I Feel Bad About My Stuff: Getting Rid of Emotional Clutter
This buoyed my spirits in a way I hadn't expected. It was fun to figure out what new pictures I wanted to display and I was glad to have tangible evidence that the kids and I were still happy and functioning. My snapshot collection was no longer living in the past -- and neither, suddenly, was I.
Photos were just the tip of the iceberg, however. The sheer amount of junk I'd stashed -- and hardly missed -- boggled my mind. I had boxes and boxes to go before I slept. How had it happened? Nobody ever says, "What I really want is a house crammed to the gills with redundant possessions." Yet somehow this is how we end up. According to Tsh Oxenreider, author of Organized Simplicity and the blogger behind SimpleMom.net, "We are so reticent to get rid of things because we believe our cherished memories are tied up in our things. If we get rid of the thing, we're saying those memories don't matter to us. Not true." Still, the thought of paring down makes most of us anxious to the point of paralysis.
I called my mom for emotional support. As it turned out, she was in the middle of a massive curation project of her own: She and my stepfather had recently sold the sprawling house my siblings and I had grown up in and were moving to a tiny two-bedroom cabin in the woods. "I'm sitting here looking at nine pairs of painted ceramic candlesticks, trying to pick just one," she said. When I asked why on earth anyone would have so many candlesticks, she sighed. "Well, I've had 63 birthdays and 63 Christmases," she said. Add one or two souvenirs a year, a few gifts from grateful houseguests, then factor in the ease of stashing things away in a large house and you've got some idea of what my mom was up against.
We had to be ruthless. Curating means picking the gems from every collection and letting the rest of it go. With this in mind, I began drastically culling duplicate mementos. In one box I found a dozen letters written to me by my beloved great-grandmother, who died when I was 13. The letters themselves don't take up much space; I could easily have justified saving every single one of them. But instead, I read them all -- and then I picked one. One letter makes a wonderful souvenir; too many make it impossible to open the desk drawer. Bizarrely, this paring down made me feel richer than before. A month ago, I reasoned, I had a pile of letters from a dead relative at the bottom of a box I'd forgotten existed. Now I have a single cherished letter. I know exactly where it is. I'll read it again every few years. Lesson learned: By saving fewer things, you increase their value.
You also increase their visibility. A huge collection tends to overwhelm your senses, whether you spend years accumulating ceramic gnomes or Fabergé eggs. "If you're aiming for sheer quantity, you're missing the point -- and you can literally lose sight of the beauty of each individual object," Balbes points out. Picking one or two shining examples cuts to the essence of why you started collecting this thing in the first place. The object you choose will be the most symbolic -- whether it's the first, the last, the rarest, or your favorite.
This, it turns out, is an interesting riddle to solve, and my mom and I discussed it over the phone as she went through her book collection. She has hundreds of books -- but she couldn't take all of them to the cabin any more than she could take 18 candlesticks. In the end she decided that any book with an inscription (which meant it had been given as a present) could come, and she picked two candlesticks from Italy. Once the other eight pairs were gone, those two looked twice as beautiful as they had among their companions. Meanwhile, I winnowed down a whole box of presents my kids had made for me over the years by choosing to keep only two and stashing the rest. (I figure I'll rotate them from time to time, just like a real curator.) I wondered if the kids would complain that certain items were missing, but in fact the opposite happened: They noticed what was there ("Hey! I remember making this!") and didn't say a word about what wasn't.
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