The Life-Changing Magic Of Holding Onto The Past

“This place needs a good purge,” my fiancé said to me.

“You mean like that horror movie where people get one day a year to go around killing people?”

“No, this house needs a purge. There’s just too much… stuff.”

She explained to me that once one cleans the whole house and still feels suffocated, a purge is the next logical step. If after dusting the ceiling fans and scrubbing the spinning plate inside the microwave, it still feels like the walls are closing in, you can rule out cleanliness and point the finger at the belongings themselves.

Its a great example of how of few bad apples ruin it for the whole lot. Even though almost everything in our house has a place and purpose, everything must stand trial on the day of the purge. “Yes, I know you slice, dice, and chop and that we made that guacamole together, but what have you done for me lately?”

I watch her move through the kitchen cupboards. Half-empty vitamin bottles fly into the trash, expired wedding invitations get torn from the fridge. Her left-hand seeks and destroys while her right disinfects the death path with a Clorox wipe.

Sensing the seriousness of the situation, I jump into action and set my sights on the “junk drawer.” What could be an easier pace to warm-up? If you ever want to study what happens to a tiny ecosystem when things are left to pile up and overflow, look no farther than your junk drawer. Purge yours and I’ll bet you go from overflow to batteries and pens in no time.

For her, nostalgia is practical pixie dust. One hit and you’re off in the emotional time travel machine.

Not everyone has the stomach for a true household purge. Personally, however, I’ve been known to get carried away.

We moved to South America for what was supposed to be six months and my attitude toward everything in our San Diego apartment at the time was, “Throw it out!”

“Don’t you think we’re going to need plates when we get home?” she asked me.

“You mean, platos?” I said, practicing my Spanish while carrying our entire kitchen toward the dumpster.

I figured then it’d be easier to stay in South America if we had less to come home to. Something about running off to the jungle together made me want to burn the boats. I envisioned future conversations where I’d have to say, “What do you mean you want to go back early? Baby, we don’t even have plates back home!”

In the end, we lasted three months in South America and the trip to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to replace what I’d thrown out cost more than the trip itself.

I blame my mother. My urge to purge is a deep-seated rebellion against her unwillingness to do so. She’s the only person I’ve ever met who takes a pro-life stance toward everything, including inanimate objects. I’d call her a hoarder if it wasn’t for her dual passion of “getting organized.”

Hoarders, you see, have no sense of organization. You’ll never see an episode of Hoarders where one yells out, “Don’t put those Ziploc bags of gravy next to my milk carton collection. They belong next to that mason jar of cat hair.” My mother may be a pack-rat, but she’s never lost her sense of feng shui when it comes to preserving the past.

I’ve always had a suspicion that she loves organizing so much that she secretly walks around moving things out of place just so she can declare every other Saturday, “Get The House In Order Day.” It’s like watching a sick dictator play war games.

My parent’s garage is stacked with bins of memories. Old bikes, costumes from school plays, and a brick wall of Disney VHS tapes make up the foundation. There’s an old, hand-stitched rug that was passed down from my grandmother that my parents are convinced is, “definitely worth something,” though I’ve never seen it anywhere but rolled up in the rafters.

For most people, a good strategy for a purge is to focus on the practicality of an object. But for my mother, there’s nothing more practical than sentimentalism. For her, nostalgia is practical pixie dust. One hit and you’re off in the emotional time travel machine.

My sister and I convinced she has an idea that before she passes on, we’ll all stand around her bedside and unload these bins of memories so she can touch everything one last time. She’ll expect us to pass around each and every beanie baby from the collection and give a presentation on the day we got it and what it meant to us. That old maxim, “You can’t take with you,” is something she’s willing to put to the test.

This way of living has never been for me. I’ve always wanted less drag. Somewhere along the way, I attached myself to an old ramblin’ man persona. Always ready to go at the drop of a hat.

When the minimalist movement came around I rolled my eyes. Of course you don’t need 10 pairs of pants! Do we really need a 90-minute documentary where two grown men complain about how “all this stuff is making us sad”?

I agree one should avoid outsourcing their self-worth to physical belongings, but giving away your possessions won’t make you suddenly happy any more than a 7-day juice cleanse will make you suddenly healthy.

They were the outfits of a past life where single-girl-skin could shine freely under a Coachella valley sun.

We’re two-hours into the purge and I’m in our closet, tearing clothes off hangers. Everything from dress shirts to summer tank tops is brought under the light for questioning. I try on a few old shirts and stand in front of the mirror, “Any last words before the jury goes into deliberation?”

I hear my fiancé shout from the other room, “Do we need this?”

“Toss it!” I yell back, completely unsure of what she’s asking about.

I have to admit that I am impressed with the cold-blooded indifference she’s summoned for this purge. Looking around our room, I see an empty bin that, until now, housed what she called her, “festival clothes.”

Inside was everything from thigh-high leather boots to shiny leotards. There were the shimmer shorts that parted dance floors and lacey rompers that would have made Hugh Hefner blush. Outfits of a past life where single-girl-skin could shine freely under a Coachella valley sun.

There’s a page in the book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up where the author recommends holding each possession and saying “thank you” before throwing it out. I pictured my fiancé holding her sequin bodysuit and thanking it for all the good times. Like a couple of old war buddies who now have to get used to civilian life, “I can’t go back to that place with you, but your memory will live on in my Instagram photos.”

I continue to empty closet drawers and hand out life sentences when I remember that today is the first day of the World Cup. I think back to four years ago, on this day, where I was at the bar with my friends, playing ping pong and drinking beer like it was a patriotic duty.

The only goal then was to keep a steady buzz without spending too much money or crashing too early. Quite different than today where the goal is to purge the house and still have enough time to make it to Whole Foods.

I hear a shout from the other room, but I can’t make out the words.

I yell back, “Get rid of it!”

I find one of my old boxes in the back of the closet. Without hesitation, I unfold letters and flip through old journals. Like a man who reaches for bottle knowing he has “the gene,” I let the dusty time capsule swallow me whole. Pixie dust hits my nostrils. I am my mother’s son.

Inside the box is a pocket knife I got in France when I was 18. There’s a vintage watch I wore during my “watch phase.” I listen for a tick but its face is frozen in time like its neighbors. There’s a handful of silver quarters from the 40's and a few buffalo nickels. Not that I’d ever check, but I’m sure “they’re definitely worth something.”

Suddenly, I hear the footsteps of my fiancé and frantically shove the box back into the closet. Standing over me, suspiciously she asks, “You purgin’ or what?”

“The present moment is just wet cement, waiting for time to mold it into something worth remembering or something we’ll try to forget.”

There’s something to the theory of addition by subtraction. Purging the old opens up space for the new, and maybe, even symbolically, help us focus on the present. But the present moment can’t complete with memories. If it could, we wouldn’t have to try so hard to live in it.

The present moment is just wet cement, waiting for time to mold it into something worth remembering or something we’ll try and forget. We can all store the past and see the future, but the messy present slips through our fingers like a waking dream.

Holding onto the past doesn’t have to mean one isn’t ready for the future. Sometimes, it’s the only way to make sense of how we got here in the first place. Shuffling through old bins of memories isn’t much different than two old friends playing, “remember when…” over some iced tea.

As I shuffle through more boxes, I relive more years. I begin to understand what my mother must have known all along. When the present falls short and future seems too much to bear, there’s always memory lane. In case of emergency: break open old bins.

I hang up the clothes that survived the purge and place the rest in the donation pile. I put everything else back in the boxes and back in their place. Maybe a little drag isn’t such a bad thing, I tell myself. What a ramblin’ man calls drag, a family man calls roots. And when it comes to the tug of war between the past and present, there’s nothing like a strong hit of nostalgia to take the edge off.

Author of ‘Productivity Is For Robots’ https://amzn.to/3 | Writing about freelance work, creativity, and human connection | https://bit.ly/corey-mccomb

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