Saturday, October 3, 2015

sentimental stories about stuff

I have a small Mason jar full of sentimental stuff that doesn't mean anything to anyone else. I have a box of sentimental stuff in my sister’s attic. I used to have a 3-bedroom house full of stuff. 

Mementos, souvenirs, memorabilia, cherished objects: these are hard for many people to give up when they attempt to clear their lives of extraneous things. Minimalists teach us that clutter drains our energy and keeps us from living our lives fully. We are to pare down our collection of objects to those that are useful in our daily lives and that give us joy (or, at least peace). But the things that evoke our memories are the hardest to part with. Even KonMari says to leave mementos for last, once you have done all the easy categories, like your sock drawer.

So, how do we approach downsizing our collection of sentimental objects? I offer the concept of stories to guide decisions of what to keep and what to purge. Each object we have in our homes is there because of a story: an event or relationship in our lives. These may be stories about a special someone, stories about places we have traveled, stories about transitions in our lives, stories about our family history. The stories are the connection between us and our stuff. But are all stories important? How do we decide if the story is reason enough to keep the object?

Stories about family history are important to preserve. Material things help solidify those stories. My father has a framed copy of the front page of the newspaper his great-grandfather ran during the Civil War, in the Georgia town that bore his name. The American Union was a Northern-leaning newspaper and our ancestor was burned in effigy for publishing it. This object has a strong story and is worth keeping for our family.

Sometimes objects we keep tell personal stories, but the stories generally aren't interesting to anyone else. When we were cleaning out my mother's sewing room, I found a dolly and all the clothes that she had made for me when I was small. My first instinct was to stow it in my keepsake box at my sister’s. Then I realized that I just wanted to remember the story of my mother making it and us playing together. It's not like I was going to forget my mother if I didn’t keep this one handmade toy. Out it went.

Handmade objects can be particularly difficult to let go of, but it gets easier with practice. Acknowledge the time, effort and love that went into the making of the object, then reflect on whether or not you need to keep it. Have you been saving it because you use it and like it or because someone made it for you? It is the thing or the story?

I used to feel guilty getting rid of things that loved ones made for me, but I realize that for me, keeping things just because someone made them is sometimes a heavier burden than the guilt of letting them go. I hope my loved ones understand. It doesn't mean that I don’t return their love. In fact, I’m feel I’m able to love people more without the material things in the way.

Understand the stories that are connected to the objects you own. Are those stories still valuable to you? Do you need the object to remind you of the story, or will the story stand on it’s own in your mind? Would a photo of the object be enough?  Would a short written piece along with the photo suffice? Break the connection between story and object. Just keep the story. Or keep something really small.

The stories in my treasure jar.