I’m grateful that I decluttered a lot of old letters.
When I started my decluttering process, I had boxes and trunks full of old letters, notes, and cards, and for some reason – before I read any decluttering books – I thought that would be an easy place to start getting rid of extra stuff.
So I opened up a trunk, started pulling out letters, and spent a weekend remembering old friends. At the end of the weekend, I put all the letters back in the trunk, and almost gave up the idea of decluttering altogether.
I was a letter writer. Because my father was a diplomat, and because I grew up in the 80s, letters were often the only way I had to keep in touch with friends – calling the US from overseas was prohibitively expensive, and email wasn’t yet a thing.
So I wrote. I wrote a lot. And as a result, I received a lot of letters. And when I look at them, they represent so much work that so many people did – letters from old friends, letters from old boyfriends. Letters that remind me of why I dated people, and letters that remind me of why we broke up. My letters filled multiple trunks.
I don’t have old emails – when an old email address was retired, so was the entire digital archive, for better or worse. That means that the letters of my twenties and thirties are gone anyway. The letters of my forties are … non-existent… because I have been busy with the day to day work of raising my children. My children have forced me to be present.
I’m not sorry that I don’t have that old digital archive – would I really want all the emails I sent back and forth to friends and old loves? So why do these handwritten letters feel so very different? Do I really need detailed accounts of how ex-boyfriends spent their days?
They were contained – they didn’t spill out of the boxes where I have kept them since the nineties and early 2000s. But they are also starting to feel like they represent an enormous amount of emotional clutter that I could release with a free heart. The letters represent people who were a huge part of my life at one time but mostly are not any longer.
What is it that I think they tell me about myself? That I was loved and cherished enough to be worth writing a letter? Isn’t that something I can know about myself without keeping the boxful? Can’t I just say to myself, “I had a box full of letters that people wrote to me. I was worth all of that.” But isn’t that also reductive? Am I not worth more than a box full of dusty paper and ink?
I always used to think that when I grew old, I would want to remember my younger days. I had journals and letters and photos all prepared as an archive for some older version of myself. But lately I’ve started to wonder if that was wrong thinking – a kind of arrogance of youth – imagining that my life then won’t be filled with its own interests and delights and curiosities. I won’t need to wrap the cloak of my past around me. Until my first attempt to declutter, I hadn’t opened those boxes in decades.
If I’m lucky, I will be busy. I won’t care what things were like in my twenties, because I’ll be busy living the life I’ll be leading in my eighties – just as these days, I really do not have time to pull out those old letters and re-read them. Even when I do have time, I don’t want to choose to use it to read old letters!
And if I were going to reminisce, honestly, wouldn’t I choose to reminisce about now? These days in which my babies are little (not so little, maybe, anymore, at nine and twelve) – days I truly loved; people I truly love.
Maybe I’ll want to reminisce about my college days? But maybe a few photographs will be good enough for that. I don’t know – I haven’t been the ages yet when I used to imagine myself looking back. But maybe, just maybe, on the days that I would wrap the cloak of the past around me, if the cloak isn’t there, I will propel myself into the beautiful present.
So, months after my first failed attempt, I did it. I went through all the old letters I had. It took multiple weekends, but I went through every box. It was way, way harder than I thought it would be, and every time I thought I was done, more letters would pop up in another box. A huge closet in our basement was filled with boxes, and letters spilled into all of them.
Some of the letters were really just long therapy sessions – friends writing out everything in their hearts and then saying, “I’m feeling so much better now!” at the end. There were some gossip-y teenager letters – I doubt those friends grew up to operate that way as adults. The point is that I don’t think those letters needed to exist.
When getting rid of letters, I decided that my first criterion would be: if the letter brought any hint of pain to me or would to the writer, I burned it – in hopes that the very act of burning would bring some psychic space to both of us.
That was not easy, but when it was done, it felt like the right thing.
Still, there were boxes and boxes of letters. I wanted to go further. So I let go of letters whose writers I could not remember at all. There were a surprising number of those!
Some letters I photographed and sent to the original writer – my college roommate had sent a letter describing a wonderful day with her brother. I texted her photographs (seven of them – it was a long letter!) – and she was overwhelmed. Another letter from another roommate enclosed a “book” her seven year old brother had written, and I sent her photos of the book, too.
Finally, I used the “container concept” from Dana K. White’s Decluttering at the Speed of Life process: I chose a small golden trunk for letters and old documents. I filled the trunk with my favorite letters (and other paper memorabilia), and when it was full, it was full.
It’s hard to describe the soul-space-feeling that comes after a decluttering project like that, but when the boxes of letters – and the boxes themselves – were gone, something in me opened up. Some parts of me that were tethered to the past – just by the existence of all those old letters – were free.