15 January 2012

One person's trash...

One of the most enjoyable things about trading in vintage papercraft goods is being able to justify regular day trips and local treasure hunts for old, long-forgotten paper ephemera - those newspapers, tickets, books, patterns, music, photos, packets, receipts, payslips, plans, and other everyday bits and pieces that help shape the lives of those that have gone before us.

Coming across someone's old holiday snaps, mail and collection of bus tickets is a wonderful feeling, but finding a handwritten letter just makes my day. I must admit that although these little missions - Sundays spent with bored husband in tow, to the tune of 'just one more shop' - are ostensibly to find stuff for my store, when I come across a fountain-penned letter written in a quavering looped hand, it won't often make it into my list of items for sale.

These flimsy little letters seem so incredibly special, like hidden treasure: sometimes lost or misplaced for nearly a century, uncovered within the pages of books, the bottom of boxes, and once, inside a well-worn shoe. Sometimes it doesn't seem right to part with them, and especially not to sell them.

I don't look at them often, lest they lose their magic - but they are close to me now, safe in a little box on my shelf. I love the mysteries within: who wrote these letters? Who were the people behind the handwriting? Would they be amused or appalled that I am reading their private thoughts? And how did they end up in my hands, sometimes half a world away from their original owners? Sometimes it makes me feel almost shamefully voyeuristic, sometimes incredibly thankful, and sometimes patriotically proud to read the stories of people long gone. And they nearly always makes me sad - sad that something beautiful and precious is being lost in this world of email and facebook and smart phones.

What will our grandchildren use as a window to our private selves? Sure we have our photos stored online, we keep the occasional email, and we can find all sorts of things when we Google ourselves. But the tactile, physical connection to our past, both within our families and as a link to our social history, is becoming more and more frail.

There is such a difference between reading an email on screen and holding a hand written letter in your hands. Even an email, printed out, holds more soul than pixels on an LCD screen. And one day, even our new, shiny, cheap, post-consumer recycled printer paper will be torn, softened, age-spotted; the pages will smell dusty and stale, and our quick, inconsequential note to a friend will fascinate another pack-rat collector fifty years from now.

Those of us that scrapbook know that feeling well and cling to our family's stories and histories with dogged determination. We will not lose the first lock of baby hair, the first merit award, the grand final tickets when our team won, the map from that special place. But what about the stories between the lines? The things that don't make it into our layout albums?

I have completed one layout about myself in five years of scrapping. It's a deeply personal one, admittedly, but it's only one tiny piece of the puzzle. I have albums full of my children, husband, family, birthdays, Christmases and our wedding - but the little stories between the lines are preserved in the bits and pieces we keep in drawers, boxes and filing cabinets.

I have a manilla folder full of letters between my friends and I in high school. The everyday dramas that I can't even comprehend now seem monumental when reading through these old notes, written furtively during maths class when Mr Uren wasn't looking. I have a little pile of cow pictures too. Nobody knows how much I used to love cows. I have teen angst poetry, and pages of poems about the ocean. I have pages torn from magazines of all my favourite painters and artists. Tickets to an art show I went to I was younger (that made me feel so trendy and cosmopolitan). And I have a hang tag from a troll doll owned by my primary school friend Katie. It fell off her new troll and landed under my bed during a play date one winter afternoon. A week later she was killed crossing the road after school.

These little things that we keep often say more about us than our lovely, glossy, beautifully presented albums. So please, think twice before you throw out that next letter, ticket, receipt. Your weekly return to Central might bring back fond memories one day - perhaps for someone you don't even know.

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