Reschooling Tool #19: Touch the Past and Let it Go

I spent last evening sitting on the living room floor of my childhood home, letting go of hundreds of pages of old letters. This is something that I never thought I could do.

For most of my life, I have been exceptionally sentimental. I suppose it comes with the writer’s temperament, because you’re always collecting experiences to capture in words. And once you write about them, there they stay, preserved forever. Romanticizing and immortalizing the past makes it harder to let go.

Darren‘s mom, Jill, pointed out to me that Catholics may be especially likely to hang onto physical representations of the past. Much of the Catholic ritual centers on sacred objects: the Communion wafer, the priest’s vestments, or relics from the Holy Land. Unlike the Buddhists, whose monks may travel around with only a robe and rice bowl, Catholics bundle up much of their meaning in things. Do the math: Cradle Catholic + romantic writer = memory packrat.

I’ve found that things have taken up a lot of mental and physical space in my life. Until last fall, my childhood bedroom was a museum to my past. I’d plastered the walls with old photographs and posters from my adolescence: Pulp Fiction, Ethan Hawke, Kim Anderson’s black and white photos of cute little kids. The walls themselves were still painted with the clouds and rainbow that my parents painted when I was a baby. When I came home to visit, I was constantly surrounded by reminders of who I once was, and it’s no surprise that I found myself clinging to the past. My parents were, too. Eventually I realized that in order for all of us to move forward, I needed to get rid of my stuff.

As soon as I moved back home in July to prepare for reschooling, I updated my bedroom. I replaced my old furniture with what I was bringing from my own apartment. I cleared the walls and painted over the rainbow with a bright yellow color. I asked my parents to help me, not only for practical reasons but also so they could be part of a ritual that would symbolize my growing up. I imagine that it was easier for them to see me as a 28-year-old and not a child when my room stopped looking like a toddler’s nursery.

This week I’m staying with my parents in Sonoma, and my little sister planned her own visit to coincide with mine. Being married now, she’s on the same mission as I am: to clear out as much stuff as possible from the house we grew up in. It’s helpful that she’s as dedicated as I am to guerilla decluttering.

Getting rid of keepsakes has been a challenge, but it has been one of the most liberating things I’ve done during my reschooling. Before last fall, I had kept nearly everything over the last quarter of a century. Scribblings from kindergarten. 10-page love letters from high school. Folded gossipy notes from my girlfriends. I had a habit of writing long letters of affirmation to my friends and teachers, telling them just how much they meant to me, and I’d saved copies of all of them. I cringed at some of the words that filled the pages upon pages of flowery script. Here are a few examples for entertainment value:

Exhibit A: Cheesy descriptions. “When you sauntered up to _____, looked her right in the eye, and spoke the kindest words in a honey-coated voice, the cloud above my head lifted…thank you for being so pensive and deep; you are truly a precious gift.”

Exhibit B: Fixations on immature boys. “Why ____ and I Are Completely Incompatible: He’s egotistical, uncommunicative, jumps to conclusions, ignores me often, refuses to be consoled, loves rap, wears backpack over 1 shoulder…..” (The list goes on for a page and a half.)

Exhibit C: Gossip and snarky comments about classmates and teachers. “Yeah, we should raise $ for his makeover. The celebrities on game shows should play for their favorite charity — him!”

Exhibit D: Horribly dramatic letters to boys that thank GOD I never gave to them. “People are so complex. I am too analytical and keep my feelings bottled up until one day everything comes out with a bout of yelling and crying. Sound psychotic? Not really. There really aren’t very many people like me, it’s strange. I’m kind of exhausted of being me.”

Dear Lord, did I really write that stuff? Last night as I read it, I thought:

1. I am SO glad not to be in high school anymore, where my emotions were on overdrive and I was wrapped up in being different from everyone else. Since my experience was limited, every bump in the road seemed like the end of the world.

2. I’ve changed. A lot.

3. I don’t have the patience to read all of these letters carefully.

The last one was a surprise. Of course I felt bits of sadness and joy as I remembered the major events of my past, but they didn’t carry the weight that they once did. I didn’t long for the old days, or miss anyone terribly. I realized that I’ve moved on. Eventually, I got bored of reading the old letters and put them in a trash bag. I’m hoping to burn them, as a ritual. I did keep a small stack, including a poem my friend Katie wrote about our friendship, and heartfelt cards from my grandma, who died when I was in college. I’m not quite ready to part with these yet.

In sorting through my box of letters, I saw how clinging to the past has made it harder for me to evolve as a person, and for my relationships evolve naturally. For a long time, I expected that I would relate to my loved ones in the same way I did when was 16, and I was setting myself up for disappointment. In reality, it’s neither sad nor wonderful that things have changed. It’s just different.

As I mentioned in my post about memory walks, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron writes that in meditation, we “touch the breath and let it go.” In order to move forward, it’s important to touch the past and let it go. Recognize that these experiences and people shaped you into the person you are today. But they’re not you. Read the old love letter, laugh at the list of inside jokes with your high school crew, groan at your maudlin teen poetry. Then let them go, and move on.

Your Two Cents: Leave a Comment!

What relics from your past have you been able to let go, and how did you feel about doing so? Which keepsakes do you still have, and why?

Comments (15)

  1. Gilliebean

    I’m really glad we’re both doing this at the same time! It’s helpful to have some moral support when going through all the good and bad memories from the past 20-some years. I’ve always been sentimental about keeping letters and high school essays and photos (that one I’m still figuring out how to deal with), but now I feel ready to let go of a lot of that stuff. I’ll keep the most important ones and start fresh with a clutter-free life. I don’t want to be one of those crazy hermit ladies who has saved every National Geographic for the past 50 years.

    You know what I’m not ready to get rid of, though? That beautiful portrait you painted of me when you were in junior high. I look BEAUTIFUL.

  2. Melia

    I know, I’m so glad for the moral support. I’m having trouble figuring out what to do with photos, too. Thank goodness that everything is digital now. I have a whole shelf of albums that I don’t want to drive all the way to Jackson.

    Hahahaha! Your beauty inspires such art, my dear. For everyone’s information, I painted a portrait of Gill when I was 13 that looks absolutely monstrous. I’m going to keep a copy around to make me laugh when I’m feeling blue.

  3. kdgriffin

    I’d like to point out that the play list you sent me was laden with rap. That makes me laugh. Poor boy. He lost out because he loved rap at the wrong point of his life.

  4. Ide

    Good for you! I, also, am guilty of saving waaaaay too many things. I’ve carted all this stuff all over the country with me over the past eight years, and I just can’t seem to shake a lot of it. (Although, somehow, almost none of it remains at my parents’ house. I’m not sure if that’s progress or simple purging at my mom’s hands.) I managed to get rid of most of the research papers, class notes and the like, but I just can’t dump the more emotional (and frankly ridiculous) items.

    I went through a phase in the winter of my senior year of college in which I actually tried to get rid of all this stuff. I was really in the mood to purge because I thought it would help me move on with my life more quickly. I even went so far as to wait until my roommate was out of town to unpack my two boxes crammed with keepsakes and look through everything. At the end of the day, I disposed of nothing, but I cried a lot. Epic purging fail.

    Being four years older (and hopefully wiser) now, I’m glad that I was too much of a wreck to get rid of anything. I still have the ticket stub from my first date with Josh that a far more sweet and sentimental me tucked away more than seven years ago. I have cards from my grandmother, who died when I was 14. And I have reminders of what I was like before all this growing up came to pass, in case I ever have to remind myself of what being a socially awkward teen was like.

    It would be awesome not to have to load 55 pounds of memories into another moving truck, though. Perhaps it IS time to go digital.

  5. lynnie

    What an observation! I’m Catholic and a TOTAL sad packrat. I’ve been trying to rid my parent’s house of my stuff ever since I began college but this year my parents decided to turn my room into an office which forced me to chuck about 4 bags of trash away. I too felt the sadness of reading all those notes about boys, school, the weekend on small, cute notes (I’m wondering now how much I spent on all that stationary). I’m a big stuffed animal person and I had a hard time letting go of those. I’ve Space Saver-ed them for now and will deal with them later (my mom has this knack for sending me food and goodies along with things from my room like clothes and stuffed animals. I’ll probably get of those vacuum sealed plush friends in those care packages).

    It’s hard to keep the problem from happening again too; my room in Cali is starting to have that same “full” feeling as my Hawaii room. Er oh.

    Good luck with the rest of the overhaul! Your “after” picture looks amazing!

  6. Melia

    Kimberly, I told you I’ve changed! 🙂 If you had told me in high school that I’d love parties, dances, and hip-hop — and live in Mississippi, of course — I would have thought you were crazytown. And while I still have the tendency to dramatize and romanticize, I’m much less tied to the idea of being unique, or “in this world but not of it,” as I used to say. (Rolling my eyes.)

    Katie, I’ve done the same thing: brought heavy boxes of keepsakes with me wherever I move. Even though I’ve now purged myself of my letters and a lot of other keepsakes, I don’t know that I’ll ever part with my scrapbook-journals and photo albums. Even trashing my college and work notes will be a huge challenge, because in my mind they contain all the wisdom of the universe. Baby steps.

    What I’ve done for the past few years is to paste the most meaningful items in my journal: postcards from the places I visit, or stickers that commemorate events (“I Voted” from the presidential election; a WordPress sticker from their community party in SF). I still save all my fortunes from cookies at Chinese restaurants. I don’t want to get rid of all evidence of my sentimentality, but I do want to make it a little more portable.

  7. carrie

    Love this post Melia! So honest, and it struck a chord since I did the same thing with my high school love letters after I got married. I can declutter with the best of them, but I did feel some remorse after those sappy, emotional letters written to my more immature self were gone forever. But the act of getting rid of them continues to serve as a reminder to look forward, not backward, on my life.
    My grandmother, on the other hand, kept EVERYTHING. She died this past year, and it fell to my mom to clear through all of her letters and memorabilia…boxes and boxes and boxes. Grandma should have culled her collection down a little bit more, so it was easier for us after she passed. But there were some true gems there that I now hold onto, like her college yearbook that contains a love letter to my grandfather. Priceless!

  8. Darren

    One of your most meaningful items is a WordPress sticker? NERD!

  9. Melia

    I wouldn’t talk, Mr. I-read-the-Lost-blog-every-week.

    Carrie, my next step is to sort through the letters I wrote to myself in high school. You know, the retreat activity where you’d get the letter in the mail a year later. I may just stick these in my journals and let them go when I’ve evolved to the next stage. That’s a good way of thinking about things — looking forward, and not backward. It really is liberating. It takes so much energy from the present to dwell on the past.

    Lynnie, I know — I had a big “aha!” moment when Darren’s mom made the Catholic connection. I hear you on your new space getting as full as the old. Now that I’ll be driving a bunch of stuff out to Jackson, I think I’ll be facing the same thing. My books are going to be a challenge. It’s so hard to part with them, because I hold onto the hope of reading them one day!

  10. Dana Bennis

    I went through a very similar process just a couple of weeks ago at my parents’ house. It’s been gradual – cleaning and removing of some old books and papers over the years. But that day a couple weeks ago was a big one. And going through it all with my partner Julie was real meaningful – revisiting my past with her, and being able to say goodbye to a lot of my old stuff and papers. But there’s still more to go through, and I keep getting new “things” and believing I have to save them. I wonder if that will always continue…

    Thanks for the post.

  11. Brian

    I’ve found that a good way to cut down on clutter is to have a your place destroyed by a natural disaster, and then flip your car. Deciding whether to keep something is much easier if it’s covered in mold. However, you might lose a few things you actually did want to hold onto. Not for everyone, I’ll admit.

    I still collect things like crazy, though now a days it’s stuff I intend putting in my journal. My collecting of scraps, ticket stubs, business cards from cab driver in Bahrain, etc. is always more rapid than my input into said journal, which has lead to manilla envelopes being used as storage. I am now being overrun with manilla envelopes.

    Following my siblings’ lead, I still have a ton of stuff at my parents house. I think Kim had wedding gifts in their basement for like three years after she got married so there isn’t much pressure. I suppose I could sift through it one of these days.

    I really like the phrase “guerilla decluttering”. I picture you two dressed in the GI Joe party attire tromping through the jungle for a surprise attack on a clutter convoy on a moutain pass.

    And Darren, consider yourself warned about wearing a backpack on one shoulder.

  12. Julie

    I used to be more of a packrat and then realized it is all just junk. Now, I try to be a minimalist – still a work in progress. 😉

  13. Melia

    Dana, I loved the idea of going through your old stuff with your partner, so she can understand what shaped you as a person. Then you can move forward together. It’s a constant process of collecting and divesting, and I’ve found that moving every few years has helped me get rid of the excess. Gill and I decided to do a bonfire at least every couple of years, too.

    Brian, hope you don’t mind that Gill and I borrowed your fatigues and gear for our guerrilla decluttering. With 25-28 years of junk, we took some extreme measures in the wilds of Sonoma. I collect things for my journal like you do: postcards, stickers, and fortunes from Chinese restaurants. Just last fall, I got rid of a box of nearly every movie stub I’d ever gotten since 1993.

    Julie, I’m constantly working on being a minimalist, too, and driving cross-country with a carload of stuff helps with that!

  14. janine

    Fantastic, I think I’ll need to reread this post in May when I head home for Selena’s wedding. I need to clean out my old bedroom, especially the AIM conversations from my 8th grade crush and my Sugar Ray posters. Sad.

  15. Keetha

    Do you know about Cringe?


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