The stuff we keep.

My mom left a note asking me to take out the trash, and 23 years later I’m finally getting around to it.

The trash in question is a manila folder stuffed with fading papers from my childhood, and my dad – gone now, but fastidious and very much alive when mom wrote this note on his behalf – had been “cleaning out his desk.”  

Yakity yak, don’t talk back.

I suppose it’s nice to be able to prove that I missed just two days of school in first grade and got an ”A” in Reading and Arithmetic.  But do I really need to keep a copy of my 40 year-old elementary school transcript?  Is the momentary flood of memories – both good and bad – I experienced when I saw the long-forgotten names of my 1970s homeroom teachers worth the clutter?  

Hooboy, this was a powerful memory-jogger.

The folder was in a box in the attic that held other trinkets and doodads and thingies from way back:  JFK assassination newspapers, black and white photos of people I never knew, home movies on video formats long declared obsolete, photo slides with no slide projector in sight.  So much stuff.

“Thinning things out” is hard.  But with two of our very close neighbors (of 30 years) selling their houses this past year, and a third neighbors’ house going on the market next week, I recently decided it’s time to start.  Whether we sell the house or stay, I see a dumpster in my driveway sometime soon.  My departing neighbors were fully enraptured by their rented dumpsters, tossing away decades of stuff with glee before moving to the downsized homes of their dreams. 

Marie Kondo, in her best-selling book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” challenged her readers to determine if a treasured object still “sparks joy.”  If it no longer sparks joy, Kondo wrote, thank it — and get rid of it.

But I think Kondo only got it half right.  I’d like to feel more than just joy in this life.  Sometimes I want a good cathartic cry when handling an object that belonged to someone special who’s gone now.  Sometimes I like the full-body cringe that rides through me when I see a pimply group photo of me and the rest of the science club from high school.  A diet of constant joy sounds unpalatable to me.   (“Every day can’t be Christmas,” Elmo learned the hard way on a very special episode of Sesame Street, the DVD of which I only just threw away.  “That wouldn’t be such a treat. You can get tired of chocolate candy when that’s all you eat.”)

I’m not a pack rat or a reality-TV style hoarder, but I am the curator of what author Dinah Sanders insightfully calls “The Museum of Me.”  I’ve had some pretty cool jobs, in my humble opinion, and they yielded some pretty cool memorabilia.   I wrote for newspapers and non-profits for almost 20 years, and like every insecure artist with an outsized ego I treasure each and every piece I wrote, each and every photograph I snapped that got published.  I spent years on the “speaking circuit” and have programs from events that I keynoted at from all over the world, with my name in bold letters and my picture inside.  And the stuff that reminds me of my carefree youth – band buttons, books, Buckaroo Banzai movie premiere give-aways — are my national treasures.   

Our Tchotchkes, Ourselves.

And the stuff that belonged to my brother who died nearly 30 years ago must be preserved at all costs.  (Right?)

In her book “Discardia: More Life, Less Stuff,” Dinah Sanders offers a more realistic understanding of the emotions we attach to our objects than does the quirky, joy-fixated Marie Kondo. “It often isn’t easy to decide the fate of the things our past selves have acquired,” Sanders writes. “We change. We all know that’s true, but when it comes to our belongings, it can be difficult to let go of our old ideas about ourselves and the accessories that supported that personality…over time, our homes (and closets and storage units) become museums to who we’ve been…we run our own fan club.”

Well, gee, Dinah, don’t mince words.  Ouch.  But she’s totally right, and I am here for this kind of straight talk.  

Sanders goes on to advise all of us Museum of Me curators to photograph the stuff we think matters, so we can feel all the feels later, whenever we want, without having to go up to the attic or rent an offsite shed where we store all of our stuff.  “You don’t have to keep the thing.  You can keep the pointer to the thing, the memory, the context.

So on a recent rainy Saturday I committed myself to an afternoon of decluttering, deciding on a hybrid Kondo-Sanders approach. I told myself: Let’s see what sparks what kind of sparks, and then let’s decide how to preserve the memory, the context, or to let the thing go.

I told myself I had five options:

  • Keep the thing.
  • Keep all of the things.
  • Keep a representative sample of the things, and toss the rest.
  • Repurpose the thing.
  • Photograph the thing (or some representative samples of the things) and then toss the things.
    • Rinse, repeat, go to bed emotionally drained but with cleaner closets and a genuine sense of relief and release. Those boxes in the attic are always out of sight but never out of mind.

Here’s how it played out:

The challenge: Too many newspapers and writing samples from 20 years of freelancing.

The struggle: I fought hard for those bylines in the Boston Globe and won awards for my work on the Charlestown Citizen, and when I re-read those stories now I feel motivated to keep writing.

The realization: Accept the fact that no one’s going to ask for me for 35-year-old writing samples during my next job interview. Acknowledge that, lacking my personal context, my kids won’t find these newspapers interesting in any way, shape or form after I’m gone.

The verdict: Take some representative photos of the publications I was proud to be published in, save a few of the actual papers, and toss the rest. Keep the physical copy of some of the insanely cool clips, too, like my review of the Smiths last album and Morrissey’s solo debut.

“Yesterday’s News is Tomorrow’s Fish and Paper.” — Elvis Costello.

The challenge: I love history, but these historic headlines are depressing and take up a lot of room.

The struggle: But, history!

The realization: This stuff isn’t as rare or valuable as I used to think it is, and the kids are all out of school now, so they won’t be grade-grubbing their teachers with these OG artifacts; the days of high school research papers are long over. Also, all this history is on the Internet, and it takes up much less room in cyberspace than it does in my attic.

The verdict: Read it and weep, literally. I spent a few hours actually reading these and other newspapers with tragic, history-making stories. I felt the feels. I took some pictures. And then I tossed them into the recycling bin of history.

Let these memories live in your heart and not in your closet beneath a pile of tax returns from the 1990s.

The challenge: When my brother JB, and then my dad, passed away, they left some objects behind that I’ve since endowed with magical memory powers. These objects bring comfort, inspiration and a sense of perspective. But do I need to keep all of JB’s 300 Kodak Ektachrome slides?

The struggle: Thinning out the stuff that belonged to people I loved feels like a crime.

The realization: It’s not a crime. But I should keep the stuff I decide to keep for good reasons, remembering that sometimes less is more.

The verdict: Spend an upcoming Saturday afternoon holding the slides up to the light, and separate them into eight piles. Keep one pile and offer a pile to each of my six surviving siblings and my mom. And continue to blog about the really meaningful objects, like my dad’s watch and a cassette recording of my brother’s first concert as a drum student. These are the “pointers” that Sanders talks about in Discardia.

Kodachroooo-oooo-ooome, they give us those nice bright colors, give us the green of summers…

The challenge: Ringo the dog has been gone for at least five years, but the top drawer of my dresser has all sorts of his left-over stuff crammed into a corner. Chewed up leashes, dog licenses, commemorative collars. Even some creepy paw-print thing from the vet when we put him down.

The struggle: I really, really loved that dog, so shouldn’t I love his stuff?

The realization: Yes, but not this way. Plus, I have two very much alive dogs that want attention, now.

The verdict: That paw-print thing in no way sparks joy. It fact, it gives me the willies. So, thanks, and buh-bye. I’ve repurposed Ringo’s Red Sox collar as a luggage tag, and the chewed-up leash makes for a decent key ring. So Ringo will always be with me wherever I go.

Repurposing the good stuff. Tossing the thing that makes me shudder.
It took two dogs (Duncan and Luna, below) to replace Ringo (top). I’ll deal with their stuff later.

And so there you have it, my first adventures in the world of Discardia. I highly recommend you give it a try sometime.

I feel good.

I feel lighter.

And I feel like a nap.

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