Sunday 10 May 2015

The Weekend Whim: What We Leave Behind

What We Leave Behind

When I'm not baking cakes/making notes on the iconoclasm/sewing/marathoning Game of Thrones like a pro, you'll find me volunteering at my local museum. It's something that I don't really talk about here very often, but it's something that I love doing, and has grown to be a big part of my life. A project I've been working on for the past couple of years is transcribing a collection of handwritten letters (somewhere in the region of over 300 of them!), and recently it's got me thinking about the kind of personal artefacts that my generation will leave for the future, especially in the age of social media.

The majority of other people I work with at the museum are a few years older than I, and are concerned about the fact that written forms of communication are dying out. I kind of agree, particularly when you consider that nobody's texts or e-mails are going to be accessible in hundreds of years time. However, new forms of communication are just far too practical for me to pick up the pen and start writing notes instead of texts (also - HOW much are stamps now??).

Now, you might be wondering what has caused this to come to the forefront of my mind at the moment.

Well, in spring cleaning fever, I finally came to the conclusion that I've been reaching for a while: I'm sick of having too much stuff. Stuff I'm keeping for the sake of it, stuff I'm keeping because I think I should, even though I don't really want to. I'm having a clear out, and this time I'm serious.

A couple of days ago, when I started said clear out, I rediscovered some relics of my own, lurking at the back of my wardrobe. I am, of course, referring to the diaries I kept during my early to mid teens. I was really torn with what to do with them - I mean, wouldn't they be great to look back on when I'm a bit older? However, I knew deep down that I was keeping them because I felt like I had an obligation to, rather than because I thought I would enjoy looking back on them.

I'd like to point out that my teens were far from awful, but they were still the most excruciatingly awkward years of my life. My diaries reflected this - I was trying so hard whilst writing to project an image that I so wanted to have, I recycled other people's opinions as my own, and I wrote in a voice that I didn't recognise. They were far from honest, far from reminding me of my past self. If anything, I just felt highly uncomfortable rereading them. And yet, I still felt like I should keep them - afterall, they were a part of my past, right?

It was at this point during my sort out, that I rediscovered something else from my teen past - a photograph taken years ago, of an igloo my brother and I had built during a particularly heavy winter.

As an avid reader, and a true believer in the power of words, I found it odd that a photograph managed to stir far more memories than my diaries. The more I looked at it the more I remembered; the way the cold air bit at the gap between my gloves and my coat sleeves, how we piled the snow into a washing up bowl to make the blocks. I'm wearing braces in the photo, I remember walking to the orthodontist earlier that week because the roads were not safe to drive on, and how my orthodontist had told us how to build an igloo. The igloo sides caving in; we had to dismantle it a couple of days later because the cat had taken to sitting inside it, and we were worried it might collapse in on him.

These were real memories.

In that moment I knew my teen diaries had no real meaning to me. Three years worth of writing failed to do what one photograph had done tenfold.

It's worth pointing out that I was a very sporadic diary keeper. If I'd written more, perhaps I would have persuaded myself to hold on to my diaries. Instead, I removed what I had written, and destroyed the lot. I didn't feel sad, or guilty that I was destroying a part of my past. I actually felt a tremendous relief that they had gone, that I was no longer carrying that awkward teen around with me.

Returning to how I started this post, I've been thinking a lot about the honesty of the items that do get left behind by other people. If my teen diary wasn't a true representation of my mid teens, then what about the collection of letters from the 1940s? Could anybody be truly honest when writing to another person?

I guess what I'm really saying is that I think we'll all leave behind something a little different, and in varying degrees of honesty. I doubt that anybody else could understand the strong memories I get from the igloo photograph, but that's what makes it special to me. And I think that our generation will simply leave behind different things than generations of the past - instead of letters and postcards, maybe future generations will discover our myspace profiles?

So, yeah, sorry for the long rambling post, but sometimes I have to get what's turning over in my mind down somewhere.

A bit of a morbid thought for a Sunday morning, but what do you think you will leave behind?


  1. This is a fantastic post, Charlotte - it's really made me think. Like you, I've had that feeling lately where I'm fed up of having so much 'stuff' and wondering why I'm keeping it. When I had a sort out not that long ago, I decided to take photos of objects that I wanted to remember from childhood but didn't really want to find space for and I've found that's helped. Looking at the photo still brings back the memories, even though I don't have the physical object anymore.

    I love what you say about questioning the honesty of what we write, and I've never really thought about that in terms of letters we read from past eras.

    Great post :)

    1. Thanks Gemma, glad you enjoyed it! Taking photos of objects is a great idea - there's some objects that I want to remember without having to make space for, so this sounds like something I'll have to do.

      Honesty in writing is something that I'm really striving for at the moment. Like my teen diaries, I don't want this blog to turn into a place where I look back on things I've written in shame. I think as long as I'm honest with myself, I'll be happy (even if some earlier posts are a little cringeworthy!).

  2. oh my word what an amazing kind of volunteering! in one of my english language courses we studied editing and text and had a go at transcribing manuscripts. had no idea people could voluntarily do it (without a degree in it?) x

    1. It's so much fun once you get into it, isn't it? The museum I volunteer at is a small, local one which only opened a few years ago, hence it being a lot more hands on than other voluntary opportunities at other museums. If you want to be a part of transcribing historical documents, but can't find anywhere local to you, then I'd recommend taking a look at - you can register and transcribe documents online (the recipe book looks particularly interesting!).