The other day my husband and I were clearing out old books from a bookshelf in our basement. One of our most cherished family pastimes is reading, and the number of books under our roof testifies to that. Running my hands over the covers of books lining the shelves quietly connected me to the hours spent on the sofa with my children as we read together. I could hear them pleading, “One more chapter, Mommy!” I pulled several books from the shelf and paused. Do I really want to part with these? It was as if giving the books away meant I was giving away those priceless memories. I know that’s not true, but I felt a little wrench deep inside that made me stop momentarily before putting a selection of paperbacks into the box for donations.
Then I saw my husband, also pensively looking at a book in his hand. It was a Marine Corps Field Handbook. “I carried this book with me every day for a year. I just can’t get rid of it.”
“But you don’t have any need for it,” I responded, “and you won’t have any use for it in the future.” That was my one attempt to be the voice of reason. Yet I know that it’s not up to me to decide what books he keeps. And letting go of the things we’ve valued during our life is a process we need to respect.
It is so easy to look at someone else’s belongings and wonder why they hold onto things. Having an objective view, you can say with firm conviction that there’s no real value in a 40-year-old toy car collecting dust on the shelf—providing it’s not your shelf and it’s not the vintage car your grandfather gave you as a child. You see, it’s easy to say “Things are just things”—and that’s true! But we give our possessions value when we connect them to people or experiences we want to remember.
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, also known as The Minimalists, argue that our memories are not in the physical items but in our minds. I agree with that statement, but only to a point. Often times, it takes a photograph or something tangible to provoke a vivid memory, or recall the feelings, sounds, even smells from a past experience. Many times our possessions serve as a bridge to cross back into a moment long forgotten, but worth taking the time to savor.
This is especially meaningful when we feel connected to someone no longer with us. Unexpectedly coming across an item which belonged to a deceased parent, for example, can be very powerful. Even the simplest token that belonged to a loved one has the ability to open a door to a wealth of memories and emotions, both warm and loving as well as painful feelings.
A year ago, I worked with Anne as she packed up her childhood photographs and mementos while preparing to move. Both of her parents had passed away and she had four large bins of family albums and framed pictures. We both knew the plastic tubs were a lot to move, but at the time, Anne simply didn’t have the energy to go through all those photographs. A year later, after settling into a whole new life, we revisited those four bins. To my surprise, she quickly reviewed the contents, consolidating and purging freely. It was time. Now invested in her new living situation, she felt a greater freedom and clarity to see what she could part with and what memories she wanted to hold onto.
Letting go of our sentimental possessions is a process. We need to give ourselves space and freedom to pick up and hold that item which transports us into good and healthy memories—and then, once savored, ask yourself if you can let it go. Is it time? Our possessions are not the people we care about; they are not the experiences they bring to mind. But part of the process is allowing the things in our life to serve their purpose and, when that is finished, to let them go.
Each time I decide to thin out my bookcases, I find I’m ready to part with a little more. Books I intended to read but never did: gone. Books from my college and young adult days that were formative and I thought I’d return to: gone. Books I collected for my children but we never actually shared: gone. And what remains? Those which I want to share with my future grandchildren, cookbooks I still actively use, and a few inspirational books that I’m simply not ready to pass on just yet. The goal is not to get rid of as much stuff as possible, but rather, to keep only those things that give value and meaning to my life in the present.