The stuff of our lives, and its lessons

I remember the exact time in my life when I decided to get rid of stuff. I’d just returned to my parents’ house after teaching for a semester in Mexico. My room felt cluttered with the accumulation of two decades of holding on to things too long—like the miniature collection, suspended in its display case, in little boxes that could not breathe. Each box was crowded with two or three objects: a sitting wooden rabbit that would never stand, a porcelain chipmunk frozen the moment it was eating an acorn, a glass bird that looked too fat to ever fly. 

And all the clothes I couldn’t bring myself to discard to trash bins or other people: the white tank top my high school boyfriend had given me before he left me for the summer, a top to wear and remember him by; a yellow and navy college sweatshirt given to me by a friend who lived across the country, a shirt that said he missed me; a blue hat my mother had knitted for me when I was too little to tell her if I was cold. 

I sat in my old room at the desk my father had passed down to me years before, when I had decided I wanted to be a writer. This desk, where he’d once sat to clack out editorials and columns, was fashioned from an old door lying on its side, resting on two filing cabinets whose drawers never shut quite right. The wood of the door had warmed over the years to a dusky kind of yellow, the sort of mellow color you see only at the end of day, never the beginning. I liked to run my hands across it, as if the surface could speak. I wanted to hear about what I would become, not what I had been.

After Mexico, I sat at that desk and sorted out the things I’d once believed in: that holding onto things meant keeping parts of me; that not letting go meant some sort of loyalty. These things fell in thunks and flutters into brown paper sacks, into shopping bags with plastic handles, into one silver metal trash can. While my room exploded with the past, my mother peeked her head into the doorframe of my room now and then, never staying for long, never saying much, just seeing if I really meant it. Or at least that’s what now I imagine she thought. After all, I’d verged on hoarder my entire life until that point, saving notes from my junior high friends like they were sacred song lyrics, their exclamations and exclamation points—He is so cute! I like him! and Do you think he likes me?—like verses of a life I couldn’t bear to stop singing, missives of 7th grade angst and need that echoed into my young adult life.

I’d lived for one semester out of one suitcase and one carry-on. What else did I need but what had carried me those five months?    

I got rid of stuff that day and the days to follow and have never held onto as much as I did before then. But now I know letting go of things doesn’t always mean they truly leave me.

Sometimes I am haunted by the things I threw away.