Thursday, April 12, 2007

sorting other people's stuff

At various times in our lives we may find ourselves sorting through other people's things. You help a friend move - or you clear out a relative's house after a death. When I had my eco-friendly cleaning business, I felt it was a sacred trust to be invited into people's most intimate spaces. And in my organizing work I am continually reminded of how careful I must be not to abuse anyone's faith in me.

But I still find myself fascinated by the things that people hold onto. Last night I was sorting through some papers that a friend gave me to dispose of. They were mostly photocopies of vocal music that another friend had studied over the years; she had given them to him thinking they might be of value to his teaching studio, but he prefers to work from legitimate original scores. Besides, he didn't want to take the time to sort through four thick binders full of paper.

So I did the work for him, patiently flipping through the songs to see if there was anything worth keeping. In the end, most of it went in the recycling bin. (Photocopying sheet music without the publisher's permission is illegal, after all.)

I find it very humbling to go through other people's things. I've studied singing myself, so I was familiar with much of the classical repertoire I looked at last night. It felt so personal, seeing this woman's handwriting on the pages. Musicians often mark up their scores, but I think singers do the most: breath marks, phrasing marks, translations of foreign words, reminders of how to pronounce certain vowels - and my favorite, the forests of exclamation marks and emphatic arrows pointing all over the place.

Looking through this woman's scores I could "read" her bad habits and her weaknesses. I could hear the comments her teachers made to her. I could feel her struggles with each song. Those photocopies were a record of her vocal development, and it seemed a sacrilege to throw them away.

When my brother died ten years ago, I helped my mother go through some of his things. Realistically, you can't keep it all. But it was my brother's running logs that touched me the most. In his engineer's tiny, precise handwriting he had recorded week after week of daily runs - weather, mileage, pace, heart rate. Running meant a lot to him, and it was an interest I shared when I served as his support team for his first (and only) marathon.

I didn't want to let those books go - even though I never looked through them, and kept them packed away in a box in the basement. Finally, years later, I was able to say good-bye. I kept his marathon medal, and that was enough.

I think what gives us pause is the thought that what matters most to us won't matter at all to the people we leave behind. And if a life can be reduced to a few recycling boxes' worth of paper, what does that say about the value of our lives?

More and more I think the value of a life is the personal connections we make with other people - the little ways we show love, and caring, and compassion. And none of it is ever lost. Love, once expressed, feeds the love of the universe.

copyright 2007, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

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