The Things We Keep

Between moving and other things in my life (while listening to a recording I’d edited to be sure that I didn’t accidentally cut something important, I cleaned out a few thousand old emails from an email address), I’m getting a good chance to take a look at the things that I keep, either intentionally or by default.

I’m pretty sentimental, so I keep a lot because I love it, or because it brings something up for me. A minimalist, I’m not, whether I should be or not.

A lot of things I keep just out of inertia. I don’t know whether to keep it or throw it out, so I don’t decide, and the pile grows ever taller. Sometimes, distance helps with that. I’m trying to be intentional about what I keep as I unpack. “Do I love it? Do I use it?”

Some things, I keep on principle. I keep letters and emails and so forth, from people in my life. Sometimes, these are significant, but I often keep them either way. In getting rid of emails today, I noticed an exchange with my brother that mentioned offhand a trip I took. The few lines in it brought into sharp focus a time that had gotten fuzzy in my memory. An exchange with an old boyfriend from a few days before we broke up reminded me of how uncomfortable it was to be with someone who no longer wanted to be with me, but didn’t know how to tell me. A rash of emails about who I was then, and what I was doing.

Elizabeth Gilbert recently suggested that we don’t need to keep things that don’t make us feel good, and on the strength of that advice, I got rid of a lot of the physical things from people that I kept because of who gave them to me, not because of what they meant to me. That included a really tacky neon green stuffed monkey with a t-shirt that said “I love you,” given to me by the same old boyfriend. He gave it to me months before we broke up, but looking back, something wasn’t right, even then. So when I saw it, I remembered him, and loving him, and being given that by him, but feeling something grudging behind the gift. I got rid of it, and I haven’t really missed it (though I check in with myself about it, now and again. “Do I feel bad about that yet? No? Okay.”)

I wondered about that same philosophy, when I read those emails from near the end of us— me trying to joke with my ex, trying to find the angle where we connected the way we had in the best of times, and getting so little back. I could taste my frustration and rising panic.

I probably haven’t reread those emails in the five or so years since we broke up. I don’t keep these things to torture myself, but one of the mistakes I routinely make, in relationships, is thinking that I can make myself enough— agreeable enough, sweet enough, supportive enough, determined enough… And encountering that evidence again, I have to admit to myself that I can’t. That there are worse things than being single. That I can only be honest enough and myself enough. A lesson worth keeping.

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