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What is the bane of an old man’s life? That’s obvious. Naturally, it is the body. But what is the bane of an old professor’s life? (No fair peeking ahead!)
Give up? I will tell you.
It’s his archive. Oy, what troubles it has caused me during this time of waiting for the end to come. Rumor has it that I will perish, but meanwhile I have been consumed with the effort to make sure that my archive survives my death. It’s paper immortality I am going for.
Let’s start at the beginning. What is an archive? In my case, it’s all the professional crap I had accumulated during my forty or so years as a professor and author that I had felt worth preserving in hopes that one day an enterprising biographer would find his or her delight in trawling through it. (If there are any takers out there, get in touch. I’m taking applications.) The contents of my particular archive consist mainly of records of my research, interview tapes with near-death experiencers, reprints of articles I’ve written, original copies of some of my books on NDEs, lecture and workshop notes, files of all the professional presentations I’ve given, professional correspondence, and tons of letters I’ve received from people of all sorts, mostly describing various kinds of unusual experiences they have had. In short, the paper trail of my life as a professor, researcher and author in 55 boxes, give or take a few.
But the story of how I came to accumulate those 55 boxes is the sorry saga I must now relate.
When I was ready to retire from the University of Connecticut toward the end of 1996, prior to my return to California, I had to jettison a lot of my professional holdings. At the university, I had three offices at my disposal and lived in a house that could also accommodate many of my books. But I was now going to be moving into a small house. So I had a fire sale, so to speak. I gave away most of my professional books and I trashed a lot of materials I was glad to dispose of. But I still had a considerable amount of professional items I wanted to save.
What to do? I simply didn’t have room for all of it, but my problem was saved by an angel.
His name was Terry (not his real name) and he was a medical doctor interested in NDEs, a colleague of mine, but hardly a friend, who happened to be there at the time I was stewing about what to do with all my stuff.
“Ken,” he said, “I’d be happy to help.” Terry told me simply to box up all the materials I didn’t have room for but wanted to preserve. He offered to have them all shipped at his expense to his home in Tacoma where he’d be happy to store them in a temporary archive for however long was necessary. What a mensch! I couldn’t believe my good fortune and Terry’s willing to spend one of his own in order to become the custodian of these professional effects. We’ll come back to Terry later.
Over the course of the next ten years or so, I added to my archive in California, and by then I had accumulated enough material to fill 30 Bankers Boxes, which I kept secure in my storage room. And there they sat – until I began to fret about what to do with them and all the boxes Terry (now in Louisiana) still had. Realizing that it was probable I would not live forever (at least not here), I knew I had to find an ultimate resting place for the entirely of my archive. But who would handle all this for me and where would it go?
You know how sometimes “the universe” works in mysterious ways to answer your unspoken prayers? Well, sure enough, another angel was soon to appear in my life who would solve everything.
Last year, I was contacted by a very distinguished psychiatrist I’ll call Heinz with whom I had had cordial relations for many years. He told me that he was planning to create an archive for some of the pioneers in our field, and was inviting me to become a part of it. Of course, I was both honored and thrilled. This would certainly solve my problem. Heinz told me that a fellow named David was handling all the details and would be in touch soon to take charge of my archive.
When David showed up a few days later, he turned out to be a tall well-built fellow, seemingly in his late 30s (but actually much older than he appeared). He was extremely affable and I immediately took a shine to him, especially when he told me that Heinz had a large dedicated storage facility where my entire archive – along with the archives of others in my field – could be stored in perpetuity. And at no expense to me. Wow! I couldn’t believe my luck. And more – David turned out to be some kind of computer genius and told me he had invented a digitizing procedure which would enable him to easily digitize large portions of my archive. Double wow.
He told me he would be happy to handle everything. He would first take all of my boxes and bring them to Heinz’s house for an initial inventory after which they would be moved to Heinz’s facility. Several days later, David showed up with a truck, and loaded all my boxes onto it, and off they went to Heinz’s basement.
Meanwhile, I made contact with Terry, who had wound up taking care of that portion of my archive for twenty-two years, and told him to repack everything and have it all shipped out to David at Heinz’s house. About a month later, it had all arrived. Set me back 2000 bucks, but it was worth it to have my entire archive reassembled in one place. David assured me that all was well.
But it wasn’t. It couldn’t have been worse.
What had happened? It turned out that for some time David had felt that Heinz had not followed through on various promises he had made regarding payment for his many services. And there were other contentious issues that flared up when Heinz returned from his travels abroad. These quickly escalated and all of a sudden – an explosion. In a fury, David was booted out of the Heinz’s house and threatened with arrest if he returned. David, without resources or friends, was forced for a time to sleep in his car, and finally left the area altogether.
And left me holding the bag. I now had a big mess on my hands. La maladizione– the curse of the archive! It was all too good to be true. Alas, and well-a-day. Is it any surprise that not long after this fiasco, I came down with the flu and was sidelined for nearly two months?
Anyway, when I finally recovered, I had to get up to Heinz’s house to inspect the damage, so to speak, and figure out what to do with my archive now. Trouble was, Heinz’s house is located in a largely inaccessible redoubt and it requires a veritable Sherpa to get up there. Fortunately, I knew one who knew the way, and not long ago, she drove me up there.
There’s another strange thing about Heinz’s house. It was apparently designed by Escher because in order to get into the basement where all my stuff had been stored, you had to take a perilous death-defying journey down steep stairways that seemed to end abruptly, and then somehow there were a series of rickety stairs that eventually led to the outside where I was forced to surmount more obstacles before arriving at an outside padlocked door that led into the basement.
Now, you may think I’m making this up, but I’m not. I was then actually given a miners hat with a lamp attached and told to turn it on. The door creaked open and we entered into what seemed to be a coal mine. It was dark, dank, damp and eerily Dantean. I’m an old guy with bad balance and very poor eyesight. I could scarcely see anything, but imagined all manner of rodents must be loitering about, to say nothing of spiders and probably the odd snake. (All right, I’m engaging in a bit of hyperbole here, but it was indeed a spooky place.) I could finally see that my Bankers Boxes had been neatly stacked by David, but all of Terry’s were sealed and only dimly visible. Obviously, there was no way that I could open them there to inspect their contents, which I hadn’t seen in twenty-two years.
But I was told by Heinz’s secretary (Heinz himself was out of the country again) that I had to get all it all out of there. Heinz could no longer be responsible for it, and it turned out (gasp!) that he didn’t have the storage facility I had been promised in good faith, I’m sure, by David. Screwed!
Well, there’s no point in dragging this out. Eventually, my Bankers Boxes were brought back to my storage room where my girlfriend Lauren and I had to inspect them, label them, and then stack them again, just as they had been before David had carted them away. Lauren, providentially, has an abandoned art studio on her property in Piedmont – across the Bay from where I live – and she said I could have Terry’s portion of my archive deposited there for the time being where we could again inventory, label and stack. We did that just last week. Actually, I did the inventorying, but Lauren labeled everything in her exquisite hand, and then stacked them all since I have a bad back and am weak of limb whereas she is strong like bull, though fortunately she doesn’t resemble one.
Oy, what a megillah! Perhaps now you can understand why I say that an old professor’s archive can be his bane, besides being a pain in the tuchis, and a drain on his wallet.
In any case, rummaging through those boxes whose contents I hadn’t seen in so long, I felt, once again, that I was saying goodbye to all that. A good part of my professional life was in those files and papers, and I felt nostalgic while sorting through them. But just as I got to the second to last box, I found a surprise, which thrilled me – a cache of about a hundred personal letters I had saved of which I had no recollection whatever. I quickly perused them, but decided to wait until I returned home in order to examine them more thoroughly to see just whose letters I had saved.
What I found was that the letters came from two periods – 1975/76 and 1981/82. They included a batch of letters from my mother, one of which described a dreadful quarrel between her and my stepfather, and another set of letters from my daughter, Kathryn, then 18, just after she had left home in Connecticut to move to Denver where she was to attend a technical school that eventually led to her becoming a master mechanic for Volkswagen. There were several antic and whimsical letters from a former student of mine turned porn star -- the Stormy Daniels of her day – and some from a TV journalist named Aviva with whom I had had some riotous adventures in LA back in the day. I remember once proposing to marry her because, if she accepted, her name would have become Aviva Diamond Ring. Alas, she declined. I was, however, amused to find in one her letters several good quips from Woody Allen, one of which I could have used as a epigraph to one of these waiting to die essays. It went like this: “It’s impossible to experience your own death objectively and still carry a tune.”
I especially treasured a set of three letters from a professor with whom I had been very close friends when we were both teaching at the University of Connecticut. After three years, however, he took a position at the University of North Carolina. However, we saw each other again in California when I was on sabbatical leave in Berkeley in 1969 on which occasion something very traumatic had happened to him. Fortunately, he’s still alive and I was able to make contact with him. He was thrilled to learn about his letters, and told me about the aftermath of that incident that had freaked him out from which he was a long time recovering. Through e-mail we renewed our friendship and since he has family near where I live, it’s likely that we will be able to see each other again after all these years.
Another important discovery involved a batch of letters from a woman who had been a good friend of mine when we both lived back east. However, we had long since lost touch with each other, even though I knew she lived in California. We, too, have enjoyed reconnecting through e-mail, but what was particularly rewarding about that contact was learning that my friend, whose name is Ronna Kabatznick, had written an extraordinarily compelling book about her personal experiences while in Thailand when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck the day after Christmas in 2004. Her memoir, a beautifully crafted account of an unimaginably horrific catastrophe, moved me greatly and filled me with admiration for the courage and grit my old friend manifested in coping with that disaster. Her book, which I highly recommend, is entitled Who By Water: Reflections of a Tsunami Psychologist.
There were also some very loving and indeed passionate letters from women who were in love with me and in a couple of cases had even moved to Storrs, where I lived, against my express wishes. But the set of letters that really affected me, as I re-read them, was from a woman I had loved deeply against my will and who had almost ruined my life because of the intensity of her love for me. I had completely forgotten about these letters of which there were sixteen, almost all handwritten (these were the days before computers, of course, when people still wrote by hand). Re-reading them the other night I was struck by their ardor, their longing, their anguish, their unassailable conviction that we “were meant to be together,” and their insistence that I yield to her and to the fate that she foresaw for us.
Letters, too, can function like Proust’s madeleine, and in the case of these letters from this woman whom I will call Suzanne (though she actually had a name given to her by her Yoga guru), I could not help remembering how it was that we first met and fell in love. Those letters of hers brought it all back to me, especially the pain we had each suffered because of it. I found myself drifting back to those fraught days and spent a good hour or more dwelling on the fever of love which almost destroyed me.
No need to dredge all that up here; those memories will remain private. In any case, my involvement with her went on for years. I eventually left the woman I had been living with, but I could never fully commit myself to Suzanne either. I think now, as an old man, how my life would have turned out had I chosen to yield to her. I have both regret and relief that I didn’t. My love for her, however, never ebbed. I can still feel it, especially after re-reading her letters.
There was one odd thing about her, however, that shows, I think, how much she felt connected to me. I don’t remember now what her original last name was – it was probably a leftover from her marriage – but one day she told me that she had decided to adopt a new surname. From now on she would be called Suzanne Ken.
I laughed; I thought she was joking. But she was serious. And she insisted that her adopting the name Ken had nothing to do with me. But then, why Ken? She wouldn’t say other than to aver that it “felt right.”
The other night, after re-reading her letters, I couldn’t help wondering what had happened to her. I decided to try Googling her, and mirabile dictu, I found her. She’s 76 now, and living in New England. She is still known as Suzanne Ken.
I have her address. But I will not write to her. What would be the point now? I have to say goodbye to all that, too.
Archives can not only be a bane, and although mine did lead to some rekindling of former friendships, it also made me acutely aware that they can be emotionally dangerous as well. Maybe there are good reasons to leave its contents alone. Maybe that’s still another reason for me to get rid of the dang thing.
Anyway, my next step to try to arrange to do just that. I’m now beginning to look into the possibility that some university or institute would like to take if off my hands and house it.
Preparing to let it go isn’t really that difficult. It’s just another step in my journey of waiting to die. It will be a big load off my mind to offload all these boxes. Why should they weigh me down when all I want these days is to be able to fly?
Dr. Ring is Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut where he researched near-death experiences. He designed scientifically structured studies of 102 near-death survivors that further developed Dr. Raymond Moody's early NDE findings. He is well-known for his ground-breaking research of investigating NDEs among blind persons in his book Mindsight. Ken Ring is the co-founder and past president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and is the founding editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. He has published several near-death experience related books, including Life at Death (1980), Heading Toward Omega (1984), The Omega Project: Near-Death Experiences, UFO Encounters, and Mind at Large (1992), and his most well-known and celebrated NDE book, Lessons from the Light (2000).
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