The stuff that really matters

Ten days ago, a truck pulled up to Esteban’s and my rented home and disgorged a pile of boxes into the garage. Boxes full of books, boots, clothes, VHS tapes … boxes full of memories, and the possessions we’ve amassed together over the past 27 years.

Garage boxes 1050278

But as I stood in front of the pile last weekend, I had an epiphany: “I don’t want it back,” I said to Esteban.

Like most true epiphanies, mine was a big surprise. I’ve been an avid collector of things since childhood, beginning with a cigar box full of dead bugs I gathered while my family was living in Peru. I was outraged when my parents first threw away my desiccated bees and beetles, but now I understand. (Well, sort of.)

Then I moved on to collecting letters from my grandma in Mexico City and my paternal grandparents in the South. I still have those ribbon-bound stacks of letters — somewhere among the stacks of boxes in my garage.

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Soon I was saving not only the letters, but also the stamps that purchased their conveyance. This marked the beginning of a brief — but torrid — love affair with philately.

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I learned a lot by collecting stamps, actually. For instance: Did you know that Yemen was once a world leader in winter sports? It’s true. And I have the stamps to prove it!

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I also have fond memories of going to the stamp swaps in Peru. I’d save up my allowance — and then beg my parents for a bit extra — in anticipation of these events. I’m sure I got swindled a few times (I was only eight or nine) but I still managed to amass an impressive stable of dead presidents.

Stamp collection 1050712 BLOG

In high school I collected fossils. And in college, I began collecting stemware and china — in preparation, I think, for a bunch of fancy parties that never happened.

After graduation I began my Earth Mother Phase. I have no idea how many birds and furry critters I repaired and released back into the wild. But I still have a few vestiges of my years as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Feather collection 1050656 BLOG

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Box by box, these possessions are emerging. But box by box, I’m discovering that it’s not the possessions I treasure; it’s the memories they invoke.

It may sound silly, but it’s been a gift to be involuntarily separated from my possessions. It’s forced me to examine my relationship with all the stuff I’ve accumulated. And it’s shown me how little I need to be happy — that, in fact, I’m actually happier with only the essentials.

That’s why I’ve been shedding stuff like mad over the past few days: clothes I never wear, books I’ve never read, fancy dishes and stemware I’ll never use. I didn’t miss them for two months, so clearly I didn’t need them.

I’ve also decided to carefully photograph most of my collections and donate those, too. Who knows? Maybe one of my feathers will inspire a young visitor at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary to become a naturalist.

As for the letters from my grandparents … well, those I’ll keep. Because now I understand that our loved ones and our treasured memories are the only stuff that really matters.


  1. I love this post, I am a collector too and mostly because so many things are memories to me. I too have a stash of treasured handwritten letters. But after our last move I am giving away and still working at giving more away, that I do not use or intend to use. Very liberating.

        • Glad to read that! It’s a beauty but actually my favorite in Vercors’ works is “La marche à l’étoile”, a short novel which makes me cry everytime I read it. It’s about France, immigration, identity, and litterature, in the troubled years of WWII. If you enjoyed the “Silence”, you definitely should read it also.

  2. Reblogged this on Container Chronicles and commented:
    I haven’t posted about the “things” aspect of organizing much, even though I have lots to say. But this post from HBlog really captures many aspects of why we do and don’t keep things. I love her epiphany and wanted to share it.

    • You’re very welcome. I run into this not just with my own stuff, but with people who can’t get to what they want to do because they have too much stuff taking up time and space. You described your epiphany so well, and how freeing it can be to let go of stuff. Much better to live than to be a caretaker of stuff. 🙂 Thanks for sharing it! 🙂

  3. I so admire the way you’re going about this: finding appropriate homes for your superfluous stuff and making photographic records to help jog your memories once the physical objects have gone. (For your next such project, how about doing the same for the cluttered tower rooms and attics of a Scottish castle? We could pay you in thin gruel and let you out occasionally to defrost by the fire! 😉 )

    You did have some wonderful collections. I have a bit of a weakness for feathers too (recognised buzzard, pheasant and blue jay but the rest are unknown to me and intriguing) and also for stamps. I never really collected them, though I have held on to a postcard from a friend on which was printed ‘Stick dead white guy’s face here’ in the top right corner. Your Yemeni figure-skating stamps leave me lost for words…!

    But of course, you are absolutely right. Ultimately the only reason we hold onto ‘stuff’ is because it provides tangible links to memories. So the answer is, eat lots of oily fish to improve your memory, and give away the stuff. 🙂

  4. I lost 90% of my stuff in my divorce — and holy cow, did I have LOTS of stuff. And I miss almost none of it! And now I only want to travel light through this life. So I get just where you’re coming from.

  5. Well done. You are clearly preparing for your move to Paris where, as you know, our living space is generally much smaller that you’re used to in the US.

    Very pleased to see though that you have a fine collection of British stamps – made me homesick there for a moment or two!

  6. You are so right about this, and you are so fortunate to realize it. Our memories are all we really possess, and all we really need. I’m enjoying your writing.

      • If I had any 1d blacks, I’d be retired ad living like a king in Australia right now, Xpat! Alas, all I can offer you are a few “queens on the half shell.” 🙂

    • … and thank YOU for the thank you award! I must say this is a first, and I’m tickled. Thanks! 😀

  7. What pretty feathers. (I’m especially fond of the spotty one on the bottom right!)

    I enjoyed the post and I agree with you. The things we own can end up owning us if we’re not careful. The memories are what matter. Not the possessions.

    • “The things we own can end up owning us.” Well said, Michael! I’m starting to see why Buddhist monks are required to give up most of their possessions. It’s been an eye-opening experience. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  8. I really cut down on stuff the summer after college when I was on an internship. When I returned home, I sat in my room, stared at all my stuff I’d had for years, and wondered why. It was a bit overwhelming, and I did some sorting out, just not quite enough.

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