When I arrived to my new academic post almost two years ago I was faced with a daunting task. The office I had been assigned was still inhabited by the possessions of my predecessor, a beloved professor called Bart Lewis who had suddenly and unexpectedly died five months before. The door was decorated with a mural of student signatures and messages on brown paper and the inside of the office still contained thousands of pieces of paper, some personal photographs and a library that had been picked over by the university librarians first, and then by faculty members and graduate students.
There were many books that remained on the shelves, but the space they took up was smaller than the empty gaps between their incomplete and uneven rows. The office, like those shelves, was like a bruised mouth with missing teeth. Bart’s answering machine contained a message from an unsuspecting friend or contact from Argentina who did not know he was dead. The message did not make any sense and the man did not leave a phone number for a call-back.
As I tentatively began to move in to the office during the summer, I was interrupted from time to time by visitors who did not seem to quite know how to react to my presence in their friend’s office. In their faces I saw sadness, surprise and friendly concern for my comfort in this sacred and alien space. I was frequently asked if I had met my predecessor, to which I responded that I had, during my job interview at the Modern Language Association meeting.
Then, the passersby usually told me an anecdote about Bart’s warmth, friendship and vibrancy, or their feelings for him. As you might imagine, all of this was a little bit unsettling, but I was determined to take command of this office. In those weeks of intermittent cleaning-up and moving-in, with our door closed, I spoke to Bart out loud on more than one ocassion. I don’t remember what I said, but I felt like his presence deserved acknowledgement. I probably said things like “Hey Bart, I’m here now and I’m sorry you’re not around.” “Hey Bart, how are you doing?” Or “Damn this is a good book, I can’t believe no one took it.” Mostly, however, I thought intensely about Bart as I explored filing cabinets, drawers and bookshelves.
I found barbells in a filing cabinet. Slides from Spain. Lecture notes. Meeting notes. Old binders from other universities. Old and stained copies of some his articles. Newspapers and magazines from South America and a famous New York Times Magazine issue with the writers of the Latin American Boom colorfully pictured on the cover. Most poignant, however, was a photograph of a younger Bart in another country, with his arm around a friend. As I looked into his eyes and kind face and noticed how the very curve of his shoulders seemed to communicate a receptive, humble nature, I could not help but think of my own mortality, and the day that some poor soul like me might have to go through the remnants of my professional life, and not really know who I was. I thought of the fragility of memory and remembering, and how quickly, relatively speaking, we all fade into the good night of forgetfulness.
I could not keep all of the books that remained, so I packed up the rest for a local second-hand bookstore that gave me practically nothing in return. I was glad for it too, because I didn’t want to make money off of Bart’s books. I stuffed vast reams of papers, old tests, exams and meeting notes and such, into plastic baskets that eventually made their way to my department chair. However, I was careful to save some of the syllabi and lecture notes: I did not want to banish those papers from my presence because I hoped that they might provide some kind continuity with my own teaching in the future. I also saved his articles, the separata and the journal issues, which I put on one of the bookshelves, where they sit now.
Throughout the process of cleaning the office, I felt myself having strange conversations with myself about the contingency and intimacy of the papers that academics produce in their professional lives. As fascinating as Bart’s lecture notes were to me, they were also quite opaque and mysterious. What was missing was his animating presence to give voice to what was between those bullet points and arrow points. I thought about the papers of my own that I was moving into our office and wondered if it would not be better for me to toss them in the trash and be over with it. Why subject someone else to the uncanny experience of looking through things that lose life when the hands that created them cease to move? Sometimes, in our office, I felt that I was surrounded by the bureaucracy of death. The illegible print of yesterday, waiting to claim all of my paraphernalia in some -- hopefully distant -- future.
My most dramatic act of possession took place when my partner and I moved all the furniture around. We changed the layout of everything. Then I put some of Bart’s books on the shelves, mixed in with mine, kept his articles out on the shelf, framed the New York Times Magazine cover on my wall, and put some of his lecture notes in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet for future reference, under his barbells. I reprogrammed his answering machine with my own voice and decisively deleted that last, cryptic message that Bart could only respond to from eternity. It was almost my office now. In time, I would grow into it more and more, and come to be associated with it. Some day in the future, people might think it had been my office forever. But I’m just passing through, like my departed friend and colleague.
Cleaning Bart’s office made me feel close to him, and I’ve always felt comfortable in his old office. But I think I learned some things about academe and the lifestyle that I had begun to seek on my own before arriving at my new post. One of the reasons I had left my previous job at Brown University for a tenured position in Texas was to lead a more settled down life with my partner. After years in a commuting relationship, we found jobs together and ended our financially devastating and melodramatic airport farewells. As I drove across the country in a rented Cadillac with most of my possessions in the back seat and the trunk, I felt the personal and professional pressures of the last few years fall away from my life. I resolved to worry less about work and be happier.
Now, Bart’s papers and his sad, plundered library, with its uncertain, dispersed futures, challenged my attachment to work by making me aware of my own paper ephemera. I realized how unimportant my professional possessions were, not because they meant little to me (on the contrary, they still mean a lot to me), but because outside of the context of my work habits and thoughts, all of my papers cannot mean much to anyone else. They are truly mine and some day, truly no one’s.
Thanks to these thoughts it became a lot easier to recycle paper and worry less about my stuff. I want to live less on paper and more on life. If I’m lucky, my office will be bare by the time I’m gone, everything in it consumed by lived experience, gone with my spirit and my body. And if not, if I leave a bunch of stuff for someone else to get rid of after I’m gone, I want that person to know that it’s OK to move my stuff out. Welcome to your new office. Just erase my outgoing greeting and delete any messages that remain on Bart’s old answering machine. We’re all in this together.
Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages and coordinator of the Spanish program at the University of Texas at Arlington.
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