Getting Rid Of STUFF, And The Power Of Symbols [Newsletter]
Think quick! If your house is on fire, what do you grab first? Family members, and pets, obviously, but what else? Assuming that everyone got out of the house safe, and you have five minutes, what will you take with you?
Passport, and a stack of cash. Ok. But then?
I’d take an old brown leather jacket, and my journals. The jacket is older than I am, and belonged to my grandma. It’s worn on the cuffs, and the lining is torn, and it is still my favorite item of clothing. The journals would be a little more problematic – I am currently on the notebook number forty six.
Why those things? Why not a specific medal? My expensive kitchen knives (ahhhh, I should probably take those too)?
Two of my old psychology professors (old, because long time ago, not because they are actually old) wrote a number of papers on the theory of self, and boundaries. There was a fascinating reflection on the role of things in our lives. According to the authors, consumers use goods and objects as identity markers. In other words, things represent something else, and once any one object is given symbolic importance, it becomes part of our self.
Holy moly. It’s no wonder we have trouble parting with things.
Wedding dress, wedding ring, an old jacket that no longer fits. An album with baby photos that burned in a house fire, or a ratty t-shirt that you’ve been wearing since college. These things are not just things. They become part of you.
I started minimizing my possessions few years ago. Slowly, slowly. Painstakingly. I deleted my LinkedIn account. My Twitter account. Old textbooks were hard. I kept a few – like my very first psychology textbook. Many editions later, I ended up using the same textbook to teach psychology to my own group of students.
As Italian and I combined our households, we got rid of doubles – extra toaster, extra microwave. I insisted that they do not collect dust in the garage. We donated, gave away, threw out. I got rid of the pants that did not fit, the sweaters I did not wear, the single socks.
Yet, one dress, my wedding dress, stayed. I bought it at the Brides’ Project, a store that accepts and sells donated gowns with all profits going to cancer charities. Their tagline is “fight cancer, one dress at a time”. After the big day, I resisted taking the dress to the dry cleaners. Did you know they can dry clean it for you and put it into one of those plastic doll-like boxes? I just found the whole thing reminiscent of taxidermy. I’ll have a tall box with a white dress in my house? Creepy. The dress kept hanging in my closet. Six months. A year.
Few weeks ago I posted a picture of my wedding dress. “What did YOU do with your wedding dress?”, I asked folks on Instagram. A surprising number of women still had their wedding dress – two years, ten years, twenty years later. Some remodelled it into an outfit they loved, but most kept it in their closet, or under the stairs, not really sure what to do with it.
They struggled to explain. It was a memory, a feeling. A tangible token of that perfect day, when all the eyes were on you. How do you get rid of that?
When I expressed my decision to donate the dress back to Brides’ Project, a friend messaged me. “Are you sure? Given what you went through this year, and all, I just want to make sure that YOU are are”.
She was referring to the miscarriage, of course. It was sweet. She told me that some women hold on to their wedding dress for the possible daughter. Others renew their vows at milestone anniversaries, and wear the same dress.
I thought about it.
If I have a daughter, and she is even half as stubborn as I am, she won’t want to wear her mother’s dress.
As for renewing my vows… Well, if we make it to twenty years, then surely, I deserve a new dress. 🙂 And thinking of a twenty year old dress that I would have to FIT INTO is just too much pressure.
Was I sure?
Last time I visited the Brides’ Project, it was warm outside, and I walked out with my wedding dress, clutching it to my chest, like a baby. This time, it was cold, and grey, and wet, and as I dropped off my dress to the thankful staff, and sat in my car, I felt that loss. Our things become us. A little piece of me was gone.
Yet… I was sure. You know when something hurts, but feels right anyway? WIth a bit of luck, my dress will be worn by the THIRD bride.
Besides, I got to keep the best part of my wedding day – my husband.