Essay: On Keeping Things.

Except for my teenaged years when I was amazed and delighted at the opulence of the Street of Dreams,* I have always loved small houses. There is something about a tiny space that is comforting to me.  Maybe it is that a small space forces people closer together or that in a small space putting things away is both more
necessary (there are fewer places to kick aside your stuff) and also easier.  Also, cleaning is a snap.

 Recently, I have fallen in love with tiny houses—the definition is not yet officially set, but they are usually houses of less than 300 square feet with many of them being 100 to 200 square feet.  I first found Jay Shafer’s Tumbleweed Tiny House designs while spending copious amounts of time dreaming about buying a house.  Now there are many websites touting the small living lifestyle.
I have plans to build my own tiny house one day, because building one would probably scratch that “build your own house” itch I have and also because they are so darn cute.  I am not sure if I could live in one though, and the main reason is because I still need to drag around things from my past.
I am incredibly nostalgic, and I also majored in History in college so I know the importance of primary source material.  I carry with me a good amount of primary source material, still in paper form. Though I have winnowed all of the boring “landscape” photos from my collection, I still have a substantial number of photos with people in them as well as all the negatives of my analog pictures.  I have kept a journal since seventh grade and the term “a journal” refers not to one book of my writing but over a dozen at this point.  I was one of the last
generations to write letters in college and early adulthood so I have a
tremendous pile of them sitting around.
I cannot just get rid of this stuff.
I have gotten much better about other things.  The advent of digital photos helps.  This past winter I let a number of vintage dresses go back out into the world to find new people to wear them.  Because I could photograph them, I could keep
a part of them with me and writing about them for the blog meant that I
recorded why the dresses were important. In fact, getting rid of things has become a regular feature called “Requiem” where I show the object and tell the story before I send it out into the world or the trash heap.  But I can’t really do that with letters and photos and journals.  They are a part of me that cannot be made digital.
I have searched testimonials and writing from people who live in tiny houses to see what they have to say about keeping things from the past.  Dee Williams, one of the more famous Tiny House persons has said that she felt a relief getting rid of those markers of who she was in the past. Tammy Strobel, who writes a blog called Rowdy Kittens about the tiny living lifestyle, keeps a journal, but when she fills one, she pulls out the relevant pages, scans them, and then shreds the entire journal.  Both of these practices make me shudder when I think about applying them to my situation.
In May, I went through my boxes of stuff and I learned a lot of things, revisiting who I was then.  Sure, this activity threw me into a state of manic energy for a few days and was soon followed by a crash, but looking back like that now and then is important.
Take this example.
Everyone has stories they tell about themselves—a personal narrative that makes them who they are.  One of mine is that I always have to make the first move with boys I like.  This is true to varying degrees.  Sometimes I orchestrate the situation, setting the scene carefully like a Hollywood director carefully managing her meet-cute.  Sometimes I just go for the kiss, sometimes I flat out say what I am thinking.  Other times I am a bit more subtle, but for
most boyfriends, my story goes, I make the first move.
In going through my things I found a letter written to me by the guy I now refer to as Boyfriend #4, though his name is actually Kevin**  Checking the date, I saw that it arrived in my mailbox at college at the tail end of my freshman year.  At this point, I knew this guy a little.  He was a good friend of the only ex-boyfriend
I managed to remain friends with (#2, as it were) and so our social circles
crossed frequently.  At Christmas break in December we had crossed paths again this time in a smaller circle.  He had a lot of things I liked. He was smart,
good looking, not too tall and had a head of the most incredibly gorgeous long
hair that reached nearly to his waist.*** We had music in common and
reading.  I liked that he came from a poor family (cheap dates were a necessity) and had not yet gotten around to getting a driver’s license.  At the time
I was still in my “improving” phase of girlfriend and there was some good
potential there.
Our most recent encounter was on my last night in Boise at Christmas break,
when we found ourselves together in the back seat of Boyfriend #2’s car, with
another friend riding shotgun.  As we drove around, the boys were explaining a version of the game of “Chicken” to me, wherein a boy, finding a girl’s hand on his knee prods her to move it up his leg and calls her “chicken” if she doesn’t.
“The guy wins either way!” they exclaimed to me.
I laughed at their logic and put my hand on Kevin’s knee.  In the back seat, I played my own game of chicken, slowly inching my hand up his thigh without being prompted.  At one point, caught up in the game, he shifted position, slumping down in the seat so my hand took a big jump closer to “winning.”  When we got to where we were going, we both held the position until someone opened one of the car doors which turned on the overhead lights.  The guys in the front seat peered back at us.  Kevin shrugged, his hands giving that universal, “what can you do?” while I smiled up at them.  We broke off our game and went
back to our respective lives, never saying anything about what had happened.
The letter Kevin sent me doesn’t bury the lead.  He opens by calling me a “damn cool female” and noting that because of that he can “write the real shit without offending you.”  He goes on to tell me that he is, “constantly trying to be suave when you’re around,” and chalks it up to me being a “college woman.”  Then, there is my favorite sentence written in his idiosyncratic style: “Also in there is the fact that you listen to what I say, and don’t judge me over if you
disagree.  Helping that right along is the other fact, of you going an attractive person physically.”  He goes on to say he hopes this doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable, which is a sentiment I never expressed the times I have
laid things on the table.
He continues with general chit-chat, he’s a senior in high school and things are winding down, all of his boys (the friends we had in common) were doing well—they were all going to get more than a 3.0.  At this point I have to interject and say
that this strikes me as a funny thing for him to comment on.  Were they really sitting around and talking about grades?  It doesn’t seem like them, and even less normal for him to report to me. I will chalk it up to nervous letter conversation.
When I found this letter and read it in May, I had absolutely no recollection of receiving it.  There is no envelope, so perhaps it came with a letter from Boyfriend #2 as we corresponded, albeit infrequently.  But what was weirder to me was that I remembered nothing about the feelings I had when I read it.  I can
guess that I was thrilled, as we ended up together for the summer, but the
feelings I felt during the initial reading are gone from my body.  It would be interesting to cross reference this letter with my journal from the time period, but it is currently being stored at my Aunt’s house.
I think I forgot receiving this letter because it does not fit into the personal narrative of “I always make the first move.”  And this letter proves me wrong.  If I discarded the letter along with the other flotsam and jetsam of my life, I would not have the opportunity to come across a reminder of a different version of the story I have been telling about myself.
A friend is currently editing his travel journal of a year ago and publishing it on a blog.  His travel journal seems to have been the recipient of the feelings he was working through about the demise of his marriage and the entries about the exotic location are juxtaposed with memories from different relationships with
women.  It is fascinating reading, both for the content and his writing style.
He commented to me that it is also interesting for him, because he clearly had thoughts and feelings he wrote down, but he does not remember thinking or feeling them.  Journals are good to have around for that reminder.
I worry, as we switch over to an electronic world, that these moments of insight will become inaccessible to us.  Roger Ebert wrote a beautiful tribute to his wife and remarked that he has saved all the correspondence of their courtship,
locked away in a safe on a disk drive. He can’t easily read any of it, because the computers we have today do not run what the computers the correspondence was written on, but the words are still there.
So right now, I will not be getting rid of these vestiges of the old me.  My tiny house may need to be a bit less tiny, but they will stay with me.  They will be vulnerable to fire, flood and bugs, but for a long as they go on existing, they will be a handy reminder of myself then.
8/26/12 update:  I’ve just read a blog post where Tammy Strobel says she is now keeping her journals.  Whew!
*In Portland this is a street of new homes where builders and decorators showcase their design prowess with opulence.  The rabble pays money to tour the homes and get ideas for their own, smaller dreams and then the houses are sold to rich people who probably just redecorate them with their own designers.

**The number system broke down in that tumultuous time after college when the relationships weren’t very solid.  Was that two week thing that burned out fast Boyfriend #6?  The college boyfriend is Boyfriend #5, though I mostly refer to him as “college boyfriend John” and Matt, the current boyfriend doesn’t have a number.  He’s either six or probably 10, I would have to take a careful accounting, which is the last thing I want to do, revisit those relationships.

***This prompts dialogue from the movie Singles:
–“He probably has a ponytail right?”
–“He does not have a ponytail”
–“He’s Mr. Sensitive Ponytail Man.”
–“He’s not Mr. Sensitive Ponytail Man.”

One thought on “Essay: On Keeping Things.”

  1. I too have a lot of my high school and college correspondence. My boxes contain my grandmother's beautiful script, so many words from my dear friends, and PILES of happy stickers and other goodies all over envelopes (though i have to think your saved piles of my envelopes are more colorful). There are weepy, weepy, teenage journals that I can hardly read without cringing. I have a lot of notes tat I passed in class. I have scrap books of ephemera from outings and movies, and when my room was polka-dotted. It all lives at my mom's house. I can't let it go either. I have been better at letting go of recent items. And yet, the ephemera stays. I keep scrapbooks of all the stuff I gather on trips and at concerts. The wasteful joys of my happy middle class life. Who knows where it will go when I am no longer on this earth. Regardless of that factor, I'm still happy to save and catalog it all.

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