Can You Really Get Rid of Your Most Sentimental Things?
The garbage bag bulges with sweaters, dresses, tunics, shoes, and belts that have languished in my closets for years, waiting for a comeback that's just never gonna come. Shirts that no longer button. Bras built for my '90s-era bust. A rain hat that has lived a life of captivity inside a drawer, never having felt a single drop.
Two other Hefties sit with their mouths open, waiting to be fed. My possessions avert their gaze, as if afraid to attract attention. You there! You ugly, itchy, horizontally striped alpaca poncho bought at that street fair—to the Hefty! Random candlestick: Hefty! Mystery cell phone charger, stop trying to hide behind the Flip camera!
This lack of mercy isn't like me, and that's the point. No matter how redundant or useless my possessions, no matter the money they cost me each time I move, an overwhelming glut of stuff has always found sanctuary in my home. But now that my home is a Boston apartment barely big enough for one human and her little dog, I've had it. I shouldn't have to spend so much time jostling for space. My energies should go to friends and family and work, not to the continual repuzzling of junk: the never-worn suits, the nearly identical pairs of boots, the proliferation of sofa pillows, the—not even kidding—velvet and taffeta ball gown, price tags intact. Barnacles, all.
I knew I had to act when I caught myself saving that rectangle of cardboard that comes at the bottom of the Chinese-takeout delivery bag because I might need it someday. So last fall I started loading boxes and bags with orphaned earrings, burdensome purses, heavy ruby curtains I haven't used since that time I had the peeping Tom. Getting rid of such things is easy—they mean nothing to me. Even I can admit the logic of saying goodbye to all but one of three colanders, all but one of four coffeemakers. I know I don't really need a whole forest of brooms. Or 12 glass canisters of varying heights.
Steadily, the boxes and bags have filled. The surplus stuff has gone out into the world via Freecycle and eBay and the Salvation Army. There's just one problem. When I began, I figured the more I purged the lighter and less complicated my life would feel. Surprisingly, though, nothing feels that way except the cabinets and floors.
In the past 12 years, I've lived in Charlotte, Boston (twice), Atlanta (twice), Manhattan, Portland (the one in Oregon), Oxford (the one in Mississippi), Europe, and on Long Island. My first move, in 1999, the one that signaled the beginning of the end of my four-year marriage, was back to my birthplace, Oxford, in the wake of my father's death: I left my husband in Charlotte while I went to teach at Ole Miss for a year and be near my family.
But when the visiting professorship ended, instead of moving to the home my husband and I had just bought in Atlanta, where he had taken a new job, I ran off to Spain. After Spain came Atlanta again, just long enough for the divorce. Then New York, where I moved for graduate school. Then Atlanta yet again, for a magazine job. Then Portland, for another magazine job. And finally to Boston, where I teach at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.
I can trace all these moves by the artifacts that travel with me wherever I go. The little Moroccan jar is where I stored my wedding ring when I lived in Spain. The photo of my ex and me smiling on a downtown sidewalk was taken in Charlotte before I left. The green and gold tin on the bookshelf contains the ashes of my cat Harry, whom I adopted as a kitten in 1990.
Poor Harry. When I left the marriage, he—like the furniture, the Christmas ornaments, my favorite rice cooker, all the odds and ends my husband and I had accumulated in our decade together—stayed behind. But when my ex remarried, and the new wife was allergic, Harry had to go. By this point, I was living in a 200-square-foot Manhattan studio apartment, with a terrier that craved kitties as snacks. Harry went to stay with my mother.