How to Throw Your Life Away
A version of this piece was originally published in Boston Magazine a couple years back. I went back in this week and made it worse.
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The ceiling in my childhood bedroom is so low. You could jump and hit your head on it and knock yourself out if you really wanted to. You could break your neck. I'm not going to do that but I could is the idea.
The room itself is so small too it feels as if the walls are closing in. Part of that might be the way that everything in the home you grew up in seems smaller when you come back to it as an adult but it’s also probably because when the room was built a few hundred years ago people didn’t have as many useless possessions to hold onto forever as we do now.
They were a lot shorter then too in general hence the ceiling situation.
The guy who built the place back in 1766 was a son or a grandson of the first governor of Plymouth Colony. If that makes it sound like it’s some fancy preserved historic home or something that people would want to come look at it wasn’t it was a piece of shit when we moved in in the 1980s. There was an actual outhouse still attached to it and the room where my mother smokes her cigarettes now didn’t have a floor back then it was just dirt.
There’s a big rock out back with a plaque on it to commemorate the historic significance of the area anyway but I forget most of the details now.
They were born and then they lived and then they died.
I used to climb onto the rock when I was young and unbothered by history standing on top and looking out at the farm next door that had a total of one horse and one cow. It always seemed like the loneliest farm in the world to me but maybe it was just an exceptionally efficient one.
Every year around the start of spring I get a call from my mother asking me to come contend with the entire history of my youth which has been jammed into this room for almost twenty years. It’s like the persistent alerts you get on your phone saying you’re running out of photo space and it’s time to upgrade your storage but even phones don’t (yet) have the power to guilt you into action like mothers do. This year I finally gave in. I was in the neighborhood anyway to celebrate the birthdays of my niece and sister two people at various stages of their own object accumulation so I trudged up the alarmingly steep and uneven staircase where the wood of the walls has warped outward under the compounding pressure of the centuries.
Inside the bedroom was a mess. I found box after box filled with the detritus of past. There were old comic books my mother insisted must be worth some money and projects dating back to elementary school and high school and college essays. There too were some morbid poems written in an unrecognizable scrawl that I’d bound together into a book with a flowery wallpaper covering. I must have recently read Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” for the first time when I made it because one verse was clearly a rip-off. I laughed because at least it was proof to me that I’ve remained consistent in my miserable brooding all these years.
I found a treasure trove of cassette tapes as well including some I’d even listen to right now—Dinosaur Jr., Liz Phair, Alice in Chains—and some I wouldn’t such as a Hootie & the Blowfish live bootleg from 1992. I don’t know what to tell you man the 90s were weird.
Then some postcards from girls I no longer remember and long desperate letters from ones I always will. Pictures of friends whose names are lost to me and pictures of friends who I still see all the time and posters of concerts I’d been to by bands that haven’t existed in decades. There were Boy Scout badges and photos of me and my friends looking like we were in a 90s boy band and photos of my dead friend who actually was in a 90s boy band and photos of people I’d thought at the time would be in my life forever and of course would not.
I found my old shit in other words which feels like an appropriate term because I found it all surprisingly foul.
By coincidence I wasn’t the only person staring down a personal history. A high school buddy came to visit me while I was going through my old things—I’d found a mixtape he’d made me in the pile—and he showed me his latest project. It was thousands of archived emails that our group of friends had sent each other beginning in 1996. At first I was thrilled about the prospect of being able to read what we were talking about back then and I jumped into the messages but the excitement didn’t last long. Here was someone writing under my name in a voice that no longer exists and what was worse speaking at length and with no shortage of emotional conviction about things I no longer remember ever caring about. I felt the same way about the dusty boxes of memories. A strange dissociative feeling like none of this had ever happened or had happened to someone else. Someone who wasn’t me. Reading some of the old letters and emails felt like eavesdropping on conversations that I wasn’t meant to hear or at least that my clearance level should have been revoked for by now.
It all engendered something like a sense of revulsion.
Throw it all away I told my mother. I don’t want any of it. It’s not mine I said which hurt her feelings something I seem to be very good at doing lately. Why wouldn’t I want to dig through it all for hours and pick out the things I want? she asked. The honest answer is I don’t know.
The repugnance I felt for my belongings seemed off to me. Based on what I gather from the famous Netflix show about organizing – which I haven’t seen but have read roughly 10,000 posts about so therefore am an expert on – it’s supposed to be hard for people to let go of their sentimental clutter right?
I asked some other people how they felt about the process of spelunking into their own historic bullshit.
Cara Hogan of Malden told me she’d been tasked with a similar project by her parents recently. She rediscovered an old Walkman with her first cassette (Whitney Houston) and a pair of vintage white Vans she said she’s going to start wearing again plus some old Bath & Body Works raspberry perfume.
“I took one sniff of it and flashed back to being an awkward 13-year-old,” she said.
“But best of all were the folded-up, triangle-shaped notes my friends and I passed back and forth in school that I had saved.” She laughed at the notes and took photos of them to text to friends and tossed the things she didn't want like band T-shirts she had purchased at a mall so long ago the mall doesn't even exist anymore. Most of them don't I suppose.
She tried to be brutal she said but had trouble letting go of things such as letters her friends wrote her from summer camp.
She didn’t share my disconnect she said but the process of digging through those belongings did play weird tricks on her brain. “I felt like every small, odd artifact I found opened an old door in my mind that I hadn’t opened in years,” she said. “I do feel like part of me is still that awkward, shy girl who spent most of her time reading…. I may be getting older and gray, but I can appreciate where I came from and where I’m going now.”
For others sorting through old things can make their memories feel more fragile. A couple of years ago when she was about to move to Ohio Nick Maggiore’s mother came to Watertown to drop off a station-wagon load of his stuff. There were school papers dating back to third grade and tapes from 1988. “I went through everything and tried to remember the stories of these things,” he said. “I tried to think of the reason my mom would have kept them.”
The more he looked at the things though the less real his memories actually felt.
Broken instruments and tapes went into the trash he said and old toys went to thrift stores in the hopes that someone else might be able to make new memories with them. He sold enough Magic cards to fund a vacation to Italy he said which makes me think I might have screwed up just now by throwing most of my collectors’ items away. I really should listen to my mother more often.
Maggiore said he put fliers from old rock shows into a binder that now sits above his computer and that he has a pile of role-playing books that he can’t bring himself to toss. “They remind me of old friends and of nights spent rolling dice and drinking Mountain Dew,” he said. “Part of me is afraid that if I give up those talismans of my youth, I’ll forget.”
Of the people I asked only Henry Druschel who now lives in DC but grew up in Boston seemed to share my general ambivalence when it came time to clean out his childhood home. “It did not all feel familiar, which I imagine is why it was so easy,” he said of his old things most of which he happily threw away. He said his sister had gone to college a year earlier and really agonized over what to do with her stuff. “I think she ended up getting a storage unit near her college, which was, and is, bonkers to me. I did not have nearly the same level of difficulty dealing with my belongings and that made me wonder if I was supposed to.”
That’s a good question. Are we supposed to?
Developing attachments to things is a normal part of the human condition although it varies across the developmental stages of life as Jerrold Pollak a clinical- and neuropsychologist at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, New Hampshire told me. But by and large there’s nothing all that peculiar about it. “We can easily get attached to many things that other people would say are irrational and ridiculous,” he said. “A lot of attachments are irrational fundamentally.”
But the process serves certain psychological needs—it helps us cope with and adapt to the world.
People keep stuff for all kinds of reasons. Some do it because they feel loyalty to the person who gave it to them and think throwing the item away would be a sort of betrayal. I have had a number of old letters my beloved grandmother sent me stashed away for over a decade now because disposing of them would feel like desecrating her grave in a way. She doesn't have a grave we poured her ashes into the water off the coast of Maine in a spot that she loved but you know what I mean.
Maybe other people feel that getting rid of something would be a break from the past that they don’t want to go through with?
This impulse to retain a connection with the past is about giving us a sense of continuity over time Pollak said. Where we came from and our roots and our identity. In general this is fine and even healthy he said but there are other hazards to clinging to the past. For some people he said "these are not possessions so much as albatrosses around their neck. But they don’t recognize it."
A smaller number of people go in the exact opposite direction. They want to erase their past and leave absolutely no evidence of it. They get rid of everything. That’s not quite me. I don’t want my past to disappear I just don’t want to have to spend too much time thinking about it. I’ve got just enough psychological damage in the present to keep me busy.
“People who literally incinerate their past, that’s probably a defense against a lot of bad feelings about their life and maybe a kind of almost-revenge against family and experiences from their childhood,” Pollak said. “I think some judicious holding on to certain basic things is important.”
It’s about balance then which is always the boring answer when it comes to anything having to do with psychology. “I think there’s a hierarchy of what feels important and is important and that can evolve over time,” Pollak said. “At twenty you might keep something that had to do with your childhood, and by forty you know this is just not relevant to you anymore. It means nothing to you, and you’re sort of unloading.”
In other words going through old boxes can mean unburdening yourself of feelings that you’ve kept inside for a long time. If that sounds like psychotherapy there’s a good reason. It is in fact why people often seek help from folks such as Carleen Eve Fischer Hoffman who has been a professional organizer for twenty years and runs a business called the Clutter Doctor based in East Longmeadow. Her three-step approach for clients—examine, diagnose, prescribe—tries to drill down beyond emotion into more-practical terms. Take ancient school papers for example. Rather than holding on to all of them pick out the ones that could be useful in the future like papers relating to a degree or with professional value she said. With other items like old books she tells people that if they can find a way to let them go to a good home—churches, schools, veterans’ groups—it can make the transition a lot easier.
None of that means you need to obliterate your past in one fell swoop Laura Moore said. She's another organizing expert who runs a business called ClutterClarity in Concord. Her approach incorporates emotional-management skills. Most of her clients feel crushed by some kind of impending pressure be it a move or a death or a divorce. “That’s enough to flatten most of us,” she said. “There’s a misconception that we declutter one time, once and for all. But you should declutter and organize as your life changes.”
It’s not that the inherent value of an item has changed over time but rather that we ourselves have changed.
Disassociation of the kind I mentioned often exists she said. “It can be a form of resistance,” she said, “but it can also be a form of saying, ‘This doesn’t belong in my life anymore.’”
A few days after I sifted through my childhood belongings I called my mother back to ask her if she’d thrown everything away yet. Don’t I told her. There are a few more things I want to keep. I needed to return to take another pass at editing down my story. I’d already taken some photo albums with me and a scant few books including the Emily Dickinson that had inspired my young doggerel and most likely helped trigger my eternal melancholy.
My mother is a quilter. When someone dies his or her family often brings leftover possessions to her—T-shirts and sweaters and so on—to stitch together into a blanket that they can wrap themselves in weaving together the literal fabric of a life into something tangible. Often times there’s simply too much so decisions must be made. It’s similar to how we have to deal with our own lives as we go along: You can’t hold every memory in your head at once—it would be maddening. Instead we pick and choose which memories to keep sometimes subconsciously or sometimes by deciding that a certain day or a certain interaction or a certain smell or a handful of objects among hundreds will be the ones we think we will want to remember forever. And then we put the rest in a little box somewhere and bury it in the earth. And then one day we crawl into the box too.