After a recent move, my mom unearthed more boxes of my stuff in her house. When I started going through them, I kept saying UGH, UGH, AHHHH!
Perhaps this is an obvious sign that I should just get rid of the stuff, if just looking at it produces visceral disgust. But I, being myself, dutifully started culling through each item. I managed to eliminate about 50% of a box of papers and memorabilia, but that night over dinner I was still moaning to Mike about it. I didn’t really want to deal with it, i.e. I didn’t want to find a place in our home for it, or pack it up when we move again.
Mike asked me: Why, then, did I feel like I needed to keep any of this sentimental stuff? Why even look through it and not just throw it away immediately? So for the last couple of days, I have been wrestling with this question and coming to some new conclusions. I have also been decluttering even more ruthlessly.
Let’s say first of all that I already knew that that any relic of my past life or accomplishments commands an emotional response from me. Even with a distance of years, I can’t look at it without feeling bonded to that stuff as if it were a person, or my own limb. That’s why I never look at ‘a bunch of junk’ and just throw it away. I think this is fairly common.
A couple of years ago, I had realisation number one: not all memorabilia produces a positive feeling. Okay, duh. Maybe everyone else has experienced this much sooner than I ever did! One day I was reading through a journal from a more difficult year, and I realised that reading it just activated all the bad feelings I had then, and had largely forgotten. In an unprecedented move, I actually threw that whole journal away, because I realised that forgetting was beneficial, and a relief.
Further to that, I have found lately that even happy associations with some objects can turn sour with time. Most obviously this might be with trinkets associated with an ex: photos and letters make you happy when you’re dating, and then miserable when you no longer are. But I’ve seen other memorabilia take a similar turn, often in a subtle way. Stuff you used to love but that no longer resonates, or just makes you feel embarrassed about your past stupidity. I’m happy to say that I’ve become much better at just ditching these things. Surely your own home should be the place you are allowed to trash anything that makes you feel bad!
But realisation number two has come only recently: even happy memorabilia commands emotional energy. Going through my boxes (still more boxes), I was finding many objects connected with happy memories, like cards with notes from friends, and old schoolwork. But while each of these excited a little spark of pleasure, the overall feeling toward the collection was of overwhelm. Even those happy memories weren’t making me happy because there were just too many memories, too many things, draining my precious energy.
The best way to describe it is to imagine that you’re going about a full, busy life, with its challenges and demands – imagine yourself making breakfast, getting ready, preparing for work or a day at home – and someone keeps pulling on your arm and yelling, REMEMBER WHEN YOU WERE NINE AND YOU WROTE THAT STORY AND DREW THOSE PICTURES? REMEMBER HOW YOU WROTE THAT LETTER TO YOUR FRIEND? WEREN’T YOU A FUNNY ARTIST BACK THEN? GOOD THING THAT WHEN YOU WERE FIFTEEN YOU DREW THIS COLLECTION OF 136 PORTRAITS WHICH GOT GRADUALLY BETTER AND BETTER…
Here is the ultimate revelation that has come upon me. My emotional capacity is finite, and what it can encompass is limited. I have only so much energy for feelings, whether good or bad, whether for the present or the past. I’ve learned that it’s impossible for me to keep any ‘stuff’ impassively, i.e. without it exerting a little emotional pull. So for every item I keep, it not only needs to be worth the physical storage space it consumes, but it has to be worth the emotional energy it requires by its very existence.
As I told Mike at dinner, I feel like I reached a tipping point in my late 20s and around the 30th birthday mark, where I no longer looked at every part of my past with equal love or even identified with it all any longer. I think this is partly because I guess my emotional capacity took that long to fill up. And then, with marriage and a child and new things in life, something had to give because there was no more room; I couldn’t juggle all that past self with the present one simultaneously.
So, it’s the recycling bin for these things.
Oh, I should say: aside from photo albums, my official memorabilia collection is now housed in a single file box. Believe me, that is a triumph.