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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Out of the Closet at Last

I stood ankle-deep in a tangle of flotsam and jetsam, detritus from the expulsion. My closet had just vomited up twenty-five years’ worth of stuff. Oh my. Pandora’s box was open and there was no going back.

It had seemed like a manageable task. I was visiting my parents last weekend and figured I’d have time to sort through a few things in my old bedroom closet. It wasn’t much, I thought. After all, it had been more than twenty years since I’d lived there, and over time I’d transferred most of my things to my own house. How long could this take?

Famous last words.

Let me start by saying I am not a hoarder. (And I don’t mean to insult hoarders, either. I think it’s okay to feel attachment to things. I can relate, even though I’m not a hoarder.) But let’s examine how people interacted twenty years ago, before the Internet ruled your life. (And mine, of course.) My friends and I wrote letters. My parents wrote letters to me once I moved out of their house. We chatted by phone, too, but letters were a big portion of our communication. My grandparents wrote to me, as did my aunts, former roommates and friends living in different cities. I still write the occasional letter. Putting pen to paper and thinking of a fun opening line and something cute to draw on the envelope gives me a boost. (You may have noticed that I’m a word-lovin’ gal. I’m not living in an era of telegrams, when you had to choose the fewest possible number of words and kept things all business. No, I’m a believer that words have power inside them. They build relationships. So I wrote (and received) a lot of letters to (and from) friends who generally were as communicative and expressive as I was.)

There were hundreds of letters in my old bedroom closet.

There were a few very unexpected things, items I have no recollection of ever owning, like this:


Anyone need a slightly-misshapen clown nose?

If you’re wondering what else this closet regurgitated, here is an incomplete list of what I found:

·        Stationery from childhood

·        Scraps of fabric from teen-aged sewing projects

·        High school photos

·        Diaries

·        Scripts from plays I did as a teen

·        Clothes

·        Rollerskates

·        Foreign coins

·        Books

·        Old magazines

·        My three wisdom teeth, saved in a tiny box (the fourth never grew—go figure)

·        To do lists

·        Cassette tapes (remember those?)

·        Vinyl records!

·        Art projects from childhood and high school years

·        Art supplies

But I’m not a hoarder. Really, I’m not.

At first it was exhilarating to go through the boxes and bags in the closet. Seeing photos and old letters took me right back to the years when they were created. I rode waves of nostalgia. I stumbled through a few uncomfortable diary entries about the woes of teenagehood. I cooed over items from the early eighties. May I introduce you to my childhood?

Remember when these Velcro wallets were all the rage in the early 1980s? I was given this when I was still in single digits and had no money. I found coupons inside for the local frozen yogurt store.

I found this magazine from 1982, which I ordered through school in second grade. We received pamphlets from Scholastic Books and we sometimes ordered books. I suppose I ordered this magazine (although I have the vague memory of my friend Mandy F giving it to me). I loved Lisa Whelchel, the actress on the cover. I liked the entire all-female cast from The Facts of Life. I was only a kid but watching these teenagers gave me a peek into what it might be like to be a real, live teenager someday.

San Rio stuff was HUGE when I was a kid. Hello Kitty and Little Twin Stars ruled. This stuff was made in 1976!

And don’t forget how big the Muppets were. Here’s some stationery from 1980:

I also found my Kindergarten class photo from 1981. And no closet excavation is complete without lyrics to Stacey Q’s song “Two of Hearts” (circa 1986)—typed using a typewriter.

These items are like puzzle pieces, and they piece together my past.

I estimate that I spent eight hours over two days sifting through these items from my past. Early on I felt excited, as though I was opening a time capsule-treasure chest. I was delighted to unearth things I’d half-forgotten, but which unlocked memories as soon as I had them in my hands. It’s still a little tricky to know which items I can let go of and which ones I really want to keep. You can’t keep everything. But I’m fortunate that I can take lots of digital photos of things I am not keeping.

As intriguing as it was to dig through my past, I can tell you that after the fourth or fifth hour my enthusiasm turned to dread. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t have neat piles of stuff to recycle, throw out, keep and give away. I had cascading towers of stuff, sometimes leaking into other piles. I brought many, many loads of old papers (bank statements, paper phone bills and other thrilling prizes) to the recycling can. Somewhere, a forest of trees breathed a sigh of relief as I recycled enough paper to buy the trees a longer life. I brought a load of stuff to the thrift store donation site. I’d taken dozens of photos of cool discoveries. But I was overwhelmed. I wanted to sort through things but time was ticking and I needed to head home. Eventually, I stopped sorting each box and simply transferred them into my car. I can sort them at my own pace. They’re not going anywhere. Which brings me to something funny my dad said as I sorted, “But you don’t have room for this at your place!” No argument there. But Mom’s on a cleaning-out mission and really, it’s time. There are good and bad aspects to cleaning out boxes of stuff that cover various chapters of the last forty years. When I wasn’t in a panic over the amount of stuff spewed from the closet, it was a cathartic process.

In my car I now have the equivalent of eight or nine banker’s boxes (mostly in bags, including black Hefty trash bags, because I’m that sophisticated), waiting to be hauled out and given a corner somewhere in the house. I need to sort through them this summer.

I may be forty but I’m still figuring out adulthood. It’s a process (both literal and figurative) of sifting through your past, trying to figure out what you need from the past and which parts of your present and future are ones you’re charting by instinct, not tradition.

Should I have sifted through these mountains of papers, photos, class notes, etc, in my 20s? Probably. But back then I thought I was busy. (This is amusing to me now because back then I was not a parent yet and had more time—much more free time—than I do now!) Oh well. Maybe I appreciate these pieces of my childhood more than I would have if I’d done this inventory at age 22. I’m sure of it.

Having survived the transfer of mountains of letters, etc, from the closet to the car, and from the past to the present, I feel glad I did it. But I’ll caution anyone who resolves to clean out closets this summer. It does take at least twice as long as you think. It may involve some discomfort. It may involve paper cuts and dust-fueled allergy attacks. There may be tears, and maybe even a regret or two. But it also can be a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It can be healing and liberating. It takes patience and endurance. It will get messier before it gets cleaner. But that’s true of many things in life. It’s still worth it to look at your past. Your past is a piece of you and you may by happily surprised by the things you discover about yourself if you take a closer look.

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