I have boxes of ‘memories’ that I have been dutifully filling over the last thirty years: tons of junk which is more about evidence of me being ‘cool’ than a box of objects that make up my physical biography.
Five big boxes of sentimental memories. Approximately 60 kilos, and something like 400 litres.
Plane tickets, programmes, wrist-bands, endless piles of cards and letters. Toys, cigarette cards, an old camera, shoelaces from a factory my friend used to run.
I haven’t looked at it for years, only opened to shove in some new trinket or souvenir. Every time I move, I carefully transport them from one place of safety to another. If the house caught fire, they would be the second thing I rescued (after Sophie), and I’d probably burn to death trying.
I have such a high sentimental attachment to everything in those boxes, but – I also have no idea what they contain. And I have no idea why I insist on keeping them. It’s more clutter which I feel responsible for and protective over, which is tying me down.
If I’m going to downsize my life, then this feels like the last thing I want to minimise. It contains my identity and a history of my life. Only when I sit down and honestly look at what this represents, I realise that it’s a representation of all the times that I have been ‘cool’ or done something that would impress other people. “Yes, I’ve been to Glastonbury, here’s the wristband to prove it’. I know I’ve been to Glastonbury, I have some great memories, and thinking about it cheers me up and reminds me of a whole weekend of mayhem and laughter. If I had the wristband on my keychain, then every time I got my keys out, I’d see that and have a little burst of recollection. That would make sense. Sticking it in a box in the attic does not. So why am I keeping this stuff filed away?
Skimming through it, I realise that it’s not all trophy cabinet: there are items in these boxes which trigger a whole raft of memories, like a key unlocking a door. On their own, they mean nothing, unless you were there. There is a glass jar stuffed with 100+ single shoelaces, from the time my good friend Graham and I went to visit the shoelace factory he managed, drunk on a Saturday night, and wandered amongst the rows of ageing weaving machines that could be set to make any style and colour of shoelace imaginable. We took one of each shade and fashion from each engine. Just looking at those, handling them, reminds me of an entire long weekend which culminated in an exchange of a forgotten briefcase in a service-station car park, like a pair of cold-war spies.
But that’s one item out of a whole lot of trophies.
Why do I have so many trophies then?
I think it’s all about ‘shadow’, and my fears and doubts about who I am: my self worth and self-belief. If I listen to my inner teenager, I can hear him boasting about all the cool things I used to do. It reminds me a bit of Facebook, and the fact that most of the stuff I used to post was like trophies: ‘look at me, I’ve just done something cool.. My life is amazing’.
I realise that it’s not just about me proving things to other people, it’s because I feel like I’ve let my life slip away like I need these things to remind me that I have led a fulfilling life and done things to be proud of. I’m tied to my past in such a way that I can’t enjoy my future. Unless I get rid of a lot of this stuff It’s going to be sat festering in a box in my house, ever present, a constant reminder of who I was, not who I am.
So, something had to change drastically. Mostly my mindset.
I started out by re-framing what my memory box was for, and how I planned to use it in the future. The scenario that comes to mind is one along the lines of “Grandad, what was life like when you were young”, taking time to look through these precious keys, to unlock the whole raft of memories associated with that object, and telling a tall tale to go with it. I realise it’s going to be about taking a trip down memory lane in the future; a rainy Sunday spent awakening old memories. I realised then that it wasn’t going to be necessarily anything that I’d share with anyone else, except maybe with Sophie in the years to come.
So, this meant getting rid of 90% of the contents, something which felt painful. So instead I set about categorising stuff and sorting it into piles to deal with in different ways.
I started off with all the letters and cards that I had received from previous girlfriends over the years: this was a huge chunk. Looking back, I think I kept them to remind me how much these women loved me at the time: there was something dark about keeping things that said “I will love you forever”, to highlight to myself how flawed these relationships were because they couldn’t keep their promises to me.
That’s not healthy, and it had to go, but they couldn’t just be dumped in the recycling. So I spent some quality time, looking through all the letters, remembering all the unique aspects of those relationships, the happiness
The next pile was all the trophies: certificates of jumping out of planes, going to gigs; races; sporting events and festivals. I sat with each one and tried to remember something significant about it. In nearly every case I couldn’t, so they literally ended up in the bin. I have a whole load of photos (these too need to be sorted, but that’s for another time) that are far better memory joggers. Who cares if I jumped out of a plane? Who cares if I went to Gatecrasher ten times, I can’t remember a single act or event from any of them. I was there, I did it, and it was fun at the time. Move on.
The next pile was a whole load of semi-important things that I thought of as being significant in my past, like the first collateral I designed when I started working as a marketer in ICL. It was a thing of beauty but collectively weighs about 3 kilos. I took some photos and recycled the lot. I felt like keeping it was tying my creativity to the past.
The next pile was a load of things that made me happy to look at, reminded me of past ideas and occasions. These things I wanted to have more access to, so I could look at them and play with them when I am at my desk. A handful is now on the shelves beside me, and if I want a mental change of scenery from work, a few minutes playing with these objects does the trick. To anyone else, they will be completely random and meaningless, but to me, each one is like a short story.
The next lot were things of great sentimental value, thinks my father bought me for Christmas that I have attached a tremendous amount of emotion too. On their own, they carry no meaning or memories, it’s just that he bought them for me, and he’s not here anymore, so I’m hanging on to them to remind me of him. Except that none of them does. They just were things he bought me. So instead I found a couple of unique things that remind me of things we did together, along with a great picture of him, and they now make up a mini shrine to his memory on a shelf. The rest of the stuff has gone to the charity shop, where I hope it’s sale will help to improve someone else’s life.
Then there was a whole load of documents, from previous payslips to previous tax documents that showed what I earned over the years, Fascinating and utterly useless. Who cares? Only the shredder now.
So, that leaves the genuinely sentimental and precious things, less than half a box no
The funny thing is that I can’t remember what half of it was, and it was only a week ago that I got rid of it all.
Downsizing this sort of clutter is an emotional challenge, but – in my opinion – is a valuable exercise in becoming clear of my past so that I can move on with my future. What I had there did not define me, it was an attempt to promote myself as I thought other people would value seeing me. Again, it comes back to the ‘if people see me this way then they’ll like me’. A trap and a lie that I have perpetuated through my life.
It was a painful process, but I found that rather than trying to ‘be tough’ and ‘just throw it away’, that I had to spend time being with the feelings. To say goodbye, to think through the attachment and gently reason with myself (my inner child and inner teenager) that there were other ways to remember, that nothing was being broken, that this was healthy and necessary.
I’ve also found that things that I would typically have
If you’re planning to downsize your sentimental clutter then I can only offer this advice: take your time and be kind to yourself.