The Joys of Being a Pack Rat

My shoeboxes of stuff allow me touch the past in a way no digital memory could

Photo: StockPlanets/Getty Images

II have a confession to make. I’m a pack rat, notorious for my obsession with memorabilia. I possess shoebox after shoebox of ticket stubs, art exhibit pamphlets, birthday cards, graduation programs, theater playbills, music festival wristbands, goofy photo booth pics — one shoebox might span several years’ worth of travel and adventures.

I’ve kept notes passed between me and my best friend during middle school science class, along with every single journal I’ve ever written in, including the ones I gave up on after a single entry. I still have the sage wristband gifted to me by a friend after dancing in the South Dakota sun for four days without food and water, as well as a seashell-studded dread cut from a friend’s locks during our college days.

The last week, however, I’ve been busy doing my least favorite activity: packing. This tedious process means being confronted with my stuff; the physical objects that form the chaotic evidence of my earthly existence. As I write this, I’m on a plane to Puerto Rico with my husband and too many suitcases filled with kitchen supplies, clothes, and books. We’ve decided to bring only the bare essentials with us for now, leaving the memorabilia behind in storage.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Parting ways with these relics of my past brings up a lot of mixed feelings. For example, I’m very comfortable giving away clothes. I can even part ways with books, as long as I know they’re going to a good home. And although I have no trouble throwing out entire stacks of financial documents once the three-year statute of limitations has passed, I couldn’t imagine my shoeboxes suffering the same fate.

Thankfully, my husband does not badger me about my collection of memorabilia-filled shoeboxes. Instead, he looks over my shoulder when I open one up to see what surprises are inside. He asks me about the items tucked neatly into their corners, and I smile, recounting the stories attached to each object. Like me, he sees these scraps as treasures. Last summer, I found great pleasure in sifting through his boxes of memorabilia while packing up his life in Germany to move with me across the ocean. An ordinary single piece of rope might carry with it an extraordinary story about a boat he once worked on, and the eccentric elderly couple who owned it.

I don’t hold on to these shoeboxes full of memories in order to live in the past. But every once in a while, usually during those transitional life moments, it brings me joy to touch the past and see where I have been, what I’ve done, and where the road has taken me. Sometimes I wonder if I’d be able to recall much of the past without these relics. They jog my memory, and transport me to earlier versions of myself, my family, and the world we once inhabited.

Luckily, I had the good fortune of several friends stopping by to help me pack, assisting me with sorting clothes and boxing books. They all know the stomach pains that packing gives me. While I bemoaned my hoarder tendencies, they overflowed with helpful suggestions. One of them recommended throwing away the vestiges of my earlier life without opening them, because the minute I opened up a yearbook or diary and started reading, I was toast. Another friend proposed that I scan sentimental cards and notes to make a “digital scrapbook.”

I nodded my head; perhaps she was right. I could go on a scanning frenzy and rid myself of this physical detritus! But deep down, I knew I wouldn’t take this more practical route. A computerized walk down a digital memory lane isn’t the same as holding in my hand the last card my grandmother sent to me before she died, the scent of perfume and cigarette smoke still lingering on the yellowing paper.

As a writer, especially a memoir and nonfiction writer, my shoeboxes are the tools I can call upon for inspiration. As a daughter, I’ve been delighted to stumble across my parents’ own boxes of memorabilia, hidden away in the back of their closets, providing a glimpse of their lives before I was in it.

These are not relics I can hold in my hands, but perhaps I can still stumble across them unexpectedly.

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

And yet, so much of my life has also been digitally documented online: Facebook photo albums, email exchanges, WhatsApp group chats, Evites to baby showers, and weddings, and book releases. Some of these memories are documented only ephemerally, evaporating from the digital landscape after just 24 hours.

So whether I like it or not, I already have a digital scrapbook, an archive of memories that exists solely on the World Wide Web. These are not relics I can hold in my hands, but perhaps I can still stumble across them unexpectedly. Facebook encourages our need for nostalgia with throwback posts: Remember when you were sitting in the sun with your friends during your last semester of college? You were just barely 22, with the world at your feet. On this day 14 years ago, you wrote a post about how much you loved your cat. Here’s a photo of you harvesting corn with the crew during that summer you apprenticed on an organic farm. Look at your tan skin, your easy smile, your pride in doing backbreaking work.

Yet the digital sphere does not promote reflection, if only because of the scrolling format, which prioritizes only the latest, up-to-the-minute posts. You don’t accidentally happen upon vestiges of your former self, outside of Facebook’s algorithmic throwback posts. The dopamine-inducing platforms of social media encourage constant creation, but not necessarily carefree cruising through your past.

Imagine digging back through your Facebook profile. How would you even start such an exercise? Of course, some of it is organized in digital photo albums and such, but most of it isn’t. The thought of scrolling farther and farther back into my profile gives me hives. I’m sure there are gems — forgotten photographs, a kind note from a friend — hidden away within the depths of my online footprint, but it would take a concerted effort on my part to go searching for them.

A few years ago, when I embarked on my yearlong social media sabbatical, I didn’t know whether I would ever return to that virtual world. I was planning on deactivating my Facebook account, but didn’t want to lose everything I’d ever shared or received on the site. My husband stepped in and showed me how to download my entire Facebook history as a zip file, right onto my computer. And so, somewhere on my hard drive sits the digital detritus of half a lifetime of Facebook existence. I’ve never opened it.

Memoirist for hire. I think and write a lot about life in the digital landscape. Sign up for my newsletter: //

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