Last month, Andrew and I tackled the immense task of putting on a garage sale. If you've ever had one, you know exactly how much grueling, tedious work they are: sorting through boxes of discarded belongings, wavering between keeping something out of sentimentality and selling it for a dollar; and all the price tags.
Our sale was a made a bit more complicated, since we actually held it at our grandmother's house. While we lived in Cambodia, all our belongings were stored in her basement. When we moved back into our home in December, we sorted through what we wanted to keep and everything else. The "pitch" pile almost seemed to outweigh the "keep" pile and made me wonder why we'd boxed all that stuff up almost four years ago.
Even though I'm a self-professed anti-hoarder, I realized I have two weaknesses: books and travel souvenirs. The books I dealt with easily, as I knew I could take them to Half Price Books and get a bit of cash to buy (you guessed it) books I might actually read. But the travel souvenirs were more difficult to handle.
I pulled out soft cotton scarves patterned with blue and purple flowers bought at a market on the edge of the Red Sea in north Sudan. Embroidered pictures of dancing villagers purchased in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Wraparound sarongs printed with bamboo and leaves, bartered for in a busy market in Chiang Rai, Thailand. A housedress with Egyptian pyramids and sun gods printed on the front, a gift from my Sudanese friend.
All of these items have been hiding in storage containers for five or ten years - no longer useful to me, yet still in my possession. I felt that if I gave them away or sold them, I would be letting go of all the memories they brought me whenever my fingertips brushed them.
Yet all these items were just the physical reminders of past experiences. They were not the experiences themselves. And they were no longer useful or (in some cases) beautiful to me - the true measuring stick for anything we should allow into our homes. Letting go of them would mean fewer boxes to pack if/when we move on to new lives, both here and abroad. Regardless of what belongings I owned, the memories and relationships would stay with me, as well as whatever changes they had brought about in my own heart.
So I took a deep breath, and started putting on price tags.
As unromantic as it sounds, stuff is just stuff. If reminders of the past start to clutter up the life I'm living now, it's time to let go and make room for the present. I still have plenty of souvenirs around me that are both useful and beautiful - the Japanese prints that were given to us by our ski lodge hosts in Hakuba; dishes and tea glasses from Cambodia that get almost daily use; batik-printed pillow cases purchased in Vietnam. And the time may come when I'm ready to give these away, too. They weren't a waste, as long as they served their purpose well for a time.
So if you're struggling with guilt over getting rid of sentimental items, just let it go. You can still cherish the memories and people they represent to you, without hanging on to stuff that no longer has real value in your every day life. Make room for what is truly beautiful and useful to you right now.