The Best Clutter

In the video called My Furniture-Free Minimalist Apartment Tour, I was charmed by Youheum Son, an extreme minimalist. I could listen to her soothing voice for hours, but it was the hope of seeing more of her cat, Boru, that kept me glued to my screen. I scrolled through many of her other videos, wondering, “Is Boru in this one?”

Here is a woman who has eliminated possessions to the point of no furniture, yet she has a cat. A kitty litter box. Plants for the cat to eat. And furniture for the cat! As she should be, Boru is clearly adored.

Welcoming two cats into our home (adopted on a whim, sometimes my best decisions are my impulsive ones) brought all sorts of glorious clutter. We have toys and beds, litter and food bowls, bags of treats and brushes. The previous owners even gave us a cat tree. It was so big, it had to be taken apart to fit in a pick-up truck. What was I thinking? Filling the house with more, when I bask in the joy of less? I was thinking, more of the important things. Decluttering, or minimalism, is about making room for the right things.

cat

Our previous cat died a few years ago, and I couldn’t imagine loving a pet the way I’d loved her. I dog-sat occasionally and read (through tears) bios of senior rescue dogs who needed more time than I could give them. I work full time and was travelling so often, it seemed unfair to bring a companion home, only to abandon it for days every month. I cut back on travel for financial, then climate-crisis reasons and along the way, it became time to love new pets in new ways. We’ve had the cats about six months now, and still spend every single day amazed at the joy they bring us.

cat
please… belly rubs?

Where did we put the cat tree? In the tiny living room, where a chair used to be jammed next to the couch. I’d cleared the room of excess a couple of years ago though – the polka dot chair (where Meeko jumps up to have his belly rubbed now) moved to the other side of the room, leaving an empty corner.

I didn’t know I was making space for a cat tree.

My morning meditation used to be outdoors, and somewhat brief (non-existent?) in the snow. Rookie and Meeko are indoor cats, and protested my morning exit, so I now sit by the back door with them. We look at trees and sky and leaves and birds and squirrels, and the distractions I face are purrs and floofy paws. I’m always smiling as I return to my breath.

As you declutter your life, you may be following Marie Kondo’s advice and be guided by a vision of how you will live in your tidy space. Or, you may not know what you’re making space for, and that’s okay too. It will show up one day and ask you to rub its belly.

cat getting a belly rub
BELLY RUB!!

Managing Negative Energy

There are times I need to put on armour (mine = a smile, the frozen-on-my-face kind) to protect myself from negative energy. Armour weighs me down though, and usually it feels better, lighter, truer to let my inner positive energy shine out.

Spread Those Good Vibes

You’re sitting on a plane or train or subway or bus. You’re relaxing in comfort (so maybe not on a plane after all …) in a window seat, excited about your travels, and the seat next to you is still empty even though most people already boarded. Just as you get your hopes up, a person arrives in a fluster and frazzle of activity. Their bag doesn’t fit in the overhead bin or under their seat, they fill the air with angry grunts and sighs. They block the aisle and roll their eyes at those trying to pass, then eventually flounce into your personal space. They adjust and adjust, tsk-ing and moaning.

Are you shrinking? Retreating into yourself? Maybe getting angry and asserting your right to space, claiming that armrest? What walls are you putting up to keep their negativity out of your world?

You may be successful in blocking them out, but notice that shift you’ve made – from relaxed to fighting. From open to closed.

Let’s open back up and share your happy vibes out into the world.

  • Smile to yourself.
  • Take a few deep breaths.
  • Remember your happy excitement from earlier, and send that feeling out with each exhale.
  • Breathe in your seatmate’s frustration at the world, welcoming it and holding it with compassion.

You can’t take away whatever demons they’re fighting, but you know we’ve all been the flustered person at times. At this time, you’re the person who is a pool of calm serenity, sending out ripples of peace. Let your energy spread and set the tone.

Smile and be expansive in any interactions you have with others during the trip. Appreciate your happiness and enjoy your journey ❤️

 

 

Self Improvement

What skill do you want to improve? 

When I was new to management, my first performance development meeting was with a therapist who was an experienced, capable person with no performance issues (yay for an easy start). She’d gotten feedback from others (all glowing), done self-reflection (accurate, if a bit hard on herself), and picked goals for the year ahead. One of her goals was improving her skills at presenting to groups. This isn’t a requirement of the job, but there are opportunities if someone’s interested. I chirped happily, “I didn’t realize you wanted to give presentations.” She shuddered and said, “Ugh, no – I don’t want to, I hate doing it.” We paused. I did my own self-reflection on my unpreparedness and fell back on the simplest magic lesson I know: Ask. 

“So … why is this a goal then?” Well, she just knew she was bad at it so figured she should get better. I asked what she enjoyed most in her job, and she lit up talking about her work with new families, taking the time to help them understand their babies’ needs. But, she added, she didn’t need to work on that, she was already good at it. I shrugged and said I figured she’d be a lot more enthusiastic about improving in that area than in presentation skills. So we put together a plan to move from being good to excelling at working with new families and becoming our go-to person on the team for other therapists struggling in those situations. Our team thrived as we all put our energy into building on our strengths. Even in situations where a person had to improve something they didn’t like, in order to do their job adequately, we tried to find a part of it they loved so they could build on that. It wasn’t perfect, we’re all human, but it was sure happier – and more productive – than the alternative.

So. What do you enjoy doing, and want to do better?

Why do you want to improve?

“We might find what we do entirely meaningless, might hate or resent our job, yet still hitch our desire for approval and connection to how well we perform.” Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance. 

We know that basing our self-worth on someone else’s approval is a no-win situation. When my self-improvement plan hits a stumbling block, fear of losing others’ respect will only motivate me to cut corners or exaggerate or lie to show myself in a better light. It will also be counterproductive to the sense of connection I was craving anyway. In The Gifts of Imperfection Brené Brown points out that fitting in, and seeking approval are actually barriers to belonging. Belonging is when we offer our most authentic selves and we’re embraced as we are. 

Build up a skill you love because you feel a drive to do better. Share your goal and celebrate your work. 

Doing vs Improving 

We’ve heard that to master a skill, one has to spend 10,000 hours practicing it (I think it was Malcom Gladwell who said this). I’m not sure how scientific the concept is, but it can’t just be a bank account of time that you make deposits to and then withdraw mastery when you get to the magic number. If you want to truly improve at something, don’t just do more of it. Question how you’re doing it now and experiment with different ways. Get feedback, analyze yourself. Fail a few times, analyze some more. Bear the awkwardness and embarrassment as you grow and savour the sweetness when you hit a new level of skill.  

Take Breaks

You’re perfect as you are right now, with all your imperfections. There are times to sit in the forest, smelling the earth, listening to the birds, and soaking up dappled sunlight. Your heart will tell you when it’s time to climb the trees or name the birds or run the trails, and when it does, run with joy.

More Motivation for Minimalism

I’m years into my quest for less, and the more radical decluttering I do, the happier I am. There’s an urgency to it now though, that has nothing to do with the delight I find in simplicity. It’s my children. The earth is on fire, and their future is burning along with it.

Our home and community haven’t yet been directly harmed by the climate crisis, but of course it’s warmer with less predictable weather, like everywhere. I’m working on a poem (okay, I’ve been working on it for months, maybe poetry isn’t my thing) called The Air is Broken because the wind now blows the wrong way and the loons are silent at my favourite magical lake in Northern Ontario.

As we simplified at home, we naturally consumed less, drove less, and used less packaging. But we still hopped on airplanes to explore the world and to be with family – our nearest relative is over 400 km away, most are thousands, so we fly. We know the harm it’s causing. 

My teenage daughter grew up on hand-me-down clothes and thrift shops, but discovered the mall last year. At her age, she should be experimenting with clothes, with her style, and fast fashion is her joy. For one of my freelance jobs, I edit material about fast fashion, and it is exceptionally destructive in too many ways to list. We know the harm it’s causing.

It’s been the happiest season of my life in recent years, and cutting back on my travel feels as painful as my daughter cutting back on her trips to the mall. But how could we not? I already have a flight booked for my annual trip to New York City – next time, will I take extra days off to take the train? Will I go less often? Stop going? Do I cancel the flight? 

How radically will we change our lives now to save a chance for lives in the future? I read about extreme minimalists and wonder at the journey they took to find themselves walking so lightly upon the earth. I watch Greta Thunberg cross the Atlantic without burning fuel, and laugh at what I’ve considered “radical” in my own life. It’s time to pick up our pace, take more steps, more quickly. 

It’s time to pick up our pace, take more steps, more quickly.

I’ve always dreamt of living by the ocean, and I want to find ways to stop the oceans from rising, washing away my dreams, and to give my children a chance to have their own happy seasons.

There’s Always Less to Do

Do you always get through your to-do list?

If you’re laugh-crying at such a ridiculous question, you’re not alone.

If your answer is “usually, not always” then congratulations, that’s awesome! A) Tell us how and B) Are there things you’d like to be doing but can’t fit them in? Maybe this will help.

The key to getting more done is: DO LESS.

Less mental clutter, and less emotional weight or self-shame, leads to more focus on the things that matter.

A Less list:

  • Less scanning piles or emails to decide where to start or what to prioritize. Pick up the first thing and do it.
  • Less weight given to tasks you’re dreading (see Freedom from the Scary Pile).
  • Less multitasking.
  • Less time on email (email Magic).
  • Less planning for unlikely events “just in case”.  Have a basic plan and supplies for an emergency, then relax and think about it maybe once a year. Automate back-ups.
  • Less time on tasks assigned by someone else, at least on ones that don’t make sense. “I started work on this task and realized it may not be needed after all,” works more often than I thought it would.
  • Less time in meetings. I am always open to attending meetings, and I always ask why, specifically, I’m needed there. If there’s no easy answer to that question, I don’t go. I chair a lot of committees and pace the meeting schedules to suit changing priorities. Everything can’t be a priority or nothing is.

Less decision-making

Put structure and routine in your day to eliminate decision-making. You can take automation beyond just automatic bill payments (if you haven’t set those up, go do it, we’ll wait). When tasks are integrated into natural daily routines, they just happen, with no mental energy. It’s the concept behind capsule wardrobes or uniforms – getting dressed is no longer a time- and energy-sapping exercise. Here’s a Home Routines I take care of through routines so life is organized without effort.

The biggest bang for my routine buck is my half-hour walk to and from work each day. I won’t waste your time listing all the ways it’s incredible, it’s a long list. Relevant to this topic, it means I get regular exercise and outdoor time without thinking about it or scheduling anything.

What is there in your life you could make into a routine that adds joy to your day while also simplifying it?

There’s more less to do!

  • Less saying yes when you want to say no.
  • Less time online. Notice how you feel on different sites and stay away from the ones that leave you frustrated. Use the built in timers on social media apps to be intentional about how much of your day you want to spend scrolling.
  • Less weighing in with advice or information when no one’s asked you. So. Freeing.
  • Less lying or “spin”. Maintaining a tangled web of little white lies or half-truths is disheartening, wasted energy. Keep things kind, simple, and honest to avoid that grief.
  • Saving the best for last: Do less everything. Rest. Sit. Meditate. Walk. Stare into space. Laugh. Doodle. Play. Listen to music. Dance. Have no purpose. Be.

❤️

 

I Need a User Manual

I drafted a post about needing a user manual for my house. A few neurons connected and it became a metaphor for me needing a user manual, for me.

My house is over a hundred years old. The exact date of its construction unknown, the kids and I held a birthday party for its centennial a few years ago. It was for us more than for the house, because we have a bit of a strained relationship, my castle and I. I appreciate a lot of things about it (hello big front porch!) but feel like I’m always letting it down. I dream of living in a smaller, simpler place when my kids are grown and gone, but that’s a long way off.

I do know my age, 52 (“playing with a full deck”, my kids will sure miss that joke when I turn 53), but otherwise, it all applies to my human castle. I appreciate this body that gave me two children, savours yoga poses, dances with joy, and even “ran” 50K for my 50th birthday (thanks JAM ❤️). I let myself down sometimes too (like when I eat too much, so make your own big front porch joke), usually out of not knowing what I really want, not understanding myself.

I ranted to a handyman recently – “Houses should come with a user manual!” – when I learned I hadn’t given my sump pump the proper attention. Apparently it relies on me to dump a few buckets of water down it each month to keep it working well. Apparently I’m supposed to know this through telepathy.

I pictured the tidy hand-printed index cards in an elderly neighbour’s house up for sale, explaining quirks of various appliances and the intricate workings of the ancient radiator system. I wonder if she had a sump pump. I remembered a friend repainting her concrete basement floor (“each year”) and me questioning how I’d lived in a house with a concrete basement floor for over 25 years and never imagined painting it.

I still have frequent aha moments in conversations or reading a book where the world suddenly changes. I was a couch potato as a young adult and when I crossed the finish line of my first half-marathon at 32 I felt sick. Not physically, just nothing made sense in my heart. I’d done something inconceivable. What else was I wrong about? People like me didn’t do things like that, so who was I? I’ve figured a lot out since then, and now I’m surprised by how many surprises there still are. Maybe wisdom is realizing how little I know.

I had two home inspections over the years, and got a binder each time with their findings. When I bought the house in 1992, the first inspector told me the air conditioner didn’t work. It’s proved him wrong every summer since then, so it was hard to believe him about too many other things. The second found and fixed many little things as he laughed himself silly at the amateur renovations I live with, and suggested putting drywall up where I have bare framing (yes, I am aware how walls work). Contractors give me advice but also ask baffling questions like, “Where are your weeping tiles?”

I have a reliable handyman for specific projects, and neighbours and friends are a great help. I don’t struggle with things on a daily basis, but I don’t know what I don’t know.

Honestly, just switch out doctor or therapist for handyman and it works.

When I read the essay The Crane Wife by C.J. Hauser, I wrote in my journal: No more taking pride in being “low maintenance”: I will make my needs known! I will Live Out Loud! Which will go more smoothly I expect, if I figure out what my needs are first. I’m on a heavenly break from relationships with men, and my teenagers welcome – with curiosity and kindness, have I mentioned they’re awesome? – me voicing my needs. So let’s go: Let’s fill in the contents of my user manual.

Can I organize myself into self awareness? Categorize my feelings, physical and emotional? Everyone with a uterus can relate to that feeling of getting an unexpected period then realizing you’d missed all sorts of clues that it was coming. I live that same bewilderment every time I realize a new insight about myself and think, How did I not notice this before?

It’s hard to imagine how an earlier family of six lived for forty years in this modest three-bedroom, with the one bathroom, that didn’t even have a shower. A neighbour who knew them said, “He kept that house in tip-top shape, always painting, fixing things up, everything ran like a well-oiled machine.” I want to ask him how. Get out the ouija board, I have questions.

Wait a minute.

I’m not an old house after all. There’s no previous owner to give me tips. When I learn something new about myself, I’m not letting myself down, I’m letting myself grow. I’m always changing – I live for surprises – exploring, questioning, bits of drama, that’s what life’s all about, right? My needs are always changing too. My goal with my house is maintenance. My goal with myself is to see what this baby can do, what unimaginable adventure is next?

I don’t need a Karen User Manual after all, I just need to keep writing blog posts to sort things out in my head. And a user manual for my house.

 

A Messy Relationship with Gratitude and Greed

I’m a glass half-full, see the silver lining through my rose-coloured glasses kind of person. At a summer job as a teenager, my co-workers made me a name tag saying “Painfully Perky”. I fill the “Good Things that Happened” box in my weekly planner to the brim. I’ve lived through trauma and abuse, and – with helpful therapists and friends – find peace and even humour in upsetting events from my past and new frustrations as they happen. As my daughter told me, “You always like doing things,” and we talk about how privileged we are. On the VIA Personality Survey (viacharacter.org) my top three traits are humour, curiosity, and gratitude. My heart and my journal are full of appreciation and hope.

List of strengths: Humour, Curiosity, and Gratitude
from viacharacter.org, my top 3 strengths out of 24

And.

I’m greedy. As in, I get more than my money’s worth at buffets, and when I’m honest with myself, I often want more. Not more things – wannabe minimalist here – but more time, more freedom, more money to have time and freedom. And nicer things, a house in better repair, by the ocean, while still being here in the eden that is Wortley Village. My dark impulses, the lurking ones I barely open my eyes to, are often about taking something that isn’t mine (like extra vacation time), so that I can have more. On the VIA, my lowest trait is Self-Regulation, my ability to control my appetites. (Prudence is right down there at the bottom of my list too, that might be a topic of another post or twenty … no dull life here 😊)

I didn’t notice this as a contradiction until reading something along the lines of ‘a person can’t be both greedy and genuinely grateful’. I’m paraphrasing, and the author went on to say that (their) god knows what’s in your heart so you’d better smarten up and stop being greedy. I’m less worried about a snooping god than I am curious that I’m greedy at all when I feel full of contentment. While I notice and temper greedy impulses and rarely act on them, I can’t deny they’re there.

So, I researched Greed. I wanted to understand if I was using the word differently, and wondered if I was in denial. Maybe I’m not as happy as I think I am if I’m craving more.

I googled and PubMed-ed and found overwhelming consensus among random internet advisers and pedigreed academics alike: Gratitude and greed are opposites, incongruous with each other, one the antidote to the other. Yikes.

Am I even who I think I am? Is it all just an act, that’s fooled even me, for decades?

 

Researchers (Terri G. Seuntjens et al., Defining GreedBritish Journal of Psychology (2015), 106, 505–525define greed as never being satisfied with what one currently has, “an insatiable hunger for more.” Well, that fits for me, at least in a buffet line or scheduling time off work. But most of the academic papers also focus on materialism, always wanting more things, collecting, shopping, amassing – my polar opposite.

What about buddhism? That’s my usual go-to for recognizing truth, for remembering what I knew all along. I find deep comfort in connecting to my inner buddha and to all others. In an essay about gratitude, Barbara O’Brien gives helpful suggestions for cultivating gratitude (most of which are part of my daily practice) and says, “greed and gratitude cannot peacefully coexist.”

So. Confused.

I used Seuntjen et al.’s scale (Dispositional GreedJournal of Personality and Social Psychology 2015, Vol. 108, No. 6, 917–933) to measure just how greedy I am, and because what an intriguing title! I want to know what non-dispositional greed is, and they write about things like greed-induced behaviours, which sound fun. Anyway, thank goodness: It turns out I’m a bit below average, less dispositionally greedy than the American and Dutch people studied. (I’m Canadian, I think a high score on the scale might invalidate my passport.)

Summary? Brilliant insight into what’s happening in my head and my heart?

Life is messy.

I am human, an essence of contradictions and confusions. My gratitude and my greed are intertwined parts of me, both wonderful and painful at times. I am greedy for more freedom, and I find freedom in having fewer things, so I’m pretty sure I’m greedy to have less greed. Or that wanting more things is a different kind of greed than wanting more time. I can want more and still appreciate all the time and freedoms I do have, which are plentiful. I can love my life the way it is in this moment, and I can want it to be different in the future. I have no insight into my eating habits at buffets, so I’ll just keep avoiding them.

This is reminding me of Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. What I should have done at the start was search for a meditation on gratitude by her – her words always bring such warm clarity to my thinking. I’ll go see what I can find, sit with it, and report back when I have time 🙂

list of wonderful people and things
my gratitude list, chocolate stains and all

Excitement!

I did a thing. A fabulous impulsive thing I’m so glad about! I didn’t set out to do the thing, but it was meant to be. I gave them my money – threw all sorts of money at them – and got an email saying thanks, things fill up quickly so we’ll get back to you within forty-eight hours to tell you if you’re in or not.

Forty-eight hours! What kind of impulsive whim can withstand a forty-eight hour wait? I’m dying. I’ll tell you the story, to help me pass the time while I wait.

You know Cheryl Strayed? Madly inspiring, right? I was far down one of those random rabbit holes online, and I wasn’t thinking about her at all, but my click-fest landed me on a tweet of hers, from just a few hours prior, about a writing workshop she’d be doing in the spring.

I love writing. I wanted to be a writer but was told my style sucked (I believe what my mother actually said was that it was too mechanical). I let it go and got on with my life, in writing-adjacent work in communication sciences, editing, penning hilarious (at least to me) posts on facebook, etc.

I write constantly. I go through reams of paper and innumerable notebooks (LOVE my pretty notebooks), but recently I realized that most of my writing over the years is just me dumping words out. I haven’t worked to improve my writing, or to experiment with it, and I want to change that. So I’ve been vaguely exploring writing courses.

All that’s to say: I clicked to find out more about Cheryl Strayed’s workshop. She said it was at a retreat, so I expected it to be somewhere on the West Coast, inaccessible to me. It’s in Massachusetts, driving distance from home. Oh.

And the dates: I checked and the kids will be with their Dad that weekend. Huh.

It’s a yoga retreat. I’ve loved yoga for more than twenty years and had “yoga retreat by the ocean” written on my page of someday ideas, dreams, ever since a colleague went to one in Costa Rica last year. So, a yoga retreat by a lake (kripalu.org) stirred the pot of excitement brewing in my gut.

The workshop description specifically said to bring a pen and notebook. Okay, that’s not exactly surprising for a writing workshop, but I’ve got a mood building here, people! And I live for pens and notebooks!

There’s a passage in a magical book I bought (in the same way I always find magical books: I go into a little bookshop on my annual trip to NYC and special ones simply call out to me. I don’t even marvel at it anymore, it happens without fail). Well, this recent one is a delicate jewel called How Poetry Can Change Your Heart, and in one part it has a series of questions you go through, personal things. [spoiler] Toward the end of the list: “If a poet were to write about one story from your life, what story would you have them tell?”, followed by … “Why don’t you tell it?”

So, there I sat, in a hotel room in Chelsea, sobbing. Now, every day, I look at the sticky note where I wrote Why don’t you tell it? and I work on my writing.

To recap, I found myself looking at a writing workshop, with an author whose life and writing speak to me on many levels. At a yoga retreat. At a convenient time and location.

The workshop is called “The Story You Have to Tell”.

Less than ten minutes passed from seeing the tweet to submitting my registration. Maybe less than five.

Then came the up-to-forty-eight hour wait. Sigh. It’s later now – thank you for listening to my story while I waited – and I’m ecstatic to report it was not a long wait, and yes, I got the confirmation email. I’m really doing the thing!

The happy coincidences have a rhythm, rippling out, building on each other, swelling into a wave of excitement and wonder. It’s spilling out of me, mostly from my feet, I can’t stop dancing 💃 😊

No Need to Keep Notes

I’m giving a presentation soon to a new group, who aren’t familiar with my radical decluttering methods, but they are professional organizers, so … I’m tempted to ask them: What will you do with the handout after the session is done?

I love Marie Kondo’s approach:

“My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away.”

I come close to following her advice. Here’s my strategy for materials from workshops, lectures, meetings, etc.:

During the session, I take written notes to keep myself focused and engaged, and because, pens (ALL THE PENS!). Writing by hand helps my brain process and remember material better than recording it digitally, but that may be because I went to school before computers, so do whatever works best for your brain. Everything here applies to digital notes as well as paper ones.

While listening, my purpose isn’t to gather all the information, just the key ideas and interesting perspectives. We don’t learn by information, we learn by insight. In her (nurturing, loving) book, The Little Book of Big Change, Dr. Amy Johnson talks about insight as something touching you in a way that effortlessly produces change. “You don’t decide to act differently so much as you simply notice yourself feeling and acting differently.”

I write down questions or connections the material makes in my head, too. Sometimes I make a list of people I want to talk with about the new ideas, or how I can integrate it into existing work. Sometimes I doodle, it’s all good.

Afterwards, I take a few minutes to scan through the materials, reflect on those connections, and notice if I’ve changed – any insights? I make short summary notes of any remarkable ideas or insights and toss my lovely handwritten notes in the blue bin. Some of my clients resist this idea, from fear of losing information they might need later. I ask how often they go to an old powerpoint handout to find information vs how often they google things … and out go the papers. Like everything, there are occasional exceptions: I keep anything special, that I’m going to use right away, maybe share with others. My rule of thumb is, if I’m going to stick it into a file ‘for later’, I file it straight into the blue box. If I have a specific action planned, I put it in the place where it needs to be for that action.

I keep insights in a book I call Magic Lessons. I review it from time to time, usually when I’m adding something new. Some lessons I need to remind myself of repeatedly, and some are just heartwarming to remember. They’re phrases to remind me of how my thinking changed.

I love words. Capturing insights in a poetic way increases their power exponentially, and it feeds my soul ❤️.

The best part about simplifying my outside is that I’ve made space and time to listen to my inside. C. Carver

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP. L. Nimoy’s last tweet before he passed away in 2015.

Not all those who wander are lost. J.R.R. Tolkien

When a soft heart breaks it will not shatter, it will break wide open. K. Lowry

 

Let’s Get Sentimental

We may not yet have paperless offices, but times have definitely changed when it comes to keeping mementoes. Most of my kids’ schoolwork is done through google classroom, my ticket stubs and boarding passes are QR codes on my phone, and I don’t get many airmail letters with exotic stamps from pen pals anymore.

small mementoes
Duckie and Gumby 4ever ❤️

Cleaning Out Mementoes

So why were my attic, drawers, and cupboards full of sentimental items? I dove in to find out what was there, and what I wanted to keep to treasure. This is what I learned – I’m not suggesting anyone copy what I do, just sharing my experience for you to reflect on and make your own decisions. Keep boatloads of stuff, or nothing at all, no judgment.

Side note: I met a minimalist who kept nothing from the past because he lived fully in the present. I can’t say I could make that work, but I do know that letting go of many (many) things from my past was helpful in processing and letting go of emotions from the past as well.  I also know someone who keeps what I call her “wall of grudges”, full of reminders of times she was wronged. It works for her, giving her a chance to tell her story of woes to anyone who asks. It’s all good.

Name the emotion

As I went through each photo album and box of mementoes, I noticed what I was actually feeling for each one. Not what I thought I should be feeling, but was feeling. The things that filled me with smiles and warmth were easy – my treasures. Other items brought me a sense of pride in myself or someone close to me, also treasured.

medals
medals from my first marathon and my (hopefully) last long race

Many brought me not-great feelings. That didn’t mean I automatically got rid of them, but I had to have a good reason to keep any of them. One good reason was they’re part of our family story, so they’re not mine to keep or not, they go in the “family story” box in the attic for my kids. (See below.)

Other ones that brought up bad feelings were thrilling to toss out – why didn’t I do this sooner?! Photos of people I don’t actually like, even if I’m supposed to, and items filled with icky memories. I wouldn’t re-watch a movie I didn’t enjoy (hell, I often can’t even make it all the way through movies I do enjoy without taking a break), why on earth would I replay scenes in my head of my own bad memories?

I mean, there’s trauma and deep feelings that can’t be tossed out like an old wineskin. I would be the last person to tell you to avoid feeling your feelings. I’m talking about the level of icky I got from picking up that wineskin and remembering the football game I went to with a guy I was dating in my teens. We bumped into another guy I had a crush on … who didn’t know I was with the first guy. Reader, I stood in the bleachers, between the two of them, holding hands with both of them at the same time. I do not need to keep a reminder that I was a shitty person. I made amends where I could and came to terms with my shittiness about that incident decades ago, no need to prolong the cringe.

I also kept things – it seems absurd now that I’m writing it down – that hurt me. An angry note from an ex-boyfriend (not football game related), a weird rant from a family member, and a cruel birthday card were just some of the gems I’d carefully stored. I don’t know if I kept them like my friend’s wall of grudges, to remind myself of how wronged I’d been or what, but ew! I couldn’t get rid of them fast enough.

Backwards aspirations

In her book, the life-changing magic of tidying up, Marie Kondo uses the term “aspirational clutter” to describe items we keep in hopes we’ll be the kind of person who uses them someday. They might be craft supplies or kitchen gadgets, and often they’re whole rooms full of exercise equipment. She advises passing them on to someone who will use them.

When I went through my boxes of mementoes and photo albums, I found many that I realized were aspirations about my past, so I called them “backwards aspirational”. These were pictures and items I kept, trying to prove to myself I’d been the kind of person who lived that way. I had a matchbook from a trendy bar – I don’t smoke, have no memories of my evening there other than a vague recollection of crowds. But was there.

I had a whole book of photos from a teenage party weekend – oh the crazy things we got up to! Except, I was invited to tag along with a friend so her parents would let her go. She spent the weekend with a guy, I didn’t really know the others, and they all paired off anyway. Except for one guy, that I did not pair up with. Awkward. I wanted to have the life those pictures showed, so I kept them as if that would make the fairy tale come true.

Oh the freedom that came with discarding my backwards aspirations! I don’t have to prove anything to anyone, especially myself. Many great weekends with friends did happen, even when there weren’t pictures (thank god) to prove it, and when there were, they’re reminders of true fun and misadventures.

 

Family stories

I mentioned this above – I want my kids to have some information about their family history but I don’t want to burden them with tons of crap they don’t want but feel obligated to keep. I found balance by settling on one nice wooden box, not too big, that holds our family stuff. The pieces and pictures I enjoy are displayed around our home, and the rest is waiting for a day when the kids have an interest in it.

Vanity

Maybe this fits with the aspirational items section, but it was striking enough to me that it gets its own. I hope I am not the only one who kept photos for many years for no reason other than, wow, do I ever look good in this shot. I appreciate a good hair day or sunset lighting as much as the next person, but overall, keeping these pictures made me feel bad. I saw this skewed gallery of how I used to look and wondered when did I “lose my looks” as if that’s a real thing. I found pictures where I looked so good, I barely recognized myself. Basically I was keeping pictures of when I looked like a stranger. The things I love about myself have very little to do with my looks (other than my eyes, man I love my blue eyes) so over-valuing my photogenic moments left me unsatisfied. I kept a couple that had happy memories associated with them, and waved bye to unrealistically good-looking Karen.

zine
a zine made as thanks for help with an art project that left me feeling ultra strong and ultra feminine

Once they’re gone, they’re gone

I used to keep things out of fear. Fear that if I got rid of something and then regretted it, there was no way to ever get it back. I then had the tragedy of important things stolen from me, and while it sucked, it also taught me life goes on in all its messiness without those things. I feel waves of sadness from time to time, and they pass. They’re just things. The joy and memories they represented don’t stop existing, in fact, I keep those memories closer because their physical reminder is gone.

Digital

I have a digital treasure box too (that’s what the folder’s called 😊), with scans and photos, not too many. I cull through my photos online all the time, only keeping the truly joyful. It’s fun to take millions of pictures and keep them for awhile, then as I remember the event, I like sorting through and picking one or two that really capture the moment. Through the school year I scan or save copies of work the kids do, and at the end of the year I pick just one each, one special reminder of that year. I like having fewer things, it makes each one feel more important.

greeting cards
special cards from special people

At the end of all this, what was I left with? Tidied up emotions from the past, a lightness in my soul, and a small collection of pictures, cards, files, and items with deep personal meaning – reminders of adventures, people (and pets) that enriched my life and reflect what I treasure.