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. I am a sentimental saver and a craft saver which is the pack rat double whammy.
    Everything with a story sits with every magazine I ‘could someday use for a project’.
    I can hardly walk into my room at my parents home. I’ve planned to go down to purge in May when we can lay everything out on the lawn.

  2. every time I go through old stuff to throw away, I end up enjoying the reminiscing that all that stuff brings up, I hardly throw away anything. Each item brings up a memory I had forgotten about. BUT I really hate having all this stuff. What I try to do is if I have several things that bring up the same memory, I throw away the least important one.

    Also: Sarah Brown! (I don’t know her personally- she married, as in performed the ceremony, a friend of mine. She just seems to pop up all over the internet!)

  3. I have a terrible time getting rid of things. The worst part? There’s stuff I’ve gotten rid of that I’ve really regretted–mostly stuff from when I was more politically active, like a big flyer/poster for the WTO protest in Seattle in 1999, or all those Earth First! newspapers from when I was tree-sitting in 2000 (and cue feeling old…now). Or that blue dress I gave away ’cause I never wore it, and since then I’ve had several places I would have liked to have worn it.

    So giving things away/selling them has become even harder, because there are indeed things I miss. Gaaah! Right now, for instance, I’m tempted to sell/give away my old Sassy magazines from 1992 and 1993…but part of me knows I’ll later regret it. And yeah, I have reread them. Several times. Oy. And it’s not like they’re worth much, I don’t have the real valuable ones (like the one with Kurt and Courtney on the cover), and I abused the hell out of them as a teenager–cutting them up, folding down pages, etc.

    I did manage to get rid of all the Seventeen magazines I owned, a number of years ago, by realizing that the library has them. Hell, the central library has them going back to the 1960’s.

    Don’t even get me started on my clothes. Good lord.

  4. While I was living in Japan, I knew a girl that saved every pair of disposable chopsticks she ever used while living in that country. To put that into perspective, pretty much every single freaking restaurant in Japan uses them. She would label one of the chopsticks with the date, the restaurant, and who she ate with, rubber band them together, and stick them in a box. And she did this for over 5 years. So there were boxes upon boxes of used, unwashed chopsticks in her apartment, along with all the other pack rat stuff she has.

    Anyway, after meeting her I started becoming paranoid of becoming a pack rat myself and am super vigilant about getting rid of crap haha.

  5. Ariel, can you stop being so awesome? I’m pretty sure you’re hoarding more than your fair share of coolness.

    I used to be a horrible pack rat when I lived at my parents’ house, but ever since I moved into a small apartment with The Dude, I’ve thrown out a metric crap-load of shit. I’m so horribly proud of myself for throwing all this shit I don’t need out that I’m constantly “culling the herd” of junk. The only thing I keep a ton of is material and crafting supplies, but it’s all organized and out of sight and I’m constantly using it to make money for us, so it’s allowed. 🙂

  6. I am the other extreme. I’ll see a commercial for the show “Hoarders” and I will freak out and throw away a ton of shit. I have one (very small) “I love me” box that has a few things. The contents of the box are memorized and cataloged in my brain, but even I love to have them. A comp book made by my first boyfriend filled with love poetry and overly romanticized drawings of me, the glowing letter of recommendation that prompted me to drop out of college, the acceptance letters to Ivy league schools I never showed my parents and a pin with a pictures of my friends and I on our illicit and lied about first spring break trip and an indigo girls concert flyer with a scrawling love note from my best friend who came out by professing her love to me with a sharpie on the nearest piece of paper. This is the kind of small, but priceless shit that people will throw away when I’m dead, but until then, I’ll just keep it.

  7. But what happens when the stuff that you keep is sentimental stuff from dead relatives? When my grandmother died, I cabbaged on to tons of her stuff — the mirror I basically watched myself grow up in, the Grecian bar set that I’ll never use, but remember playing with as a child, etc. When my other grandmother went into a nursing home she left me a HUGE doll cabinet that my parents INSIST I keep. It’s a beautiful piece of furniture, but it’s not my style at all and when I mentioned I might paint it my mom flew off the handle at me for wanting to ruin a family heirloom. I’ve been saddled with all of this stuff that I do have memories of, but I also have no room for!

  8. I absolutely love the idea of the Salon of Shame. I was a prolific journal-keeper as an adolescent – oh how I wish I still had all of them to remind myself that being in my 30s is actually pretty amazing!

  9. Perfect timing! I’m putting up Christmas decorations and am finding things that I acquired over years (probably in ornament exchanges). I’ve decided to pass on all of the ones that don’t delight me or have any meaning.

  10. I am a pack rat, but for different reasons. When I was about 12 I realised there was something wrong with my memory. Everyone seemed to remember more about their pasts than me. Hell, people remembered more from MY past than me. I’m not talking detail here, but whole events where apparently I’d had much fun, actively participated, etc. I suddenly thought about how old people have as major entertainment dwelling on the past. What if I got to be old and couldn’t remember anything about my life?
    So I got obsessed with recording everything that happened. I went somewhere out of the ordinary, I’d keep the train or bus ticket. Concert and cinema stubs. Pamphlets. When the digital camera era began, I quickly bought one and took 100 photos of each dinner among friends. And I wrote journals.
    I don’t do this anymore. It’s not that my memory has improved. I now know my father suffers from the same problem and I’ve met two others like us. It’s not common. I still forget what has happened more than 3 years before unless it’s something really life changing, in which case I remember some things, not very detailed. Thing is: I don’t have time and I don’t have space. No time for journal writing and organising my memorabilia. And no physical space to keep it or computer space for all the photos.
    I wish I could continue to be a pack rat…

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