Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Sentimental Journey

As we prepare to put our house on the market and get ready for an eventual move, I have begun a serious effort to de-clutter. I have read that getting rid of one's materialistic mountain of stuff and living a more minimalist life is a freeing experience.

And perhaps it is... for other people. But I am finding it very difficult.

I am not by nature a big consumer. I don't finding shopping to be an enjoyable pastime. I keep things and use them until they don't work anymore, and when possible, repair them. I have a 5-year-old cell phone, a 35-year-old blender, and a 50-year-old camp stove.

When we went on our 8-week camper trip last summer, I didn't miss any of the stuff left behind in our house. We have a storeroom full of boxes that haven't been opened since we moved here five years ago, and some of those boxes are from the move before that, 13 years ago.

Someone said to me, "If you haven't felt a need for anything in those boxes for years and can't even remember what is in them, why don't you just throw them out?" Why can't I do that, and why am I finding it so hard to throw things away?

Well, the answer is simple and complicated at the same time. Opening up those boxes and finding the items inside takes me on a sentimental journey. As I pick up and hold each item, I am immediately transported back to an earlier time in my life. The item, whatever it is, stimulates memories of people and experiences that, without the artifact, I would be unlikely to retrieve. And then I relive that memory.

In one box, I found a painting of the Battle of Salamis that I did when I was in Grade 4. Looking at that painting, I remembered my Grade 4 teacher, a wonderful woman who wanted to ensure that her students had their eyes opened to the wider world through music and art. Her art class was not an afterthought. Each student in the class was required to bring to school a two-foot by two-foot piece of plywood. To one side of it, we stapled a piece of vinyl cloth, with the fabric side out. Propped up on the chalk ledge of the blackboard, that board served as a painting easel as we stood to paint. Fifty-one years later, I still love to paint, and I still stand at an easel when I paint.

The teacher often tuned into CBC for a weekly radio program on art for children. The program began with a story of a historical event, such as Xerxes and the Battle of Salamis. At the end of the story, the narrator would instruct the students to paint a picture stimulated by the events in the story, and provide some tips. We would sit in our desks and listen to the program, and then stand at our easels and paint. For the Battle of Salamis, which was a naval battle between the Persians and Greek city-states, the narrator suggested creating the illusion of froth on the ocean waves by colouring on our papers with a white wax crayon before painting over it with our water colours. Looking at my childhood painting brought these memories flooding back.

 In another box, I came across the language diary that I kept for my middle daughter. I wrote down her first words by date, both phonetically and in standard orthography, and made note of the context in which they occurred. She began talking very early, and her first two words were "Mom" and "num-num" (she liked to eat). Her first two-word utterance, just as she turned one, was "Kate bye-bye." And I laughed to remember that one of her first fifty words was "beer." If we drank beer, we had to be careful to not to leave the bottles within reach or my baby would help herself to the dregs.

I also discovered some of the handmade literacy books that I made for my children. I used to staple blank pages together to make a book, then write simple stories for them, and illustrate each page. When they were just learning to read, they could read aloud from their own personalized books that were about themselves, their pets, and their adventures. My children loved the books, and as they became older, they also made and illustrated their own books.

One of the photos below is of a book that my middle daughter made and illustrated for her little brother. It is "The Adventures of Super Sumo!" The other is of a book my son made when he was just learning to write. The word says "Chaucer," which was the name of one of our cats.

My children also had several experiences of making or decorating pottery when they were growing up. Our city had a community arts day each spring when the public was welcomed for free into various art studios and could participate in art activities. One activity that we all loved was that of the Pottery Club. They would set up their raku pottery kiln outside on the lawn, and sell pieces of pottery that had been fired but not yet glazed. My kids and I would paint the pieces with glazes and then stand and watch as the potters fired the pieces for us. Once they cooled, we would proudly bring them home and display them in our house.

Both my daughters participated in various art camps and courses. The photo below shows some details of a beautiful planter that my older daughter made for me.

Although going through the boxes and trying to decide what to throw away has been emotionally exhausting, it also has been a wonderful, joyful experience. If I hadn't opened up those boxes to attempt to de-clutter, I would not have had the chance to take this sentimental journey. It is true that the things in the boxes are just objects, and to many people some of the items look like junk, but to me, they are saturated with meaning. My past life now has become memories, and those memories are springing back to life as I look at artifacts from my past.


  1. Hi Jude,
    I'm big on decluttering and find it incredibly easy to do. At the beginning of your post, I was all set to join in on the exhortations to toss, unopened, anything you haven't referred to in years. One of my favourite true stories is of Marks and Spencer, the British store, trying to cut costs. They had a huge room full of filing cabinets and two full time file clerks. They reassigned the staff and tossed the contents of the room. Then they kept track for two full years to see what they threw out that they wished they hadn't. It turned out to be one piece of paper.
    So that's what I was going to say. But then I read the rest of your post. What wonderful memories, Judith! Now that you are starting a new chapter in your life, it seems to me it would be the perfect time to get those special memories out of boxes and into your home. Your fourth grade painting beside some current work, your children's books on a bookshelf, the pottery proudly on display. Then you have a retrospective of great moments in your life. Whatever doesn't fit in your home but that you just can't bear to discard, maybe buy yourself a big trunk - something that doubles as a coffee table. Everything has to fit in there or at least in boxes in your house, close at hand.
    One other thought, Jude - The transition to retirement includes making a good ending of your past. Going through your possessions, remembering your life through them - that's a great way to make an ending. In other words, the items you aren't going to keep have done their work. Maybe knowing that will help you to let them go?

  2. Okay, so it is very difficult to follow on from that great advice that Karen has given above. The only thing that I can add is--for some things that you choose to get rid of, but still hold great memories when you look at them, you can take their picture and keep the pics in a 'digital memory file.' That way you have both the extra space and your memory reminder. Hope this helps.
    See -- I told you it was hard to follow Karen!

  3. Karen, I am always amazed by and filled for admiration for people who can declutter with ease. I have a couple of longtime friends who are like that, and their houses always look so tidy and attractive. (Some of the things that I am trying to decide what to do with are items they gave me when they were decluttering!)

    However, that is never going to be me. I am always going to be the person who agonizes about every little item. I am not even talking about the art made by my children, as NONE of that is going in the garbage, but all the other stuff that might potentially come in handy some day. For example: some framed photos, badly faded, and with the glass cracked; my collection of canning jars; a handful of barely used pencil crayons at the bottom of a box. And I keep thinking that maybe the kids will want this or that. But they are not here to help me decide.

    Rob is no help at all as he is just as bad as me in this regard. Yesterday, I took a huge pile of towels to donate to the Human Society for pet cages against his objections that they might be useful for wrapping things up in our next move.

    Ah well, I'll soldier on.


  4. Donna, theoretically, taking pictures of things then tossing the actual items sounds like a terrific idea. My daughter (who is a great declutterer) has suggested the same thing. BUT, sad to say, my digital photo files are as much of a cluttered mess as my basement storeroom. I have photos I have taken with my digital camera, my phone, my tablet, as well as all the photos sent to me by others, and I am literally years behind in my sorting, editing, labelling, and filing. Besides, I don't have great faith in the longevity of technical storage media; I have discovered that I can no longer open any of my Word files that are more than 20 years old. So I am motivated to hang onto the actual hard copies and physical artifacts. Sigh.


  5. You are a few months ahead of us. I did go through one box the other day and started that same sentimental journey! I find it really hard to just throw out things my kids made - especially if they were for me. Maybe that will help me when I do have to make decisions on what to keep. You make a great point about the pictures too. It sounds like a great idea, but my digital photos are all over the place too. And I'm not sure how motivated I will be to sort through all of them in retirement.

  6. Vicki, we are on the same schedule and facing similar tasks. I guess it is a very typical experience that goes with retiring. I am lucky that have the time to finally focus on paring things down, after years of being too busy to do it. We got rid of much of the "easy to throw away" stuff in the last move five years ago, so now I am going through the stuff that is not so easy. Good luck with your preparations for downsizing!

  7. What wonderful memories! As I mentioned before, I take those sentimental voyages when I am sitting on my parents' attic going through some of my own, old stuff. Each time, I plan to reduce the pile and, each time, after hours of being in a different world, the pile remains pretty much the same. It is hard, for sure, and there is a difference between getting rid of material items because you never use them, or you want to downsize, and getting rid of true mementos.

    When I was reading through your post, Jude, the thought of taking a photo of these items, before possibly discarding them, entered my mind. I know it is not the same as holding on to the keepsakes, but maybe it is a decent compromise?

    1. Liesbet, I find that I am becoming quite ruthless about throwing away or giving away much of the ordinary stuff. I am giving away many books, as discussed in an earlier post, and I now know where the Little Free Libraries are in our town. I drive around and stuff them full of novels. Last weekend, I took a carload of clothes, books and household stuff to the Salvation Army Thrift Store. From the number of people shopping there, I know the stuff will find a good home.

      But I have decided that there is no reason to throw away the mementos that truly hold a sentimental meaning for me. They have little financial worth but have great personal value and are not just consumer junk. So, Liesbet, I encourage you to keep those items in the attic that that are truly meaningful for you. They are laden with memories, and woven into the texture of your life.

  8. You are totally right, Jude. Just as long as that attic is around. :-) This spring, I will follow your lead and toss or donate all the "material" stuff. For now, I will hold onto the mementos, and I think, if possible, the internationally collected masks and statues as well.

    1. Liesbet, I am glad to hear it. The masks and statues must hold a lot of memories from your travels, too. I would say, keep them!