I have spent the last three days taking part in time travel. No, I didn’t defy physics or invent a time machine. Instead, I’ve been going through four boxes of memories that include photos, letters, cards, newspaper clippings, post cards, and the odd assortment of memorabilia. During that process, I produced a long-planned-for-but-never-carried-out scrapbook of a very specific time in my life, the eight months I lived in Missoula, Montana for a semester-long program in college and the following summer. Those eight months had their own box, while the other three boxes are a mishmash of elementary and high school years, college experiences, and my adult life.
It’s funny how eight months takes up a disproportionate amount of space, considering the four boxes of inventory. There are several reasons for that. I fell in love with Missoula and really came into myself that year. If you were going to make a chart of my life reflecting spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth, there was definitely a spike in the winter, spring, and summer of 1996. It was the second half of my junior year in college and it was a good time to get away from my life in northern Wisconsin, all with the security in knowing that I would be returning to my beloved Northland College in the fall. I think there’s a reason that many study abroad or semester exchange programs fall in the junior year. You have a couple of years of experience and supposedly a background to give your study program an academic oomph and a senior year to reflect and apply what you have learned, all before heading off into the “real world” of life after college.
During that semester I fell in love hard and then spent the last months picking up the pieces of my heart, trying to figure out how to move on to something new without that love. I met a couple of great friends (whom with the help of modern social media, I’ve reconnected with and hope to rejuvenate and refresh long missing friendships) who really helped to anchor me. I got more involved in politics, working and volunteering for a couple of campaigns that year. I discovered a professional focus and found a vision for how my work and ideals could come together. I ran a lot and prayed a lot in those eight months, achieving a physical and spiritual fitness that I’m still striving for 17 years later. Because the program I was in focused more on learning by doing, there was less homework and less studying. I had more time to write letters. I wrote to family, friends from high school, and friends from college. Many of those friends and family members reciprocated. I sent and received more mail in those eight months than I probably have in my whole life. In fact, when I moved out of the dorm at the end of the semester and filled out the forwarding order for mail for summer and fall, the woman working in the dorm post office said she had never seen anyone receive so much mail. This was in the early days of the internet, before constant contact was part of our lives. I miss the lost art of letter writing and yearn for the excitement of receiving mail of the stamps and stationery variety.
Anyway, the boxes are organized, I’ve recycled tons of paper, and one scrapbook has been produced. I still have three boxes, although much smaller than before, and I need to decide what to do with them. In the last year or so, I have really focused on lightening the load of stuff that stays with me. I helped my mom clear out a storage unit last summer, recycling, selling, and donating those long-forgotten items. Last fall, I cleared out the equivalent of 50 pounds or so of clothes, taking huge bags of garments to my favorite area thrift store. I sifted through kitchen accessories, knick-knacks, pictures, collections of tea cups and silver spoons and dishware to find donation destinations for lots of things throughout the year. This summer, I cleared out 75 pounds of books for sale and donation. In early June, I piggy-backed on my father and stepmother’s garage sale getting rid of some art supplies and miscellany. I’m also experimenting with online sales and online donations of the remnants. All that basically means is I have a lighter load, but searching through four boxes of papers and pictures made me wonder about that self-proclaimed lightness.
As a single person with no kids, I don’t have the stuff of others, so perhaps I have more room for my past selves and past adventures. My friends who are parents struggle with sorting through the clutter of childhood: outgrown clothes, books, and toys. What gets archived, what gets axed? Sometimes the stuff is kept because the spare room, spare garage space, or spare attic becomes the space to hold the stuff, because we are not ready to make decisions. A move to a new town or new home often predicates the need to purge. Why move stuff you no longer need or want? However, I have talked to many people who confessed to moving around extra baggage because they lost time or lacked the sanity to deal with the stuff. The longer we stay in one location, we often gain weight in objects and belongings. I have lived in my apartment almost four years, and before that I lived in the apartment two doors down. In that last move, since moving was a series of trips of about 50 feet, I didn’t get rid of much.
I have never seen, but have heard others talk about the TV show Hoarders. I cringe even thinking about it and there can be larger issues behind holding on to all the stuff. For the last 12 years, I have worked for two recycling organizations. Helping people figure out where they can recycle, donate, or dispose of stuff has been part of my job in various forms in that time. I remember a woman calling who said she had some paper to recycle, I cheerfully gave her details about the drop-off center and looked up her curbside recycling schedule. Then the woman informed me her entire house was full of four feet piles of paper. She had one small path between her bedroom and kitchen, but she could no longer use any other room in her home. She was bravely trying to change and deal with her detritus and disorder. That phone call frightened and frazzled me, but I was happy to arrange a special delivery and pick-up of a commercial size recycling bin to her house for the summer. As I recall, my co-worker retrieved it weekly for about three months and it was full of paper each time. The woman called when she was finished and we never heard from her again. I often wondered if she succeeded in keeping out the paper, or if she slipped back into old patterns of collecting. I worry and hope that is not something I’ll do myself.
What about my own self and my own loved ones? My stepmother is a wonderfully curious and interesting person. She’ll ask great questions of others, she has lots of hobbies and interests. She reads and is constantly learning. She is also constantly collecting. She has now been married to my father for almost 23 years. Never in that time, have I visited when her house wasn’t full of stuff. I don’t mean decorations on the wall and lots of accessories. I mean piles lurking in corners and stacked up in closets. It’s not dirty, her kitchen is clean and no one suffers because of bad household hygiene. It makes me uncomfortable, though. I know that we all have varying opinions about housework. I grew up in my mother’s house that smelled of bleach and where at least one day of the weekend was devoted to cleaning, not straightening the magazines on the coffee table, but ceiling to floor scrubbing and scouring. My mother’s home is always welcoming to visitors and there’s always good food and hospitality. She still has time for reading, hobbies, volunteering duties, a career, family, and building her small town into a community. Visiting her home is a vacation from disorder. Having observed and lived with opposite ends of the spectrum in childhood, in my adult life I rebelled. I’m comfortable with messy piles or having half-finished projects stored on the floor. I have noticed, though, that it’s changing and I really do prefer clean and neat and empty over dirty and messy and full. I like empty space for clarity and lightness.
Beyond my housecleaning habits, though, I wonder about the baggage of stuff. Yes, others have written about the connections to over-consumption and the fact that we buy cheap-but-not-sturdy items from China, or in the words of Nanci Griffith (as I’ve quoted before) “unnecessary plastic objects.” In searching through memories these last few days, I enjoyed skimming through old letters, recognizing the handwriting of loved ones, reading postcards of travel adventures, finding race numbers from 5Ks when I was lighter and faster, and picking out familiar faces in still fresh photographs. Those memories and experiences and the people behind them shaped me into the woman I am today. I wonder, however, when looking backward might mean bumping into something unseen, or missing the new adventures still to come and the opportunity to look forward. I’ve had a fairly strict philosophy (adopted around the time I lived and loved and labored in Missoula) of living with no regrets. It’s been more difficult as I’ve gotten older to do that, as the decisions are tougher and the stakes are higher. I’ve made some huge mistakes and some grave errors in my twenties and thirties and it’s taken lots of time and praying for peace to help me realize those mess-ups are what ground and guide me. They help me on the eve’s eve of my thirty-eighth birthday.
Not all of those memories are magnificent, not all of those mistakes are muddled. I want to look back and look forward, all the while loving (or at least experiencing) the here-and-now. There’s lots of space in my brain for storing old memories and lots of space for the new ones that haven’t happened yet. Maybe I don’t need so many of the physical reminders, especially when they’re stuffed in a box somewhere. I really like the person I have become. That doesn’t mean I don’t have self-doubt or a long list of things I want to improve. Striving to get better and looking forward show me that I haven’t stopped growing (even as I struggle to lose a little middle-aged weight). I do have four things I want to work on in my thirty-eighth year, not resolutions so much as relationships to improve. My relationship with stuff and cleanliness, my relationship with money, my relationship with family, and my relationship with making decisions about life directions.
I don’t exactly have a map, but I have some directions and guidance. I feel lighter on my feet and excited about the journey ahead, with some help from friends, family, my past, and my future.