Evicting my inner pack-rat: how I got rid of my need to keep absolutely everything

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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 playbills, 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.

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.

Comments on Evicting my inner pack-rat: how I got rid of my need to keep absolutely everything

  1. In defense of pat-racks, especially the ‘this might be important one day’ type I have to say I have an AMAZING book about the early years of Guns N’ Roses that only exists because the guitarists best friend got it into his head to not only video/tape record and photograph every gig they did but to save every flyer, set list and other bit of info he could get his hands on. Sure it’s more likely your friends band will be terrible and/or they’ll get bored in a year or two and go get ‘real’ jobs (and when they do I’d say it’s a safe bet you can throw all that junk away), but just occasionally it does pay off.

    On the other hand I’ve just spent an entire day ‘pre-packing’ ready for moving at the end of the month. Pre-packing is the process I have to go through before the actual packing can start where I sort all my crap and throw away the stuff that genuinely is crap. This really should not be nessesary, I shouldn’t have kept this stuff in the first place, but for me it’s about the only time any of it gets thrown away.

    I know my pat rack tendancies/habit of attatching sentimental value to everything will stop me throwing away anything genuinely important (I cringe whenever people talk about throwing away boxes they haven’t opened in a year without checking first; I know the draw I haven’t opened in a year is full of signed vinyl singles), but at the same time I really do not need a couple of pages of bad jokes from a book I had when I was 11, even if they do remind me of reading those jokes with my friends. I’ll remember the friends either way, I don’t need the jokes.

    So this post definately came at the right time for me. I’m not sure why I keep all of this stuff, but maybe if I can work that out it will help me to sort it more thoughly.

    • Pre-packing is the process I have to go through before the actual packing can start where I sort all my crap and throw away the stuff that genuinely is crap

      Oh god, that is brilliant, great description and naming there!

  2. OMG, Ariel, are you down with chickens?? What’s your favourite breed? I myself love the Australorp. I, unlike you, cannot get rid of my chicken trophies. But have found other ways to lessen the crap. Like freecycling! Your Salon sounds like a ton of fun!

    • I was in rabbit 4H, so while I can tell you ALL about the Rex breed, I only know chickens by association. Perhaps predictably, I was more interested in the 4-H boy’s tight jeans than his chickens.

        • Yeah, my rabbit 4H club was all girls, but I was a counselor at our county 4H camp, and there were tons of cute boy counselors in sheep and chicken 4H. Oh, the sordid dating scene of the Kitsap County 4-H community…

          • What on earth is 4H? To my little Aussie brain it sounds like animal themed scouts on steriods….

          • “Animal-themed scouts” is basically accurate.

            But! But! BUT! I linked 4H several times in the post for exactly this reason — I knew international readers wouldn’t be familiar. Did you not see the links?

          • I worked at a 4-H camp in Georgia for a year and even I’m lost on the whole chickens and rabbits thing. Although that could be because I was actually there doing the Environmental Education program during term-time rather than the actual 4-H stuff.

          • Totally missed the links because I wasn’t totally bemused until I got to this thread of conversation

            Edited to add – now I have gone to look for the links, a link as part of a photo credit, I would normally just assume that is going to the Flickr page, not a link.

          • Oh my gosh, so true, even today. A creeper guy in Kitsap 4H (chickens, actually) had a massive crush on me in grade school. I never lived it down. Aaaah, the things one misses . . . the smell of the sheep barn, the quiet of the rabbit barn as one peers around at cages, the wonderful ruts in the road from the rainstorms that seem to plague the fair. . .

            The only 4h I did, though, was a couple of months of archery. The fact that the archery barn shared space with the cat barn never, ever ceased to amuse me, especially when we ran out of targets and used their preciously cut out cat silhouette.

  3. I’ve been the same way, in the past, including rave flyers, corsages, ticket stubs, performance programs, old high school class notes (WTF?), etc. My coming out of this was triggered rather suddenly by being robbed last year. Not a fun way to do it, but at the time my daughter was only 2 months old, and I had this very sudden jolt of realization that stuff was not as important to me as I thought it was. The people in my life — my partner, my daughter, the friend who came over to stay with me while I waited for the police, etc — were way, way more important than the stuff. That said, the loss of some very sentimental jewelry was hard, but overall the fact that we were all ok trumped everything. Since then, I’ve had this ruthless approach to my stuff, looking at it and thinking: “if this disappeared tomorrow, would I *really* care?” Usually the answer is no, so I donate/recycle/give it away. It’s been totally liberating.

    • old high school class notes (WTF?)

      At the start of last year (almost 15 years since graduating high school), I finally binned all my notes from my final year at high school – to end up in a teaching position outside my qualified subject area, teaching the same topics that I had studied all those years ago, oh how I cursed binning those notes all late year 😉

      • If I was a student, I might bless myself that my teacher is presenting her take on a topic. Resurrected high school notes might be the basis of a great course… but I’d be wary.

  4. This post got me thinking, in such an age of digital media, for those of us that don’t have quite so many diaries, maybe scan them, and take pictures of those trophies before tossing them? A picture of trophies, framed and hung on the wall, takes up far less space than the trophies themselves.

  5. THANK YOU for this post! =D I am 100% exactly your old self and always have been. Since I was little, I’ve basically tried to be some kind of archivist. Partially for my own life (cuz I’m so awesome and everyone will one day wish to know every detail of my life, obviously) but also just because I know most people do throw their stuff away, so twenty years later I’m the one who can scan it/take a picture of it/whatever and get everyone feeling nostalgic. I mean, I love that aspect of it, but at the same time it’s such a drain on me to keep all this stuff. I’m constantly torn about it. I think if I were able to archive it all digitally, it would help — but it’s hard to find time to do that when you have as much stuff as I do, hahah. Plus, I also have “it might be useful someday” syndrome, which is a whole other issue. I’m not sure how to solve that one.

    I’m definitely going to try to keep in the digitize-and-purge mindset, though. Maybe if I have pictures of the stuff I won’t feel so sad getting rid of it.

    • My question: if going through the stuff to digitally archive it doesn’t feel like something you can “find time to do,” then when do you imagine EVER having the time to enjoy the stuff? That’s not a rhetorical question. When you do you picture yourself looking at the stuff and being like “YEAH! I LOVE THIS STUFF!” If the idea of going through it doesn’t bring you a sense of joy, then you REALLY have to wonder why you keep it.

      • That’s true. I do go through the stuff and enjoy doing so. It’s just that there’s such a quantity of it that taking the time to scan it all or take pictures of it is pretty time-consuming. I have done that for a lot of stuff, but not really even a fraction of what I have. I mean, looking at an object takes less time than taking a quality picture of it (in my experience). It would probably help if I lower my bar for what a “quality” picture is, though. =)

  6. In a move I once unintentionally lost a garbage bag full of notes from my best friend through high school and was (at the time) devastated. “what if I want to read through them and reminisce?” I lamented. But she has a nearly-photographic memory so I just call her now when I get that urge. The only other “collection” of anything I have from my childhood turned out to be somewhat valuable – my Breyer horses. Still haven’t gotten around to appraising them, and may never, but just knowing that I can sell them to pay for (part of) my kid’s college if I need to is kind of satisfying.

    • It PAINED me to finally part with my Breyer horses. The only way I could do it was to put them up on craigslist and beg for only parents to respond. I had 3 or 4 moms show up with their young daughters to take their pick, and that was the only way I could deal with it. I got a fair amount of money, but it was more about them “going to a good home” in my mind. haha

    • My old Breyers are in my mother’s house. She can’t wait for me to move back to America and take back all one hundred-odd! Not sure any of mine are worth much, but they’re excellent condition and 15 to 20 years old. Something to look into!

  7. I’m pretty good with purging other things but I have a hard time throwing paper away. So I have a technique where I allow things to age. I let receipts, coupons, packing slips, old birthday cards, flyers, brochures, etc. age for a while in a few different folders – somehow something I can’t bear to let go a month later seems perfectly okay to recycle 6-12 months later.

  8. My husband, brothers, and mom would probably read this and forward it to me immediately if they got to it first. I save(d) everything. As a crafter/former art student I would save scraps of metal, cardboard, fabric, soda cans, anything with thoughts of, “I could use this to make something one day!”

    I’m finally throwing things out (my brother says “not enough”) now that we’re moving, but I have a box or two of important memory things that I’ll eventually put in a notebook.

  9. Totally unrelated question: Do you know if there are Salon of Shame type events in any other cities? I remember reading about this a long time ago and wanting to go, but I sadly still live on the east coast. I too have a plethora of old middle school writings and would love to share and then get rid of them.

      • If I hadn’t been so eager to post a comment I might have seen that you suggested starting an event . . . Clearly I should have read the whole post. 🙂 I was very excited about the prospect of doing away with the very heavy totes full of crap I’ve been hauling all over hell and creation. I can totally relate to the frosting thing. I used to keep lollipop wrappers from elementary school because they were proof of some minor achievment for which I earned them. Thank God that little phase is over.

        • Related to saving ridiculous things- Somewhere I have a little cutout picture of a parrot that I got the evening of my first kiss. I also have a little green stone that my 4th grade crush gave me. Nevermind that I don’t actually need help remembering these people or events, and if I did the paper parrot would in no way help. AND I am happily engaged to NEITHER of these boys now! Silly.

  10. I’ve been over my need to hoard things beneath me like a very grumpy dragon. However, please do allow me to reiterate: I have a lot of shit! The other day, my roommate said “Y’know, if you want to put any of your stuff around here [meaning the rest of the apartment], feel free.”
    And then later, she cut to the chase and said “Downsize, Dootsie!”
    Her room appears to be approximately twice the size of mine. They’re exactly the same.


    So yes. My new decorating and “keeping” mantra is a single, perfect word: EDIT. I really do need to cut down on the content of my tangible autobiography. I’d be happy to do it if it were a piece of writing I were going to publish, so why not my possessions? Circle my “Piece of bench–prom 2003” hunk of wood in red ink, scrawl across it “This is fluff!”

    • This is perfect! A lot of people talk about keeping these things as Archives of their lives. Well, if you were actually going to sit down and write your memoir or autobiography or a novel based on your life, would this particular artifact make it in? Or would someone say that, as cute an anecdote as it is, it doesn’t actually advance the story.

  11. Oh! I wanna share mine! I’m a longtime sentimental hoarder. I have a very poor memory, that responds well to visual reminders. So, it used to be that throwing things away felt exactly like throwing away memories, because I really WOULD forget things once the objects associated with them were gone.

    Then, last year, my dad paid someone a whole mess of money to scan every. one. of our old family photos. There were a few thousand of them. Somehow, in all my stuff hoarding, I’d forgotten that at just about every event of note in my life, someone was there with a camera. So I started a project. I’m now using Blurb to make THE MOST EPIC OF EPIC FAMILY ALBUMS. I’ts gonna end up 400 pages long, 18×18″, and is covering 30 years. It goes from my parent’s dating to my baby sisters wedding and my MA graduation. I took all dads pics, edited some, and added my pics since i got a digital camera, and my sisters pics since she got one. I even got some pics from freinds hards drives. Now everything, my whole 28 years of life, is condensed into one annotated behemoth of a book. And, the best part is, my mom and sister are also getting copies, so even if my house burns down, all is not lost. AND going over all these pictures with the family (because sometimes I’m not quite sure at first what I’m looking at) has helped jog all our memories and been all kinds of nostalgic fun. Now, I just make sure to take a lot of pictures, and live contented knowing I’ll just do another one in another 30 years. Hell of an heirloom.

  12. Leader of the Pack!! We totally did that show too. I was an assistant stage manager. 🙂

    But yeah… with my upcoming move to Florida and working through all of my grandmother’s belongings as my dad and I process her estate, this is something I am having to force myself to do. Such a well timed post!

  13. So…what are you trying to say? You mean that I don’t need to hang onto my hard earned 1st and 2nd Place Fourth of July Hog Calling trophies from ’93/’94? Or the umpteen pairs of jeans with holes in unfortunate places that I have been saving for some future undetermined craft project. Uff. I started shoveling through our basement this weekend, and man alive does it feel good to unload still usable, but no longer needed stuff. A lot of trash, but a lot of good stuff donated to Savers too!

    On that note: Has anyone else heard of this event? Trying to drum up interest around Minneapolis/St. Paul. I really like this idea. http://giveyourstuffaway.com/

  14. Here’s something to kill the packrat in you: move in with someone who has even more crap than you.

    When I moved from Iowa to California, I was forced to bring with me only what could fit in my crappy sedan. A few years later, I moved in to my brother’s spare bedroom and I had to get rid of the few things I had accumulated during college. Not long after that, I moved in with my boyfriend who is a HUGE packrat. He had so much stuff that I was forced to whittle my sentimental items down to that which could be kept in a single underbed box.

    Now we’re finally moving out of our current place and I’m once again going through excess junk. And forcing my partner to do the same. He hates moving enough that he’s willing to get rid of things just to make it easier. HOORAY! It’s definitely hard for artistic types to get rid of things that “might be useful someday.”

    • “He hates moving enough that he’s willing to get rid of things just to make it easier. HOORAY!”

      I’m hoping this will work on my boyfriend. He keeps every single magazine he buys. I can completely understand keeping some, I do that too, but not all of them. Especially when he never reads them more than once. Ever!

      I’ve already told him I’m not doing anything with them. I’m not boxing them up, I’m not carrying them, it’s all on him and I’m hoping the prospect of carting them all (and we’re talking several stacks here) to the new place will finally persuade him to scrap some.

  15. My whole life was packed up in boxes when I was 12 and had to go live with my grandma. We recently unearthed some of these boxes and 14 years later I was ready ti junk it all, then my hoarder mother swooped and “saved just THIS stuff just in case” oh lord. I did however run across the letter my first boyfriend wrote me after he tried to kiss me on the school bus. I held on to this to scan and email him hahaha

    • Wow! I thought I was the only one who kept soaps!

      As a kid I collected animal shaped soaps from The Body Shop and other places and I kept them for years. They lost their scent, many lost their colour, they all got dusty and I couldn’t clean them, but I still hung onto them until one day it finally clicked how rediculous this was and they all went in the bin.

    • i still have a bar of soap that has a crocheted duck around it. the soap is the “body” of the duck. pretty sure someone gave it to my mom when i was born.

  16. “And never ever let him go below the waist!”

    “…Mickey! You mean…?”

    Oh, Lord, what a ricockulous show.
    Glad to hear another school produced it besides my podunk farmtown!

    I stopped being a packrat as soon as I moved out of the Parentals’–moved into a shared bedroom in downtown Los Angeles, and I simply didn’t have the room for memorabilia.

    I also realized that most things are not worth the space they take up–and besides, all those old programs and knickknacks were taking up valuable real estate from my books!

    • You want to talk about ricockulous? I was cast as Darlene Love.

      Please imagine the unintentional comedy of a 16-year-old white girl delivering the line “I’m Darlene Love, and babies — I was THERE.”

  17. Heh. I have a few boxes of memorabilia. I lost one or two to mold and water damage a couple years ago. It was kind of [mostly] a relief. So that helped. Definitely need to winnow some of my other stuff, though, too. Great stories here.

  18. I used to be a major packrat (and still do save stuff I really shouldn’t), but since becoming a “photograph, caption, and toss” practitioner, I found that I get all the benefits of memory and reminiscing without the weight of the STUFF. Some of my favorite photographs (that I printed on business cards, even) are of the things I’ve thrown away.

  19. Please remember though – there will be things that later generations will want. I treasure any memorabilia of my grandparents and parents. I have old letters, some jewelery, tatted lace, random wooden owl figurines, handmade quilts, oil paintings, and a few half used notebooks. They are my most precious possessions (apart from the letters S has sent me) because they link me to a history I was too young to know, and I can find out so much more about my heritage.

    Perhaps YOU won’t care about the stuff you throw away, but spare a thought or two for the kids/grandkids/greatgrandkids etc who MIGHT.

    Not that I am saying keep every thing, but do keep a few things. I have an old wooden chest and anything that I want to keep, I put in there along with stuff that has been kept for me. Then I merrily throw away any stuff that isn’t important enough to go in there.

    • Sure, but for some pack-rats this kind of thinking can be sorta like “just one drink” for alcoholics. A grandchild might want your jewelry or an old love letter. Are they going to want the batch of dusty, disintegrating soap from your freshman year of college?

  20. Huh……all this time I always believed I was just highly sentimental. It’s only after reading this that I’ve realized I’m a freakin’ pack rat!!!
    I’ve been riding my husband to get rid of his “junk” so we can make room for the baby coming in August. I guess I’ll have to look through my “treasures” and make some room myself =0/
    (I still have all of my rave flyers and concert ticket stubs)

  21. Lol, Ariel, I met you in a dream! (seriously, also Jessica from Feministing). I took it as A SIGN that I was reading way too much internet.

    Thanks for this post as I approach trying to move my old stuff out of my parents house (and facing the prospect of moving it into my house, or pitching). I have a lot of storied items that feel like “history”.

    My husband on the other hand grieves mainly at the prospect that everything he throws away has a negative impact on the world. This is noble of him and makes him less likely to accumulate new material crap (unlike me) but also compels him to archive everything in boxes: “box number 52, contents: broken razor, broken tape player, old cocktail napkins.” It doesn’t help that my father in law suffers similarly and solves the problem by gifting/dumping things on his sons. He visited my husband on our wedding day to deliver a check and a bag full of junk: “I know how much you like old fan motors!” BEST WEDDING GIFT EVAR. I told G that the check was a hefty disposal fee for the motors. And the story still amuses us. We are teaching each other to consider the later on value of stuff we save, or don’t save.

  22. I am normally pretty brutal about purging old crap, but I have a hard time getting rid of stuff my son makes at preschool. I’ve gotten better at recycling more and keeping the “best” stuff, but let’s face it, he’s 4. Everything he does is cute. 🙂

  23. I have drawers and drawers, and my husband is even worse… I also see it as stories, not for self important reasons, though I’d like to tell the stories to my kids, but I imagine some day I’ll make a collage, or put it in a book, or something. I’ve got bags of old t-shirts waiting to be made into a quilt, or whatever… You’d think being unemployed I’d have found time for these projects, but no. 🙁 I don’t know what my husband wants to do with his stuff, he seems to be happy to keep it in boxes (in case he NEEDS it)

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