Monday, August 27, 2012

Purging the Stuff, Not the Memories

I’ve come across some cool stuff while going through all these boxes from my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.

I discovered my Cabbage Patch Kids (and almost immediately found new homes for them), some old Legos, and the very first Fossil watch I ever owned (which is unfortunately all corroded from leaving a spent battery in it for too many years).

I have already warned my boyfriend about the forthcoming Beanie Babies. I have a huge box stuffed full of nothing but Beanie Babies. I can’t wait to give those suckers away to good homes.

(Just as soon as I find them.)

So, last night, I came across a box that had a bunch of notebooks and folders from college. One of the folders was a packet from the Alpha Phi Omega national convention in 1996, which was held in Phoenix, Arizona.

Inside the packet, I came across a huge collection of folded pieces of paper.

I was utterly confused.

I began unfolding the papers and reading their contents. I read paper after paper, until finally, it hit me.

Suddenly, a wave of memory hit me as the whole 1996 convention flashed back into my mind. I read every single note and laughed. Some of them were inside jokes I’ve long since forgotten. Some were from people I still remember, and other notes just struck me as peculiarly funny.

A few of the notes contained pleas to buy t-shirts like what we were wearing (the front of the shirt said, “We do service, what the hell do you do?”)

And a lot of the notes discussed party logistics, because, let’s face it—if you’re a college kid going to a decent hotel with 1500 other college kids from all across the country… there will be parties. 

Good parties.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading those notes and strolling down that long and twisted lane of memories. Those notes even jogged my memory on some of the details of parliamentary procedure (sometimes called Robert’s Rules of Order).

I was one of the voting delegates, which means I had the honor of sitting on the legislation floor, along with over 200 other chapters from across the country.

So as voting delegates, we could not randomly get up and walk around, we had to wait for breaks. If we needed something, we used a runner to pass a note to the peanut gallery, asking someone out there to go get us whatever we needed.

For those not familiar with parliamentary procedure, the peanut gallery is the space behind delegate seats where the general public can listen in. If anyone in the peanut gallery had strong opinions about legislation on the floor, they could send a note to their delegates. Sort of like real-time lobbying.

Any delegate could also pass notes to another delegate on the voting floor.

Are you getting this picture?

Imagine a bunch of college kids sitting in a giant hotel ball room, with runners constantly on the move, passing notes, t-shirts, money, sodas, snacks, and whatever else amongst the peanut gallery and delegates.

It was actually pretty cool, but it did get boring to sit there all day if the legislation you cared about had come and gone.

I loved coming across those notes and having that sudden flash of memory.

I also threw the notes away, along with all the other accoutrements from that convention.

(Go me!)

I’ll never forget how important Alpha Phi Omega was to me. It gave me a sense of purpose, back when I didn’t feel I had one. My favorite role was liaising with other chapters and building the connection between our chapter at Vanderbilt and other chapters at schools in our region.

APO was so important to me that I became a life member during my senior year in college. I was also awarded a Distinguished Service Key, which is the highest honor a chapter can give a member. It's given for outstanding service to the fraternity. 

I’ve done absolutely nothing with APO since those days, but through that co-ed service fraternity, I found my friends and a sense of purpose. I learned and then taught leadership skills. I learned the depth of value of community service, and I learned that one person really can make a difference. I even organized an entire weekend convention, including presenters and a whole host of other tiny little details. It nearly broke me, but it’s one of the best experiences I ever had back in those days, because it showed me a glimpse of what I was (and am) really made of.

(And it's not completely out of place to mention that the theme for that conference's t-shirt was, "You'll love the stuff we're made of." Yes. We stole the Pizza Hut tag line from those days... oops.)

I’ll always have these memories. And now that I’m finally going through all of this crap and throwing it away, I can record the memories in my own way, so I won’t forget them again. It's refreshing to finally understand that I don't need to hang on to all of this stuff as physical representation of the memories. 

I have to say that although this cleansing and letting go process is not easy… it's not all bad, either.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Another Round of Letting Go

I have things. So…many…things.

I have yearbooks from junior high, high school, and college.

I have stacks and stacks of magazines that I’ve never read. Oprah, Real Simple, and some jewelry and writing magazines. I held on to them because I just knew I’d read them “someday”.

I have letters from people who are no longer in my life.

I have clothes from high school. Concert T-shirts for musicians I no longer care about. Yellowed old T-shirts from various activities, groups, and events from my high school and college years.

I have paraphernalia from all phases of my life: papers, drawings, and books from childhood; toys, paperwork, and wall hangings from old jobs; stacks and stacks of photos, waiting to be sorted and digitized.

Lots of things… just waiting.

Waiting to be organized, sorted, discarded, remembered, and finally—forgotten.

I am a sentimental person, and I always have been. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. But at what point does holding on to old things burgeon from sentimental into the realm of narcissistic?

How long do I need to keep all of these things around me? What is the purpose? To remind me of who I was, or where I’ve come from? To remind me of things long forgotten, of moments I can no longer place, of history I don’t even remember living?

How much longer am I going to cart this stuff from one domicile to the next? How much more money will I pay movers to move all this crap? At what point does it turn from momentous and meaningful to downright self-centered, even selfish?

These are not small questions.

But the confession I have yet to admit is rather embarrassing.

When I moved into my two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in March 2011, the movers filled up the entire second bedroom with my crap. They moved over 100 boxes, in addition to the large pieces of furniture. In addition to my clothes. In addition to shoes.

Over 100 boxes of stuff.

What can you even say to that?

Yes, I downsized from a 1550 square foot house to an apartment of 862 square feet. Yes, I got divorced, so it was not only the splitting apart of stuff, but the splitting apart of my life and his life. And, yes, the minute my ex and I had moved into the house in 2002, my parents had lovingly dropped off over 20 boxes of stuff from my childhood they’d been storing in their garage. And, no, I hadn’t touched a single one of those boxes in the 9 years that we lived there.

And I could probably write an entire book about the actual split, but when I think about cleaning out that house, and how much stuff I ended up leaving in the house, it kind of astounds me. I even left my wedding dress there, atop a very large amoeba-like pile of trash bags stuffed to the gills with clothes that no longer fit me because I’d lost a significant amount of weight.

The things you do when you’re desperate, sick, exhausted, out of time, and out of patience…

What’s left, though, is quite impressive, which is to say it still overwhelms me.

So now, it is my task to go through all of these things. To sort, discard, donate, sell, give away, or organize all of this… stuff.

I’m not the most organized or patient person, and when I decide something has to go—I have to do it immediately, or I lose my momentum. So I may have the best intentions of selling something, or giving something to a specific organization, or scanning pictures just so someone can see whatever it was from 20 years ago that they probably won’t remember anyway—but when it comes down to it, I at least know myself well enough to admit I’m not terribly disciplined, organized, or patient. I tend to get bogged down in these kinds of tasks, and it drives me nuts to the point of quitting.

And besides, posting stuff on eBay takes patience and time. Giving away old magazines and toys through freecycle or whatever other venue takes time, effort, and energy. And patience. And dealing with complete strangers, who may or may not show up to retrieve said items.

Maybe if I had an assistant who could take care of all that stuff for me, I would do it.

But since I’m just a regular person… I need to make sure I only bite off what I can chew—without choking.

This is as good of a time as any to mention that I’m quite good with space. Specifically, strategically cramming lots of things into small spaces, like suitcases or closets. I am my father's daughter, after all, and he was in the Navy. He taught me how to pack for a trip, how to fold clothes to take up minimal space and not wrinkle, and of course, he taught me how to put sheets on the bed with perfect hospital corners.

When I moved into my apartment in March of 2011, I had boxes everywhere. Boxes from childhood. Boxes from high school. Boxes from college. Boxes from my marriage. Boxes, boxes, everywhere—when I moved in, they covered the whole floor and piled up as tall as my forehead in the back bedroom.

When I first moved in, I completely filled up the two decently sized closets in the back bedroom with boxes. The rest remained on the floor, and I went through some of them but quickly got overwhelmed and lost my momentum.

(It seems all of my stuff actually chokes me… and breaking free of it may offer a kind of freedom I can’t yet grasp.

I’m not quite there yet.)

Every time I walk into that bedroom, I think about those two closets, stuffed full of boxes I need to go through.

Up until this past Sunday, they had remained mostly untouched.

I know as well as anyone that you can’t move forward and allow new things to come into your life until you let go of the old.

So, on Sunday, I began the emotional gutting of my apartment.

I went through five boxes from my old lives. Letters, stuffed animals from childhood, photo albums from high school and college, old clothes. Five boxes to remind me of all the things I have never dealt with or discarded.

It was so much more than that, of course. It was also an emotional gutting to my psyche. The thing that did me in was finding a letter from my dad from nearly 15 years ago, where he was upset that I was late on my car payments to the point it was hitting against my parents' credit. He was worried he couldn't keep it from my mom any longer.

It hit me like a pointy object jabbing me in the heart just how much I've disappointed and hurt people I dearly love because of my selfishness. Not just my mom and dad, but my college roommate, family, and other friends who have given me so much… and what have I given?

I couldn't throw that letter away. The sad thought entered my mind as I looked at photos of Daddy from almost 20 years ago, how healthy and young he looked... and I freaked out at the thought of throwing away one of the only things I have with his handwriting, because he won't always be around.

After I finished bawling into my boyfriend’s arms, he told me I’d done enough for one day, and for once—I listened. I heard him, and I agreed.

Letting go of things that I once held so close to me is hard. But when I look at each item and can’t place why I have it, a memory surrounding it, or a current or near-future use for it… why keep it?

I know I’ve only gone through five boxes, but it’s a start. A good start.

(I am working towards a goal, here. A goal that I don’t want to disclose yet… but I promise that when the time is right—you’ll know.)

In the meantime, though…

I am learning to be gentler and tenderer with myself. I am learning to honor my emotions—whatever they are. And I am keeping only safe people around me while doing this emotional archeological dig.

Each box promises new surprises and new challenges. I quickly lost count of the number of times I said, “Why do I even have this?” on Sunday, and that was for five measly boxes.

I still have many more to clear out. Many more to sort through and decide the fate of their contents.

And believe me when I say that the whole theme of letting go isn’t lost on me here. I’ve let go of nearly everything in the last year or so, and I understand that letting go of most of these things is profound—and that is part of the reason why it’s also profoundly difficult. I realize that when I’m on the other side of this, I’ll feel lighter, better, and all that jazz.

Right now, though…
This isn’t easy.

But I seem to be one of those people who is never content to remain idle or complacent. I must always be moving, and hopefully that movement is forward. I’m reminded of a rather clever and totally true bit that my friend Mark has said: consistent and constant personal growth requires daily discomfort.

It doesn’t have to be monumental every day—that would be too exhausting.

But it should be a stretch. It should at times be hard. And sometimes, it should be easier.

I am learning to be more fluid as I grow older. I am learning that it isn’t all about me, and if I truly want to reach higher, do better, and continue to grow, it’s going to be a little uncomfortable.

Another thing that makes me uncomfortable is asking for help. But I am doing that now…

If you have successfully done this sort of task before, and/or if you are an organized person brimming with ideas that would be easy and quick for a non-organized person to execute, please feel free to offer up some suggestions to make it feel slightly less like my heart being scraped over a cheese grater.

(And if you’re thinking of suggesting, “Just throw them all away!” I appreciate it, but if I had done that, I would have tossed out several irreplaceable and very meaningful things that have been mixed in with the randomness… things I thought I had lost forever, and after rediscovering them, I wept with joy. So tossing out all of these boxes without even glancing at their contents is not the best option at this point—although if this drags on for too long, I may resort to exactly that.)