A couple years ago, feeling a little low as I was struggling to make ends meet from my freelance writing, and dreading the departure of my eldest daughter to college, I fell into listening to a lot of podcasts around minimalism and simpler living. I was interested in alternate ways of living, away from the noise, less dependence on technology, social media and other distractions. More time for intentional activities as a family and as an individual. More contribution. When I sought out voluntary work for a global charity and saw the amount of sheer clutter people donated on a daily basis, I realized how much waste – both physical and mental – we all wade through, day in and day out. I began to clear out my home, my thinking, and my habits.
But I soon realised some things are easier to rid yourself of than others.
We all have items, tiny mementoes of our former lives. The name tag from your firstborn’s wrist. A hint of that perfume you always wore in college, as the scarf worn throughout that winter slides between your fingers.
Unfastening the clips of an old suitcase, the lid flops back like a blow-up doll emptied of air. And there lay the mementoes of my life. Finger paintings and my two daughters’ attempts at first writing, their large handwritten script curling over the pages. I pluck out letters from my husband when we first met – actual, handwritten letters, before emails and quick texts asking one another to pick up a carton of milk on the way home became the norm.
I slide out the beautiful red silk kimono my mother bought me one Christmas. Fondle the gloriously embroidered dragon on the reverse, the hand-stitched yellow cord on the front pocket bearing my name. It was specially made, an item I found both glamorous and totally unwearable.
There are hundreds more keepsakes in the case as I delve hungry hands down into its depths and corners. My eldest daughter’s tiny first pair of shoes. A guest list from our wedding. Even my lace wedding dress languishes at the bottom of the case in its original suit bag.
Why do we hang on to such items, these tiny reminders of the past? What do we fear losing if we part with them? Surely, that is at the bottom of it all: fear. A fear that once gone, they will never again be recovered. It is an irreplaceable item after all, if it is a letter or original four-year-old’s drawing of a stick person with fuzzy hair purporting to be me.
But what about the letting go of technology in our life? Isn’t this just down to fear, too? A fear of missing out? A fear that, as a writer, nobody will read our work if we don’t stay active online? A need for recognition, even if it saps all one’s time and attention away from the important things.
I challenged myself with a digital detox, cutting out all but essential contact with my Smartphone and laptop, and de-activating my Twitter account. The freedom I felt during the detox month was immense. So much so, I made the Twitter deactivation permanent.
I leave the hardest pile until last. The keepsakes I have of my mother. Her checked pajama bottoms we joked made her look like Rupert the Bear. The headscarf brought back from New York that she wore after her chemotherapy treatment. Her dressing gown, bought for her that last Christmas. Holding it to my nose, I am disappointed to realize that even the smell of that has begun to fade, almost gone altogether. I search desperately for a strand of her hair, kept in a tiny locket, and find it with relief.
Yet, what use are these items, shoved as they are in the suitcase at the back of a deep closet we never use? Equally, what to do with any of them if we part with them? Goodwill surely won’t be interested in an old champagne cork but throwing it into the trash feels offensive to my memories.
Eventually, after shedding a few tears of loss and remembrance, I assert my minimalist principles, going through the items more purposefully. Ruthlessly parting with some, I reassign others. Cutting the yellow-threaded name from the kimono, which seems sacrilege to such a lovely garment, sticking the name in my closet, beside the everyday things I do use. So each time I see it hanging there it sparks a happy memory, rather than the guilt I felt at never wearing the robe. I can admire the simplicity and delicacy of the thing. Cutting the strings that tie me to my mother’s personal effects will take more time.
I reduce the children’s artwork to a few well-chosen pieces that show how far they’ve come, displaying them in a pretty scrap book where they can look at them as they grow older if they wish.
Maybe that’s a clue to the whole puzzle of keepsakes: they reflect how far we’ve come, what celebrations and disappointments life has littered in our path. Reasserting our ownership of some and allowing ourselves to part with others allows us the grace to let go.
Similarly with the online world: partaking in the minimum we feel necessary to aid our real-life worlds, and letting go of the rest. Reducing the noise.
Living simply. Simply, living.
Previously published in The Sunlight Press, in slightly altered format.