Finding meaning among the clutter

22:17, Jul 09 2013

I've been through five major moves in the past six years. Shifting about like so, it forces you to pre-empt your own sense of nostalgia. You're constantly trying to guess what you're going to be glad to have hung on to, years down the line.

For LP and me, our trip to her parents' house for the long weekend was the first time we'd been able to make it back since we moved to Oakland. On Sunday we went through a store of stuff that we'd left there when we moved from Boston last May, which we'd planned to fetch as soon as we'd found a permanent Bay Area home.

It's always strange to take stock of what at one time you just couldn't let go of...

I'm not good at throwing things away. I think this comes from a misguided and sentimental belief that I will come to view the current moment as being much more meaningful than it really is.

On Sunday, among my curated belongings I found a store of useless papers, which is typical for me. I'm sure that even when I packed them I was mostly certain I wouldn't need them again, but that I was not quite ready to let go. These were very replaceable documents, source material for two stories that I'd long ago finished. They had been held on to for some eventual situation that I'm not sure I could have articulated even then. There were also a couple of brochures for things I can no longer remember being interested in.

Looking upon this tattered store of information, crudely collected in a plastic bag, I felt horrified with myself, like I was one of those shuffling, bearded, probably homeless men that pushes a shopping cart full of empty bottles about all day. I'm probably even beneath that, because at least that guy can get a few cents for each bottle.


I'm an overzealous archivist. I keep all of my reporter's notebooks. Why, I'm not sure. I don't think I'm going to get subpoenaed to reveal my sources. I have developed a fetish over the years for well-crafted stationery, but the lustre has gone once it's used. It's not like I can read them either: they're all filled with harried scrawl and mysterious references.

I keep all of my press passes too. There was one from an Obama rally in Boston in 2010, a visitor's badge for the Boston Globe and a name card from a narrative journalism conference. These don't get close inspection. They just get put somewhere out of sight with the rest of the snowballing collection of stuff, which has value, even if it has no use.

In the single red case I am allowed to keep at my parents' house, there are 20 or so CDs that I felt like I just had to cling to in 2010. But by 2013, these just look like sad, dusty artifacts that I'll never need again. The same goes with 1GB USB cards, old batteries and 26th birthday cards with a sentence or two written in them.

Because, well, I started using Dropbox, I don't think there's anything in my house anymore that runs off batteries and outside of maybe 21 or 30 or 40, birthdays come and go and you collect a lot of expendable material around them.

That said, I did find, and again choose to keep, a great card my friend Oliver sent me from New Zealand, complete with a snarling wolf on the front, a personal note and a drawing of a jellyfish with sunglasses on. I found books that I still wanted to read, clothes that I'll maybe wear again and other useful items, so it wasn't all just stores of pointlessness and collected reminders of my issues with hoarding.

I'm glad though that I'm careful and reluctant with what I throw away. I'll always find something that brings back a strange memory, or causes me to reflect on the past in a new way.

Going through the junk makes me realise that there are few physical items that are going to have any emotional weight with you even a year later, but also that you just can't know what is going to have that effect on you. 

Among my things on Sunday, I found an old card written to me by my grandmother and father on my first birthday in Boston, a couple of months after I'd left New Zealand. My grandparents died a day apart from each other two months after I received it, at Christmastime in 2010. The last time I saw them before I'd left, I kind of knew I'd never see them again. Not that I chose to dwell on that then, but their health was starting to take a serious turn and it was obvious they didn't have too many months left in them.

My grandparents would always sign their cards individually. They were the most loving and joyous people I've ever known. But the tone of this card is dark. I can remember that it took me off guard when I received it. The September earthquake had just hit and my uncle had been badly hurt. They referenced how trying the aftershocks had been and their struggles with their health. I remembered how when they died my thankyou note was in their mailbox.  

Holding that card, for a moment my grandparents lived again. It's a corny, flimsy birthday card, but it bought back entire, vivid stores of emotion and memory that I hadn't reflected upon in a while; a little portal of grief and sadness, something that I found myself pleased I hadn't thrown away. 

Finding it was worth confronting boxes of tattered nothingness and empty belongings.

It reminded me that there's always beauty among the clutter. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

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