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Moving My Emotional Baggage

John Moe

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Apparently I invited someone on a picnic.
(John Moe)
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I have this box down in the basement. It's THE box. I'm sure you have one just like it -- full of letters, photos, journal entries, term papers, birthday cards... Mine's a big Rubbermaid tote, 30 gallon size, blue. Pretty much me, as told in paper, from early childhood to about age 24. It must weigh 80 pounds. And I never open it, I never look at it. It's not like framed artwork or photo albums. I never get an urge to go down to the basement and read a birthday card from my mom from 1992. But moving means sorting through everything -- so I gotta sort through the box.

Some of this stuff inside is quite lovely. A picture of me at 21 working at a summer camp. I'm happy, tan, hopeful. Strutting toward the future.

A lot of what's in here belongs in the "why in the world did I KEEP this" file. An envelope of hair from the barber visit that ended my hippie period. Recipes for couscous. And this:

Dear John,
Ben would not be who he is if it weren't for you. Thank you for your dedication. Much love, Chris.

Who's Ben? Who's Chris?

Then there's the hard stuff. A postcard from my brother in 1987. He says he's sorry he didn't get to say goodbye before he left. I don't know what he's referring to. It was written 20 years before he died suddenly. There are angry letters from friends I treated badly telling me how much I hurt them. I saved them all. Locked them away. I never read them. That can't be healthy, can it?

Also in the box: stuff so horrible it's funny. This, in a note from a very ex-girlfriend:

Your problem is you're way too needy, John. And it's not just me who feels that way. I've talked to people we both know and we all agree that you're needy.

Maybe I should call and see if she likes me any better now.

There's a world of stuff in here. And after spending some time with it, I want to set it on fire. I want to throw away the box. All of it.

How can you say that? That's your past! Those are memories! That box is who you are!

No, that box is who I was. Like when I was 10, I was a huge football fan. Football defined me. And I horded football trading cards. To this day, I still have this one card: Chris Bahr, kicker, Cincinnati Bengals. I reached Bahr at his home in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania I asked him if I should keep the card.

"Should you keep it?" he asked. "For what reason?"
"Well, because I've always kept it. I've had it since 1978," I said, meekly.
"Then I'd hang on to your cards."

Bahr still has that card himself. "I have them all somewhere along the way. I know I have a helmet, a jersey. You know, I've moved and they get into boxes. Like I said, I never really put anything out."

Maybe he should put it out. It's paper. Dead trees. Chris Bahr has the same box I do. And my box is dead weight, a corpse of memories, that I have to ship or load on to a truck and then haul into my new basement in my new city where it will spend even more years never being looked at. I'd rather destroy it.

The things that mattered are already memories. This is excess baggage. And I'm moving, I'm trying to start anew. The new me, waking up in the new city wouldn't have to bear this weight.

Thing is, I can't bring myself to do it. The stuff has a hold on me. Want to chuck it. Can't. I'm held captive by ghosts.

Erik Larson is in my box. He was the editor of my high school newspaper. I have numerous editions in my box. They feature the worst writing I've ever done and they trigger agonizing high school flashbacks. Erik was a journalism star in high school. Not long after graduating he started selling insurance.

"Oh my goodness. I'm almost ashamed or embarrassed to admit I've probably got at least a couple of dozen. I probably have every issue," he said when I reached him by phone. "They're in some of these Rubbermaid containers in the garage. They have been neatly or cleverly or subconsciously positioned next to my wine cabinets, refrigerators. So as I go out occasionally on the weekend to grab a nice bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon to bring in and decant, I'll see the box there and I will, from time to time, take a stroll down memory lane."

Erik's made peace with his box. He's made peace with himself. I guess I'm a little different than that. I don't wish to give up the people I love and the memories I cherish. But I'm willing to sacrifice all the papers, the evidence, the reminders, the senior prom tickets, the better-than-expected report card, the desperate resume from a period of total unemployment... all in order to achieve a kind of psychic lightness.

I talked to lots of other people from my box. Every one of them has a box of their own, or several. Some of them had entire storage lockers of boxes and spend hundreds of dollars a year to store them. And they never visit those boxes. Everyone wishes they could throw stuff out. No one has.

But one night, after a long, emotionally exhausting session sifting through my box, with the pressure of moving day weighing on me, I found my nerve. I carried the box to the carport, placing it next to the garbage cans, to await the garbage truck. I have never felt so free. I could move to St. Paul and be only who I wanted to be, not who I was.

But before the garbage truck came, I went out to the carport, picked up the box and carried it back in. And when the moving truck to St Paul came, I put the stupid box on board.

Comments

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  • By Shen Randall

    From Santa Monica, CA, 07/12/2008

    Mr. John Moe,

    Thanks for this! Very entertaining. I believe most of us have a box or boxes containing past memories (and quasi-useless memorabilia) which have a weird 'hold' on us.

    After I relocated from Tokyo back to California I experienced my 'box' realization moment. Fortunately for me several boxes were lost in overseas transit so -- I have either the Japanese freight service or some U.S. port to thank for relieving me of having even more emotional clutter to store.

    Your story gave me a real good laugh!

    By peg ferrier

    From san diego, CA, 07/12/2008

    John, John, John--release yourself. This was a great radio story, truly, but a near-tragic depiction of the hold stuff can have on us. When I was in the information management business, clients accused me of having a "lit match theory" of records retention, but let's face it, if you don't need something, ESPECIALLY if it makes you feel bad or you have no idea why you keep it--pitch it, recycle it, line a birdcage, but do not keep it. Or let others pitch it for you. Sweet release.

    By J K

    From Seattle, WA, 07/12/2008

    The wierd dark picture looks like it is perhaps a stage? Maybe it was the best picture you took of the Stones?

    By Lucie Singh

    From Hudson, WI, 07/12/2008

    Oh, Mr. M! How you made me laugh and whimper. I moved from Chicago to Hudson last fall and since I hadn't moved in a coupla decades or more, I didn't know what NOT to bring, so I moved it all. In my defense, I did cull some very large rocks and a length of railway tie, but the movers thought I'd overlooked them and packed em up and brought em along. The storage bin in the basement in Chicago contained five of "those boxes." I've spent a hunk of time over the past months, going through them, marveling at my packrattery, at my inability to throw anything away ever, at this collection of snerd and lovelies and this clutch of photos of people totally lost to me -not dead, you understand, simply not remembered. Thank you for your story - you've made mine a little bit less nutsy.

    Lucie Singh

    By Brenda Bish

    From Cincinnati, OH, 07/12/2008

    I had to clean out my mother's house, and i used a technique I found in a organizational book. I took photos of stuff I felt emotionally attached to, then got rid of the item. This included my first two bicyle (with banana seat!) a broken child-size rocking chair, a little best friends statue, prom stuff, etc. I did get the film developed (lol) and the envelop of photos took a lot less room than any one of the items would have.

    For papers, have you considered taking out only memoriablia you really like, and scan them into your computer? then you get rid of the paper. this lessens the volume of stuff to almost zero, but acknowledges that you are a person with a strong connection to the past.

    good luck!

    Brenda (OH)

    By Dale Young

    From Lakewood 44107, OH, 04/05/2008

    I'm an oldfart: 79.

    I had a wierdly varied career: Fuller Brush salesman, nightclub performer, radio disc jockey, local TV host in several midwest cities, insurance salesman, businessman (Hearing Aid offices).

    But my main avocation was as a self-styled roue' . . . basically trying to seduce every woman I came in contact with. Finally wound up being married 5 times.

    Thinking that someday my story would be totally fascinating to the entire civilized world, I kept correspondence from my 20's and 30's . . .mostly, of course, with women. I thought the material in the letters (I typed my replies and had carbons of many) would be invaluable in remembering those days.

    Several years ago, I got them out and read . . . in varying degrees of abject horror, dismay, embarrassment, chagrin, and heartbreaking regret.

    Who was this guy?!? Who in the hell did he THINK he was!! Most of the letters were signed with a first name or perhaps just an endearing term, and probably one of the worst elements in this pitiable exercise, was that in many cases I COULDN'T REMEMBER THE LAST NAMES!!

    Needless to add, my story will remain forever untold.

    By Dana Riley Black

    From Seattle, WA, 03/30/2008

    Oh John! I was running errands on Sunday and driving around Greenlake when I heard this story. I had to wonder if the summer camp photo you spoke of was from leadership camp - I wonder if I'll ever get a chance to get a true summertime tan again now that I'm a working parent!

    So our "moving box" story. I went to graduate school in Ohio, and my then fiance (now husband, Ben), was in graduate school in Massachusetts. After graduating we both got jobs in Massachusetts. Ben found us a place to live, moved in and unpacked just before I moved out there. The small place was great - it was ours, our first place, AND, we each had our own closet in the bedroom.

    Ben had a daily "uniform" - Redwing Boots, Levis, a black t-shirt and a vest. He owned at least one back-up for each article of clothing. One night when getting ready for bed and putting something away in his closet, we noticed that the backup pair of Redwings looked as if the heels had been chewed on. "Oh man," I thought, "there are rats in this condo!" "I know what it is," said Ben, and then he proceeded to dig through the bottom of HIS closet -- I had never seen the bottom of his closet, and the bottom of his closet contained HIS BOX. As I watched him empty out his box, I learned that there was so much still to learn about him! Out of the box came a bunch of SAAB car parts "We don't have a SAAB I pointed out to him, do you really need those?" "We may have a SAAB someday," he replied. "Of course," I thought. Then came a bunch of copy machine parts. "What are those for?" I asked. "Those are parts for when I build a charisma-metor." (I soon learned that in high school he had made a promise with a friend to someday build a charisma-meter, a devise to measure charisma, and he was still collecting potential parts.) The digging in the box went on, and I didn't ask many more questions about the stuff that came out - mind you he had flew the box with all of this stuff across the country from Seattle on a poor graduate student budget. Finally, he found a half-filled bottle of a liquid. "Here, I've found it, this is what has made my Redwings look as if they've been chewed on!" "What?" I asked. "Its a bottle of acid, the vapors ate away at the rubber on the boots" he claimed. "Of course," I thought. "Why do you have acid?" I asked. "In case I need to clean any mortar, you know, like when you are building with bricks" he replied. "Of course," I thought, everyone needs to be prepared for that.

    No kidding, that box (without the acid), and several other of similar boxes have moved with us 3 more times. We live back in Seattle now, and those boxes, along with similar collections, are in our basement. I don't go into the basement very often, and when I do, I don't look into any boxes. And, the charisma-metor hasn't yet been built, but parts are still being collected - our six year old son wants to be part of constructing the devise when it is someday built. Oh, and we've not yet purchased a SABB, but I believe we still have those car parts.

    Good luck with your move and your new life in Minnesota!

    By Ann Holiday

    From Seattle, WA, 03/30/2008

    I rooted for the box throughout the piece.
    I too have stuff from the past – tear sheets of most every article I wrote in 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, letters from my college years, an issue of The University of Washington Daily in which I had a byline and so did Larry Coryell, who went on to fame not as a journalist but as a guitarist. I keep telling myself I’ll scan the small stuff onto CD-ROMS so I can throw it away – but I don’t.
    I think I keep it all (and have moved it across the country twice) because of one thing that somehow didn’t get saved – my high school English research paper. The topic: The Greenhouse Effect. The year: 1962. I’d really like to re-read what I had to say!

    By Mike Brennan

    From Chicago, IL, 03/30/2008

    Great story, John. I have collected many boxes, indeed, half a basement full of cherished junk. (My wife assures me that, should I die first, she will order a dumpster before calling the undertaker.) Collecting trunks of mementos may be an absurd and useless clinging to the past, or a way to jog the memory (though, as you point out, sometimes there is no memory to jog - who's Ben? Who's Chris?), or the result of lifelong procrastination. Or all of the above. I often say I am a depression era child and one never knows when one will need this or that - though I was born in 1957. But I think I can part with old cassette tapes, dusty magazines, and things I will never get around to fixing or turning into works of "found art." Letters and pictures and journals, though, will remain with me to the end, I pretty sure. I may thin the herd. But one thing I would like to say is that it grieves me that I have very little documenting the lives of my parents or grandparents, and nothing at all from extended family or ancestors. I realize that people had harder lives, simpler lives, and they did not have all the technological resources we enjoy in such profusion. But even if I could scan or transfer every bit of writing and every photo into the computer and reduce that Rubbermaid box to a thin CD, I would miss having some of those letters to hold or photos to shuffle through. I don't want this material to be a burden for me - or my wife or my daughter or any other relatives or descendants who may look at it when I'm gone - but I would like some of it to survive long enough to give my great great grandson, for example, some notion of who I was and what life was like for me and my loved ones. I would sure love to open a hidden chest in the attic that belonged to my great great grandfather.

    By Amy Palmer

    From Plymouth, MA, 03/29/2008

    I just went through my own struggle with emotional baggage in my parents' attic. My parents sold their house of 37 years and I needed to either take my box of stuff or throw it away. It had been over 10 years since I have touched that box. I knew what it contained- memories of my first true love. There were countless love letters, memorabilia, our senior prom picture, the framed poem he wrote me in college. It went on and on. I sat in the attic going through it, feeling guilty reliving these memories while my two children were downstairs with my mother and my husband was at work. This box had no place in my house or in my life. It went to the curb for the garbage truck to take away. Now I’ll see how my mind molds these memories as time goes. Will I remember how it felt to be 17 and in love when my daughter is a teenager? Will it change the way I feel about any girlfriends my son brings home when he’s in college? Will I be sympathetic of break-ups they may go through at different stages of their lives? I don’t know.

    By Laura Hall

    From Hailey, ID, 03/29/2008

    PS: I have just printed off your article and placed it in my "save" box here in Idaho. Yes, I may someday want to pull it out and read it again. Maybe. Laura Hall

    By Jason Stewart

    From Ann Arbor, MI, 03/29/2008

    I just heard this piece on NPR on my way to the car wash... I recently had a similar experience cleaning out my car after the long, filthy Michigan winter... I found a few thing muzzled between the seats, that I was sure that I had lost long ago and had happily moved on without, but now I wonder if I should keep these little insignificant trinkets that were so easily forgetten. Eventually I, like John, just couldn't bring myself to kick the
    to the curb; they now reside in my glovebox. Who knows, someday I may want Angela's number that as written on the back of that gas receipt, or take the time to fix that bracelet. I won't be burning any bridges today.

    By Laura Hall

    From Hailey, ID, 03/29/2008

    I totally connect with your rubbermaid tote of "stuff". I definately have one..er..two. Lets say I have a full size, storage unit in Eugene, OR that is filled with the memory "stuff". I pay a hefty rent each month to keep it all. Every 3 months or so, I plan a trip back to Eugene (its been in storage there 6 years now) in order to throw out most of what is there. I know I have 2 large boxes of notes exchanged in study hall, 45 years ago. I don't need those. I have yet to make to trek to my storage unit. Maybe this Spring? Laura Hall

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