Like virtually all of you, I email with abandon, giving not a thought to what happens to all those 0’s and 1’s when I press “send” or click “delete.” For all I care, it is out of sight, out of mind.
Except it isn’t. All those 0’s and 1’s add up — at least for me — to a sum of 126,586.
126,586 — that is the number of emails digitally shoehorned into my email “archive.” Every email sent and delivered has — without expressed order to do so — carbon copied itself over the past 11 years.
Some of us live in the past. I am living with it, whether at my desk in the office, the den or my back pocket. As if I don’t have enough baggage in life, I am toting around 11 years of business correspondence, shared jokes, grocery lists to myself, news alerts, spam, dubious come-ons from long forgotten royalty seeking to unload millions, and the plaintive urgings of 11-year old children beseeching, “Whennnnnnn are u coming hommmmmmmmeeeee??????”
Email, you see, is like trash. It never disappears entirely. You put it in a bin, wheel it to the curb and a truck comes by to take it out of your life.
The trash does, at least, leave you, going on to reside for the next 5,000 years buried in the ground. Not so with email. With email, it’s as though that same truck picks up the “trash,” drives around the block and dumps the load in your backyard — for the next 11 years.
And then one day it’s stuffy in the house and you decide you want to open a window, give yourself a little air. So it was with my email inbox. Things felt a little disorganized in there, a bit gummy. Hmmm, what could be the problem?
Then I looked at the little icon that said “archive.” I clicked it. 126,586 emails began stacking themselves one on top of the other, until it came to a screeching halt on Sept. 9, 2010. Ayden’s preschool teacher that day sent notice that he would soon be receiving his violin as part of the curriculum. He was 3.
Also on Sept. 9, 2010, my oldest brother, Stephen, sent wonderful news that he’d been accepted to study as an Episcopal priest. To give you a sense of how long this process takes, we proudly watched him, via Zoom, be ordained earlier this month.
Flash forward to February 2012, nine years ago. I sent word to my friends and family that I’d accepted a job as editor of this paper. I remember how giddy I felt at the prospect. Some days it still doesn’t feel real. But there it is, in my email, to relive any day I choose.
I relived the 2012 election through cascades of news updates. I relived the 2016 election through cascades of news updates.
My dad, gone now almost two years, pops up hundreds of times in emails, sometimes with little innocuous updates like his pending 84th birthday: “It’s kind of a landmark, but only a birthday. I’d like to keep it low key. No material gifts please. But I won’t refuse a six-pack of assorted dark beers if anyone is so inclined. Just one; my intake is one bottle per week, and I have a supply on hand.”
And then there were his updates of Mom’s devastating, inexorable slow-motion spiral into dementia.
From 8 ½ years ago: “I’ve been trying to pay more attention, and think I see more disorientation and confusion at times. I have taken over the job of tracking her medications, putting them into a plastic 7-day dispenser. She gets confused about what’s what and why. Going to the doctor’s office, hardly 1/4 mile away, she was confused about where we were going. States openly that it’s getting harder and harder to keep track of things, but just does not relate that to what we are seeing.”
The best parts of Dad’s emails are the photos he would attach of family gatherings, images I long ago forgot about. The links to the online Microsoft galleries no longer exist — maybe the Russians hacked them? — but I have the thumbnails for memories.
And then there are the thousands — nay, tens of thousands — of the everyday email detritus, the notifications from LinkedIn, the urgent sales from Shutterfly and Old Navy.
I know I can delete these en masse, one basic action to clean house. Yet, as tedious and time consuming as it sounds, there is also something therapeutic about revisiting these emails in small groups, deleting those of utter uselessness, keeping some for import and others just because I can’t delete them — not yet anyway.
There is something in these 0’s and 1’s that needs to stick around, like they have yet some purpose.
“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even dead.”
Indeed, it’s ever a present.
Contact editor John Nagy at (910) 693-2507 or email@example.com.