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Safety in Objects

By Alyssa Giacobbe

Is there room in our lives for both nostalgia and nonattachment?

When my parents announced they were putting their house—my childhood home—on the market after 32 years, I wasn’t particularly sad, or surprised. They’d spent the last decade building a life among the Florida snowbirds, and the big, gray colonial back in suburban New England was both wasteful and lifeless. The pets were dead, the neighbors unfamiliar; their only child had recently married and bought a house of her own two hours away.

But I didn’t count on the house actually selling, at least not so quickly, and so when my father issued the “everything must go” directive, it felt like the Santa Claus conversation all over again. I’d never been good with change. I’d grown up a fierce sentimentalist with such an inexorable commitment to tradition and the trappings of childhood that I’d once demanded my mother fire the poor housecleaner who thought she was helping by taking down our Christmas tree early. I dreaded birthdays. Each year starting at age 7, I’d sob and wonder whether my best years were behind me. Of course, I knew they weren’t—it was always July, and tomorrow would still be summer vacation—but from an early age I was keenly aware of the bittersweet nature of the passage of time. I glorified my childhood even while I was still in it.

Which may be why I became something of a keepsake hoarder, a kid so obsessed with collecting things for the scrapbooks and memory boxes that I came to view experiences as, firstly, a means to mementoes. I craved a boyfriend’s T-shirt or rope bracelet, a mix tape, a love note, far more than the boy himself. I craved some proof that he had existed—or that the time passed could be accounted for in some tangible way. Wasn’t that what made it real?

On the familiar wooden bed of my childhood bedroom, I sat sorting through class photos and report cards; gymnastics ribbons, expired beach passes, newspaper clippings of hockey boys I had crushes on; handwritten notes chronicling endless after-school drama; and stacks of e-mails I’d printed out. For years, my parents’ house had served as a sort of safe haven for this youthful memorabilia. Now that I was being called on to edit it down, I was finding the task all but impossible. I couldn’t imagine not having saved these things, never mind throwing them away now—no matter that the actual people attached to them were generally no longer in my life. And yet I suspected my need to hang onto them—and it was a need—was unhealthy in some way. What was it about this stuff? Intellectually, I knew I didn’t need it in order to know that I had lived, or even to remember. What’s more, weren’t my yoga teachers always going on about nonattachment—the act of removing our alignment with the past or the future in favor of concentrating on the present? Wasn’t I supposed to be living in the moment, and not traveling down memory lane via a box of 20-year-old scraps?

Indeed, I was. But the present moment wasn’t always fun—especially as I got older and was more likely to accumulate adult worries than, say, gymnastics ribbons. I’d become more jaded. Sitting there, I realized that I’d always felt most inclined to paw through the past when my present wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. A luggage tag from a trip to London, where I’d had my first kiss, could remind me that I was inherently lovable, and would be again. The name tag from a summer job bagging groceries—where every encounter with a neighbor, teacher, or crush’s mom made me certain of my impending social devastation—could remind me that just because I might think people are laughing at me doesn’t mean they are. Whenever I was feeling unsure of my place in the world, I could return home—to this house, and these things. Soon, though, I wouldn’t have that anymore, and that felt profoundly sad.

I figured the right, most mature thing to do was to toss the boxes into the big, green trash cans out front and drive away from the old gray house of my youth feeling grateful for my happy childhood, optimistic for the future, and fully present in my now—a now that was actually going pretty well. There was a hitch: I was still me. No matter what we hear in yoga class, none of us can change in an instant. In fact, if those memory boxes illustrate anything, it’s that any change I make will be slow and deliberate. I wasn’t suddenly going to be the person able to torch a box of photos and journals and notes from my sixth-grade best friend and call myself enlightened. Despite the value I place on living in the present, I’m not quite willing to shed my baggage—be it emotional or tangible. But I can begin to think about what’s going on in my life when I feel the urge to turn to the boxes, or some other symbol of the past, for comfort.

I now have a basement full of oversized sweaters and varsity jackets and stuffed animals, boxes of photo albums and yearbooks, and things I’ll never use again—my violin, my field hockey stick, a handmade pig piñata—and a vow to treat these items with awareness, but not reverence. Though I made these memories, they neither define me now nor predict who I’ll become. They may be links to my past, but they are not blueprints for my future. And though I no longer embark on experiences for their keepsake potential, or really save much at all—for one thing, I’ve got no more storage space—I’ve also come to allow myself a certain leeway. These objects from my past aren’t necessarily evidence of attachments that are holding me back. They’re actually amazingly rich reminders that life moves on, and so do we.

Alyssa Giacobbe has been writing and editing for magazines since 1998, and is now writer-at-large for Boston magazine and a contributing writer at Hemispheres. She leads local and national magazine writing workshops and seminars for mediabistro.com, and regularly consults for custom publishers.

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