Tuesday, January 31, 2023


I recently lost everything that was on my laptop.

I know I should have backed things up properly. I know about the Cloud. I even bought an external drive for storage this summer when I upgraded my machine, but I just never found the time to use it. I don't have a good excuse, but that's not really relevant right now. A small object fell on my keyboard in exactly the wrong way, which required replacing what was inside my computer. My last laptop was already wiped of all information. More than 20 years of notes and writing and projects and memories are gone. It's a lot to get my head around.

I would have guessed I'd be more physically upset about it. I'm sad, but I haven't cried. I'm also not letting myself think about it too much for fear of being overwhelmed. I'll have moments in the middle of the night where I'll remember some random item (like a recording of my brother's laugh that I used to click on when I need cheering up, notes on various instruments I built, bookmarks to sites I'll never find again...) and I feel that loss.

But loss is a strange thing. There are many types of it. And our predictions of what it will be like don't always match the reality when it happens.

The death of my grandparents, the death of my dad... Those are obvious forms of loss that I still feel every day. Not with the kind of crippling intensity that I did when those losses were fresh, but they are still hard. That shouldn't surprise anyone.

There are other losses, though, where my reactions do surprise me. The other day one of my daughters asked about a situation that caused a schism in my extended family about twenty years ago. As I was describing it, I began choking up. There are people whom I loved dearly that I always expected to be a part of my children's lives who chose not to be, and for reasons I still don't quite understand. People cut me and my family off, and that loss still hurts, even though I try regularly to let it go.

Sometimes I mourn a bit the losses I see unfolding in front of me that won't really be felt until later. The kids still living at home with us are teenagers, which means they are absorbed in their own private issues, and don't feel any pressing need to spend time with their parents. I'm acutely aware of how the number of days where they live with us are dwindling. They don't realize this time is special, because for them it's all they know. But every evening that goes by where they don't want to talk, or every concert I perform that they don't attend, I wonder if they will regret not being present for when I'm no longer around. But that's true for all of us all the time. If anything terrible happens to anyone in this house tomorrow, I'll wonder why I spent time writing this post tonight rather than be with them. That vague anticipatory sense of loss is something I wish I could dismiss, but I don't know how.

I often think about a friend of mine who while on a trip far from home found out from her parents that their house had burned down. Everything she had with her in the car was now everything she had period. The concept took my breath away when she told me. My mind went to childhood mementos like my stuffed toy dog Tippy, and fun things from my friends, and photos, and my favorite books and records, and my instruments. But she said it wasn't that bad. There was freedom in being released from objects.

Losing everything on my laptop was like a virtual house fire. A lot is gone that I wish I still had, but there is an unexpected sense of relief about some of it.

I tend to cling to a lot of things, both on my computer and in real life, primarily because I don't like losing memories. Small reminders keep things in my mind in a way that keeps them alive. It can look like hoarding, since I still have physical files of notes on my former students' lessons, and research I did in college, and articles from my dad, etc. etc. etc. I feel like as long as things don't pile up to the point where our lives are in danger, it's okay.

On my laptop, I liked the fact that memory hoarding was so compact, and all of it at my fingertips. I should have protected it better.

But I've also thought about so-called "death cleaning," and how people will have to deal with all of my stuff one day. I've seen how hard it's been on my husband this past year dealing with his mother's house and all of her belongings. It's got me asking who am I keeping things for? I don't want my kids burdened with old Christmas cards and notes I passed in seventh grade and a pile of Solo/Ensemble medals. Very little of it is of interest to anyone but me, and when I'm gone, it will be meaningless. I can picture poor sentimental Aden tortured by the idea of throwing out things I loved simply because I loved them. She doesn't need that guilt. I figure a few years from now when all the kids have moved away, I can start chipping at the contents of the house and worry about it then.

It occurred to me there is a role for "death-cleaning" for the contents of my computer as well. I wrote a lot of stories that I didn't ever intend for others to read, but I liked having them. I don't have to worry about them anymore. Maybe it's good that a whole lot of memories have been cut loose and I'm not responsible for them. There was a lot on my laptop that I won't remember having been there, so that loss is mysterious, but not necessarily painful.

There are projects that I am of mixed mind about. I had this idea about writing a letter to my kids each year on their birthdays, telling them what they were like, sharing stories and thoughts personalized to them. That was hard to keep up with, so although I did print out letters the first few years, I simply had running notes for each of them beyond that, and I always intended to find a quiet weekend at the cottage to buckle down and turn those into more letters. All of those are gone now, and it's kind of okay. That's not looming in the back of my mind as something I need to do anymore. I'll do something simpler one day to replace it. But I don't have to feel guilt that I'm not working on it.

Sort of like when I told the kids certain things got "lost in the move" when we bought the new house. There are opportunities for things to go sometimes. I'm trying to look at the data loss that way where I can.

The hard things are the writing projects I'm still interested in. Luckily my latest two novels I was able to retrieve drafts of from friends and family who were test readers and still had digital copies. I don't have to retype hundreds of thousands of words from printouts, so that's good.

But my sequel to my repair guide is gone. That hurts. Because I don't know if I have the energy to rewrite it.

Rewriting something that's been lost is a particular kind of pain. When I wrote my first novel, Almost There, I was doing it in a program called AppleWorks that was apparently notorious for not saving things. I would actively stop and save my work every few minutes, only to discover later none of the changes took. I remember losing essentially all of Chapter 10, and being dazed and upset by it, only to have to dive back in at some point and try to write it all again. 

There are few things I find more fun than getting into the flow of a first draft. It's enjoyable to simply write, and let the ideas come, and revel in finding the right words.

There are few things worse than trying to recapture that. Writing something again has no flow. It's all second guessing, and feeling sure whatever I wrote the first time was better. I'm positive that the new chapter that replaced the lost one from Almost There is superior to the original. That doesn't mean I don't still believe there were particular phrases and sentences that I would have loved to have kept.

I don't really want to rewrite the repair guide sequel. I liked what I had down. I'm frozen at my keyboard when I try to redo any of it. Maybe that's a project I can let go, then, and not worry about? I haven't decided.

I also had a collection of emails between me and Ian when he was deployed in Iraq that I had hoped to put together as a memoir, primarily for our kids. That's been a project I've felt guilty for not pursuing for many years. Maybe I can let that go? (Since it was essentially "lost in the fire?")

Thankfully I did have my photos backed up on an external drive, because my last computer didn't have enough memory for all of them. I've lost photos between July and New Years, and some of those I can probably copy off of Facebook. I don't have the video clip of me and Quinn meeting our new dog for the first time, but ultimately who cares? I have the dog. (Who is curled up at my side and reminds me to live in the present as much as possible. Domino's a good dog, and good for me.)

Do I wish I hadn't lost everything off my laptop? Of course. But it's also not a bad reminder that nothing lasts. I can't hold onto all of it forever, even if I hadn't lost it. Someone, someday, was going to wipe it all away anyhow.

Maybe this is a good time to look forward and not back.

In the meantime, I'm no longer worried about backing up my computer. There's nothing there! And that's sort of freeing.