Collecting ourselves

Keeping too many relics from the past gets in the way of an organized present.

By Emily Wang

Over break, my roommate took the train to my hometown—an inoffensive, mildly pleasant suburb southwest of Chicago. Naturally, when we got to my house I showed her all the embarrassing relics of my childhood that I could find: old yearbooks, baby photos, illegible letters, souvenirs from various friends from all over the world, endless piles of stuffed animals. My roommate, faced with this hoard of nonessential things, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Emily, throw this away.” Appalled by that notion, I vigorously shook my head “no” and snatched the trinkets back from her.

I must confess that I have a minor problem: I collect everything and anything, and store it away under the pretense that it will come to use at some eternally ambiguous future date. In elementary school, I joined recycling club because “I cared about the environment,” but really, I cared about finding hidden jewels (unused colored pencils, a sheet of “Great Job!” stickers, notes with “I like you” written on them in crooked script) in those blue plastic treasure chests. For the majority of my life, my room looked like the suburban, teenage reimagining of the final shot of Citizen Kane. It’s only recently regained the appearance of the living space of a sane human being because, well, I no longer live in it. Yet, until my roommate so vehemently denounced the practice, I hadn’t given much thought to collecting aside from recognizing that it was something I simply did.

I’ve been thinking since then about what collecting means to me. Going back home, in particular, is like an irresistible invitation to re-immerse myself in all the minutiae of suburban life: stamps, rocks, shells, stickers, ticket stubs, newspaper clippings, diaries of various shapes and sizes. Every once in a while I find myself, especially over long breaks, just sitting and rearranging my collections, fondly tossing and turning over the memories in my mind.

But even when I surround myself again with these remnants of the past, it’s not as though I can ever really access those parts of my life from where I am now. Since coming to college, I’ve realized that there’s really no such thing as retrospective clarity, but, rather, the imposition of a convenient narrative onto a past that remains comfortingly static. That’s something I struggle to accept, and it’s the reason I keep going back to these vague memories, always mildly pleasant, just like the town I grew up in.

I like to tell myself that I’m more comfortable stewing in a mess of papers and clothes and random found items, that I’m—ahem—in my “element” this way. Really, though, those are just excuses expressed in less self-incriminating phrasing. So my roommate, I’m pained to admit, is right: Collecting, when unsystematic and spontaneous, is a compulsion that often gets in the way of achieving a more organized, lowerstress lifestyle. Collecting doesn’t make me quirkier, or more “real” in some way (in the movies, someone might be charmed when they see your collection of porcelain giraffes; in real life, it’s just vaguely creepy)—worshipping each little knickknack as a vessel for a disembodied memory isn’t conducive to a better me. Rather, it’s just indicative of an undisciplined mind, which translates to undisciplined habits; more often than I would like to acknowledge, it’s 10 minutes until class, and I can’t find that one book I need simply because it’s lost in the pile of everything I’ve saved precisely out of the fear of losing something. It’s hitting me especially hard now that finals are coming around and the practice of letting everything just idly accumulate is coming back to bite me. I’ve wasted too much time trying to piece together notes I took for class on random scraps of paper and cleaning my room after realizing there was not the tiniest bit of open space on my desk to do any work.

This doesn’t mean that during the next break, I’m going to go home and throw all my childhood collections away in the rush of newfound liberation. Collecting is still a fundamental part of my life and really, of the human experience in general. It just means I need to throw most of it away (after all, I’ll probably be moving out soon, and there’s nothing worse than saddling my parents with all that junk I didn’t want to deal with), and that I need to cultivate a more discriminating mindset when it comes to material attachments, which would hopefully help de-clutter my college habits as well.

Every so often, when I do sit down and tell myself, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to sort everything out and throw some of it away,” I end up reminiscing again and lose track of time. It’s okay, I think, I’ll do it next time. But I don’t. And it’s about time I moved on.

Emily Wang is a second-year in the College majoring in English.