I’ve Shed the Emotional Baggage of Divorce. But What About All This Stuff?

Dear Sugars,

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RESTRICTED -- I’ve Shed the Emotional Baggage of Divorce. But What About All This Stuff?
Cheryl Strayed
Steve Almond, New York Times
Dear Sugars,
I was married for a decade and have been divorced just as long. I’ve moved multiple times, and every time I find myself having to deal with several boxes of “marriage memorabilia.” This feels strange, of course, as though I’m literally carrying my past around with me. I’ve dealt with my emotional baggage (as much as one can), but I’ve been at a loss as to how to deal with this physical reminder.
The marriage wasn’t a happy time, nor was its dissolution. But obviously it shaped who I am now and I don’t want to dishonor that. It is still my history. Doing anything dramatic — like having a bonfire — seems silly, as a lot of time has passed and I’m no longer angry. I’ve donated items that were appropriate to donate, but it feels strange to throw away wedding photos. How do I get rid of these personal items while still honoring my past? What is everyone else doing with their memorabilia from a marriage that has ended?
Cheryl Strayed: I relate to your dilemma, Goodbye. I have a box in my garage that contains memorabilia from my first marriage too — wedding photos and a VHS video, a printout of the vows my ex and I wrote, cards of congratulations from family and friends. For years, I felt bewildered whenever I’d come upon those items and other things from my first marriage. Like you, I grappled with the questions of what to do with them and why. To rid myself of that wedding memorabilia and other things from my previous marriage felt like an erasure of sorts. To keep it felt unnecessary and a bit dismal — not because I regret either the marriage or the divorce, but because the joy and unity they announce ended in sorrow and division. So for years I did what you’ve done, Goodbye. I let it sit. I hauled it from place to place. And I felt queasy discomfort whenever I came upon it.
Steve Almond: My hunch is that most of us do this, Goodbye: haul around memorabilia from previous marriages or romances for too long. It’s because we recognize, like you, that these relationships are formative, even if they are also painful. Whereas we’ve created a cultural and commercial construct around the marriage ritual, we don’t have one for divorce. We’re uncertain how to bring closure to that experience. And thus we lug around relics hoping that they will one day help us make sense of an experience that we can’t yet. One obvious life hack would be to digitize the photos and other items. There are companies that will do this pretty cheaply; even a tech-savvy friend could help. Creating an album that you can store on a hard drive, or even a thumb drive, solves the practical dilemma. But your letter is really about an inner conflict that makes tossing this stuff feel wrong. I’d listen to that. Having a bonfire strikes you as silly. But creating a ritual of some sort, one that allows you to explore with the meaning of the marriage and the divorce, may help you let go of these artifacts with resolution rather than regret.
Strayed: I think that a large part of what makes you feel “strange” every time you come upon your marriage memorabilia is that you haven’t decided what to do with these items. You have them not by choice but by default. You’ve kept them out of a vague sense of obligation rather than genuine desire. It seems clear from your letter that you feel burdened by these physical reminders of your previous marriage, so I think you should unburden yourself from them. You don’t need a bonfire if you don’t want a bonfire. Just put them in the trash. Doing so will not dishonor your past. Your history is your history, whether you have a box of photos of yourself in a fancy white dress gathering mold in your basement or not. You honor your past by doing precisely what you’re doing, Goodbye: learning from it and moving forward with that wisdom. Our memories reside in us. The physical objects that document them can be disposed. In the end, I opted to keep mine, but only after years of sharing your conundrum — and feeling, like you, burdened by it. What liberated me from that burden is that I decided to decide. Once I did that, I knew that while I may never choose to see those items again, I wanted the option to. So I curated the stash. I sorted through the memorabilia one last time, put the most meaningful items in a box, labeled it and sealed it up. Perhaps I’ll never open it again, but I like knowing that I can.
Almond: As I write this, Goodbye, I’m staring at a self-portrait of the woman I lived with 30 years ago. It’s sitting on a chest of drawers that contains photos and letters from other relationships that ended decades ago. Sometimes, like you, I ponder my own idiocy in keeping this stuff around. We’re living in an age where the act of decluttering is exalted as a kind of spiritual exercise. It can be, I guess. But we’re not talking about old sweaters here, or yellowing magazines. These are relics from your one and only life. After some curating, you may want to keep the most important of these objects around, like Cheryl — just in case. Consider them promissory notes on a future reckoning. Nora Ephron, who wrote brilliantly about so many things, had this to say about divorce: “The dream dies. Which leaves you with a choice: you can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.” That quote comes to mind because what really matters here isn’t whether you hang on to the material vestiges of your last marriage. What matters is that you go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.

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