Stacks by Matt Ebert

My girlfriend and I are getting ready to move to a different house at the end of the month. With that decision comes a task familiar to anyone who has come to the realization that they have too much stuff: the purge of household items categorized into the what-stays- what-goes binary. I was going through boxes of things I’ve had for way too long and tossing trinkets or papers in the “keep” or “trash” piles when I picked up a list I wrote four years ago during my senior year of college. It was titled “By the Time I’m 25…” The list was made because I was talking to my dad one particular day when I was feeling particularly antsy about what I’d do after college. “Make a list, a three-year plan,” he suggested. “What do you want to have accomplished, where do you want to be at 25?” Well that’s an intriguing idea, isn’t it? Writing down what you hope/dream/predict/want 1,095 days from now?

This post, when originally drafted, was going to be about life planning, and about how the plans we make don’t always work out the way we thought they would. This post was going to be about the realization I had while looking at a four-year old list and thinking about those four years, understanding now that all the things that happened over the past four years led me to where I am now, and how nothing was a mistake, but instead a pivot towards better opportunities. I’ve tried to write THAT post about four times and cannot crack it, partly because I don’t think that’s the story I want to tell. It’s not the message I’ve been feeling my life is sending me.

No. I think this post is more about the trash. It’s about sifting through boxes, tubs, and stacks of things you’ve accumulated over a week, a month, or your life up to this point and deciding what is still important enough that you want to bring it with you when you move. This could be physical stuff, like the stuffed animal your grandparent bought you at the zoo that you cannot bring yourself to donate, because it’s your Flopsy! The trash could also be memories, anger, emotional barriers, or grudges that show up in random places, making you anxious or frustrated all over again with little to no warning.

When I sort through my stuff and put it in the “keep” or “trash” piles, I really feel like all I’m doing is one of two things:

  1. validating that what is in my hand is something I want to remain in my life

  2. coming to terms with the fact that the thing in my hands maybe isn’t something I’m supposed to hang on to forever.

I remember when we used to go to my mom’s grandmother’s house when I was a kid. My great-grandma had Alzheimer’s and was moving to an assisted living community and we would spend whole Saturdays working through each room of her dingy, musty Victorian throwing away fifty-year old newspaper clippings, half-eaten jars of food, broken buttons, or lightbulbs that stopped working a long time ago. Sometimes, if something wasn’t in too terrible shape, my mom would bring it home with us. Before long our house, which already had enough stuff, was an eclectic mixture of our Ikea organizers, hand-me- down furniture, and great-grandma’s mostly broken stuff. I hated going to her house to clean because it meant we were coming home with more junk. It was a whole Saturday spent where I did not want to be. 

Now that I look back I feel guilty, like remorsefully guilty, for not understanding—for being far too young to even begin comprehending—what going through great-grandma’s stuff was like for my mom as her granddaughter. Or for my dad as a spouse, trying to be supportive. Or for my grandma as the daughter-in- law that took away great-grandma’s only son. And for my grandpa as her only child, and the last remaining member of great-grandma’s family. Even now when I imagine how taxing it must have been on all of them to drive three hours week after week to clean out great-grandma’s house, I feel guilty now because I didn’t understand anything about that situation, and I’m sure how I acted didn’t help. Mom was always going through drawers and finding hair that Alzheimer’s-ridden great-grandma thought was important to keep, or jars of urine hidden away, and I was whining because I couldn’t play my Gameboy. Priorities.

Stuff has strange effects on people. Material or emotional, what we carry with us often ends up defining us. The things we choose to surround ourselves with are really other things: comfort, security, love, fear, envy, habit, recovery, loss. But we don’t think of “stuff” in terms of how it makes us feel. It’s great when you finally get your hands on that new TV you wanted, or when you wake up and are actually feeling okay after an exhausting and painful break-up. But I think if you don’t take the time to work through why the break-up was so tough emotionally, or if you don’t think through whether or not you really need to spend $500 on a new TV, you risk making decisions that become substitutions for happiness. Like, is the reason you can’t donate your stuffed rabbit Flopsy because Flopsy reminds you of your grandma? Or is it because Flopsy is a security item you HAVE to hold onto to feel okay going to sleep because you’re afraid of going to sleep alone?

And either answer, or some other answer, is an okay thing! But understanding why you do what you do is the beginning of understanding how you affect other people with your actions when you’re holding onto stuff. I think more and more with each passing day that understanding of your own self is crucially important to personal growth. And growth is essential for the wellbeing of those around you.

Introspective self-work will reveal in time why you don’t feel confident with how you dress, why you can’t ever stick to an exercise routine, or why it’s so hard to trust people. Whether in your work life, your home life, your social life, your digital life—wherever—the moment we cease the pursuit of knowing ourselves better tomorrow than we do today is the moment we make it harder for other people to connect with us individually on a deep, human level. The danger in not thinking about how our stuff affects us, be it emotional or material, is that comfort and routine can negate doing self-work because it is so much easier than taking a long, hard look at who you actually are versus who you think you are, and how you affect other people.

The list I made of what to accomplish by 25 was just that: a list of things to accomplish. But I think now, as I finish typing this post, I have an opportunity to leave some stuff behind. I’m going to leave behind all the things I wanted to accomplish by the time I was 25, not because I’ve crossed them all off the list and I’m on to the next thing, but because most of those items truly don’t mean anything. They are security, they are envy, they are habit, and they are fear. Nowhere on that list did I write “understand myself better” or “live to improve the lives of others”. I just wasn’t thinking about it at the time. Admittedly, those are hard items to cross off after only a week or two of working on them. But I challenge you to think about your own “stuff.” What are you holding onto? And what do you need to let go of? Do you need to make a list? If so, is it a list of accomplishments? What do you want, where do you want to be, three years—1, 095 days—from now?

Sit with this. From what I can tell, self-work is like anything else in life—with a little practice and some consistency, you get better at it. I hope my next list is harder but I hope it is happier; I suppose I hope it's bittersweet. I’m ready for a new list, one that takes longer to write, and one that I won’t accomplish any time soon.

I’ll talk to you soon.