not want to add the burden of cleaning out my house to my mourning family. Though I’ve really cut down, I have a way to go. For me, the hardest part is knowing that the things I hold dear and near to my heart, my son has no use for. What will he do with my grandfather’s trinkets he gathered in WWII?
    What I found most interesting about my cleaning spree is that I no longer feel compelled to bring new things into my home. Memories are now the stories I tell myself.


    • It really does get complex, and I never really get rid of things I am truly attached to. I have also seen how looking at all the stuff I’ve collected, like a packrat, lessens my desire to collect more. I remember one friend who was sorting through things for a move, whose criterion was whether or not she had used or thought of using a particular item in the last year. I find I can even set that to five years and still find plenty of items that are just taking up space.


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