Discerning memories from garbage

When I lived in New York City, hoarding was never an issue. I lived in a 500-square-foot apartment with my husband and two kids, and I want to tell you that it was really small, but for an apartment in a coveted school district New York City, it’s not that small. We had a rule that if you bring something into the apartment, you throw something out.

To give you an idea of how wide ranging the impact of lack of space is, when we moved to Wisconsin, my son said one night, “It’s so fun to have a bed. Thank you so much. I love Wisconsin!” Neither kid had a bed in NYC. In fact, if you want to know why so many babies in poor families die it’s probably because they don’t have a bed. My son slept on a pillow on the floor next to me for six months. And one night I woke up and he was gone. He had rolled over twice.

But I digress.

A lot about living in NYC has stayed with me. I live on a farm now, where there is unlimited storage. People buy little buildings for about $200 and then they store more stuff in them. Unlimited space for buildings! Unlimited storage! No monthly fees!

I am disgusted by this. It reeks of hoarding to me. So I am still a stickler about throwing stuff out. Probably to a fault.

When the kids lose something, before they embark on a search they ask me if I’ve thrown it out.

I have felt guilty having to answer yes, so now I have a secret area where I put things that I think I could throw out without them noticing. But if they ask for it over the course of a few weeks then I can just pull it out of my stash.

Recently, I went through the stuff that I saved for sentimental reasons. I saved clothes that I remember the boys wearing all the time. I saved their favorite stuffed animals. It’s a lot. And I’m not even half way done.

My mom, for the last fifteen years, has been trying to give me and my brothers the stuff she saved. We joke about how she gives us toys with mold and lead paint. But now I have more empathy for her. It’s hard to throw stuff out that reminds me of good times with the kids.

So I have a new idea. I took pictures. There’s stuff that simply will not last—not last long enough for me to give to my grown up kids so their wives can throw it out. So I started taking pictures.

You know what that picture is up top? It’s my son’s first violin. He was three. It takes a toddler about six months to learn to hold a violin properly on the shoulder. They start with a kleenex box and a handle from a duster. The real violin is the reward for six months of hard work. I saved the pretend violin all this time. But today, I took a picture and threw it out.

It’s hard to do, but the process is a great way to remind myself that the day to day moments that are so difficult—like trying to get a three-year-old to hold a violin—are also cherished memories and I’m so lucky to have so many of them every day.

15 replies
  1. Bec Oakley
    Bec Oakley says:

    Hey that’s a great idea, why didn’t I think of that! I’m an anti-hoarder too – the hardest part is when the kids bring home all their art and school work at the end of the year.

    I wait until they’re not here and throw most of it out, keeping only the firsts… first time they wrote their name, first time they drew a person.

    What I’ve ended up with is a pile that by its sheer size reminds me of how far we’ve come and all the little milestones we’ve conquered, many of which I was told they’d never reach.

    I’m going to go take a photo of that pile.

  2. Amy Gibson
    Amy Gibson says:

    I’m a really big hoarder, but now I’m just going to take photos of the stuff and throw it out (and maybe buy a terabyte hard drive). Gee what a great idea, thanks Penelope xx

  3. Amy Gibson
    Amy Gibson says:

    p.s don’t even have kids yet, but when I do homeschooling is top of the research list and I’ll be back here to read on.

  4. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    I’ve moved a lot, and the rule always was just leave everything in boxes. If I get to the point where I’m moving again and stuff is still in the boxes from the last move, time to throw it out.

  5. christy
    christy says:

    Just re-read this. I read it the first time, but didn’t comment. Reading it again because of new post on perseverance. It’s a good post. So of course I needed to wonder why it didn’t generate the kinds of comments you expect and desire.

    Then it dawned on me.

    I suspect that the people who read this blog – as opposed to your other blog – can’t completely relate.

    It would be interesting to find out how many people on this blog have ever tried to live in 500 sq ft. Alone. Or with kids.

    NYC housing reality is so different to the reality experienced by most other people in the US (though not so different to the reality of many other parts of the world) that it’s hard to conceive of.

    I’d be willing to bet that there are some who read this blog whose kitchens (or worse, closets) are larger than 500sq ft.

    And when one cannot conceptually relate, it’s hard to know what to say.

    I had a job for a couple of years that literally had me living out of a large rucksack for that whole time. I was in a different bed in a different city/country nearly every night. It almost killed me. And, I’ve found in the years since, that no one understands that. They don’t understand needing to make choices about what to keep and what to discard.

    It’s so totally out of their frame of reference that they change the subject.

    Of course, I could be all wet, and everyone was just feeling lazy when this post went up.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love that after I spent 48 hours worrying about how I could write a post that has only one comment, this post now has 9 comments. Thanks, you guys. This almost validates my hunch that all my worrying really does make my life better.

      I’m also intrigued by the discussion of why people don’t comment. It’s fun that you guys (Christy here, and commenters below) are telling me why you *didn’t* comment. It’s actually really instructive for someone like me, who is a professional conversation starter. Thanks.


  6. karelys
    karelys says:

    I didn’t comment on this post but now that I read your latest I came back to post it under this.

    I hadn’t notice you have the “like” and “share” links to facebook and such. When I read through my feed and someone writes or posts something I like, agree, or even just to acknowledge it I click like. Sometimes I don’t even comment.

    I had read about you getting rid of books because they are sentimental but take up too much room a while back ago. And I started doing the same.

    This post was incredibly helpful to me because soon I’ll have a baby and I will probably have a hard time knowing what to save or how. I save plastic butter tubs so I can use them instead of tupperware. Instead of being a savvy move I end up with tons of ugly containers.

    Anyway, I think that instead of staying away from writing topics that don’t produce comments it’d be better to reframe them, if they are of your interest, so that maybe they invite people to conversation.

    I loved this post because it has a bit of history and sentimentality and sometimes that’s hard to see that in your other blog. In your other blog you reveal tons of hurt and this awkward social interaction you have with most people. It’s crazy and endearing when you are so blunt but only to those who know you through reading your blog for long.

    This blog I love. It shows a much softer side. And I really like the cardboard violin. I wouldn’t have taken a picture. I’d give in and keep it, I know it. Just because it’s so sweet.

    But just like you’ve affected the way I think about career and everything else this post also had an impact. It’s just that every time something has a deep impact I don’t talk about it until I mull over and over and finally I can voice it out.

  7. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    I didn’t comment because I didn’t think I had anything meaningful enough to say.

    I am an INTP raised by a mom (INFP)–emphasis on the eccentric and indecisive “NP”–who had parents that would not throw anything away and would buy stuff for projects that never got finished (or started), and she brought this into her marriage.

    I am definitely a hoarder by nature, but seeing the destructiveness of this pattern, and helped by marrying a super minimalist INFJ (eccentrically committed to her idealist organizational vision), I’ve come to a similar habit of getting rid of stuff just because it’s stuff, regardless of “value.” (Oh, that’s dangerous word in the hoarder gamer. Same with the classic “I could use this.”)

  8. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    I didn’t comment because I didn’t think I had anything meaningful enough to say.

    I am an INTP raised by a mom (INFP)–emphasis on the eccentric and indecisive “NP”–who had parents that would not throw anything away and would buy stuff for projects that never got finished (or started), and she brought this into her marriage.

    I am definitely a hoarder by nature, but seeing the destructiveness of this pattern, and helped by marrying a super minimalist INFJ (eccentrically committed to her idealist organizational vision), I’ve come to a similar habit of getting rid of stuff just because it’s stuff, regardless of “value.” (Oh, that’s dangerous word in the hoarder game. Same with the classic “I could use this.”)

  9. MoniqueWS
    MoniqueWS says:

    As a child I was a bit of a hoarder. Everything had some memory or sentiment attached to it. This made editing difficult for me. My mother would enter my room while I was a school and sweep the counters, desk, cupboards, floor into the garbage can (the icky one that normally sat out at the curb for pick up). I hated this. It felt so disrespectful and belittling to me.

    Now I have three children of my own. When frustrated with their room cleanliness (or not) I struggle with my desire to re-create my mother’s behavior. I don’t. I won’t. I have shared with them this story and admit my struggles. They try to keep their stuff under some control/management.

    We have taken photos of their work/creations for some time. We also do keep a memory box/crate for each child. They edit the box from year to year. The box will go with them when they leave our home.

  10. emily
    emily says:

    hi! lots of times i don’t comment because i think – what a loser i am. i just keep coming back to this blog. and commenting. and then people don’t always comment on my comments. so i wonder – is this commenting business a form of delaying big decisions i need to make in my own life?

    also, to the commenter above, who said that it’s hard to relate to this blog if you’re living in a rural area with kids: i disagree. i think that it’s so interesting how the same lessons come up for people in totally different types of lives. sometimes i just don’t comment because the lessons here are so deep – i want to have an actual conversation around the topic, rather than a one-sided vent.

    for anyone reading this, please be aware – i’ve been hounding penelope to hire me to run forums on the site, across both blogs, for a while. so if you want to read this as yet another pitch for myself, i wouldn’t argue. it’s just that i think there’s so much unexplored possibility here that i can’t help but press the issue.

    ps – what about starting a photo gallery on flickr of all the items you’re throwing away. i know, i know – you don’t need another project. it’s just that i love those kinds of things and the photo galleries could open up a whole other audience for the blog.

    • Alex Kenzie
      Alex Kenzie says:


      I hope you don’t mind me critiquing, but I could not hold my tongue.

      You would like to be working with Penelope, yet you begin with, “What a loser I am” – not exactly a confident first impression.

      Also, incorporating capital letters into your posts will make you appear more professional.

  11. Claudia
    Claudia says:

    I love this idea. In fact, I just pulled out the teeny tiny baby clothes my grandmother made for me. She was an artist: the garments are beautiful, with beautiful stitches, miles of scalloping and embroidery, eensy 6 pt cross stitches that say things like ” my first shirt” and “don’t kiss me” and yet still manage to look simple and not overdone.

    though I take care of these precious things, I can’t convey my experience of my grandma to my nieces if they are bundled carefully in a box, with all of us living so far away. I’m going to have them photographed with a macro lens so that I can share them with ALL of my family. More projects can ensue from the pics–or not…

  12. Laura
    Laura says:

    I do this all the time, and wish I could convince my pack rat husband to do the same. He says a picture isn’t the same as holding something in your hand. For some things I see his point. I still have my favorite blanket from childhood. For most things, though, a picture is enough to bring back all the memories associated with an object.

  13. Jen Scaffidi
    Jen Scaffidi says:

    Wow. This post brought something full circle for me, so much so that it took me a few days after reading it to formulate my comment.

    First, I’ve been reading your blog since 2008. Lately I have been thinking about sending you a thank-you card; you ought to know that you have helped me define myself professionally, that you have fortified my desire to be my authentic self at work, and that you have made me a more critical thinker and a star performer. I saw this post shortly after that realization; it affected me, eerily.

    In 2009, after being laid off from a job I hated, I took your advice and started a blog. Not necessarily as a professional medium but as a way to sort myself out during a career lull and to tread water until I picked my next step.

    What blew me away about this post is that I built that blog (http://theboxblogproject.blogspot.com/) around the concept that I held onto too much junk over the years and that I needed a method for sorting it, cataloging it, and throwing it out. In the early days, much of what I posted involved pictures and stories of sentimental objects and school artwork, just like you did in this post.

    So, thank you for unintentionally validating my blog. Thank you for your insight over the years. Thank you for being you.

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