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The Paper Trail

November 4, 2017

Another Way for week of October 27, 2017

The Paper Trail

In the past several months, I have thrown away or recycled reams of paper. Our office is moving to a new location and we’ve been instructed to greatly “purge” or downsize our paper/file footprint.

I was amused by my 30-something colleague, who works totally on the computer and has very little in the way of paper files and folders. He’s a designer, not a writer, so he majors in digital files. In a check-in session we were each to report on how purging was going and he laughingly said, “Oh, I’ve gotten rid of maybe a paper, or two.”

Scads of promotional materials I wrote for various radio programs and projects.

I envy that and I pledge to print out and save many fewer things in the future; but in my defense, a paper reminder is often my way of making sure I complete a task and don’t forget it buried in my computer.

And to be honest, I truly struggle with getting rid of the paper trail, especially from trips, meetings, speaking engagements—so much from my work life these past 40 plus years.

As I flip through them, there are so many triggers and I recall memories, people, stories—so many things that would be long forgotten if I didn’t still have those papers. Right? Do lost memories matter?

Truly I know the importance of decluttering our lives, especially as we get older. The experts talk about the three piles: everything should go into one pile or another: 1) Keep. 2) Giveaway or sell. 3) Throw away. Someone has said “Only keep the things that give you joy.”

A decade of producing award-winning documentaries which aired on several networks.

At home, one of my rather brutal ways of facing the question of needing to pare down is to ask myself, “Will I be able to take this to my assisted living quarters?” We have no plans to move to a retirement community of any kind but I’m enough of a realist to know that downsizing is most likely somewhere in my future. And that can be a freeing step when you no longer have to take care of a home, yard, or garden.

Artwork: an acrylic painting by my daughter Tanya from her visit to Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Va.

I’ve added a fourth way to handle some things, which I first heard suggested by a doctor/author friend Glen Miller, who wrote a book which I edited, Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well. Take a photo of your mementos, and file them on your computer in carefully named files (so that doesn’t also become an unmanageable slush pile). This works for such things as certificates given to you over the years, name badges from special meetings or conferences, items you created or had a hand in making that no longer serve a useful purpose, and artwork. That way you can remember the item, but not have it take up precious space in a closet or file drawer or shelf in your home. It also works for beloved books that you think you may want to re-read in the future, but don’t have room to keep. Take a photo, file it electronically, and then if you want to read old books (I can barely keep up now with new books I want to read), flick through your electronic library and check it out of a physical library. Or you may find the complete book, or used copies available online.

I like the title of Dr. Miller’s book because it points to the need to be more thoughtful in how we spend our days and our living space on this earth. No one wants their home to become as cluttered and unhealthy to live in as that of a true hoarder.

Thematic desk calendars produced by our office over many years, personalized and purchased by congregations to give to church members.

I was going to add that writers are particularly prone to keeping various papers as idea triggers for future projects. But my husband, who is truly a creative soul in other realms, has a hard time throwing away or taking to the dump any piece of wood or metal that might be useful in a project someday. I know knitters and quilters and fabric lovers who have vast collections of yarn or fabric. Or cookbooks.

16 file drawers, now gloriously empty.



So it’s not just paper piles we have to tame. What is your nemesis or doom? Scripture reminds us: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupt and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

I think I’ll post that on my new office door. Or maybe just file it electronically.


I’d love to hear what you’re tempted to collect too much of.

What is your nemesis or material you have a tendency to collect and save ?

Comment here or send to, or tell me on the Facebook page for Another Way Newspaper Column.

To see more or purchase Dr. Miller’s Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well, check here.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. Another Way columns are posted at a week after newspaper publication.


  1. Your title is perfect and your sentiments are real. You know our major clean outs this past year and the emotional toll exacted. One souvenir from the purge is a quote the sits on a chest in our bedroom: “To save, one must value. And to throw out, one must value moving on.” ~ Mary Peacock.

    One author has said, Throw away anything you can replace in 20 minutes or for $ 20.00 or less. But that doesn’t take into account sentimental items or evidence of accomplishments, like the award-winning documentaries and promotional materials you wrote. One suggestion: Maybe of the dozen or so, save 3-4 you especially prize. Tanya’s lovely acrylic drawing? I can’t imagine recycling that: Maybe frame it and present it to her as a Christmas gift.

    As I tap on my computer I look left and spy the 10-12 books or booklets I had a hand in creating. The oldest one is a “quarterly”: Herald Youth Bible Studies (April, May, June 1965) I had co-written with Willard Swartley. I’ve taped the binding and have to page through the brittle pages v e r y carefully – ha!

    A recent example from Cliff: About a week ago our microwave died. He just happened to remember a coiled wire thingamgig with a cord and plug he has kept in his van for years. He never used it on the road but it came in handy warming our coffee and tea this week. Then this morning, when he and son-in-law Joe installed the new microwave, he found an ancient graphic tool, Wrico Rapidiograph, and used one of the plastic ruler-type pieces to act as a shim, so the new unit wouldn’t be lop-sided. Necessity is the mother of re-invention, I suppose. Our grandson Ian loves calligraphy, so we discussed giving the antique box the tool came in to him to store his pen nibs.

    What I’m tempted to collect too much of? BOOKS! I gave away many from my office at the college when I retired but stuffed others into 3 bookcases in our former home. My new writing studio has room for much less, so I’ve down-sized enormously and try to find titles I crave at our well-stocked public library.

    This post hits home for many, especially those contemplating that golden “third phase.” Thanks, Melodie.

    • Such a well thought out empathetic post–especially since you have been through it twice, and recently. You co-wrote with Willard Swartley?! One of my most favorite professors, ever. I have keepsakes with brittle paper as well.

      But today I found a yellowing old Weather Vane article I wrote (kept in my files at home, which was part of my portfolio which got me this job in 1975) that I will now hang on to a while longer. I’ll blog about that in weeks to come. A piece from that article ends up being quoted in the 100 year history of EMU just published by Donald Kraybill. Can’t wait to read the history.

      I love your story about Cliff’s find and making something useful which he’s been holding on to. Way to go– a good guy!

      Books are truly hard to get part with–particularly when an author has written in them to me, and I worry about local authors finding their work at Gift and Thrift if I give it away. 🙂

  2. If it doesn’t have sentimental value, ok sometimes even if it does, and if I haven’t used it in a few years I pass it on to someone who will, or throw it out.

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