When Yesterday Makes Today Disappear

“The difference between sentiment and being sentimental is the following: Sentiment is when a driver swerves out of the way to avoid hitting a rabbit on the road. Being sentimental is when the same driver, when swerving away from the rabbit, hits a pedestrian.”

~ Frank Herbert

The conversation of minimalism and living in a minimalistic fashion has become almost synonymous with tiny house living in recent years. Minimalism as a discipline has grown tremendously as more and more people are finding the freedom in it. The practice has even brought about its own set of celebrities. Seems reasonable then that I have been asked countless times since 2009 about living more simply and how to do so in a realistic way. By realistic I am talking about scaling back rather than giving up. I find the following to echo most loudly though:

  • How do I deal with sentimental objects?
  • How do I decide what to keep and what to purge?
  • Does nothing mean anything to me?
Photo courtesy of Paul Bilodeau

Photo courtesy of Paul Bilodeau

It is an overwhelming and sometimes discouraging line of questioning. Truth is, I AM sentimental. Not a day passes that I don’t crack a smile at the thought of my deceased granny and her peculiar expressions. I am a subscriber to Reminisce magazine; a monthly that recalls the days of yesteryear…most I never experienced. I take way too many photos and have yet to get rid of any of them. My daughter may be the most photographed and video’d child on the planet! Things mean something to me doggone it! I attach feeling and emotion to a number of tangible (and intangible) items. In our firebox we have a brooch given to my wife by my granny, we have a ring my grandfather wore for decades, and we have a $2 bill that my wife’s grandmother gave her on her 7th birthday. These things have meaning to us. But lately I have asked myself, “Why?” Notice I mentioned those items are in our firebox? They are protected. They are locked up. No one wears the brooch. The ring is tarnished. The $2 bill is a relic that we probably wouldn’t spend even if it was our last currency. And that is when it truly strikes me.

They actually mean nothing!

All the cards we had given my dear granny, all the things she left for us, all the pictures surrounding her; they meant nothing. Before you gasp and panic, let me explain. Those items are nice to have. They are visual reminders of life with her in it. But they were just that: reminders. They can no sooner bring her back than the man in the moon. Truth is, I have already spent too much of my life capturing moments on film or blogging about them and subsequently ceasing to actually live them. So maybe this post is more about living in each moment rather than how to decide what sentimental items should be kept and where they should go?

I can tell you this though. I battle with this issue all the time. Now that my daughter has started homeschool I find myself keeping her papers. I want to look back on her first writing. I want to see her beautiful colorings that pay no attention to lines or structure. She is already growing up too fast. Why can’t I hold on to something? But know this. The hardest things for me to sort through are those that fall squarely in the sentimental clutter category.

To paraphrase professional organizer and designer Peter Walsh, it isn’t just about the stuff. It is about who or what it reminds me of. That first report card I got less than an A on reminds me of my good buddy Wesley that died that same year. He was in that class with me; the one that landed me my first C.

Yearbooks

My high school yearbook(s) don’t remind me of all the people I now chat with on Facebook, but rather the friends I made at the restaurant I worked at to make enough money to buy the darned $60 yearbook in the first place. For years and years I have held on to these things – as well as others – packing them up and moving them from Virginia to Georgia to New York and back to Georgia and then to North Carolina. The struggle is real!

I do want to give myself credit though. When I got married in 2008 I had already parted ways with a number of things. In fact, all that was left was what I felt was truly important and that gave me pause upon seeing it. Most of my old report cards had been scanned in and saved to disk. Cub scout awards had been trashed (as I never really liked the scouts anyway). A ton of old birthday cards had been ceremoniously burned in a small little celebration of life I had out at the fire barrel one night. All that remained was the most difficult stuff to get rid of; the stuff soaked in memories. Like so many, I had become attached to things that reminded me of the past. I have since added to those things to with memories of my time with my wife, creations from my daughter, and even a degree/certificate or two. I had to face the facts though. A large part of me did not and does not want personal clutter. I like a more “minimalist” space. But how? How does one get rid of the stuff that means so much; that evokes so much emotion? How do you honor minimalist values and a deep-seated desire for simple living?  The answer involves seizing the day, focusing on what is most important, and honoring your personal history.

  • STUFF IN A BOX. My wife made me a wooden box about the size of a shoebox for Christmas several years back. I immediately started calling it my treasure chest. She intended it for me to be a place for my personal effects and I used it for that. To this day it keeps tucked away our wedding photo, a photo of my daughter the day she was born, a cigar from a trip to Cuba, the first handwritten letter my wife ever gave me (and perhaps the only!), a little, plastic rooster, and a few handmade pipes. For me, my treasure chest is sacred. It keeps my memories alive and makes them a part of my everyday life. It is my only box though and my only grouping of effects.
  • USE IT OR LOSE IT. I have not heard of a newlywed couple registering for china in a long time. Why? Probably because people are realizing more and more that there is no real use for it. It isn’t practical in our, ahem, disposable society and it often claims more space than it is worth. The same goes for watches, purses, shoes, etc. If you don’t use it, lose it! It doesn’t matter who gave it to you. If it did, you probably would be using it more, yeah?
  • GO DIGITAL. Take some time to scan in important, older, documents, cards, letters, newspaper clippings, etc. Anything paper-related that matters to me has been scanned in and backed up (external hard drive and cloud).
  • RECORD IT. I have a great file of MP3 files and even videos of special people in my life telling me stories, recounting events, etc. All of these files are backed up as well and secured so that I can cherish and even share said stories for as long as possible. It is a great way of holding on to memories that may otherwise escape you or decay over time. I am not at all saying digital files are the most safe or the longest lasting. They are, however, the most convenient and the most reliable right now. To hear where I got the idea from just check out StoryCorps on NPR.

Minimizing and decluttering your sentiments doesn’t mean giving up your past altogether. It means making way for future memories and unlocking the truths that make things so special to you in the first place.

What do you currently do to keep alive memories? Do you go digital? Do you have a special keepsake box? Tell me in the comment section below.

By Andrew M. Odom for the [Tiny House Blog]

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Ann Chandler - September 28, 2016 Reply

I come from a long line of collectors, keepers, and very sentimental people, and, as I have lived a long life already, I have more stuff than many people. Recently I have begun to give things away, even expensive things, and things that mean the world to me. This idea began when I became a tour leader at the only Shaker Village in the world that still has a few real Shakers living in it. New Gloucester, Maine. They give all their worldly goods, including money, away, when they join the Shaker Society. All they own is communal. They own property, animals, land, cars, clothing, and consumable goods like food. All of it belongs to everyone. When they give a gift at Christmas time, or some other special occasion, they wrap the thing they love the most, and give it to the person they care most about. I have been doing this sort of gift-giving for about five years now. I go to visit these people, and see my precious things gracing their homes, and I realize I still have them, in a way. They are now ours, not only mine. It is not easy to do this, but the more I do it, the easier it gets.

Love and Peace,
Ann

    Andrew M. Odom - September 28, 2016 Reply

    Thank you for sharing that Ann. Such a great story and experience.

Laura - September 28, 2016 Reply

It’s been over 2 years ago now that my house caught on fire and all of that kind of stuff was lost. No year book, no more family photo’s, no records, yes, vinyl that can be replaced. Awards from work and hobbies all gone. What does matter is I am here and moving on. Cherished memories for me but not the end of everything

    Andrew M. Odom - September 28, 2016 Reply

    I am sorry you had to endure such. However, I am glad to hear you have moved on. Great memories indeed.

Bev - September 28, 2016 Reply

I inherited two homes worth of stuff and sadly it took me 10 years to finally clear it all out. I wasn’t sure how to let go of all this stuff that I didn’t want or need because my family was just down to my nephew and myself. I thought I had to keep this treasure to pass on to him. But it drove me nuts. Finally after a long chat with my nephew about what he wanted, I purged the sentimentals. My nephew got a few pieces that he truly wanted and loved. The same for me. I scanned all of our pictures and gave him a copy. Everything else went. It was hard work, but I am so happy. I found that the old worry I had about forgetting people and memories if the things were gone, wasn’t true. Instead, the more I gave away, the more I remembered. Because my pictures are digitized, I see them on my computer all of the time. So much more than being hove in albums I never looked at.

Maria - September 28, 2016 Reply

I have been considering giving things to the historical society. I can keep digital copies of the thigs I treasure and the historical society can keep the real thing. That way more people can enjoy/benefit from it.

Dayna B. - September 28, 2016 Reply

Great story! We just recently downsized and are loving the freedom it has brought us… physically AND mentally. You’re right though, I think the ‘sentimental’ stuff was the hardest to part with but it can be done. The memories are now tucked away in my heart and my head instead of a box. 🙂

Kerrie - September 29, 2016 Reply

Purging the unimportant stuff has been a work in a progress for a while – moving across the country with only a hatchback to carry everything helped. I’ve collected more since then and before we end up going tiny, more things will have to be carefully considered for the toss pile. One of the things about tossing pictures that freaks me out are the older pre-digital pictures. As someone who’s doing the genealogy of their family (who NEVER took pictures of themselves – most likely too poor) any old faded photograph of a distant relative would be priceless to me!

Geoffrey Skinner - October 20, 2016 Reply

These are thoughts I need to keep in mind as we simultaneously move into my parent’s house and sort through all of their belongings — my father died in 2004, but very little of his things went anywhere until we were forced to deal with stuff following my mother’s death earlier this year. The further we get in this process, the more I feel aware of the burden of stuff, including the many cherished items I’ve amassed over the years. My father was a an inveterate collector of old farm implements, horse-drawn vehicles, etc., etc. — from the time he was a kid. And it’s all there. While some of it has personal meaning, much of it has meaning only because I know it meant something to them…and it’s when I think a bit harder about sentiment once or twice removed, then it’s time to let go. Your advice about photographing and digitizing makes a lot of sense, but even that will be a burden that I should consider carefully. It feels as though there comes a point at which I can have so much sentimental stuff that there is a vanishingly small space to have a real, present life.

    Andrew M. Odom - October 20, 2016 Reply

    That is definitely a tough situation Geoffrey. I have been through a situation where sentiment was once or twice removed. It is not an easy position. But I agree with you wholeheartedly. Holding on to the sentimental can become a bit of an obsession causing you to lose out on the present. Don’t rush the process but at the same time, don’t delay it.

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