Moving the Memories

As I work on packing my family of seven to move back to the States from Indonesia, and as I make decisions about what to bring, what to sell, and what to throw away, I often think of a quote by William Morris:

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

The thing is, while most people would love to live up to this sentiment, they find it far too difficult to implement. I believe that this is because there is a third category: the sentimental. Most of us have boxes (or whole garages!) filled with things we find neither useful nor beautiful, and yet we hold onto them. They carry some special place in our hearts and in our memories. Letters from old friends, hard-won trophies from high school, that ugly dish your favorite aunt gave you for your wedding. We don’t want the stuff, but we don’t want to let go of the memory.

A pregnancy test I had been holding onto since 2002!

The problem is, life has a way of creating more memories and accumulating more stuff. Never has been there such a push for people to simplify, to organize, and to purge. People crave having less stuff but they just don’t know how to make it happen. How do you get rid of your child’s favorite outfit? Who cares if he hasn’t fit into it for the last six years…it is his favorite! As someone who has moved a lot of times (13 times in the past 12 years to be exact), I have learned a few things about moving the memories.

My husband’s childhood Bible that we photographed back in 2008 before moving to Indonesia

Here are a few simple suggestions:

1. Internalize the quote above. If it is not useful or beautiful (and I am talking about useful right now, not in 20 years when your kids have kids!), then it goes. It is the only way to make sure that you truly simplify and stop lugging around stuff you will never use.

My Malaysian wallet, including my expat card, Coffee Bean Card, airline baggage stubs, and more. I’ve been keeping this wallet for the past six years because I have some weird fascination with the stuff we put in our wallets and I feel like I can “go back” to a point in time.

2. Before you start chucking things into the trash, though, preserve the memory. As photographers and scrapbookers we have the wonderful option of saving the memory without saving the stuff. If you have an item that you know you will never use again or that you would never decorate your home with, you need to part with it. But before you do, take a picture of it. Create a layout about it. Hold onto the memory without holding on to the actual object. Scans and photos take up very little space and yet they are just as powerful. I scan my kid’s artwork, take pictures of favorite stuffed animals they no longer play with, and take pictures of silly things that were a big part of our life.

My sweet son’s “Beep Beep.” We paid $5 for it in Malaysia and he used it every day for about four years. It was tempting, but I resisted bringing it to Indonesia with us!

3. For each person, there are a few exceptions. For me, as I finish packing yet another house, there are a few tangible things I am not quite ready to part with. I saved each of my children’s coming home outfits. I’ve saved a few favorite books, even if the covers are torn off. I’ve rescued a little monkey stuffed animal that my kids didn’t want because it was the first thing I ever bought for a child of mine. There are a few things. But the rest, well, they needed to go. You need to decide what are the few things that you will give yourself permission to hold onto.

My bronze medal from the Odyssey of the Mind Word Finals, 1995

4. Let go of the guilt. Just because you get rid of something, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hold any value. In fact, the opposite might be true. It might hold tremendous emotional value. But if something is just sitting in a box, never to see the light of day, wouldn’t it be better off being preserved in a photo and perhaps on a scrapbook page then collecting dust in the garage? Is it really worth paying money for a storage unit, building bigger houses, adding shelves to every nook and cranny just so we can save the memories? Getting rid of a gift from your grandmother doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a wise person who would rather own your stuff than have your stuff own you.

A piece of fabric from a pair of pajama pants that I wore almost exclusively through my first two pregnancies. They literally fell apart!

As I have gone through my house this time, I have been even more ruthless in the purging. One afternoon, I opened a small photo box labeled, “memories” and I went through each item, asking myself if it was really necessary to keep it. A few things I kept, but most things were set on the bathroom counter (it’s where I was at the moment) and I took pictures. Lots of pictures. And then—here was the hard and yet oh-so-good-part—I threw most of the stuff away. My garbage was overflowing and yet I feel a stronger connection with those memories now than I did then. I can’t wait to scrap some of the memories!

A can of Drano that we used to accurately predict the gender of our first four kids!

The next time you get ready to move or just to purge and simplify, take a good look at your things. Ask yourself if they are useful or beautiful. If they are in storage, ask yourself why they are in storage? Ask yourself if it is something that a photo would preserve as well as the item itself. And then feel the exhilaration of watching the pile of “stuff” dwindle as you reclaim your living space. It feels good, I promise!

Here are a few layouts I have done in the past with scanned and/or photographed items. I think they look much better here than in a cardboard box!

What do you do with all the sentimental stuff you know you won’t use but don’t want to get rid of? Does it scare you to think of throwing things out or giving them away?