It was the combination of a free Saturday and an imminent trip to Afghanistan which made me finally respond to Mum’s persistent and increasingly stressed requests to come home and sort out all my abandoned stuff.
Less stuff, more life, right? I’ve moved out yet again with everything I need for both practical and aesthetic purposes: how hard can it be to get rid of the rest? We’ve just furnished a whole flat for free so surely I should be confident in the provision of everything I need, just when I need it. It’s high time to dismantle the barns that are storing things up for a rainy day.
I started throwing away and watched with satisfaction as recycling bags piled up and boxes for charity were filled. As I let go of multiple random items that may come in useful for craft projects, I made peace with my thwarted inner artist and took delight the joy of whoever will inherit and make something of them.
But suddenly, surrounded by clutter, I hit a wall and realised that I’d stopped chucking things out and was just moving them around my old bedroom. There wasn’t even any space to sit down. So I made a cup of tea and cracked open the chocolate.
I reach that point every time I do a sort-out and that’s when I start to see what I really value and struggle to relinquish. It happened again this time round.
Firstly, it was hard to let go of those words which remind me that I don’t journey alone. Birthday cards with messages telling me that I am loved. Leaving cards from colleagues affirming my presence and achievements in this workplace or that. Scrappy notes from the notice board outside my university room left by friends before texting was an option. Post-it notes from housemates welcoming me home after time away. A letter from my little brother when I was on a school trip telling me what had been happening in Neighbours. Cards from once-loved people who wove themselves into the fabric of my life and whose handwriting still evokes an emotional response even though they are long gone.
It was the same with the mass of photos from the pre-digital era which testify to people and places from the past. And then there were those things that I won’t ever be able to get for free from a neighbour; little life mementos I’ve picked up along the way. A drawing I did for Granny when I was ten. The watercolour set from my best friend in year seven. Handwritten primary school reports. Wedding invitations. Orders of service from the thanksgiving services for the lives of those I miss. My boarding pass to Almaty. The tagine I bartered so hard for in Marrakech. The surfboard key ring from Cronulla, emblematic of my life Downunder. Small items; weighty with significance.
The other thing that got me was the collection of books that I’ve built up, treasured and re-read over the years. When I was growing up, I’d always imagined having a marvellously lovely sitting room with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. That hasn’t happened yet so I was brutal with myself and decided to let go of the books I hadn’t read for years and could get from the library anyway.
But, as was the case with various letters, photos and nick-nacks, some just had to stay. My Narnia and Beatrix Potter stories. The precious limericks and poems I’d always hoped to read to my children. Books with inscriptions which add personal value. My great-grandmother’s initialed prayer book. Those were boxed up and put into the attic, much to Mum’s patient despair.
Saturday’s epic sort-out was about reducing stuff and possessions, obviously, but it was also about so much more than that. It was about letting go of how I used to think life would be. About coming to terms with not owning the house that, as a child, I’d always pictured myself in. About not yet having children to read those special stories to. About the current absence of that one person who would love me enough to want to plough through my treasured collection of random memories that have made me me.
Last time I sorted stuff out I cried. This time it was more therapeutic and satisfying and I encouraged myself reflect on what it means, in this context, to lose life in order to find it. More than that, I was delighted to discover a £20 M&S token, my European health insurance card (now I have two which is brilliant for next time I lose one), my spare bike key, and lots of much needed hair bands and biros. Result!
When I was at a conference in Kyrgyzstan, I remember smiling at the slight mistranslation of the speaker’s comment about having a lot of (metaphorical) baggage. “He had a lot of luggages”, said the young interpreter. I’ve always loved that expression and the way it so beautifully conflates our emotional baggage and the physical stuff we carry through life. All that we struggle to leave behind.
One day I will be gone and my place will remember me no more. None of my luggages will matter much then.
Hopefully I won’t have thrown the wrong bits of life away.