To keep or not to keep

So what’s the protocol for keeping stuff from past relationships?

I was wondering this as I sat sifting through ticket stubs, cards, vacation memorabilia, and CDs that I had accumulated over the last several years. At some point I had deemed each of these things as “worth keeping”, and stuffed them in an overflowing box under my bed. But in a recent effort to improve the feng shui of my tiny apartment, I cleared the space from under my bed. The box had since taunted me out in the open, daring me to do something with it.

So here I was, intending to turn this stuff into some sort of scrapbook in order to give it a proper home. I started by organizing the things by year, carefully reading and considering each piece: tickets from recent concerts, the fake ID that allowed me to see my favorite band for the first time, CDs made for me by an ex, cards of people I met while in acting school, letters from friends I have since lost contact with. Going through it all, I started to feel emotionally heavy.

Why are you holding on to these things?

It wasn’t until my friend Karen called me mid-sifting and asked me this question that I began to ponder it. It had seemed so natural to hold on to this box, to value it, that the question didn’t even cross my mind. Why was I holding on to this stuff? I explored my reasoning:

  • At one point I had made the decision to hold on to it, so shouldn’t I trust that decision and hold on to it? It was as if the longer it I held on to it, the more value it accrued, since it was the one tangible thing that would remind me of an event that would otherwise be lost forever, buried deep in my consciousness by accumulated experiences.  If you don’t remember your past, who’s to say it even happened? Without a past, what’s your basis for knowing who you are? These physical objects were providing a record of  life experiences, and in doing so, reminding me of who I was.

This need to collect memories started in childhood; I’d collecting rocks and tidbits from school, and keep them in a metal box under my bed. Included was a wooden piece of a field hockey stick that I broke in pieces during a strong drive, a plastic necklace, scripts from my first plays.  In fact, that box was still in my mom’s home in the closet.  

Although I knew logically that I didn’t need any of these things to validate my existence, the thought of parting with them sparked an initial pang of panic. If I get rid of it all, what would happen? Well…nothing. The fact that those experiences occurred cannot be reversed, nor does keeping physical tokens from them make them any more true. At this point, engaging with most of this stuff made me depressed, as I was discovering. So what do I do with it? Is any of it worth keeping?

“Well, do any of those things inspire you?” Karen asked. Inspiration. Of course. How do these things make me feel? The metal box at home made me feel good when looking through it, because it reminded me of all those qualities I liked about myself as a kid. It reflected back to me happy memories, and reminded me of the early experiences that made me who I am today.

As for this cardboard box, most of it was from the quarter-life-crisis part of my life, when I was learning and testing who I was. In truth, most of the things still held the stuck, challenging energy I was experiencing at the time, and I felt this when going through them.  That included the stuff from the past relationships of the time.  As much as those relationships grew me, they gave me no value in thinking of them now.

All that inspired me in this box was the thoughtful letters from good friends, items from favorite musical experiences, and several beautiful cards. Using inspirational value as the discerning factor made sorting out the worthwhile stuff from the rest a breeze.

By the time I got off the phone with Karen I felt as though a load had been lifted from my body. Removing the sense of value from these things broke the spell of attachment I was under.  I had choice in the person I wanted to be, and therefore was free to get rid of anything that did not serve that intention. The box itself did not hold the puzzle pieces to who I am.  Similarly, I held no obligation towards the person I once was, nor towards the prior expectations I held for myself.  We have the ability to recreate ourselves each moment – a constant evolution, and sometimes, a metamorphosis

So we hold on to those memories and those physical items that remind us of the best part of ourselves, of lessons learned and important life milestones we identify with at that moment, of amazing experiences that touched us in some positive way. And as we continue to revaluate ourselves and shed old versions, so can we shed the physical representations of those things.

And shed I did, until the box of stuff melted to 1/4 of the size. I had no idea idea how much energy was stored in that box, and how cathartic it would be to let it go.  As for the remaining things…I guess I’ll make a scrapbook.