Getting Down to Those Last Few Boxes
The four medium-sized boxes in the basement held the last of the files I’d moved from our old house. The contents were a combination of writings and transcripts from my college days, through the closing of our art gallery right before we moved. It’s not bad when you consider it covered a period of exactly 32 years, minus any tax-related and legal documents. It had been culled several times previously,of course–if it hadn’t, it would probably have filled a hundred such boxes. As it was, though, it was difficult to sort through and discard or shred 3/4 of the contents. Of what remains, half is for my son’s consideration, and a quarter is likely to be turned into digital files. I promised myself to do two things this year, even if I got nothing else done. One was to finish and publish my ebook, and the other was to go through every last bit of those old papers and files and destroy anything superfluous or potentially painful. I was surprised by how much qualified for destruction.
Going through those boxes, however, led me into a sort of rabbit-hole of memory, guilt, anger, sentiment, cold decision, and smiling fondness. It was especially bad during the night when I tried to sleep but would instead lie awake with my life flashing by in my brain, but not in chronological order. There’s irony for you: simplifying my life and possessions complicated my head and my sleep. It’ll pass, I know, but it is a sort of Grief Lite: did I really have all these people in my life at one time, and are they all really gone, via death or changes in my life or theirs? And why did I hang on to some of that stuff, in particular the painful things?
Hanging on to painful letters or other paperwork and mementos is often said to be a sign of the owner’s unwillingness to let go of the pain, that they are somehow fulfilled in being the victim–the denied, the abused, the hurt one. But there is another possibility, and that one is the saved objects serve as warnings, reminders to keep one’s eyes open. All of us go through bad times as we grow from overprotected children to naive young people to gullible, trusting adults and into wised-up ones. By the time we are well into our middle age we accept that people have both good and bad in them, and the ability to live and let live or move on becomes easier. But until we can get to that point, when we are still vulnerable to repeating past mistakes, the warnings serve their purpose.
Sometimes painful mementos are not warnings to ourselves but proof to others how things were, just in case they would ever be needed. Anyone who has undergone a bad divorce, custodial challenges, abusive relationships, or a stalker knows that such items may be the only way you can prove that that “nice guy” or “sweet girl” had a dark side. The victims in such relationships have often done crazy, out-of-character things to end the association, and the mementos may be the only thing they have to explain why.
In both the above instances, keeping painful mementos either as a reminder to oneself or as proof to others, destruction would be tantamount to sweeping the problem under the rug. Instead of letting the bad times go, you might be re-setting the stage for problems later on.
Time, however, can bring good things. With time, many sad things can be let go and good things kept. You can go through the boxes and boxes of papers and happily run them through the shredder. You can pick and choose what you want to leave behind. You can examine your motives and decide if you are still playing the victim or if you are just being a wise grown-up. You can look your past in the face and say, “Well! That was a trip.” You can look at your present and be in charge of your legacy.
We all want the freedom of mind that comes with living fully in the present; it motivates uncluttering and often leads to simplicity and minimalism. Empty boxes equal freedom from the burdens of the past: wounds that have healed, bad times that have ended, cages that opened, problems that have been dealt with, issues that have been addressed, and priorities that have been refreshed, rethought, and renewed. Only in the present do we tell the real story of Us, because we are the unique sum total of all the good and the bad that happened to us, exquisitely edited by our character and our times.