I'm finishing up one of my writing/editing contracts today, which should give me more time for creative writing. One necessary part of this completion process was cleaning out my work email, searching for what might be useful to someone else in the future, and to jettison everything else.
There were more than 30 folders and subfolders of emails tucked under my Inbox. Over 2,700 messages in my Sent folder—45 screens of messages sent over the last two years.
At first I took the time to read every email message before I deleted it—those emails were, after all, evidence of the hundreds of hours I had put into this job. They had all been important enough to me to send, at least for the moment I sent them. But after the first few screens, I began to grow weary of the repetition of it all. Most emails fell into two categories: here's what I have for you/here's what I need from you.
I began to mark whole screens of emails at a time and hit "purge" after glancing merely at the subject lines. It felt empowering. Two screens gone, then 10. The list of messages was getting smaller. White space began to appear on my front screen where all those folders used to reside.
But then I felt something akin to vertigo, like the ground was going away, or (as in a recurring nightmare) the lower rungs of a ladder were disappearing beneath my feet. Apparently I am an information hoarder. I feel uncomfortable when I'm not surrounded by lines of information residing on my computer screen. Some part of me must believe that to delete is to die a little.
And then I realized that work email (or, really, any work effort) is a lot like the sand mandalas that Tibetan monks create. So much intensity and time put into the effort and then it's gone. You go to another job or retire or die. The electronic trail eventually disappears for all those everyday efforts. There's a finiteness in that, a beauty of unburdening.
[The film below is an excerpt from from the Werner Herzog documentary "Wheel of Time," showing the construction and destruction of a sand Mandala by the Dalai Lama.]