Committing pack-rat suicide: how I killed my need to keep absolutely everything

By on Mar 21st

I can finally get rid of that trophy from a 1988 4-H victory

I have lived my life as a pack-rat since childhood. A fondness for collections combined with a bloated sense of self-importance lead me to view all my memorabilia and sentimental items as incredibly important. During my high school theatrical period, I was convinced I would someday become a famous actress, and the Ariel Museum would be so incredibly thankful that I'd saved every playbill from every community theater production I'd ever been in. ("Ooh," I imagined someone whispering breathlessly. "Here's the 1991 program from the Bainbridge High School production of Leader of the Pack. I can't believe it's actually here!") I was also sure my dating history was going to be incredibly interesting, so I dried and saved every corsage from every high school dance. I even saved the plastic spoonful of petrified 1990 cake frosting that the Associated Student Body Vice President gave to me when he asked me to Homecoming my Sophomore year. IT WAS VERY IMPORTANT, PIVOTAL FROSTING.

As I aged, my pack-rat tendencies worsened. During my rave era, I was convinced that I alone was responsible for documenting this incredibly important cultural zeitgeist, and so I saved every flyer. I wasn't quite as bad as my friend who labeled and saved every single glowstick he'd ever used, but I was still pretty bad.

Of course I also journaled non-stop, and so every time I moved (which was at least once a year through my 20s), I'd haul trunks and crates full of filled notebooks, high school paybills, flyers of raves gone by, 10-year-old letters from friends, enormous photo albums, trophies from mid-80s county fair 4-H victories and so, SO much more. I was officially a pack-rat.

In 2004, a friend in New York started a reading series called "Cringe," wherein brave readers stood up before an audience and read their awful old diaries. I loved the idea, and with my friend's permissions, started a similar Seattle event called the Salon of Shame.

Since 2005, hundreds of Seattle readers have stood on the Salon of Shame's stage and read their worst adolescent writing in front of a slightly drunk, very amused audience. I always read at the show, and so every couple months I have the opportunity to dig through my archives to find a reading. In my digging, I'm forced to sift through all my shit… and an interesting thing started happening. When I read a diary entry about Homecoming 1990, I brought the spoon of petrified frosting with me to the show to hold up before my reading. I wore my shriveled dried corsage on my lapel, and then after the show… I THREW THE SHIT AWAY. These pieces of history had served their purpose: I'd held onto them for almost twenty years, and once the memory had been shared/exorcised, I could discard the talismans. That pivotal frosting? It had served its ultimate purpose. It was done.

OMG, here's the part where I was obsessing over a guy in Chicken 4-H.

Through the Salon of Shame, I've learned that my particular breed of pack-ratting was about storytelling. I needed the stuff because I was sure that someday, in some way, the story would be incredibly important. I was wrong about the importance, but right about the value — this crap has comedic value. It's not important, but its pompous self-importance is acutely hilarious. Recognizing the ridiculous self-importance that was fueling my pack-ratting was part of how I released the bad habit.

At 16, I actually thought a spoon of frosting would be important to keep. Through that lens, I'm able to look at the crap I'm tempted to keep around now and be like, "Really?! I think I'm going to care about this in five years? HA!" (To be fair, I still keep certain things. The outfit Tavi wore home from the hospital. The raver pants that capture an era. All the diaries. I am not an advocate of getting rid of ALL memorabilia. Just most of it.)

Recognizing the ridiculous self-importance that was fueling my pack-ratting was part of how I released the bad habit.

In the five years of producing and reading at the Salon, I've shared and discarded huge amounts of old crap. That heinous dress I'd saved since 1989? I wore it to a Salon, and then donated it to charity. Those old rave flyers? Saved a few good ones, and burned the rest. The archived corsages? Thrown away. (I don't throw away the diaries — but notebooks take up way less space than random shit like dried flowers.) Since I'm forced to dig through the archives every couple months, I'm constantly sifting through stuff and recycling the crap that really doesn't have ANY value.

What's the moral of the story here? Well, it could be that you should start your own local diary-reading event. They're really easy and fun and awesome. But the format of storytelling that's been so releasing for me may not work for you. I've known some folks who archive stuff digitally — taking artful photos, writing down the accompanying story and memories, and then discarding the physical stuff. Others create art from their old crap. You have to find what works for you.

The important part, I think, is to find a way to share and celebrate the story attached to the crap while getting rid of the actual crap. Because for me at least, it's all about the stories. The crap was just a prop I could wave around while I unleashed the story on some unwilling recipient. Thanks to the Salon of Shame, I've been able to release the props that have weighed down my life for decades, and focus on the joy of storytelling.