Saturday, March 10, 2012

Never letting go of the past

I've always had trouble getting rid of old things. My mom, a packrat by nature, had stacks of books in our small condominium as I was growing up. From recipe books to historical texts to self-help works, I was surrounded by absolutely terrible reading material. On top of everything, she had mounds and mounds of craft supplies. As a kid I was quite literally surrounded by balls of yarn. Because she loved to crochet, my mom accumulated so much of the stuff that I ended up using it myself to braid hair for paper dolls and make hair ties and ankle bracelets for myself.

So it's no wonder that I have my own problems with getting rid of much of the ephemera I collect over the years.

Sometimes I look around my room and I wonder, "Why do I have so many scraps of random paper?" I go on rampages through my desk drawers, purses and backpacks and throw out practically everything I see. But then when I look at my overstuffed trash can I wonder why I don't do this all the time like a normal person does. Why do I end up keeping things until I get fed up and then throw out everything in sight?

It's a two part question that deserves a two part answer, really.

I've never tried to hide the fact that I'm incredibly nostalgic. I watch old television programs, bring DVDs of Disney movies to college with me, decorate my walls with Disneyland paraphernalia and listen to '90s pop music in my free time. And I do none of these things facetiously. I legitimately love the media of my past.

On some level, this is a function of my unwillingness to let go of what I once loved. But on another level, it's a lifelong appreciation of all the facets of my life, past and present. It's also a manifestation of the fear that once I let go of something, it'll get lost forever in the abyss of missing memories.

The other day I was sitting in the dining hall with my friend whom I will call Lana to maintain her privacy and keep her from embarrassment (you will never guess who I'm really referring to). She looked through her purse for something - I can't remember what. Lana removed all the contents of her bag, pulling out Disneyland maps and gift card boxes, a reflective bicycle sticker and Silly Bandz from the restaurant Chili's. I gave her a funny look. Why would she keep all this random stuff in her bag? She told me it was because it reminded her of things she loved - she liked the happy memories.

I decided to look through my own bag as we sat together. And I discovered that I wasn't so different from Lana. When we got back to our dorm later that afternoon I showed her all of the programs to plays, musicals and events that we'd attended. I'd collected them since my first moment on campus in freshman year when they handed us the President's Convocation programs. I wanted to document my time at school and the most feasible way for me was in the form of paper leaflets.

Much of the time I cower away from my own reality in this respect. I pretend I'm not a hoarder, and laugh when I watch shows like Buried Alive on TLC. I find it humorous that people can get so attached to their gruesome belongings that they refuse to throw out even moldy garbage.

But on some level, the penchant for nostalgia that my friend and I have and that my mom taught me possess hints of packrattyness, however minute. And it's not something to be ashamed of, even with ridiculous reality programs blowing the concept out of proportion.

In total contrast, it has always bothered me that my dad doesn't care too much about belongings and personal items. He throws out papers without even taking a second glance at them, assuming they mean nothing. It has made me extra vigilant about protecting the important notes I've collected in my house by hiding them in boxes and in drawers to be sure he doesn't misplace or dispose of them.

My whole life I've been attacked by both ends of the spectrum - by a father who would prefer to throw away the meaningless ephemera of the past and by a mom who held on helplessly to what could not exist anymore. In my childhood home with my mom, there was a Rachel box (I'm not sure where it is now) that had such wonderful testaments to my childhood as fingerpaintings and silly awards certificates as well as a Post-It Note I wrote and placed on the TV for the main character in The Thirteenth Year (the Disney Channel movie about the boy who turns into a mermaid - ahem, merman) that said "I love you, Cody Griffin."

This little note, so many years later, means so much to me because every time I passed my Rachel box, it reminded me of that ultimately inconsequential memory. Because my mom had preserved the insignificant Post-It, I was able to recall an event of my past that otherwise would have been lost.

Tonight I was having a conversation with my dad and my sister about whether or not to keep DVD cases or to throw them away and just put the DVDs in the sleeves of a storage book. I maintained that I like having the original cases with their individual movie sleeves.

As I thought more about my devotion to keeping these insignificant vestiges of the DVDs I've owned, I thought about the many other aspects of my life in which losing what I once had has been incredibly difficult. My desire to keep things is an extension of my hope to let memories persist not only internally, but in a physical, palpable way.

The problem is, those things that do benefit from being kept become mixed with the ephemera that is useless and disposable. I get lost in the need to keep from losing things and in the process I keep old receipts and get frustrated weeks later when I realize I have a list of every single purchase I made with my dining hall points.

Collecting and remembering the past, like the situation with my mom and dad, is a constant battle between what you want and what you need. While it can be comforting to keep everything so that you never feel like you're losing something you may eventually want to refer back to, it can also prove the worst frustration a few days or weeks down the road when you go back to look at something specific and find a million other similar items that are nowhere near what you're looking for.

The sheer magnitude of physical mementos can make a person drown in nostalgia. The key to maintaining a proper level of packratting is to know what needs to be kept and what needs to be thrown away. And difficult as that may be, the dichotomy of those two things is the happy medium between being afraid of holding onto and afraid of letting go of the past. Because neither is really a true answer. We'll always need both.

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