I didn’t need Marie Kondo to tell me to get rid of half my stuff.
My mom is a master purger and she taught me well. Space, light, absence of clutter — these things are their own reward and it is worth sacrificing your stuff to obtain them. I routinely cull through my belongings to eliminate things that are unwanted, unused, or out of place. Living in a small apartment in a big city has taught us that minimalism has to be a lifestyle to avoid feeling suffocated by our stuff. We aren’t as sparse as some are, but we do resist having things around that aren’t useful or loved.
This means that there isn’t a lot of space in our lives for sentimental stuff. I don’t keep t-shirts because they are from some college event that I loved, and I read and love letters — and then have to throw them away. Cards are enjoyed and then tossed, momentos are studied and then abandoned. Memories are what matter, I preach. Things are just things, I practice. My phone and computer are filled with photos of the moments I want to hold onto, but I keep physical traces of these moments as trim as possible. And as a result, I feel at peace in my home, uncluttered physically and mentally.
My dad is a professor of Old Testament and has been working on establishing a center for archeological studies at the seminary where he teaches. He frequently participates in digs in the Holy Land and he can regale you with stories of pottery fragments, vases, and other old things that take on a whole new meaning when they are slowly removed from layers of sacred dirt. Artifacts, traces of another world, pieces of time that pass from one era to the next — that is what he loves. These remnants hold stories within themselves.
We don’t have much from my dad’s childhood, no saved old clothes or childhood toys. When his mother died while I was in college, a family friend helped my mom go through some things from my grandmother’s home and she found a tiny baby bracelet. She kept it and gave it to me at my baby shower in Kentucky, a tiny beaded bracelet with his name on it, mounted in a little box. I have that box sitting on a shelf in Henry’s room, the only artifact we have from my dad’s early years. On one hand, it doesn’t matter. It isn’t valuable, not having it doesn’t change the fact that he was born, and it is just another thing to sit around. But it is just a little artifact of his childhood, and it stops me every time I walk past.
It started towards the end of my pregnancy, this desire to save things. I couldn’t bring myself to toss out the invitations to the showers people threw for our baby, and I started folding blankets and tiny outfits to stock the dresser and they seemed immeasurably precious even before they ever touched our little son. I started imagining the years of school projects and favorite stuffed animals and firsts that I would want to cherish forever.
And now? Now I find myself grasping at all the physical traces of his birth and his life. I have a stack on my desk of his hospital bracelets, the card that was stuck in his rolling bassinet, the little cap and blanket he had when they put him in my arms. Our minimalist life has no place for these things, but my heart has no way to toss them out. I have a post-it note on the counter that just says “memory box for H,” because I am desperate not to let these early weeks disappear. I want to gather up all the physical traces from them, every remnant, and box them up in a desperate attempt to save something from the effects of time.
Because the truth that runs deep in our culture, in direct opposition to rampant materialism, is that things are just things. That they don’t matter, that they are replaceable. We horde digital things, but they usually don’t cross the threshold into physicality. Photos go un-printed, emails replace letters, and we are left with nothing to hold in our hands of the beautiful and real lives that we are living. Things are seen as just things and so we forget that sometimes they are so much more.
We are living in a world without artifacts, without relics, without a value placed on saving tokens of everyday existence and believing that they are powerful. We are both horders and purgers, but very rarely treasurers. I didn’t think about this much until I started watching the days slip by in Henry’s life and I started wondering how I can save them – what I can save of them.
My mom spent the past two weeks with us, and along with taking care of our every need, she brought the notebook that she filled with memories from my first year of life. She and I laughed over those entries, and cried over them too. She was able to share a part of myself with me that she knows better than I ever could.
Because that’s what everyday objects, everyday memories, become if you preserve them: artifacts that can recreate the past. Yes, I want our lives to be free from the clutter of too much stuff. But watching my son change by the day also reminds me that I want a life free from clutter, but commemorated by some special stuff. A life marked by artifacts that hold these days within themselves, that allow me to touch the past once it’s gone.
Because go it will, no matter how tightly I want to hold on.
*These photos also help preserve baby Henry at 6 days old and they are by the ridiculously talented Alumbra Photography, baby whisperer extraordinaire.