There is an old saying that “two moves are as good as a fire.” I’d never heard that before but after this last move, I’ll opt for the fire. Since I had plenty of advance notice this time that we were moving households, I started constructing boxes and organizing the garage, basement and attic months before the movers actually arrived. Next time I’ll know to do it on the fly. After four months of discovering, examining and either packing or discarding the artifacts of the last eight years (and beyond) of our lives, I got to the point where I wanted to run out of the house while concomitantly ripping my hair out when I came upon yet another box of “memorabilia” or, God save me, “old photos.”
Wikipedia defines nostalgia as possessing a sentimentality for the past. In the old days, it was even considered a medical condition, like melancholia. I’m not surprised. After shifting through box after box of letters and memorabilia from my parents, grandparents—and the tragic journals of 18-year old Susan—I can tell you that the past is a scary place that will make you cry buckets for all that you have lost. There, I’ve said it. I don’t know why I kept all those short stories and poems that I wrote so many years ago (maybe thinking they’d be worth something when I was famous someday? Or did I really have a vision of my great grandchildren carefully handling these letters with awe and reverence?) Taking a prolonged peek at college-age Susan was not really a pick-me-up for post-menopausal Susan. Looking at all those notes from my Dad—gone now these past 25 years—seeing his familiar hand and noting the happy occasions he referenced did not do much for my happy mood the rest of the day.
Why do we keep this crap? It’s like we think we’re throwing out the person instead of the hastily-scrawled note from the person. It’s hard to believe that I am not losing my Dad any more permanently or completely when I toss out a card from him than I did in 1987 when he actually stopped existing. All of my memories are at least as comforting and real to me than this stuff is that I drag around behind me, move after laborious move (did I mention this is my 32nd house shift?)
I think sentimentality has its place but it’s not a going-forward, grab-life-by-the-horns kind of place. It’s a sad, let’s-slow-down-and-stare-inward-kind of place. Was I really thinking of creating an altar using all of John Patrick’s artwork from the third grade? Do I think the teachers’ handwritten notes about his brilliance are as important as the confirming, computerized SAT scores? Do I think by keeping them I’ll somehow make time stand still, or better yet, go backwards to that delightful time when he was five? Then why does thinking of it make me want to cry?
I threw out a lot this last time. I threw out Christmas ornaments over forty years old that were battered and in pieces and made the tree look like one erected at a homeless shelter. I threw out evidence of my hopes and dreams bled out on a page that I’d submitted to the New Yorker Magazine when I still thought I had a shot. I threw out love notes and photos of old boyfriends (and so young Susan), I threw out letters from my grandparents, sports trophies and Mother’s Day cards from my only child, cards from my husband in our courting days.
I can’t truly bring any of these people or times back and I think my attempt to hang on to these photos and memorabilia—like a terrible, pinching anchor around my neck—was trying to do exactly that. Stupid, really. Those people and those times live in my heart and in my mind. I don’t need the other stuff to remember them. And let’s face it, for years on end, these artifacts sit boxed and unnoticed in the attic or the basement. Unless I’m waiting to channel it all into eBay gold, it seems kind of silly to only drag them out and look at them every decade when I move household. It seems it’s the having of them that’s important more than anything else. But when you’ve got fifteen boxes of photos, clippings and gee-gaws, well, the having part of the remembering gets downright onerous.
In the end, I kept my Dad’s “go to hell” cap that he wore in the Air Force, some awards he earned at the Cape for the Apollo launches, and, well, okay, every note and letter he ever sent to me. I packed them up with a carefully selected handful of the colorful schoolboy detritus of the grandson he never met, bundled them in a single box with a very few and very special things from my husband and grandparents and placed the box on a shelf in order that it may follow me around the rest of my days. I’m very proud of this solution. I see it as a mature and measured way to selectively protect the emotional remnants of my past without letting it own me.
Besides, whittling things down gives me room to add more stuff later.
13 thoughts on “Stuff and Nonsense”
You mirrored exactly what I went through with a last move. At times I’ve thought saving that stuff would “develop” me, but much of it felt more like a pound in my body rather than a thought in my head.
As you point out, I suspect sometimes we don’t think about WHY stuff should be kept. In the case of my own household, we threw a lot out when we last moved…but the house, today, is still full…
I think there’s a lot of hope in idea that as much as we throw out, we continue to refill. It’s like a promise for the future–that not all the good and the valuable things worth feeling happened in the past. We’re all currently making room for new evidence of memories we’re making right now.
Two moves are as good as a fire. I like that. Each time I move I feel I have pared down “so this one should be easy.” Then the reality sets in that I must somehow unconsciously live like when I design a museum… there has to be 3 times the square footage of the main exhibition space. 1 square footage of exhibition space 2 same square footage for outgoing exhibit 3 same square footage for incoming exhibit so that there can be a seamless segue exhibit to exhibit. Now, I only see the current show so to speak, and think I’ve pared down before each move… until I start packing. I don’t know HOW I tetris all this stuff … being good with spatial relationships can have severe drawbacks… when you move.
Thanks for your story, Susan!
It isn’t the space you save that lights your life, it’s the pieces of your life that you throwaway that damp the fire. yes it always feels like we have to many boxes stuffed with the leftover useless scraps from yesterday, and yet, what are we? if not those words written, pictures taken, family and friends we’ll never touch again except in those scrapbooks, letters, and fading pictures of loves, places, beaches and sunsets stuffed under your bed, that whisper sweet memories to you in your dreams or as you lie awake as the moonlight paints pictures from times gone by on your wall.
My advice never through away yesterdays wishes, good or bad, because it’s by those high and low water marks etched along the shores of the islands of our lives that we judge the fulness of our lives, seems to me the people who believe their memories have no worth are the same people
who didn’t wade in the rivers of their lives. On another side of the same coin, I earn my living scribbling images on paper, illustrating other peoples books and stories, a long time ago I wrote several stories, just for the fun of it, in secret, knew they’d never get published, so stuck them under the bed in a cardboard box, carried those boxes with me as I moved from place, to house, to farm, to studio, to boat, island, city, and historic town. it was there in that small town, that a local theater group sent out a call for entries in an unpublished playwright contest. I dug into those old boxes,
and sent in one of those stories “The Girl Who Walked With Music” just for the heck of it. long story short, I won. and have two of my stories (plays) performed on stages, spent sometime messing about in theater, writing poetry and attending spokenword events, still make my living scribbling images on paper, but gotta tell you where I get my kicks is telling stories in front of an audience, haven’t earned a dollar, but those pieces of paper stuffed under the bed for all those years have changed this old guys life. real glad I didn’t thow my life away back then, is your life stuck in a box?
I love the way you write, Jon. And what you say here is an irresistible lure to me in so many ways. It’s hard to throw away these precious items and I definitely think there’s equity in keeping much of them in order to help “judge the fullness of our lives.” And you’re right, too, that i resist examining too closely the times past (and the things done or not done) because it only seems to prompt melancholy. But there’s the good, the hope and the sweet mixed down amidst it all. And maybe that’s worth the pain of keeping all the stuff. I really don’t know. I know I struggle with it and probably will continue to all the days of my life. Thanks, as usual, for the insightful, and beautifully written comment. Hope we can bump into each other again sometime soon.
I’m in awe of your ability to do this. There is a lot of energy and freeness in letting go of this sort of stuff, but we are very attached to our things. Thanks for posting this – I’m facing yet another move and I’ve decided to do this very thing: clear out the clutter before-hand. However, every time I start, I struggle to let go of some piece of rubbish for one sentimental reason or another. I think I may print out your post and re-read it before every cleaning session.
I know, exactly! Sometimes I think one of the main reasons I move so much is that it’s an excuse to clear out the debris of my life! 🙂
As a barefoot kid, besides drawing on both sides of every piece of paper I could find, including the packages of typing paper my dad brought home every month. I drew my stories, because as you’ve noticed I have trouble spelling and other stuff. don’t think I ever read a book in school except some history (loved those explorers in sailing ships) didn’t help my grades much, but my mom gave me books, Steinbeck, Thor Heyerdahl, Hemingway, Twain and Bradbury, read them all. loved Bradbury, and his outlook on education (didn’t go to college, went to the library instead) work (wrote a story or a chapter, every day of his life) remember listening to his 80something birthday on the radio, and the host asking Bradbury what he was going to do on his birthday, Bradbury answered, “after I have a piece of cake with my wife and a friends, I’ll go into my study and write another bleeping story”. one of my favorites was his famous “Fahrenheit 451″ and the importance of books, not the words printed on pages, but the ideas, thoughts, dreams and memories held on those pages. Before the books could be burned, a group of radicals,” the Book People” took it on themselves to memorize each book word for word. So for as long as they lived those stories, thoughts and memories would never be lost. maybe what we need today is “stuff and dreams hidden in boxes under the bed people”. So today’s thoughts, dreams, failures and triumphs will never be lost.
My father’s parents had a way of moving from place to place on frequent basis, but thirty two times? No…
After my mother’s funeral in early May, I found myself reading her journal… it’s very strange, seeing her thoughts about the day I was born.
Oh, wow, William…that is an amazing find! A treasure for sure. Sorry to hear about your mother. It makes what she left behind all the more valuable.
This may sound overblown, but I felt like I could breathe better after reading this. I have a niece and her two little ones moving in with us in the near future, and I have to make room. Thank you for making me feel that I’m not an unfeeling person for wanting to get rid of so much ‘stuff’. I’m feeling much better motivated to simplify.
You’re welcome! Sometimes a little “shake up” is just what we need to rearrange the pieces of our lives and reorder the importance of all the “stuff.” Thanks for commenting!