In Defense of Sentimental Items in the Age of Extreme Tidying

Written by Caroline Rock.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.

Growing up as a daughter in a military household, packing up my possessions to move every two years made me very aware of everything I owned – and everything I didn’t need. It was my dad’s idea to do a purge before each move so we wouldn’t bring unnecessary items with us. The idea of minimalism – something I clung to more than any of my family members, and something I didn’t have a name for until years later – became a way of life for me, and stuck with me long after my dad retired from the Air Force.

But despite all the lessons I’ve learned, my readiness to depart with sentimental items is a lingering regret. Looking back, I was too young to make decisions about things like all of my photos from middle school (unceremoniously trashed) and childhood mementos (outgrown and discarded). And yet, with each trash bag or donation box, I felt powerful. Staunch minimalists might say there’s nothing wrong with that. But now, on the cusp of 22, I wish I hadn’t sent my favorite books or childhood games to Goodwill so quickly. This wave of sentiment is unlike me, so I tried to tap into its source, which traces back to my increasingly digital world. With work, school, and play existing almost entirely digitally, even minimalists need physical mementos to keep us grounded in our lives off the web.

I recently listened to a podcast episode in which one of the hosts mentioned that he has no physical record of his life outside of their weekly recordings. By nature, we have become less inclined to keep journals or scrapbooks, but with that comes a lack of proof of our memories and experiences. Maybe I’m being overly nostalgic; maybe one day we will log into our old Facebook accounts to show our grandkids what we were like when we were younger. But I personally don’t want to give the Internet that much power in chronicling my existence. And I’m sure others feel the same way, which may explain why Instax cameras have come back into fashion, or why companies like Chatbooks can charge you to turn your Instagram feed into hardbound volumes. Some of us might be perfectly fine with – or even oblivious to – the lack of physical records of our memories, but others are desperate for some artifact to cling to, even those of us who will readily and happily toss things that most people have a hard time parting with.

In Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” she recommends sorting sentimental items last, because it’s hard to part with emotional belongings. She also gives a few tips, such as to only keep one photo from an event if you have several similar ones. Or, if you want to part with an item but don’t want to forget it, take a photo of it and keep that instead. As much as I abide by Kondo’s teachings (see my sock drawer, with each pair standing perfectly upright, for further proof), I have to disagree with this suggestion. Does a picture of a first place trophy or an art project really do it justice? Taking a photo of these artifacts doesn’t clear up physical space, instead it forces the object to exist in a medium it was not meant to exist in.

As a generation, we have let (or have been forced to let) our cynicism or jadedness affect the way we view sentimental items or life events. Photographs become data that is easily deleted to clear up space. Even things like letterman jackets, class rings, and wedding dresses become unnecessary formalities at which millennials often turn up their noses. We are taught by tidying experts to not feel guilt for discarding unwanted gifts, and that manuals and other documents shouldn’t bother to take up physical space when they can be digitized. But with this readiness to discard comes a certain desensitization to artifacts that might actually matter, if not today, then when we are older and searching for some physical remnants of our existence.

When minimalism and tidying trends teach us to simplify our lives by reducing and decluttering, sometimes we get rid of things that can’t be restored. Each day we encounter large amounts of digital artifacts – files, emails, images, messages, and browser histories. These things are usually crucial for a fixed amount of time, whether it’s for a project, assignment, deadline, or presentation. Then, they become essentially useless, and we can delete them without a second thought. In an effort to reverse any maximalism in my life (in a capitalist society, it’s almost impossible for even minimalists not to acquire things), a reductive lifestyle leaves me wondering what will be left when I finally get to the bottom of it all. Compulsively, I edit down my wardrobe, parse through emails, sift through papers and belongings, and even test my markers and pens to identify and remove any waste from my home. I take these measures in the hope that I will uncover something meaningful at the bottom of the pile, but the cycle is never-ending, especially in a consumer-driven society. While I am reducing my physical space, I should be maximizing my emotional one.

They do say that experiences are more important than belongings, but I want to take that a step further. Artifacts of those experiences deserve a space after each purge, too. As we absorb more and more information, and even see the experiences of others online, our own memories take up less and less of our brain space. If we don’t make an effort to remind ourselves, how will they float to the top of our memories, above what articles we read that day, what memes we consumed on Twitter, what envious trip someone posted on Instagram? Even those of us who follow minimal lifestyles can find a place for sentimental items on our clean, white shelves. Suddenly, my favorite childhood books don’t seem so tossable anymore.

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