Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 21, 2024

My love for ephemera

By ALIZA LI | April 24, 2021



Li explores the significance of impermanent objects like stationery.

In my old house, above the cabinet with plastic bags and a large sack of rice, was a drawer with a stack of used printer paper. Every time my parents no longer needed a printed document or form, they added it to the stack in the drawer rather than throwing it away. This scrap paper stack was available for anyone in my family to use, but it was primarily meant for me. After noticing how I frequently used her printer paper to draw and write, my mother began making this stack to keep me from wasting blank sheets.

From a young age, I cultivated a love for paper and writing supplies. I collected and filled dozens of notebooks and bought an endless supply of pens and art tools. My mother often chastised me for my growing collection and the space it took up in my room, but this rarely deterred me from buying more and more stationery and paper.

In elementary school, I attended a weekly children’s program at my church where other kids and I earned badges for memorizing Bible verses. At the end of the year, we traded in the badges for prizes at a special store. The lobby of my church would be filled with foldable tables lined with toys, games, candy and other prizes.

The table I looked most forward to was the one holding the notebooks and stationery supplies. I traded in my hard-earned badges for brightly patterned journals and a plastic carrying case of markers and crayons. Afterward, when I returned home with my family, I’d look through the additions to my collection with zeal, thumbing through crisp pages in anticipation of my creative uses for them.

At the time, I dwelled little on understanding what I enjoyed, but later on, I found a word for these items I loved: ephemera, a term to describe “things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time.

The papers and notebooks I used were temporary. I didn’t just enjoy them for the words or drawings inside; I derived pleasure simply from owning a new notebook or pen or paint brush, from seeing a blank page and anticipating its completion. My love of ephemera was an offspring of both my obsession with possessing things and my enjoyment of writing and art.

Strangely enough, I threw away just as much as I bought. When the notebooks outlived their use or became too polluted with random etchings and notes, I was quick to dispose of them and buy more. Perhaps part of what I loved about them was their lack of permanence, the ease with which I replaced pages with new ones.

My love for ephemera represented, in part, a sense of materialism I possessed that I have only recently begun to outgrow. Now that I’m older, I am more conscious of not only the impact I have on the world but also the costliness of keeping up materialistic habits.

At the same time, however, I want to preserve a love of these small mementos of daily life, a love of simple notebooks and pages filled with memories, ideas and random thoughts. I could never keep a journal of personal events, but I love to write stories and ponder questions about the world around me.

Ephemera are things that are used or created briefly. They arrive into conception and fade away just as quickly. In my collections of ephemera over the years, I loved this “fading away” because it represented for me the vacancy of a space for new things.

A used page is thrown away to open up space for a new one.

Aliza Li is a freshman from Houston, Texas studying Writing Seminars and Cognitive Science. Her column is an homage to all of the passions and obsessions that contribute to the person she is today.

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