Taking a load off: downsizing the emotional tough stuff

Question mark in tunnel
Photo Credit: Emily Morter / unsplash

There are lots of good resources out there on how to deal with stuff associated with positive memories. But how do you deal with the stuff that summons more mixed emotions?

For a long time, my cedar chest was filled with items from my turbulent adolescence and early adult years.  A few of them were simple keepsakes, but most – like the memories themselves – had much more complex meanings. An embroidered pillow that a long-ago friend had lovingly made for me in high school.  A photograph album from my first wedding. Two brand-new dresses that my mother had bought a rebellious teenaged me which I refused to wear.

Packing around my cedar chest full of unresolved emotions, I took to calling it my guilt chest. And I seriously avoided opening it.

I have no idea why I kept these things. I guess they were a way of proving to myself that I put value on the intentions of the people who had given them to me.  When I finally started cleaning out the chest in earnest though, I learned quite a few valuable lessons.

Other people don’t remember it like you do

Turns out other people don’t necessarily remember the same things – or remember things the same way – that you do.

Twice I took out childhood items and showed them to the people who had given them to me. “Really?” they each said. “I gave you that? That was nice… but I have no memory of doing it. That’s amazing that you kept it.”  Clearly, the shared moment of giving and receiving had long since passed.

Matt's face
The meaningful memory is in my son’s joy at this moment; not in the item itself

Matt and the Wii

For a recent high school reunion, I dug out a valentine card that a former crush had given me nearly 40 years ago. He didn’t remember giving me the card. In fact, he didn’t even remember me. Ouch.

But it’s okay. It was an excellent reminder that we can never really know what life another person is living. And a reminder that our own memories may not be the most accurate judges of how other people see and remember us. In the end, I just laughed, and let him keep the card.

It’s time to move on

Without getting too armchair psychology-y here, keeping items that don’t make you feel good is a bit like picking scabs; they never get a chance to heal.

Not too long ago, I did dramatic (and partial) purge of my cedar chest. With a careless “take that!” attitude and reckless abandon, I threw out things I had kept for decades. Things like all the letters I’d ever written to my mother while I was travelling. I immaturely thought if she had returned them to me, they were meaningless to her; I never once stopped to consider what they might mean to me.

What did I learn from all this drama? Now I could add regret to the chest of unresolved emotions I was lugging around.

A lot of thoughtful people have written very wisely about how to let go of items (read: issues) with compassion and loving-kindness.

The last time I went through my chest, I applied those strategies. I handled every item in it. I put back all the things that made me smile or gave me a surge of warm emotion. In Marie Kondo’s popular lexicon, things that “sparked joy.”  I looked at the other things one by one. I took my time. I thought about who I was when I received them.  I took a photo of a few things I wasn’t ready to forget; the others, I laid (gently) into the bin. Now my chest is full again, but I know why everything is there. Now it makes me happy. And when I’m ready, I’ll go through it all again.

It’s all in your mind

The last lesson I want to share is that we simply can’t know what our future minds will keep coming back to.  I call these the “accidental memories” – memories I don’t set out to have, but as it turns out, I can never forget.

My “accidental memory” of a boy calling to his father to see the fish he caught on the banks of the Seine: unplanned and unforgettable

Whenever I think “I wish I still had that ….”,  it’s about something fleeting and half-remembered: a learning-to-read book called “Nose is Not Toes” (I think); my 1950s Midge doll (Barbie’s freckled, red-haired best friend who I’ve never seen since); those big thick Gage dictionaries that we all used to get in elementary school and protect in plain brown paper.  (Do you remember keeping a Gage dictionary in your desk? Remember desks?)

I’m sure all those items are not quite as I remember them, and I’m sure I could replace them if I looked hard enough. But I’ve realized the joy is not in finding them, it’s in finding people who share a memory of them. It’s in laughing about teachers and childhood exploits and the strange foods our mothers used to make for us.

That’s the kind of joyful nostalgia that I like to indulge in now. And it doesn’t take up any space in my chest at all.

The chest is full but all the items in it make me smile.


  1. Interesting nostalgia musings….I signed up for your blog, but didn’t get an email that you had posted a new one? I thought that was supposed to happen? Okay I just clicked the box at the bottom of this page, so we will see…


  2. This is great and meaningful. I am feeling burdened by our stuff. The house is full. We have a plan to start in the basement storage room this fall 😳😬


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