My paper trail

Off the Beat

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I consider myself a collector of sorts. 

Not in the “coins, stamps and trading cards” kind of way. Think more like crumpled receipts, carnival tickets and birthday cards from third grade.

Chalk it up to an insatiable appetite for nostalgia, but keeping paper scraps as mementos is something that I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember. I find myself holding on to something from every special and not-so-special occasion, and I’m not going to stop anytime soon.

A handful of these paper mementos are from milestones (the program from my high school graduation), but most of the time they’re not (a receipt from a late-night Walgreens run, a fortune cookie fortune, a BART ticket). I see the potential to hold a memory in every ticket stub, every nametag, every paper football. And so I pocket them, write the date and a short blurb on the back and toss them in a brimming plastic bin underneath my bed.

The joy of remembering drives me to collect these papers. It’s a bit like finding money in your jeans — there’s a fun little rush that comes with tucking something away so I can serendipitously recover it weeks, months, even years later. 

But sometimes I think I’m just terrified of forgetting. The worst thing about a memory is that you can lose it and never really get it back. I don’t want that to happen. I want to be able to remember as much as I can, and these mementos help me do just that.

These pieces of paper are priceless — not just because I didn’t need to pay for most of them. They’re the closest thing I have to physically collecting and organizing my memories. I lay them out on my bed, like pieces of a perpetually unfinished puzzle. Going through my collection of memories with loved ones leads to conversations full of “remember whens” and, if I’m lucky, the exchange of memories previously unshared.

As returning home for spring break turned into staying for the summer turned into staying for the fall semester, I find myself revisiting my stash of mementos more often than I ever had before. I slide the bin from underneath my bed, excited to see what memory I’ll be transported to this time around. I reread notes passed in elementary school and laugh at silly outfits worn in photo booth strips. I hold tickets to the first movie my little brother ever saw in theaters (“Gnomeo and Juliet,” unfortunately) and the last movie I saw in theaters before “shelter in place” became a household term (“Knives Out,” thank God).

Of course, I make sure to share my findings with friends and family. My mementos have become the catalyst for out-of-the-blue texts and FaceTime calls. No longer just a reminder of memories, these scraps became a way to make new ones. 

These pieces of paper are tangible reminders of time spent together, memories I can hold in my hand. They help me remember those I’ve lost, and they’re especially helpful when I can’t see loved ones in person — a fact of life when most of my family lives 7,000 miles away, but also something that’s become true for everyone during the pandemic.

At a time when just thinking of the simplest human interactions triggers nostalgia, these paper memories mean even more. Now, my favorite scraps are the ones that seemed painfully ordinary when I first put them in my pocket, the ones that I almost didn’t save. When they’re laid out in front of me, they remind me of what once was, who I once was, living a way of life that I don’t think we’ll really ever experience again.

When everything feels like a little bit too much, I find comfort in my mementos. They serve as a reminder of the good from before and, more importantly, the good that can come after. And it doesn’t necessarily take a pandemic to need a reminder like that.

They stave off the inevitable process of forgetting. At least, I like to think they do. Each scrap I save is me trying to control something I know is out of my hands: my memory. Still, I don’t want to forget anything. Forgetting feels like losing my sense of self — but nostalgia helps me regain it.  

Just like the hours I’ve spent sifting through my mementos over the last six months, writing this column has been a self-indulgent exercise in nostalgia. But I don’t care. I’ve come to terms with the fact that nostalgia, with all its accompanying dangers and deception, has been helping me stay grounded and optimistic at a time when it’s easy to get lost in worry and hopelessness.

I don’t know how long we’ll be wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart. I don’t know when everything will get close to how it was before. I don’t know when I’ll be able to collect paper memories again. But in the meantime, I’ll appreciate the ones I have and trust that I’ll get to find new ones soon.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall’s semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.