When I retired from teaching and “deaning,” I gave myself a year to downsize. That was almost seven years ago and evidence of my effort is barely visible.

It is not difficult to decide what things I do and don’t want. It’s those files and letters and journals that take forever to sort.

I sit beside the now-cold woodstove and boldly toss pages on top of the kindling, only to retrieve them the next morning. If I hadn’t seen them, I wouldn’t miss them, but if I burn them, I will surely want them.

I can’t seem to absorb the lesson of a piece I wrote in 1970:

Letters, souvenirs, pictures — futile attempts at preservation!

I fight for permanence in a world I know is transient.

Each time an experience concludes it is gone

And I die a little.

If there were some way to capture experience —

To make it stay —

Life would remain.

But there is no way.

Letters are dead. Souvenirs are dead. Pictures are dead.

If I could write, create, or photograph well enough

Perhaps the life of my experience could remain

After I die.

But I cannot reach a balance between my desire to experience

And my desire to record, preserve and capture experience.

Real life is now.

I can’t make it stay.

I can only live it.

I know.

But I cannot accept what I know.

So I try to keep life in dead records of the past,

Hoping that when I am gone, some of my life will remain.

But it won’t be the same.

It won’t be my life.

My experience of life will be finished

And I will be unknown in the unknown.

Nonetheless, this and other reflections on life remain among my souvenirs and I consider sharing them. A trilogy of thoughts written when I was in college has taken on new significance:


The child and the grandparent

Share the wisdom

Of life as experience

Each day.

The child is unaware of the wisdom;

The grandparent knows how it gets lost

between youth and age.


To deny the ignorance

That elders have overcome with experience

And to live on the dream

That your life will create something new.

This moves the search of the young.

Fulfilling expectations

and pursuing explorations

may conflict,

Or goals may get lost in experience

to be rediscovered

with age.


How hard it must be

To feel time closing in;

To attempt to engender

Your unfulfilled dreams

In the hearts of the young;

To live on the hope

That they will understand

Knowing they cannot.

There was a time when everyone was writing Japanese haiku poems, trying to jam thoughts into 17 syllables with a twist at the end.


People together

Daily for weeks

Remaining strangers.


Absorbing environment

Gives vitality.

Time as experience

Not the mad tick-tock of clocks

This is life’s fullness.

Restless chairs creak

As the sun and the breeze

Sweep thoughts outside the classroom.

I’ll conclude this retrospective into my 20s with:


Damage not this sacred world of mine

With words and analyzing thoughts —

Attempts to bring it to reality.

Although we may submit ourselves

To something in experience

That labels us so we may become known;

We also need an inner place

Away from categories

Assuring us that life is still

Our own.

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at olmstead@maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.