I walked my dogs on a recent trash collection day. It was windy and we came across a trash bin that had blown over. I stopped to upright it and tried to pick up refuse that had spilled out and was still within reach before it blew down the street. One item was a 3rd–grade worksheet. It had lots of printed text and spaces for words to be added within sentences. In a typical 3rd grader’s scrawl, words had been written in the spaces. I paid little attention to the actual content, but rather noted the all-too-familiar format.
Later in the morning, I glanced through the newspaper and ran across a story about a newly opened time capsule. It had been placed inside the cornerstone of an 100-year-old, building that was serving a religious community, currently celebrating its 200th year. The contents of the intact, water-tight metal box included, among other items, a newspaper from 1917 focusing upon World War I, later called the War to End All Wars (Ouch!). There also was a church flier from that era detailing the social and religious activities of the congregation and the 1917 minister’s well-worn Bible—personal treasures lovingly shared with strangers of the far off future.
The newspapers, the recent one and the 1917 issue found in the the time capsule, were written by serious journalists who fully expected their diligent research and carefully chosen words to be cast away within a day or less rather than to become an unearthed icon to be pored over by historians and anthropologists. The minister’s “Bible,” composed eons before and an icon of his abiding faith, was a generous gift of enduring personal and spiritual value. The flier, heralding upcoming joyful and possibly sad WWI-era events, was no doubt created to have a shelf-life of perhaps a month or so, yet it became a modern-day focus of fascination and study.
So, I found myself reflecting upon my two print-material encounters of that day. On one hand, I had held a single sheet of paper typically used to keep school children busy, yet quickly discarded. In contrast, a faithful congregation in 2017 celebrated documents of enduring historical and social value, painstakingly unearthed, preserved by long-ago others who never knew their church-related descendants. Each of the time capsule documents was prepared by folks who worked hard to convey information of varying gravity and immediacy to a range of readers, in their own space and time. It is with this perspective that I thought back to the rumpled bit of schoolwork that had blown out of the tipped trash can and it made me ponder:
What printed matter is trash and what is treasure? Looking into the dark tunnel of the future, what might end up in my city’s landfill that should have gone into today’s time capsule for 2117, an object of deep meaning, curiosity and wonder for its language, its chemical composition, or its cultural significance?
The meaningful yet unintended lesson I received from these yoked encounters with print is that written words, especially those in books, are crafted for authors’ envisioned audiences, but may also be destined to contribute joy or wonder to utterly unknowable readers.
Everything we write is a time capsule. This compels me to a richer consideration of the importance of choosing my words carefully.