The Remains of Letting Go: What Never Gets Left Behind

I remember the waterbed fondly.

I was 11 years old, living in Houston, and during the hot muggy summers, we spent far too many hours indoors, avoiding the heat and fighting with boredom. My best friend’s parents had a king-size waterbed, the cool skin of which enhanced the chilling effect of the over-stressed air conditioning. We often took refuge from the heat there, watching age-inappropriate soap operas, the only thing on mid-day television.

Then one day, my friend’s mother, an interior designer, left a few large books of fabric swatches on the bed. We pushed them aside, expecting their removal when her parents went to sleep. But that didn’t happen. The next day, there was more. And a pile of laundry to boot.

By the end of that summer, her parents were sleeping on the living room floor. The waterbed had been consumed, covered by fabric samples, partial rolls of wallpaper, old newspapers, soccer equipment and an ever-shifting landslide of laundry. Her mother’s car was much the same, and she soon upsized from a Mazda sedan to a mid-sized RV even for mundane errands around town. Within a few months, she could not brake or turn a corner without the RV’s abundant cargo sliding, shifting or toppling around us.

Witnessing this slip-sliding journey from someone who “didn’t mind a little clutter” to a full-bore hoarder was difficult. I could not understand her reluctance to throw away things, or to at least stop acquiring more. It smelled musty, it looked unsightly; it was impossible to find anything; it denied everyone a cool nap on the waterbed. And all it did was get worse.

Take No Prisoners

Not surprising, then, that I developed an honest fear of becoming a prisoner to my stuff. To avoid such calamity, I made a few rules for myself:

  • Storage units are short-term only. Anything I can part with for more than a year isn’t a necessity, so why pay to store it?
  • Buy furniture, cookware and appliances made to last.
  • Collections should be valuable or easily maintained.
  • Purchase tools only for repeated use; otherwise, borrow or rent.
  • Let go of anything that hasn’t been touched, looked at or used in two years.
  • Sentimentality has its limits.

These rules have served me well. As I’ve moved from state to state, city to city — and among several homes in Portland over the past 18 years — I’ve honed the art of curating. It’s an ongoing effort to keep my living space light on clutter and free of stagnation.

Sometimes, this requires significant purging. Last year, feeling overwhelmed by the stuff I’d accumulated since 2010, I set a goal to reduce my belongings by one-third before moving in with my dear Marlene 10 months ago. Mission accomplished, but even so, combining our lives required a storage unit, the first I had rented since 1989.

We intended to find a new place more suited to both of us within a few months, but Mar’s cancer diagnosis and treatment put a move on the back burner. I am pleased to say July will find us living in new digs just a few blocks from a beautiful city park on the Willamette River, and the storage unit will be history.

To satisfy our desire to live comfortably in a smaller space, though, we decided to engage in yet more purging. For Mar, it is time for a house-sweeping; having recently inherited belongings from her parents’ estate, she has serious culling to do. But for me, there’s a catch.

I did such a serious purge last year that it’s mostly the final rule — “sentimentality has its limits” — guiding my decisions about what to release. The big questions here, in whether something stays or goes, are: Why am I holding on to this? What does it mean to me?

Some decisions come easily: I will not miss the old wooden lacrosse stick left at Goodwill on my way home from the storage unit. I played lacrosse on my university team and enjoyed it, but the stick had become mere artifact, an antiquated carved-wood women’s stick, not one that represented something important in my life. I felt good releasing it, thinking a serious lacrosse fan might use it for decoration, or perhaps a young girl will learn what the game was like when catching and cradling the ball while running full tilt took more skill than it does with today’s sticks.

Nothing in my purging history, however, prepared me for what occurred last week. On Monday morning, feeling emboldened by the progress I’ve made with this move, I intended to write a simple blog post on clutter reduction, (see my personal “rules” above for suggestions), because organized and open environments tend to enhance feelings of wellness.

But something happened to help teach me once again how difficult this process can be for people, how possessions can be reminders of who or where we have been in the past, how we often attach aspects of our identity to objects or collections. Parting with such objects can be painful, but I’ve gotten so practiced at non-attachment that I forget this sometimes.

Then a reminder came along. The very moment I was sitting down to write that post — computer literally in one hand, the other arranging a minga bolster to keep me comfortable as I write — I heard the familiar beeping, rumbling approach of the massive recycling truck squeezing its way down my narrow Southeast Portland street.

I looked out the second-floor window just as the truck lurched to a stop in front of our house. The collector jumped out, grabbed the big blue recycling container and pushed it into the waiting arms of the mechanical lifter. My observation, casual at first, quickened with recollection of the bin’s contents.

News clippings-9454Among the regular household papers and plastics, the blue bin contained what was, in some ways, my life’s work. An earlier life’s work, really.

I’ve referenced it before — and no doubt will again, because it was so formative and valuable — but long before I became a therapist, I was a journalist. In 1988, I swore my oath to Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists, and I took seriously my responsibility to support freedom of the press and to encourage an educated electorate as a cornerstone of true democracy.

Leaving journalism was as hard a breakup as I’ve ever had. Something I loved had turned into a damaging relationship. On top of the daily deadlines, inadequate compensation and brutish office environment, the corporate buyouts and mergers of the 1990s consumed daily American newspapers like a wave of locusts. The elevation of corporate profit over the First Amendment left me feeling I could no longer work in mainstream media and maintain my personal integrity and professional standards.

I left for greener pastures, eventually arriving where I am today: a psychotherapist in private practice, a writer pregnant with a fiction novel.

The experience of being a journalist, however, has never been far from my mind. It was a first-hand, in-your-face, street-wise and white-collar, no-holds-barred indoctrination and education in the sectors of government, crime and jurisprudence, education, environment, wealth and poverty, disease, healthcare, consumerism, spiritualism, agriculture, human migration, trauma, tragedy, natural disasters, riots, inhumanity, human nature, reckless disregard, heroic acts, art, music and love. It was a dizzying trip into the center of narrative, counter-narrative, duplicity, facts, evidence, and the folly of listening to politicians. It was as great a training ground as a therapist could ever want, in my opinion.

Cutting the Umbilical Cord

But it was really only when the recycling truck came rolling down the street last week that some unseen umbilical cord tying my identity to the possession of this writing archive was finally cut.

With few exceptions, such as the remaining originals of a Pulitzer-nominated feature story, “To Make a Man Whole,” nearly every article I wrote in my journalism career was in the big blue recycling container. Hundreds upon hundreds of newspaper clippings representing interviews with more than 10,000 people, published before online news was commonplace, these stories do not exist on the Internet. Nor did I preserve them on other media; even a full-time librarian would loathe that task. The truck was hauling away the accumulated evidence of many wild, unusual, mundane, bureaucratic, adventurous, fruitful, horrifying things I experienced over the course of 15 years.

Watching it, something jumped and tightened in my chest. How could I let go of all that?

Notably, I hadn’t been impulsive. Over the course of four days, I thumbed through the entire collection and removed what gems pleased me. It took another few hours to complete a second culling, so that what remains are some of my prized works, some moments of history-in-the-making, some unusual pearls of humor. In the end, the keepers fit into a single large envelope.

That seemed right when I did it — and it still does — but I was caught by that moment of attachment, of letting go of attachment, when the recycling truck arrived. A threshold was crossed, the act of releasing something became unavoidable. No longer could I run out and save some piece of the past.

As the mechanical arm shook the big blue can empty, a cascade of newspaper articles fell into the open side of the recycling truck. Though I wondered if some might ride a breeze back to the street like so many other bits of debris on garbage day, the accumulated work from my life as a journalist landed in a solid papery clump. As the can lowered, the articles settled in the belly of the truck, still in plain view of my window, the heavy-inked headlines announcing to the world their out-dated news one last time before being churned into pulp and remade to a new purpose.

Before I knew it, the recycling collector was on to the next house, and the archives of my former life were buried under a colorful assortment of household plastics.

I walked onto the landing and called out to Marlene downstairs, “The recycling truck has just taken my journalism career away.”

Mar, who has praised me among her friends for the fact that I’m “not a pack rat,” clapped her hands, as if to dust off, and replied, “Doesn’t that feel good?”

“It feels strange,” I said. “It’s good, but strange.”

Parting is Such Sweet Ambivalence

I was truly glad to see all that paper go. The storage bin in which those hundreds of clippings had yellowed over the past 15 years was heavy, cumbersome and rarely opened. Seeing the newspaper articles mounded on my living room floor had reminded me of the king-size waterbed that disappeared, lost beneath a hoarder’s collection, that long-ago summer of my youth. I could not justify holding on to most of them any longer.

And yet, as the truck inched down the street, my heart sagged with loss. I felt I had made a mistake, that I had relinquished an irreplaceable collection that defined and described a significant and meaningful period of my life. Who else would ever know that part of me? How would I remember all those experiences myself?

The ambivalent feelings seemed reasonable; I decided not to struggle with them.

The recycling truck lurched up the other side of the street. It passed below my window again, taking countless stories of car wrecks and city council meetings, disease-of-the-week features and ford-into-flood-waters acts of bravery along with it. I waved farewell to them all, and watched the truck round the corner.

As the physical remains of an old career rumbled away, I suddenly realized I could have parted with all those clippings a decade ago because they are all still with me: every single person I’ve interviewed, every story I’ve ever written. Even though the paper is gone — and indeed, newspapers themselves are largely becoming a thing of the past — I am forever bound to my experience.

It is the same with psychotherapy. I do not forget my clients or their stories. Time may obscure some facts from quick recollection, but for better or worse, the stories go on living within me. No amount of purging or recycling can erase them.

In truth, my mind is the storage container, my memory the curator. My life has been gifted with an abundance of story, valuable for its lessons on humanity. But it’s not something I need to cart around with me, literally, in the form of a thousand newspaper articles densely piled into a musty and rarely opened storage bin.

The king-size waterbed that succumbed to a hoarder’s attachments was a powerful first lesson in the danger of refusing to let go of what no longer serves a useful purpose. I had to relearn that lesson many times in different ways, from unhealthy eating habits to the sorrow of long-held grudges.

But releasing this massive “identity-defining” collection of newsprint has reminded me what only the act of letting go can teach us: We are not the sum of our belongings. Long after possessions depart, experience remains. Even as we let go, we grow richer.

Tamara Webb, LPC, LMHC, is a writer and psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon. Contact her at tamara@fivebodiescounseling.com.

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