When cleaning mental closets, it’s better not to hurry!

November 6, 2019

FCC 1 

A blogger using the name thebeerchaser commented on my recent column “Cleaning Out the Closets of My Mind.” Citing his own experience, he encourages me to proceed with due care as I dump boxes full of old records and writings.

Currently, he is sorting his files, discarding many of them, and then reorganizing those that remain. His final sentence makes sense: “Perhaps they will ultimately all be discarded, but one never knows and if they are organized and don’t take a lot of space, keep the ones that are most meaningful to you.”

Some of my old papers do mean a lot to me and I might even use them at some point in the future. Taking his advice, I’ve spent the morning sorting through one stack of folders about seven inches high and will carefully reread “Liberal-Minded Religion in a Downtown Church,” the 200-page, unpublished book manuscript I wrote in 2003 that is based on these files. I need to decide if with a little more work the manuscript can be published (for limited circulation) or simply filed with my papers that are headed to an appropriate archive sometime in the future.

In contrast with the relatively useless files I mentioned in my previous post, these Portland-based folders have materials that other people could use. I have rearranged a few of them and prepared a table of contents. They now are ready to be consulted by me or by someone else. During coming months, I intend to do limited copy editing to the book and find a suitable way for a copy to be given to the church that is described for its archival collection. Conversations with a few friends at the church will help me decide whether to do any more work than that on this project that started nearly two decades old.

Between 1999 and 2003 when I was collecting these materials and drafting the manuscript, I was also doing preliminary research on a second history project related to the churches of downtown Portland. Although I would still love to write the book that was in my mind, there are two reasons why that will not be possible. First, it would require an extended period of time in Portland, which I would enjoy but which is not feasible. Second, and more important, I feel myself lurching into old age.

I remain committed to cleaning out the closets of my mind. According to Martin’s book The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, that’s one of the things that sages do. Some of my closeted ideas and the resulting paper trails are ready to go away right now. Others, like this Portland project, are going to take a little time.


Cleaning Out the Closets of My Mind

November 1, 2019

Papers

In a little book entitled The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life, William Martin writes that there is no need to cling to the things than no longer identify you. “The closets of your mind can be cleaned of ideas no longer needed” (p. 62). For a retired church historian like me, the mental closets of ideas usually are accompanied with old paper files of research notes and partially written drafts of essays

Today, while purging obsolete tax papers, I stumbled across a folder three inches thick entitled “Notes on 19th Century Revivals.” Most of the material consists of photocopied chapters from books such as And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain Folk Camp Meeting Religion, 1800-1845, by Dickson D. Bruce, Jr (1974), and The Posthumous Work of the Reverend and Pious James McGrady Late Minister of the Gospel in Henderson, Kentucky, Ed. James Smith (1837). A small portion consists of hand-written reading notes taken from similar essays and books.

I was doing this research during the late 1980s and drew upon it for a paper that I presented to a section of the North American Academy of Liturgy. Almost simultaneously, the definitive work on this subject was published, Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period (1989). My paper was later published in Discipliana, the journal of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society (Spring 1994, pp. 2-19) with the title “The Sacramental Character of the Camp Meeting.”

What should be done with files like these? The easiest course of action, and on the gray, rainy day when I am writing this note the one that could easily be accomplished, is to dump them into a box of old papers to be recycled. Another possibility is to arrange them more carefully and include them in papers I hope will be kept permanently in my archives somewhere. From my own experience working with the archival papers of others, however, I cannot imagine that researchers in years to come would ever take the time to use these papers for their own research.

Maybe another idea concerning proper disposal will come to mind before I empty this thick file into a box already close to being full. In any case, the topic, 19th century revivals, already has been cleaned out of the closet of my mind. All that remains is to get rid of the paper trail.