My ex-boyfriend's sweatpants don't spark joy
I watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix for all of three minutes before shutting it off. The self-awareness crept like heat onto my neck — I knew I’d never be that tidy. I’d never be “minimal.”
Marie Kondo and I are polar opposites. She is a known advocate for getting rid of things that don’t “spark joy” and led the social media millennial boom of minimalism and organization. I, on the other hand, could make a case for each and every pointless item in my attic bedroom, arguing that they all spark some form of joy.
I have trouble letting go of things. I still have a palm sized, plastic Japanese Mankei-Neko — those small plastic golden cats that wave their arm — that my friend brought me back from China when we were 13. It’s sat atop every single one of my desks, always next to a flamingo jewelry holder for my single pair of earrings, four boob-shaped mugs that I don’t use for drinking, a collection of bookmarks, a collection of colored pens from my coloring phase and a lip mask I’ll never put on. I couldn’t imagine ever ridding myself of the golden cat or the bookmarks. They feel like a part of me, in a strange way.
The things I’ve stored under my bed at home are even more unnecessary. In the bursting clear tub I’ve tried my best to contain and forget about, you’ll find a stuck together napkin from a first date with a person I haven’t seen in a year. There’s a flashlight on a tattered black rope from an eighth-grade birthday party, and New Year’s Eve glasses from the years 2012-2017, all ultimately dysfunctional, as they’re missing lenses. I’ve kept every notebook I’ve ever written in, an instructional pamphlet — written in Dutch — describing a dollhouse that I found in the remains of a fire in my hometown, the ribbon from a gift someone I sort of know gave me for my birthday, along with every birthday card I’ve ever received, every friendship bracelet I’ve ever made or taken off, photo booth pictures from a mall that no longer exists with a person I haven’t spoken to since 2008 and so much damn paper. You’ll find invitations, take-out menus, a half-written poem, coupons from a place I’ve only been to once, handwritten notes from my sixth-grade crush, a movie ticket from the midnight showing of Hunger Games, a 2010 Halloween card from my grandmother, tickets to the American Idol World Tour in 2007 –– part of me wants to just recycle it all, but part of me could never approach that blue trash bin and let go.
My aversion to throwing away useless monuments becomes emotionally destructive in my inability to discard ex-boyfriend’s sweatshirts, written notes, dead flower stems and teddy bears. During my freshman year of college, my mother texted me, “Is it okay to get rid of the Christian Brothers Academy sweatshirt and teddy bear from boyfriend #2?” The relationship lasted five passionless months at age 16, and yet, at 19, I had some far-off feeling that these objects, in fact, sparked enough joy to collect dust in the back of my closet. I had dated other boys since that lanky 16-year-old. All those things really did was take up space.
When I’m home, I covertly sit on my floor in my bedroom and go through the boxes under my bed, peering through the windows of my past. Rooting through a box of yearbooks from middle school this summer, I came across a grammatically incorrect “52 things I love about you” deck of cards from my 13-year-old first kiss. This happened over eight years ago, and I don’t even have that kid’s phone number anymore. The “you’re smile” as one of the 52 reasons seemed too wonderfully romantic to throw away, but now, as I come across them as a young adult, the sheer naivete and painful innocence of the gesture is something I can’t part with. Senior year of high school I tried to convince my 18-year-old fling to give me a Clemson sweatshirt. He said no, which is for the best because I’d probably still have it, rolled in a ball in the back of a drawer, and I hate the color orange anyway.
Even when I move on, when months and years and feelings pass, I can’t seem to part ways with all the insignificant trinkets embedded in the gifted and borrowed objects from my old flames. It’s almost as though I fear my memory will fail me and I need reminders to dredge my mind and recover all the sweetest things. That’s how half of me feels. But the other half wonders. Was sloppily making out with someone on a basement couch on Saturday nights when you were 16 one of the sweetest things? I hope not. Does a fraternity T-shirt evoke such passionate memories? No.
The common sense advice is that when you breakup you immediately throw away or return their stuff and the gifts they gave you. That’s what my best friend and mother have always told me. So, why do I refuse to listen? Why do I leave myself a reminder of an ex every time I look at my wrist, search my closet for a shirt to wear or walk into my bedroom? And while I’ve made the walk of shame to the same college boy’s house in the afterglow of a breakup with a Trader Joe’s bag filled with his T-shirts drenched, sneakily, in my perfume, the things I don’t return I can’t seem to let go of. In recent days, I’ve decided I’d like to know why I want to hold on.
U-M psychology professor Stephanie D. Preston has done extensive research regarding hoarding and emotional attachment to objects and said in an interview with The Michigan Daily, “research shows that emotional memory is a reason many people have a lot of trouble discarding things.” Specifically, when it comes to ex significant others, she told me many people “imagine that part of the other person is embodied in the item, therefore, throwing it away would be some kind of violating to that person.”
We spoke for a few moments about hoarding disorder, the clinical diagnosis for severe cases of hoarding. I kept thinking about the TLC TV show “Hoarding: Buried Alive” and how so many watch the show to be entertained by individuals suffering from an intense mental illness. I’d be lying if I wasn’t entertained by the show myself at one point or another. The bit of information she shared that really pushed me to think more about my own situation was when she said, “anxiety is greatly correlated to hoarding of items in that it can exacerbate the issue.”
She went on to explain that if one suffers from anxiety, they could potentially worry that by discarding something, they’ve made a terrible mistake. And as someone who’s been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder since age seven, I wondered if my attachment to my items stemmed from my fear that I’d be making a mistake by getting rid of them. Perhaps, I’d regret it temporarily, but in the long-run, I know in my head it isn’t a mistake to throw away last year’s shriveled up Valentine’s roses. My heart isn’t quick to catch up with the common sense I know in my head. In fact, if the physical manifestation of relationships gone awry weren’t around and those people not as easy to recall, I’d probably forget about them all together.
So, what is it? Why do I feel the need to keep these things?
Is it my sentimentality or the strange feeling of a lover turned stranger? Or my desire to keep a physical scrapbook of gifted shot glasses and oversized sweatshirts? Why is it that when I’ve moved on and happy with someone new, or alone (turn up the Lizzo), do I still have old stuff taking up broken heart-shaped holes in my life? I never wear any of their clothes, or use any of the items — I’d be lying if I didn’t take shots out of the Texas shot glass though — and barely think of the people they belong to. I just like to know that it’s all still around. That the parts of me that have grown up and grown past these experiences still exist somewhere, even if it’s in the thread of a Maize Rage T-shirt. That if I’m fighting to move forward, I still know what’s behind.
Last year, I struggled through a very hard breakup with someone I loved very much. I’d returned a few of his favorite shirts in the immediate aftermath last February, but he mentioned he didn’t want the vast majority of what I had of his back, save the yellow Bubba Gump T-shirt of course.
So here I am –– a pair of well-worn navy sweatpants, a professional Greek life T-shirt of an organization to which I no longer have a connection, a gifted bathrobe I adore, a pair of boxers with a strange pattern I’d had for a year and a half, and a few T-shirts with slogans that recalled moments which were only ours. I also had a picture frame, an autumnal looking bandana, a shoebox of handwritten notes and an apron from Anthropolgie. All of these things are spread out on my small floor as I pack up my apartment in Ann Arbor, before going to New York for the summer. Emotion stung at my face, and though we’d been through since February, we were still talking, and I knew I could ask him what he’d done with the sweaters and coffee shop T-shirts and belts and homemade poems I’d given to him during our relationship. I didn’t.
I had three options:
- Throw it all out
- Refuse his month-old declaration that he wants nothing back and drop it all off without warning
- Pack it in a box and deal with it in September
I went with option three. I knew I should’ve gone with option one — saving the bathrobe and apron though, because, c’mon — but I also knew that I was and am a keeper of objects that hold meaning and metaphor and someone’s scent. Into the boxes they went. I forgot about them quickly after the plane touched down in New Jersey days later.
Four and a half months later, I arrived in Ann Arbor for my fourth year. The distance and time between myself and my beloved college town treated me well, and I was thrilled to be back. I never say the words “over someone” because, as human beings, we don’t get over anything –– we grow through times in our life with people and places we no longer know. The anxiety and melancholy of winter 2019 was far from me –– both literally and emotionally. I felt newly fulfilled, excited and basking in newness –– a new year, a new course load, new relationships, a new bedroom. My heart was sore but freshly mended. I felt as though the wave of our ending had swelled, crashed and settled like foamy bubbles on the shore upon which I stood, feeling OK. I’d grown through something and would always have more growing to do.
I moved into Ann Arbor for the fourth, final time and unpacking commenced. Box by box, my floor cluttered with my winter boots and dusty decor and purple bedding and pillows shaped like sloths. Then suddenly, in the mess of it all — navy blue sweatpants, three T-shirts, and a photograph of herself with another person, both of whom she no longer really knew. I paused in a moment of nostalgia and pushed the items off to the side. I left them in the corner of my room and moved forward in my unpacking. Once I finished with all the boxes, I’d decide what to do with them. These things didn’t really have a place in my bedroom or my life anymore. When I finished, I revisited his pile of things and wondered if I’d ever become less sentimental. I stood, gazing at them, almost afraid to touch them. I thought about writing a poem, I thought about hiding them, I thought about burning them in my nonexistent fireplace, I thought about asking if he wanted them back. I did none of those things, except write the poem.
A few days later, I ran into the owner of these items on campus. Neither of us said anything or exchanged any glances. We had no bad blood and no hard feelings, it was just someone I used to know, who used to know me. We acknowledged each other briefly, and kept walking. An odd feeling really, a best friend turned stranger –– a sentiment with an indescribable aftertaste. I walked home from class that late September morning, having passed him in the halls, knowing vaguely what I had to do. It’s one thing to be nostalgic, it’s one thing to be romantic, but it’s another entirely to be holding on to objects that only truly prohibited me from ever living in the now.
I beelined for the corner of my room where everything of his was balled in the corner looking like a sad, wilted pile of another life. I scooped it all up and felt oddly at peace as I walked down the sidewalk, the tower of everything that used to be, safe in my arms. As I arrived at my destination, I knew I could turn back, that I didn’t have to go through with this monumental moment. But I didn’t need any of his stuff. I never needed anyone’s stuff –– emotionally or physically. I honestly have plenty of my own. Sometimes, we hold on so tight to something fighting to get away, that our knuckles turn white.
This is what I thought as I stood adjacent to a dumpster on the side of the road.
There was a group of men working at the dumpsters who watched me, standing there, alone, with an armful of borrowed objects, weighing my next move. They were waiting for me to do what we all knew I was going to do. I was thinking about going home when one of them called out “Do it girl! You got this!” and with his declaration, I throttled the items over the side of the dumpster and watched for a half-second as they sailed through the air and landed with a satisfying thud in the midst of half-empty beer cans, discarded mattresses and cardboard. For a moment, it felt like nothing else was happening in the rest of the world, like everything had stopped. And then, the group of men across the gravel parking lot began to cheer. Like actually, cheer. It’s as though they knew. I turned, now, empty handed, and walked the same exact way I came, only this time, I felt lighter.
In the Greek myth of Orepheus and Eurydice, Orepheus is told he can lead Eurydice safely out of the underworld, so long as he doesn’t look back to make sure she’s behind him. If Orepheus looks back, Eurydice is stuck in the underworld forever. In the end, Orepheus looks back and could never move on from it. Like him, looking behind me in life, is what’ll keep me rooted there, full of regret and nostalgia and sentimentality and not moving fiercely forward.
If it’s a good memory I’ll remember it. If it mattered, I’ll remember it. A pair of oversized sweatpants and an ugly turquoise T-shirt won’t be what I’ll remember. I’ll remember a bike ride to cupcakes in July and the firepit in the backyard of their childhood home. I’ll remember their laugh until I forget it. I’ll remember the way they fiddled with their glasses. I’ll remember the first date and then, one day, I’ll only remember the last one. I’ll remember senior prom. Maybe one day, I’ll recover a photograph of the two of us at a dance in college and think, “Remember them?” I will.
And it won’t be sad or painful or lonely. It’ll be the sweetest things. The objects I couldn’t get rid of weren’t what sparked joy –– the memories that were hanging off their threads did. What I end up remembering of these people, if anything, in ten years down the line, will have nothing to do with their old sweatshirt. Marie Kondo, through her platform, urges us to separate from unnecessary objects of our lives, not from our memories.
I must part ways with the things of my past, which formerly hung to my belt loops and shoelaces. I honor what happened and will continue to do the work to make space in my closet and my mind for new stories. One day, there will be someone who’s stuff will be my stuff too. It will all spark joy. And now, I remain, open and cavernous, but not hollow. Ready for the kindling and the flicker of a new fire.