I finally began the task of rearranging my house, throwing away, giving away. My stuff is not valuable. In fact, much of it is paper. But it's been much more emotional to do than I expected it would be. Why? It's all those memories that are clinging to everything.
Looking through the stuff has been an inconsistent memory test. Some of it immediately produces vivid memories, including sounds, smells, faces. Other stuff makes me question why I've been holding onto it for so many years when I have no recollection of who, what, why. Being practical and asking "Will I ever need this stuff again?" doesn't help. Chances are high, especially given the Internet, that the answer is unequivocally, "No, you will never need it again."
In middle age, I followed my wanderlust to other countries where I lived and worked — Israel, China, Taiwan, Macau, Bali, Korea. I visited fascinating countries — Russia, Turkey, Vietnam, Iceland, Fiji, New Zealand, among others. In some ways, my wandering held down my "stuff" acquisition, but I still managed to end up with full filing cabinets and miscellaneous cartons.
When I was traveling, I used to think how nice it would be to have all my photo albums in one place. That finally happened, and I do take pleasure in seeing them all lined up. While I came to the point of throwing away all my carefully saved negatives, I don't think I'll be able to throw away the albums.
While I got rid of two years of my Master's degree classes in social work in a quick toss, I linger over the papers I saved from being an English teacher all over the world. When I was a teacher in Nanjing (China) University in 1992, a xerox was precious technology. Seventy of my students had to share one copy of the assignment that they had to read in the school library. Now I have cartons of teaching-related material. I've given away some. I am quite sure I won't be taking off for any more faraway places to teach again. But these papers represent my career! So, I understand my neighbor who said he long ago was a businessman and still has 25 cartons relating to his business that he can neither use, nor part with.
When I was divorcing and giving up my home, I burned my accumulated letters. But that was in 1979. Since then, I've accumulated several cartons. I was hoping to read through them again in my old age. Now that I am old, I'm not sure I will ever read through them. And even if I do, then what to do with them? Many of them are from my Chinese students who followed me by letter from country to country during China's tumultuous two decades of change. They have historical value to researchers, so I'm hoping at least to find a library that will offer them for research.
It's so much easier to throw away things we aren't connected to by memories. Or perhaps connected to by dreams like my friend who has lived in a 300 sq. foot apartment in New York City for more than 40 years while paying for a storage unit filled with fancy furniture she will never be able to use.
I try to keep in mind, it's not the memories I'm throwing away. It's the stuff of memories.