In preparation for a move across the country, I’ve started sorting through things to decide what to take with me. I am taking very little, partially for logistical and financial reasons, and partially because it is a good moment to shed some excess weight. Physically, I’m not a very big person, and it has always seemed strange to me that while I can pick my relatively small self up and go anywhere pretty easily, my stuff requires a lot more thought, cost, and planning.
Really, I think it is time to purge, a thought which was kindly reinforced just this week by a book about creativity I am currently reading: let go of the old, in order to welcome the new. That means opening up boxes I haven’t peeked inside since I sealed them years ago; whittling down pictures that I’ve carried around for far too long; and rifling through the pieces of my life that I deemed somehow representative of who I am, weighing each one now to decide what still fits.
It feels right, and takes time. Today I dove into, among other things, a box full of papers, photographs, and memorabilia from years past. Save for the financial documents I was too lazy to properly dispose of at the time, everything in that box carries memories; I’ve kept it all for a reason.
As I sorted, I reflected on the fact that preparing to make this move is also taking me on a trip through the past. I felt that at the farm, and I feel it now, as I tour up and down the east coast visiting people that I love. I am a sensitive person – my mother deemed me “tenderhearted” when I was young, which has remained sometimes annoyingly true – and nostalgia runs deep.
There were plenty of journals and pictures in that box, but there were other things, too, a lot of which recalled the role that other people play in my life, and the role I’ve played in theirs. I found invitations to three weddings, and remembered the bridesmaid’s dress I wore in each: long red satin for a December affair; short silver silk with spaghetti straps a year and-a-half later; black beaded crepe the following month. I did not have my sister’s wedding invitation in the box, but I did have the invitations for her bridal shower and engagement party, along with a menu from the reception where I toasted the happy newlyweds.
As you might be able to tell from the menu, food is important to my family, and it’s a value I’ve embraced as well. Earlier today, I went through boxes of cookbooks, failing to decrease their number and instead vowing to re-tackle that particular task at another time, mainly because I was raised in a family where we occasionally sit around and read recipes in silence together; disposing of cookbooks is never easy. And though I cannot recite specific dishes by ingredient, like my siblings, I do remember particular meals. Bayona, for example, is one of my favorite restaurants; I’m not surprised to discover I saved a signed menu, but I was happy to find it again.
In addition to actual journals filled with words, I discovered a bounty of paper scraps with my handwriting on them. Receipts, ticket stubs, paper from the grocery store where I briefly worked: over the years, all became places to jot down my thoughts, ideas, observations, and questions.
Yet some of the most meaningful writing I’ve kept came, not surprisingly, from others. It was touching to find letters from family, friends, former colleagues, and students with whom I’d once worked. I believe there is power in words, and power in handwriting itself; it’s marked with experience and intention. I’ve long carried letters from people I love, and do so even now. It is a way of holding them close, in spirit and in heart.
I found several letters written by friends and family when I first moved to California 13 years ago. Of course they are signed, but I didn’t need to look at the signature; these are letters of encouragement written by people who are still encouraging me now, and I know their handwriting. Currently in a moment of many doubts, it is incredible to re-read letters penned so long ago, with the same good intentions now that existed then.
By the time the box was empty, I’d filled a paper grocery bag with things I will not keep; I created another pile of items to give away. I wonder if you can guess what remains. And I wonder what you keep, when you are rediscovering who you are, attempting to honor the touchstones to your past, while seeking an unencumbered path forward. All of it means something, and yet it is, of course, just stuff.
I am a lot easier to move without it trailing behind.