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I went back through my old e-mails - It was glorious
I CAN'T say it was completely unexpected when it first appeared, but it was a shock to the senses nonetheless.
One day last August, I opened up my personal e-mail on my laptop, as I do every day. And there it was, a thin, mustard-yellow banner, a warning shot: "You're running low on storage space. Try freeing up space or purchase additional storage." I'd known this day was coming. For some time, I had watched the blood-red text at the bottom of my screen, tallying the number of accumulated gigabytes in my basic (and free) Gmail account. "12.5 GB (83 per cent) of 15 GB used." "13.7 GB (91 per cent) of 15 GB used." "14.1 GB (94 per cent) of 15 GB used."
This gradual creep taunted me, daring me to ignore the hint at my own risk. And ignore it I did, receiving dozens and dozens of e-mails a day while rarely bothering to delete, let alone read, most of them. It didn't feel real; I've had an e-mail account since I was in middle school, but the concept of "running low" on storage space seemed utterly preposterous. And the concept of paying for something I never had to pay for before was downright offensive.
In real life, I've never been the neatest person. I tend to leave things around the house - cups and mugs, in particular, gather on my nightstand until my irritated fiancé collects them and moves them to the sink for me. And it can take me a long time to let go of the physical things I gather. I've got a collection of dozens of faded movie ticket stubs dating back to 2003.
Still, every few months or so, I get sick of all the stuff and the mess and pare down drastically, clearing out (most of) the clutter. But when that stuff is digital, it's much easier to ignore the pile-up. And then, somewhere around "14.79 GB (98 per cent) of 15 GB used," the mayday call, in the form of that mustard-yellow banner, finally surfaced.
I was forced to acknowledge something equally uncomfortable about myself: My digital life is as cluttered as my IRL one.
My first instinct was to trim the excess fat - the promotional e-mails from travel sites, the recurring messages from listservs I signed up for years ago, the greetings from restaurants where I made reservations online and mistakenly clicked "opt-in." The weekly e-mail from that Lower East Side Caribbean restaurant I visited once back in 2017? Delete.
Going through this process made me realise just how many lists I had joined for organisations and people I'd only ever had, at most, a fleeting interest in, usually so I could get that initial 15 per cent off. I went to the Six Flags in New Jersey four years ago and haven't been back since. So why do I have four years' worth of "updates" and "deals" clogging up my inbox? Delete, delete, delete, unsubscribe . . . As my inbox counter was whittled down by the hundreds, I felt a bit more at ease. But after about 30 minutes of scanning and deleting, I noticed my storage space hadn't actually budged, and that banner still hung there, taunting me.
More drastic measures would need to be taken. So I got to work sifting through the messages labelled "Primary" - more than 18,000 pieces of correspondence with people and institutions that I've been more intimately acquainted with over the years.
In some ways, cutting down in this area of my life was just as easy - if more time-consuming - as it had been with the unwanted promos. There was no need to keep most of the messages from our dog walker. (I do, however, keep every single post-walk report, because our walker takes the most adorable photos of our adorable pup.) I deleted 197 messages with the subject line "Appointment scheduled" in one day.
Things became real once I began to dig deeper. I jumped back in time to the beginning of my inbox: July 19, 2008, the summer before senior year of college. The earliest e-mail I found was unremarkable - an automated response to my request to have my school address linked with Gmail - but it sent me down a glorious, amusing and occasionally emotional rabbit hole of my past self.
There were multiple conversations with two of my classmates as we prepared to move into an apartment together, including one with the subject line "Rent! (not the musical)." (We were all theatre majors.) There was a note from our acting professor about how we should be "finding your funny" in advance of a semester studying comedy - the Richard Wilbur translations of Molière and Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest. As I walked through memories both mundane and profound, I kept hearing the pounding chords of one of my favourite Celine Dion power ballads play in the back of my mind. An e-mail from my dad, reporting that my baby sister back home was now "crawling up a storm."
I briefly re-mourned a close friendship that ended with a searing falling out via e-mail. I mourned more friendships that had been lost simply to the passage of time. There was a message thread with my core group of high school buddies, all of us by then about to graduate from college and living in far-flung places. One of us wrote - in that profound yet naïve, 20-something way - "We don't always need to remain in close contact to remain close." A decade later, this particular friend is the only one of that bunch for whom I'd say that remains unequivocally true, at least for me.
One minute I was performing the digital equivalent of tossing out the junk mail. The next, I felt instead as if I had stumbled upon a box of old journals. I spent hours immersed in the past, doing way less deleting than I set out to do.
Aside from the sentimental stuff, I just didn't have the heart to erase a lot of the insignificant or sillier pieces of my digital life, like the trail that remains of my years-long online dating journey, before I met my fiancé. (This was before dating apps on the phone really became A Thing.) One of the suitors, commenting on my profile, wrote: "Nat King Cole, 'M' and 'Mad Men,' That's quite a combination - and one that I'd definitely approve of."
As I write, my inbox is down to a little over 17,600 messages, a not-insignificant improvement, but not enough to hold off the impending storage fees. Admittedly, somewhere back in my inbox for the year 2013, I grew weary of all that self-reflection and postponed sifting through the rest of my history for another time.
That banner still hovers; my GB count oscillates between 98 and 99 per cent. For now, I'm trying to stave off the end of an era by being more diligent in deleting new e-mails as I receive them. This is a good habit, I guess. Yet I also now accept that hanging on to certain things, even as they take up "too much" space, is just part of who I am.
The e-mails aren't going to end, and erasing another couple thousand messages won't stop time. Eventually, it will catch up to me, and I'll be forced to pull out my credit card. The memories I've kept will ultimately be worth the price. NYTIMES