Useless and occasionally worthless pieces of stuff abound in my apartment, hoarded for years under the guise of so-called sentimental memory. Every time I pack all my stuff — about once a year — I congratulate myself on everything I manage to dump before schlepping the rest. But as a wise friend commiserating with me during this last move said, “You spend the entire time thinking you’re being as cutthroat as can be, and throwing everything out except what is absolutely essential. And then you get to your new place and think, why the hell did I save this?”
Why the hell, indeed. It’s nearly the end of summer and it’s the last weekend in the month and, on a block that serves to house itinerant 20-somethings on their way to something newer and shinier, it’s moving season. So the street is lined with moving trucks and rusty, hand-me-down sedans, everyone is grunting and sweating and shouting at each other to hurry up or slow down, and nobody is having any fun.
Packing is excruciatingly boring and terrible. If you don’t have the big bucks to hire the professionals you come out of it dirty and annoyed. If in addition to no money you also have no family in the area to do the heavy lifting, you may find yourself owing a lot of future favors to friends. It would seem to follow that less stuff leads to less packing means fewer fits of rage. And yet, here I am, using a box of books as a chair and another as a table, surveying the floor and my bed and my couch and all the boxes stacked precariously on said furniture, boxes not yet sealed because, of course, maybe there’s still more stuff I can throw out. There is stuff everywhere.
All sorts of stuff, too. The why-did-I-buy-this kind of stuff; this includes trinkets and an alarm clock shaped like a cow that makes, get this, mooing noises to wake you up. The why-did-you-give-me-this kind of useless; these are the birthday and Christmas and Memorial Day gifts that exist merely to be gifts, picked up last minute from a store that specializes in selling plastic to rot (or not) in landfills. Occasionally there will be something that a friend brought back from a foreign vacation or study abroad — these I enjoy but, unfortunately, because they mean something these items are the most likely to fall victim to my clumsiness.
Before the first dish is (accidentally) shattered, I promise myself this time it’s going to be different, this time I will be leaving this space with fewer boxes than I brought in. It’s almost cute how sincerely I believe that I’ve finally managed to outgrow my hoarding ways, just by willing it to be true.
A few hours of packing later and I’ve been having a great time just pitching (and recycling and donating, as necessary) all sorts of things. A stack of New York magazines from a year ago? Gone. An empty wine bottle I saved because I thought the label looked pretty, even though I can’t remember when or with whom the contents were consumed? Definitely gone.
After a day of attempted packing, I’m humbled. Turns out, I’m not that good at putting my life in garbage bags. I spend five minutes considering the merits of saving a birthday card a third-grader made me for my birthday. Two years ago. Out of construction paper she salvaged out of the garbage can.
Sentimentality is great and there are memories I’d rather not lose but, instead of noble, the project of not forgetting anything ever is a burden — in the big city, where affordable apartments come in two sizes: small and claustrophobic, it’s a literal one too — without paying the dividends, it needs to defend its existence.
In the past reside wonderful people and happy times and bits of human experience (and here my science gets a little unclear) that have been turned into memories in my brain, ones I can recall whenever I want and ones that present themselves whenever they want. But while I (and neuroscience) don’t understand exactly how or why memories are constituted or why they change and disappear, I’m going to defer to evolution here. While some evo biologists argue brain size in humans expanded because the need for complex cognition required more memory space, we’re still short of having perfect memory. And that’s for a reason, I think. Perfect memory would slow us down; rob us of the very human trait of narrating our lives, curating bits and pieces into stories that make sense, even if we take liberties with the truth to make ourselves look better in hindsight.
So notes and trinkets and cards, and emails and GChat logs, and all the ephemera that comes from living in a connected world are ending up in the trash. Not all, of course, but some. Forgetting is an evolutionary protection: While we don’t want to forget that touching fire hurts, we do want to forget how much heartbreak or failure or rejection hurt, otherwise we couldn’t be social animals. In ten years I might remember the summer of 2011 as the Summer of Unemployment and Rejection, but I don’t need a paper record. And I can hope that my brain will instead choose to remember the summer of 2011 as the time I learned to throw out what doesn’t matter to make room in my new place for even more books.