Why do we hold on to things from the past? Antiques, heirlooms, memorabilia, effluvia… you know, stuff. Because, let’s be honest, it serves only one purpose: to remind us of what was. Whether it be in our own lives or the lives of our ancestors, we are obsessed with remembering. As if the very act of doing so will somehow guarantee that we ourselves are remembered, after we are gone. That we will have triumphed and won the endurance race.
At least that’s how I see it. Personally, I am drowning in memories. Piles of can’t-let-go’s – they surround me on every side. Pictures, posters, knick knacks and bric a brac. Tickets and playbills to shows I can barely remember. Books I have already read. Vinyl albums, cassette tapes, cds and dvds of music and movies I have already heard and seen. Recipes I haven’t looked at in decades. Clothing too tattered to wear. Shoes, hats, belts, watches, necklaces, rings and earrings I haven’t worn in ages.
Then there’s the deeper level. The stuff I have stored away in boxes, crates, bins, drawers, cabinets, closets, crannies and nooks. File cabinets filled with letters never sent, half written stories, unfinished novels, aborted scripts, half-baked ideas, scribbles and notes, research materials for projects that were never completed, newspaper and magazine clippings, printouts and hard drives filled with same. A lifetime of proof that I am who I believe myself to be. As if proving myself is the only way to validate my existence.
Is that all it means? Is that the entire reason for remembering? Not just that we don’t forget, but that we are not forgotten? If so, it seems to be something of a fool’s errand. Because, honestly, if our continued deeds are not enough to endorse and authenticate us, why would anybody care about what we did in the past? And if our glory days are epitomized in yellowed keepsakes and faded visuals, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves when we stopped living?
Now, I’ve never been a big fan of glory days. My feeling has always been that my glory days are ongoing. Or, at least, they should be. I’ve still got glory days ahead of me, I hope. Yet I still hold on to fragments of my past. Which isn’t to say that everything I hold onto is useless. I’ve got some beautiful art I’ve assembled over the years and lovely antique furniture that still serves its original purpose. It’s the other stuff that concerns me. Stuff that has meaning only to me. I call it memory clutter.
Memories can be great things. They can make us smile when we need to smile, and cry when we need to cry. They can bring back those who have left us, and remind us of lessons learned. They can be therapeutic, and supply us with epiphanies. They can keep us humble, and remind us that kindness has its own rewards. They can propel us forward, by reminding us of our goals and why we set them to begin with.
But they can also become a crutch. And, at a certain point, we have to ask ourselves, does any of it really matter? Are the clippings from articles written 25 or 30 years ago going to mean anything to anybody else after I’m gone? Of course not. Are short stories written when I was in college going to be the foundation for some sort of legacy? Doubtful. And will I ever sit down and finish stories, novels or plays for which I lost the thread so long ago they appear to have been written by somebody else? The answer is a hard no.
Because, ultimately none of it matters. We hold on to our memories like old VHS tapes. They were state-of-the-art once, but they deteriorate over time, stretching and becoming brittle, losing resolution, becoming fuzzier and less audible, eventually breaking. And yet still we hold on to them. Because of what they meant to us then, even though they clutter our lives now. We convince ourselves that they give us meaning, when in fact they only serve to muddy the waters further. They shield us from the inevitable. Everybody dies and no amount of stuff will change that. Some of us will be remembered. Most will be forgotten. And life goes on, with or without the memory clutter.
I know I have to do something about this, but I’m not quite there yet. I haven’t quite conquered my fears. I haven’t completely resigned myself to my footnote mortality. I haven’t used up all my allotted fucks. But I am getting close. I’m coming to terms with my eventual extinction. I’m cataloguing those things that really matter against those things that will have no real usefulness on the remainder of my journey. One day I will purge it all and extinguish false hope. One day I will allow myself to simply be, as I am, without preamble.
That will be the day when I will truly have triumphed.