Since I first discovered minimalism back in 2013, I’ve tried on many of the suggestions offered to help simplify my life. I’ve paired down many of my everyday belongings, let go of toxic relationships, and liberated myself from unnecessary food and drink (I’m talking about you, processed food!) that were not helping my body thrive in any way. I have enjoyed practicing ways of thinking critically about what is important to me and what I can let go of to be able to let more freedom and spaciousness into my life.
Still, one area to consider simplifying gave me pause. It was about letting go of sentimental items. This made me itchy and uncomfortable and for years I did not touch it—the topic area or my sentimental things. My justification back then was, “Hey, I’ve followed the minimalist guidelines in all the other areas, so I can just keep my hoards of sentimental stuff and be OK, right? I mean, nobody is perfect.” And this is true. It’s not about being perfect, and if someone wants to hold on to something because either they aren’t ready to let go or because these things hold special value to them, then to each their own, as they say. But I had to be honest with myself and admit that my sentimental heap was bothering me. Not only had I accumulated far too much over the years, but I had also never spent any time with these items! They were just moved along with me from place to place, creating a burden for me both physically and mentally.
It's time for some truth telling. I am Merriam-Webster’s definition of a sentimentalist. “Karen’s sentimental tubs,” as they came to be referred to by my family and spouse, contained any and every physical piece of remembrance from the time when I was old enough to collect memories. I saved everything that would not spoil and some that unfortunately did (a school dance corsage that rotted in the bottom of one such tub). These tubs contained notes passed back and forth between my girlfriends and I in middle school, old choir programs, yearbooks, favorite pens and pencils, scrapbooks, diaries and journals, drama performance programs, favorite trinkets, countless photo albums, stories I wrote as a child, schoolwork, and much, much more. Everything went into the tubs.
These memories were something for me to hold on to and I must admit I was holding on too tightly. I had always given myself the moniker Keeper of Memories, which sounded a whole lot better than Sentimental Hoarder. This was a point of pride. I was a master curator of my life’s memories! Even though I didn’t spend time enjoying these items, just knowing that I had a surplus of pieces from yesterday was both a source of validation and comfort. It offered tangible evidence that I felt proved I did enjoy moments in my past—which I somehow felt I needed to experience contentment here in the present.
I cannot give full credit to minimalism for the decision to free myself from the overload of sentimental items. Somewhere along the spiritual pathway I learned pivotal lessons about the past being something not to cling to—either the stuff we call “good” or those things we refer to as “bad.” While we can learn from painful experiences and appreciate those that brought us joy, the real emphasis needs to be on the present. The moments that we experience in our lives being lived by the second hand of the clock rather than the yearly calendar. Every second as precious as the next. I didn’t need tangible evidence of my happy past experiences, because the only savoring I needed to be focusing on was what existed right in front of me.
While you have to be ready for something like this, I knew it was the right time when the pain of holding on became too great. The new version of myself was bubbling up the surface, and it didn’t have the space for years and years of untouched physical memories. With the amount of sentimental items I owned, I could have opened a small museum dedicated to my life. However, armed with the knowledge that I never took time to revisit these items, I woke up to the fact that even I would not think to buy a ticket for admission. This, I believe, was the biggest turning point. Since most of these items had gone untouched after twenty years, why did I need to try and convince myself that this would suddenly change in the next twenty? If I wasn’t interested, who would be?
There was nothing special about the day I decided to free myself from sentimental clutter. And that’s good—one less thing to be sentimental about! I simply grabbed several large trash bags and headed to our dusty basement where all my mementos lived while I went about my life. I could not predict how I would act when I began putting item after item into the trash. Some items I felt I had to give a good look at one last time. Many, however, were quickly tossed. The most frequent thought that ran through my head was, “I can’t believe I kept this!” My gratitude journals were hard to toss, so I made an agreement with myself to digitize them in the same way I planned to do with certain photos. This would take some time, but I figured a digital record of past photos and words of gratitude was worth keeping. Sixteen albums of photos or twelve gratitude journals taking up limited space was not.
I kept a few physical items from my past. After all, it’s not about ridding yourself of everything, but only keeping those things that are either useful or truly sentimental (or both!). Fortunately I had one of those things in mind. When I was sixteen, I took my first trip to New York City with the high school drama club. The highlight of the trip was the two hours of freedom from chaperones to walk the streets and explore our surroundings. During our special time in the big city, I found and purchased a blue Harley Davidson ball cap, which I have kept and still wear to this day. The photo of me wearing the hat in NYC (now digitized) also remains with me.
While I’m still a work in progress, I don’t have regrets about decluttering these vast amounts of sentimental items from my life. I now know that what exists in our memory unfettered by any physical items is what is most vital to our growth and expansion in the here and now.