We’re currently packing up our home in San Francisco, and one of the first steps in the process is downsizing — and getting rid of stuff. (And some of you already know how I feel about stuff.)
We gave most of our furniture to a friendly couple who responded on Craigslist. (Do you know how many people will respond to your listing of free stuff? My goodness.) I’ve given bags of clothes to my uncle, who will bring them to the Philippines. I took a carload of boxes — small household items, kitchen appliances, more clothes, shoes, accessories, jewelry, and other useable stuff — to a community donation center. Our friends have picked up other pieces of furniture I’d listed on a Google spreadsheet and shared on Facebook. All items claimed. Crossed off.
And oh, my books. We donated hundreds of books to the San Francisco Public Library, from paperback novels I collected when I worked at Barnes & Noble, to hardcover nonfiction I accumulated when I was a book reviewer at a newspaper, to art books from museums around the world, to dog-eared travel guides, to cookbooks never opened.
We have a bookcase in our living room; they’re the most accessible shelves in our home, visible through the window to those passing on the street. I’d displayed what I considered my favorite books there, but I hadn’t even read half of them.
I suppose I view unread books like the stories in my Pocket queue or the links in Instapaper I’ve not read: they’re a pretty display of the knowledge I already have, that I actually own, but haven’t had a chance to consume yet. With the exception of a few that really mean something to me, I shouldn’t feel so attached to these books.
As I sit in my loft and stare at empty shelves, bare walls, and more boxes, I think about these things: How I’ve been tied to them for so long. How they’ve followed me from home to home. How I’ve considered them valuable.
And I don’t know why.
* * *
A few weeks ago, I went through shoeboxes of film photographs and negatives. Most were pictures taken with disposable cameras — dorm room hangouts, warehouse parties in San Bernardino and Oakland, past boyfriends. Some shots were from way back, like my first black and white photography class in eighth grade. As I dove in, I expected to have a hard time deciding what to keep.
But even my photographs? I can’t possibly toss these memories.
I enjoyed sifting through them, but threw away more than expected: Contact sheets from my semesters in Europe and Southeast Asia. Super 8 reels from my film production seminars. High school pictures — coming of age, documented. And many shots of me, family, best friends, and ex-boyfriends — people I am close to, or was close to.
On the other hand, I was surprised by some photos I kept: snapshots of insignificance, of anachronism, of no value to me. Photos with acquaintances whose names I don’t recall or crushes from my first year of college. Pictures with strangers on dance floors. Moments I’ve forgotten — that haven’t been swirling and reshaping in my head all these years. I was more interested in these pictures, as they weren’t an active part of The Past.
There are things that photographs capture; there are things you can’t replace; there are objects you hope to pass down to others — artifacts of history, of you. I get that. But I’ve kept so many photographs for decades because I’ve considered them “precious” — because they’re supposed to take me down memory lane. But some of these pictures aren’t all that special: they inadequately record moments already tattooed in my brain. Some might not agree, but I think they’re distracting and misleading — static visual byproducts. No picture can match the imagery in my head. Ultimately, they take up space.
So, I kept some photographs and tossed the rest. I kept some books and donated the rest.
I think about all of this stuff, most of which I haven’t touched in years, and question what I really need.
* * *
As I think about our accumulation of things, I also think about the spaces we inhabit not just to house ourselves, but to hold these things. I’ve never been interested in having a big house, whatever that entails. My first place in San Francisco was a very tiny Russian Hill apartment, while our current loft is 720 square feet. While some people might consider this space — or anything under 1,000 square feet — too small, there’s more than enough room (and I actually think it’s too big).
I often wonder what home is — what it’s supposed to look like. Is it a comfortable physical space we can call our own? Is it a state of mind? Is it one’s lifelong companion? When my beloved lived on the other side of the world, I thought that my physical home would be incomplete as long as he was away. Now that he’s here, this space feels more like home, but we’re ready to explore it further: What if we could redefine home so it fits our needs, and create a space that also allows us to do the things we really want to do? What would that look like?
Note: A different version of this post was originally published at Writing Through the Fog.