I’ve always been painfully sentimental. As a kid, I’d do little things like asking my mother to stop the car so I could go flip a turtle over after it got stuck on its back; I’d probe my grandmother for stories about her life out of an oddball desire to better understand life “back then”; I was prohibited from touching stuffed animals at stores because once I touched one, we had a bond and it would be so sad if we just left it there. (I swear that last one wasn’t an attempt to get more toys, I was just disturbingly thorough in applying human emotions and empathy to all people, places, and things.)
Sentimentality is poetic. It’s romantic. The first time I went to Paris, I remember standing along the Seine and conducting an internal conversation between myself and the city. “I’ll be back soon,” I said and the wind brushed through my hair like a well-timed proof of acknowledgement from the city. “Okay, we’ll see you soon.” Ah, the wonderfully easy clichés of a city like Paris.
Almost six months ago exactly, I was in the process of clearing out my entire apartment. I was planning to move to Italy and needed to shed all the things I could “just buy while I’m there.” Books, clothes, couches, beds, cutlery, shampoos, towels, and every other little thing you can think of that you use on a day-to-day basis.
As I started cleaning things out of my apartment back in January, I remember telling a friend how difficult it was for me. I had developed an emotional attachment to all of these books and clothes. Like tattoos, they weren’t just pieces of paper with writing on them; they were symbols of a specific time period in my life. Even if I hadn’t read a book that I’d held on to for years and years, I remembered where I bought it and why. The dresses and t-shirts that no longer fit me, size-wise or identity-wise, allowed me to worship who I once was.
After all, that’s the problem with holding on to things for sentimental reasons. It connotes an emotional and physical attachment to The Past. For me, every item that I no longer use, but feel compelled to keep, is related to an often hidden wish to re-visit that time in my life.
Those shoes I bought in an emergency “the soles just broke off my Payless shoes, help!” trip to the shoe store and were too small even when I bought them? I hold on to them as if, through their proximity, I could be transported back to that gorgeous day, the conversation I had with friends that I’d continue to grow closer to over the years, and the carefree comedy of traipsing around a city with one floppy shoe.
That rare book I managed to collect about women in Dadaism but never actually cracked open? I wanted, one day, to pick up that book and suddenly be the expert art historian I’d always wanted to be as a teenager, who was so insightful and creative all the time. If I kept that book, it reminded me that person — that artistic girl who painted and drew almost every day, writing poems, scribbling ideas for new pieces of work in the margins of her books — existed inside me and, if I so chose, I could become her again.
The problem with that line of thinking is that I could never become that girl again. She exists within me, she informations who I am now, yes, but I have already lived her and moved on. The quote about not being able to go home isn’t about visiting your old house, of course. It’s about not being able to be the same exact person years after life has changed you, altered the DNA of your existence.
This weekend, as I cleared out another box of clothes that were cluttering up my still half-empty storage unit, I realized how much my approach to holding on to things has changed over the past year. I’m a gripper. If I want something, I hold onto it tightly and force it with all my might. It’s an awful approach. If you have to force something that much, maybe it wasn’t yours to begin with?
I’d best describe the past few months as running in circles. After my plans to move to Brazil/Italy/somewhere beautiful in the world fell through, I knew I needed to go somewhere but I didn’t know where. Like I had a bus ticket with a time, date, and seat number, but I couldn’t remember where the station was. I’ve been wandering around asking, “Are you my city? Are you my city?”
It’s true that some answers just need to be lived. As I stuffed another industrial-sized garbage bag with cloths, blankets, and shoes for donation, I realized just how far I’d come in my practice of letting go. Only in the last month or so was I finally able to say, “I don’t know where I’m going right now, and that’s okay.” Through family support, I’ve been able to hit a pause button so I can rest — to the extent that I allow myself to rest — in this period of not-knowing. When I embrace it, it’s glorious and fills me with gratitude. When I fight it, I feel all of the fear, anxiety, and internal doubt that comes with not listening to your truth, which is just a nice way of saying that you’re lying to yourself.
Yet the lesson so far has become slightly more clear. By holding on so tightly to my past, I crafted a future that no longer fit with who I’d become. I kept making the wrong decisions because I was operating on old data and was too afraid to say it out loud. The scary part of announcing to yourself, and to others, “I’m not the person I once said I was” is that you then have to, eventually, counter that with “This is who I am.”
And that’s the heart of the question.