On our recent visit to my family’s house in Texas, I decided to pare down the contents of my old room at home. It was never my intention to keep a full room of belongings there after becoming an adult, but when I decided to go to graduate school I ended up with one summer beforehand when my apartment lease was up and I needed to move back home for a short time. I brought furniture and other acquisitions with me, and the next few years were so uncertain at the time that I didn’t know what I might need again in the near future. It’s only recently that I finally thought I had enough information to make decisions about what to let go of. In fact, now that I’m married and more settled in a home of my own, knowing that I had a room full of possessions elsewhere was making me feel ‘thin and stretched’ (to use Bilbo’s phrase). I really wanted to know that the things I valued most were in my own home, and to be mature enough to let go of the ones that weren’t as important.
A tour of my past life
I do actually enjoy a concerted clean-out. It clears mental clutter and makes space to move on. The process itself – which I often undertake with someone else to offer opinions or just company – is a look back through the memories associated with the objects that emerge.
One collection I culled was my jewellery collection, because most of what I wear now resides with me in the UK. The rest, occupying a pretty pink-and-white jewellery box, was a set of items from my little-girl past: bracelets in candy colours as gifts from friends, a necklace with my initial, and a tiny butterfly ring that didn’t even fit on my little finger anymore.
One funny find was a collection of ‘recipe cards’ from my first restaurant, Jenni’s, which was located on the back porch. I recall it clearly – we had a lovely set of dishes and could serve a total of two patrons at once. There was an accompanying menu which listed my whole repertoire of precisely measured and methodically cooked dishes, for the perusal of the toys and dolls that visited.
If you can’t read them, they include such delicacies as evergreen tea, cream of weed stew, acorn ‘keesh’ [quiche] and dirt ‘iceing’. Most seem to rely on varying proportions of dirt and water.
It took some courage to face up to my nemesis, a collection of binders full of printouts of old stories I’d written. I began writing ‘novels’ (really short ones) when I was twelve and continued into college. The later works are still saved on my computer, so there was no need to keep the paper copies, but everything from before the notorious family computer crash existed only in the paper versions. At least three 2-inch binders were full of these stories, and associated with them were files of maps, plot outlines, illustrations, and handwritten drafts.
Having everything scanned to PDF at a print centre would have cost over $200, at which point I decided to discard a nearly foot-high pile of paper.
Mapping past and future
I know most of us are susceptible to a desire to preserve the past and our connection to it. In that sense it doesn’t surprise me that my shelves and closet are filled with items whose primary value is in reminding me of the past: hobbies, relationships, thoughts, special events.
But I didn’t really appreciate, until I painfully culled all those reminders, the extent to which the items I own also represent my plans and hopes for the future. All those unread books on my shelves represented a plan to read or learn something eventually. My intellectual future was mapped out on my bookshelves. A collection of decorative papers and card-making supplies, calligraphy pens, yarns, and beads represents a host of planned crafts. My Sunday-afternoon identity was mapped out in my organised crafting collection. More poignantly, a shoebox in the closet labelled ‘Flower Petals’ represents a project, conceived years ago, that was intended to culminate in dried petals ready to throw at my wedding.
As it turned out, I got married in January so there was no chance for an outdoor send-off. I’d planned my wedding in the form of a flower-petal collection, but things hadn’t gone to plan. In a sense, many of the items which embodied my hopes for the future now betray the same disjunction between my plans and the outcomes. I kept dozens of unread books because I did plan to read them, but it never happened. I kept many old stories because, at the time, I thought I might glean some value from them as I developed my writing, but in reality most of them didn’t yield much that was salvageable, other than the practice gained in writing them.
This is the painful part of culling. It often sets in after the fervour of efficiency that filled a whole recycle bin with paper and a whole donation box with unneeded clothes. Almost always, I experience an impulse to run back to the stack of discarded items and salvage some of them, because ultimately getting rid of them registers as a loss. It’s either the loss of a connection with the past and with my own identity, or a loss of the hopes I had for the future.
After a wholesale purging, though, there is a kind of relief. It’s not only the relief of having more space to live and move in, and less mental clutter, but the relief that actually comes with letting go of certain things. It turns out, sometimes my sentimental or archival attachment to things can keep me tethered to memories that don’t need reliving, experiences that don’t need analysing any longer. Discarding the objects associated with those memories is like a kind of forgiveness, consigning failures, confusion, or old hurts to oblivion.
In my life generally, I’m trying to hoard fewer things, and feel less need to archive every scrap of my life for future reference. There are practical reasons for this, but in large part it’s a result of realising that my hoarding habit can be very unforgiving. Letting go of things in the form of deleting emails, giving away old clothes, and discarding paper records is actually one way of being merciful with myself by freeing my mind from having to think about the past habitually. It’s also, sometimes, one way of accepting the present situation more readily, regardless of whether it conforms to old expectations.