Clean Sweep and Sentimentality

lI have started going through my things in preparation for my move down South. I’ve lived in my current apartment for over five years, and because of this, things are tucked into every nook and crevice. When I start pulling them out, I begin to realize how much stuff I really have.

My main problem is that I’m overly sentimental.

I’m sentimental in a way that only grandmothers have a right to be. I’ve gathered a large amount of items that hold tons of emotional weight, far more items than a 25-year-old should have. I have wrappers and notes and friendship bracelets and photographs and souvenirs and mementos everywhere. And I can’t get rid of any of them.

I promise this relates, but do you remember back when TLC was actually good at reality television? Before Honey Boo Boo and Seventy Kids and Counting and My Childhood is Ruined, Thanks for Watching? I’m talking the era of early Trading Spaces, A Makeover Story, and my personal favorite, Clean Sweep.

Clean Sweep, if you’ve never been so lucky to watch, was essentially an intervention. A room or two in someone’s house was packed floor to ceiling with stuff. Junk. Ridiculous amounts of QVC items. They weren’t hoarder rooms, no rats or dead cats or toenails, but they were ridiculously unorganized. For a child who loved to organize things (no wonder I’ve been single for 25 years), I was fascinated with the process.

They always made three piles: Keep, Sell, Toss. There would be episodes where individuals would try to sneak things from the Sell pile back onto the Keep pile, or they would cry and beg because they needed (fill-in-the-blank) to survive. Often the show would pit spouses against each other, each playing for one very special personal item. I always grieved with the person who lost, because I couldn’t imagine losing a memory such as that.

That’s what things are to me: memories. They’re tiny capsules of experience that I feel I need for that experience to be validated. They make the abstract tangible. When I hold that seashell, I remember in ways I cannot otherwise the smell of the ocean air, the breeze on my face, the feeling of absolute security and joy surrounded by my family. Or in the touch of scratchy woolen scarf, the castle for which we decided not to pay admission but instead just roamed the walls and the ancient cemetery, looking out over the Scottish countryside.

The playbills from my trip to New York, notes passed between lockers in high school, the photo on the Harry Potter ride at Universal Orlando: these are all items that I need to have around me. To remember.

The paper things aren’t as bad as the larger items. The teapots, the desk, the books, the records. Even the couch is hard to get rid of, because it was on that couch that late-night conversations were had, and movies were watched, and some making-out happened (though never involving me…never mind, I hate that couch). I can ascribe meaning to anything.

It’s like the monologue that Jeff Winger gives in the first episode of the television show Community, where he describes how humans can form an attachment to anything, including a pencil if it’s named Steve. This ability is both a gift and a curse. And I’m willing to get more attached than most.

I remember one episode of Clean Sweep where the “organizer” spoke very condescendingly to a woman who was sobbing over her grandfather’s desk, a beautiful old thing far too big for the house it was in. The organizer said, “Your grandfather is not this desk. Your memories are not this desk.” I kind of understood what he meant, but I also thought he was a jerk. Of course her grandfather was this desk! Without the desk, she might forget her grandfather.

But now that I’m moving, and everything I own must fit into dear Pearl, my little grey Camry, I’m trying to learn the lesson the organizer was teaching. That we can choose what we do with our memories. We can’t hold onto other things to remind us; we have to create space in our brains to remember those we love and those experiences that have shaped us.

In doing so, we can’t hold on too tightly. It’s exactly what Alan Alda says in his memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. The title refers to a painfully humorous story wherein young Alan’s dear dog died very tragically. Somehow, his father thought it would be a welcome surprise if the dog was stuffed so that Alda could keep him forever. The problem, besides, of course that the dog was STUFFED, was that the expression on the dog’s face was set in a terrifyingly grotesque way.

Alda relates this experience to holding onto the past. Sometimes we stuff moments in order to hold onto them, but we are just stuffing a shadow of the thing, and perhaps missing out on the next moment. In holding on so tightly to something that has no life itself, we can distort it, forget what it truly was, and make it a parody of its original beauty.

I know I hold too tightly to the past, both in things and memories. I crave the familiar, the joys that I had, like I will never experience their like again. I miss my past in ways that I as a young woman with life gushing out of my fingertips have no business doing.

You better believe I’m going to take everything I can, everything that I can possibly fit in Pearl, because I know I will covet those things that remind me of home. But I will make space for new things: new adventures and joys, because they won’t eliminate the past, but rather enhance it.

For who I am now is based on who I was and what I’ve done, and that can not be taken from me. Who I will become—now that is the question—and I resolve to make room on the shelves of my rooms and my heart to place new memories for what is to come, God willing. I want to be sentimental about the things that matter: people, and ideas, and moments that I hold in my innermost self. Because that, my friends, is where the moth and rust can never destroy and thieves won’t be able to break in and steal. It’s a little bit of heaven on earth.

Even so, you’re going to have to pry that seashell out of my cold dead hands. That’s coming with me.

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6 thoughts on “Clean Sweep and Sentimentality

  1. Love this, Sara, especially because I got all the allusions (well, except for Community–I haven’t evolved on that show yet). (Tho I did watch Clean Sweep, and loved it because: reality TV.) Love the affirmation you come to in the end, and I long to have that, too. I share your sense of sentimentality, and have saved plenty of stuff from high school and college. I wonder someday what my kids will do with it all . . .

    1. I love that you loved Clean Sweep, and I often wonder how long my parents will let me keep “memories” at their house before they get fed up with them and just chuck them all.

  2. Corrie ten Boom said “I’ve learned to hold precious things loosely, because it hurts when God pries my fingers open and takes them from me.” She was speaking of a different context but I was reminded of this when you mentioned creating space in your brain . . . We are going to miss you, Sara. Dee

  3. I am 64 years old and never lived in any house that I remember longer than about 6 years until we moved to this house—23 years ago. I was used to purging and letting go of things. I itch to move in order to have that clean sense of only having what is really important—books, photos, a few family things.
    My husband’s mother died in her living room of 50 years. He is used to staying one place and keeping everything he likes.
    Monday we are getting new carpet through much of the house. Hmm, kinda like moving. Let’s see what happens.
    I gave my mother’s cast iron skillet to Jon and Erin a couple weeks ago, very happily, as it is hard for me to lift and Jon likes it for cooking. I love that a third generation will cook good food for family in it. I realize a lot of things I cherish will have little meaning to my children, because they didn’t know the people I attach to the items. I have already decided to offer things as I go if someone likes it. As I age, I can see what is important is people. Those I have in my heart. They will stay without the reminders.
    But don’t take my grandmother’s quilts. Some things are love personified.

    1. Annette, thank you for your words. As my family moved a lot while I was growing up, I was also quite used to the purging process. It can be cleansing. But there are those things that make every move–the things that are “love personified,” as you so aptly put it!

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