learning how to let go

When you look at a mug, do you see a mug? Or do you see a gift from grandma, a souvenir from that charming bistro in Paris, the cup that your daughter used for her hot chocolate when she was little? Whether you see just a mug or an object that emits memories probably makes a big difference in the level of clutter in your life.

Here are a few key points about sentimental attachments to “stuff.”

1. Stuff is not memory-magnetic. If you still own a childhood teddy that your father gave you, you probably tell people it has “memories attached to it.” It doesn’t. If the bear is given away to the neighbor’s kid tomorrow, your memories will not disappear.

2. Stuff packed away in boxes is not sentimental. I have a couple of keepsakes, knickknacks, doodads, etc. I have my Star Wars baseball-style cards from my childhood. They are in a box in the garage. If someone threw them away tomorrow, I wouldn’t notice for years. If you pack something away in a box and never take it out, you aren’t sentimental about it.

3. Some of the things you keep are not attracting good memories. If you have something that makes you sad, but you hang on to it because you feel it had some significance in your life, you aren’t doing yourself any favors.

4. You can’t take it with you. I guarantee that within 100 years either your stuff or you will be gone. You’re leaving your stuff behind sooner or later, my friend.

I like my stuff. I like my childhood toys. But I don’t like clutter. Something has to give at some point. That collection of Star Wars cards is one more shoebox packed in one more big cardboard box taking just a little more storage space out of the garage and making me grumble that we have nowhere to store the megaboxes of diapers. So what to do?

1. Be brutal. Throw out stuff. You may be tempted to put it in a pile ‘for donation’ or ‘for the neighbors’ or ‘for my future grandchildren.’ Unless you go directly to the Salvation Army right after assembling a pile of unneeded memorabilia, toss it. I know that’s not the environmentally sound thing to do, but we are on a mission, my comrades.

2. Be honest. If you have a sentimental coffee cup, fine. If you have three… OK. If you have 16, you might want to winnow down a bit. You don’t need 16 coffee cups.

3. Take pictures. If there’s something you don’t need, but you want to remember it, take a picture. Put it in a screensaver. You’ll see it, the memory will trigger but you’ll still have less clutter.

4. Sell it. If you can move promptly – see rule #1 – sell your stuff. You may love that 1964 “I Love Lyndon” coffee mug but face it – wouldn’t you rather have the $8 it could fetch on eBay?

5. Just refuse it, baby! The next time you go on a trip to Cabo Wabo, don’t get the “I partied with Sammy Hagar” memorial tequila shooters. Take some pictures instead.

6. Put it in circulation. I have about a dozen nesting dolls I brought home from Russia. I treated them like they were holding the Hope Diamond for a while. Then I suddenly realized that Little Buddy would get a lot of fun out of them. I have a twinge thinking about them breaking, but then again it’s not like I’m going to forget I lived in Russia. If you have wedding china, use it! If you have an antique chair, sit in it!

I am a sentimentalist. I fall somewhere in the middle of the scale between Mr. Spock (emotionless rejection of all sentimentality) and people who keep their cremated pets in urns. I do, however, try to eliminate the least sentimental pieces I own, and more importantly to minimize the new ‘stuff’ I buy during ‘a moment.’ Learning to let go isn’t easy – but we have to do it.