Tripping in a Time Machine

The time machine: old papers, objects, pictures, and memories.

Four boxes of stuff. Papers. Clutter. Memorabilia.

I have spent the last couple of nights doing an archeological dig in the life of Kary, of my life. I dumped out the boxes and sifted into piles according to timeline. A tiny elementary pile, a towering high school pile, a colossal college pile (really, not just for the beauty of alliteration), and then three small piles of my “adult life” separated by geography (the few months in Albuquerque, the six years in the Twin Cities, and the ten years living in Colorado).

Sifting through the memorabilia, I found: notes from high school friends folded in that particular school-note-origami-way, high school track medals and ribbons, numerous certificates of participation and appreciation, newspaper clippings, issues of newspapers from high school and college that I helped edit and write, long letters from friends and my younger sister, birthday cards and graduation cards, notes from my mother, postcards from friends and family, and, well, a lot of other papers. Oh, and lots and lots of photographs, some faded, some blurry, but most full of the faces of the friends and family I love.

I sifted through some of this a couple of years ago and then found another box of paper in the last year, stuffed in between some boxes of my mother’s in her storage closet. I knew I needed to deal with this stuff, but left it tucked away for another day. In the past ten months, I have moved and downsized my belongings dramatically. I have gotten rid of boxes of books, oodles of clothes and shoes, lots of odds and ends, and some furniture. Even better, I made deliberate decisions to intentionally keep all the stuff that stayed behind. The four boxes of papers lurked in a corner of the garage, casting a shadow.

So, now I deal with the shadows, or rather the boxes. Right now, though, I stop to write about them. Why is it that I was so eager to rid myself of un-useful-to-me-objects, but I can’t quite part with a few boxes of papers that I haven’t seen in twenty years? What is the root of my reluctance?

I have been doing a lot of personal work (internally, spiritually, physically, mentally) in the last year. I have been cleaning up, clearing out, calming down, and cutting through lots of things. It has been a truly grueling and gratifying process. I have grown and learned and changed a great deal, but somehow the papers paralyze me.

Last night, faced with the piles on the living room floor, I called a good friend from work. She is wise, funny, and always seems to have the right thing to say. I texted four other friends to see how they have dealt with the papers and stuff from their past. I like getting lots of perspectives and then figuring out which approach, or multiple approaches, suits me. My work friend responded in the way I thought she might. First, she laughed a big and long deep laugh. Then, she said she was dealing with old stuff too, but her best advice was, “Don’t beat yourself up over it! Celebrate what you have done!” Amen, sister! One friend, in a succinct text, replied that he kept one box which had childhood, high school, and college. He said to keep the amount that made me comfortable. A good college friend responded that she thought she had mostly just letters and personal notes from the high school and college era. Another friend shared her remorse about not having anything left from her life before the age of 25 after she did a big purge at that critical quarter-century mark. Another friend reminded me that part of my reason for the purge was to lighten my load and to emphasize where living truly is, in the present moment.

Today, I am grateful for my wise and funny friends. I have decided to take a bit of all their advice. I have designated the smallest storage box as the one in which I will keep the treasures. Now, I will sift into three piles: keep, toss, or recycle. I will throw the old political buttons into scrap metal, recycle a ton (well, close) of paper, toss the small plastic souvenirs (the “unnecessary plastic objects” as Nanci Griffith sings), keep some track medals and ribbons because I love those memories, and sift through the photos. The ones that aren’t duplicates will make their way into a couple of albums. I am saving some of the letters from loved ones, but discarding all the rotely-signed greeting cards.

Now, the task seems less daunting and more doable. I will not let the past paralyze me or weigh me down. I look forward to now, this moment, but I am grateful for the chance to look back and reflect on the memories, friends, family, and events that have shaped me. We do not need stuff to remind us. We can use our brains and hearts to remember when it will help us, but we can also use our brains and hearts to breathe in and consider the present moment. It is the only one that truly counts.


  1. Every so often I find a piece of writing I produced for a class at the JC and the C.S.U. levels. I am not the greatest writer in the world, but I have come a long ways since the late 80’s and early 90’s! I also dig out my Hot Wheels’ collection every six months and “go to town”!

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