Friday, January 15, 2010

(I'm having a hard time) letting go

I admit it -- I'm a packrat. But at least two or three times a year, I go through a major de-cluttering. I go through the piles of paper and sort through my clothes and books, trying to get rid of things I don't need or want. It's surprisingly difficult for me to part with these items, even when I haven't looked at them for months or years. When I finally do manage to dispose of the unnecessary items, it's great -- I feel energized, as though I've cleared the decks and I'm ready to go full steam ahead. Why, then, is it so hard for me to give up my stuff?

Some of it has to do with pragmatic issues. I might need this item in future, so I save it, "just in case." This can be a perfectly sensible mindset, but as almost anything could have some use in future, it doesn't help me sort out what I am likely to use and what I am unlikely to use. I also hate the idea of waste -- throwing perfectly usable items away seems wrong. In this respect, Freecycle has been very helpful. Rather than tossing something in the trash, I post it to the Freecycle list. In most cases, I've been able to find takers for all kinds of stuff that would be unwelcome at most traditional charity organizations. I feel better, knowing that I'm not contributing to landfill waste and that my unwanted things will find a purposeful existence in someone else's life.

But my response goes beyond simple issues of practicality. Letting go of these things means giving up hope. When I look at the boxes of data that are stuffed into the closet in my office, I still cling to the idea that I can publish the research, even though some of these studies were conducted more than a decade ago. The bins of fabric represent the potential for garments and quilts that I have long planned, but never begun. To give them away is to admit defeat, to bow to the ugly reality of failure, and I refuse to do so.

The simple fact is that I often have a strong emotional response to the idea of getting rid of things. How can I part with the collection of carved animals from my younger days, many of which were gifts from my family? To dispose of a gift feels like a rejection of the giver, disrespectful and crass. And what about the tattered puppets that so entertained me as a child, but which now languish in a bag in my closet? Would that I could find someone who might love them as I do, but their next destination would surely be the garbage can, and how can I consign them to that fate? I'm even unwilling to get rid of the small stack of worksheets from high school chemistry I found, impersonal and meaningless as they are. Letting these things go means letting go of my past. The link to my childhood is already so fragile that I hold these objects in hope that they will represent an anchor to that earlier life which I remember only dimly.

Indeed, it seems that I hold some items in hope that I could return to that prior self. I have a pair of rainbow toe socks in my dresser that I have worn only once. Why have these not been donated to charity? Because when I was a child, I wanted rainbow toe socks desperately. To my eyes, they represented the height of fashion. As an adult, though, I find these socks terribly uncomfortable. I have no idea why I own a pair -- did I buy them or were they a gift? -- but I keep them in hopes that they will give me the same joy today that they would have in my childhood. In one episode of the sitcom Mad About You, Jamie Buchman, bemoaning her current, dull self, said, "I used to wear hats!" -- indicating that she was once young and hip. She then attempted to recapture her former self by putting on a hat, as if by doing so, she could shed her existing persona and become again her former, cooler self. I can empathize. I, too, wore hats with blithe abandon in my young adulthood. And although I rarely wear those hats any more, they still linger in my closet, waiting to transport me back in time. We often imbue objects with magical qualities and perceive them as transformative, able to shape us into our idealized self.

In some cases, I have become the caretaker for someone else's past. My mother's doll collection resides in cardboard boxes, each doll wrapped in acid-free paper. A lovely, cream-colored vest, handmade by my partner's grandmother, resides in one of my dresser drawers. These are not items I cherish for themselves -- I care little for the dolls, which hold no precious memories for me, and the vest is not a style I would wear. But they are fragments of these women's lives, imbued with their departed spirits. I have been charged to hold them in memorium, to protect and care for their possessions, and I am no more able to carelessly dispose of these objects than would a museum curator or a funeral director.

My house is full and overflowing, but the process of divesting myself of possessions is a perilous path. Each object is richly textured with meaning . . . imbued with significance . . . full of memories. Disposing of these items speaks volumes about who I am, who I was, and who I could be. All too often, it's just easier to keep the stuff than to face those questions.


  1. I'm so glad someone gets it.

    My house is filled with dead women's belongings. One grandmother's cast iron cookware and sewing machine. Another's furniture. Books from all three. Getting rid of any of those things feels like getting rid of them.

    Then there are the things I've acquired. Everything in my house has a story. I remember when and where I got them or at the very least, why I got them. Presents, items I saved for, items I picked up on killer sale, at yard sales, or thrift shops.

    As a kid we were solidly working class. I didn't have a lot of stuff and my parent's didn't spoil me. I cherished what I had.

    As an adult, when I can afford to get pretty much anything I want, whenever I want, it's I've still got this underlying mindset. Hold on to it, don't let it go.

    I'm getting better at ignoring it. I've taken loads of stuff to various charities this past week and tidied up and it does feel nice but there is also an underlying sense of melacholy.

    Hmmmm....maybe it's why I'm revisiting a quilt I started over 10 years ago.

  2. Thanks for your comment, ladyaelfwynn! It can be hard to give up the "hold onto it" mindset, particularly if the item has some kind of emotional significance. I totally understand your feeling that each thing has a story -- even a ticket stub can hold a wealth of memory. You are right that we are influenced by our childhood experiences -- children who grew up in the Depression, for example, can have a hard time throwing things away, since their experience of privation makes them unwilling to waste anything. Maybe my childhood of wearing hand-me-down clothing is what makes it hard for me to throw things away.

    I hope your feeling of melancholy eases. One thing I can suggest is that you take pictures of the items before you give them away. That way, you still have a way to remember the object and tell its story, should you wish to revisit it in the future.

  3. Deborah, I just posted over at QA, but then decided to really re-read your have truly hit the nail on the head of the emotional aspects of our habits...

    I would dread the very thought of any of those cleaning shows coming in and removing ME, my HISTORY from the house in order to make it suit a designers vision.

    I lived in NY in a postwar high ceilinged apartment for years. Friends would say it was like a was missing only placards describing the provenence of this or that....

    If you don't mind I may link your post to my next 27-thing fling blog posting, as it is a clearly full explanation of ourselves.

    However, do read my blogs regarding some of what you wrote above, I think you will find, if not 'answers', possbily some understanding??

  4. I face the same problem. I am sentimental by nature. I am a curator, therefore I am interested in material culture. I am also the child of parents who lived through the great depression.

    It is a terrible thing to be owned by "stuff." I am also somewhat saddened to know that my daughter, who is materialistic in her own way, will not cherish some of the things I have--my great grandmother's last quilt, etc. She will inherit it all and while I don't want to burden her, I do wish she had a better sense of connection.

    Good luck to you...and I too am going on the same journey of ridding myself of things.

  5. I totally understand what you're saying! If there were not people who cherished the previous generations' things we would not have antiques and it often does take more than one generation of time passing for an object to become an antique and not a cultural collectible.
    However, I've had some luck with editing by saying to myself that I do not have to keep EVERYTHING that person owned to have a memory of them. I do not have to keep everything my grandparents owned (or my mother) to keep their memory alive through objects. And, I want to make a note that, despite what those TV shows say, I DO want objects around that represent the people in my lives.It is often the things they made that hold the best memories.
    So, while I do not feel like I have to keep every pink rose encrusted object my great Aunt cherished, I can make a good effort to find it a "good home" with someone who adores roses. I can keep things I like and pass those down to others. I can examine my memories of that person, think about what some of my favorite memories of them are and what objects most represent those memories.
    Try not to listen to the compeating voices in your head that say things like:
    "but it's too good to get rid of" or "but they put so much time into making this" or "but it cost so much money"
    If you are saving things for sentimental reasons, keep only the things you have a memory connection with.
    There will be someone else who will appreciate it for all those other reasons.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Trish! I can see from your blog that you are working through a major de-cluttering, and you have some good suggestions and tips. I think part of what gets us is just that deciding whether to keep something or not takes time, but leaving it where it is takes no time at all. That's in part why I end up doing my house purges so infrequently.

    I like the idea of having a museum-style presentation in my house! I would love to come up with placards. As it stands now, my partner serves as docent and takes people on the house tour, explaining the story behind our various items. And I am totally with you about the staging idea -- I would hate to have someone remove "me" from the house to make it neutral (whatever that means).

    Do feel free to link the post from your blog, if you so wish. I would be most honored. :) And best of luck with your journey! Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Ah, Michigoose, I feel for you. There are so many forces at play here -- sentimentality, interest and curiosity, childhood socialization. It's hard to be owned by stuff and to feel that it will not be properly appreciated by others. It is possible that your daughter might go on to become more attached to the family heirlooms later in life. I have certainly become more interested in my family history recently than I used to be. If she truly doesn't want or appreciate the items you cherish, you might see if other family members or even friends might be better recipients. Obviously, you would want to talk to your daughter about it, but if she truly doesn't care, you might find others who would welcome such bequests.

    Thanks for stopping by and good luck on your journey!

  8. You make some excellent suggestions, Taraeire. We don't need to keep every memento and keepsake -- only those to which we have a real attachment. The others can be given good homes in which they are loved and valued. We don't need to be trapped in the "I should keep this" statements, as long as we are not disrespecting the item or its original source. I think the challenge is that some of us form emotional attachments all too easily! ;)

    Thanks for stopping by and for your helpful comment!

  9. Thanks for your comment on my blog, Deborah. I'm thinking about "letting go means giving up hope" ... I can see two sides to this, the sadness of abandoning an unfinished project (letting go of the hope of finishing) - and the release from the demands of the unfinished project, leaving time for starting a new one, with a surge of new hope.

    I wonder if having the animal collection, and the socks, immortalised here makes it easier to let them go?

    1. You are quite right, Margaret -- one can frame "letting go" as giving up the hope of finishing it or as freedom from its demands, opening up space for new opportunities. I often remind myself (and others) that saying yes to one thing often means saying no to something else. I suppose it is a question of how one approaches it, and I tend to see abandoning an unfinished project as a failure, a moment of dashed hopes. To be fair, though, there is always a new project around the corner, brimming with new hope. What I want is to embrace the hope of the new project AND the old project -- hence, my difficulty in getting rid of unfinished projects. ;-)

      And you ask a terrific question -- does writing about the objects make it easier to let them go? In this case, I think not. My emotional commitment to the socks had already begun to wane, even before I wrote this post. I was ready to let them go. The animal collection, on the other hand, became more precious as a result of writing the post. So I have displayed them more prominently and enjoy them more; in other words, my emotional connection to my animal collection has deepened somewhat. So perhaps writing is the crucible through which the emotional connections are either enhanced or diminished.

      By the way, you might enjoy the recent Radiolab podcast on "Things", which explores some of these same questions:

      Thanks for reading and commenting!