Debilitating Sentimentality

March 7, 2006

I've been called cold. It smarts. We all have stories we tell ourselves about the things we surround ourselves with. Or don't surround ourselves with.

When I was maybe 10 or 11, my then best friend Cary Adler somehow convinced me to give him my prize collection of baseball cards. I had great cards, some really old collector's items, and full sets of many years that I had painstakingly accumulated over time. I also had a deal with my parents that for every S (for Satisfactory) on my report card, I received a pack of baseball cards—the gum was quickly discarded and the cards neatly arranged. I was a huge ball fan as a kid and would often fall asleep listening to a game on the radio, and spent many days at the now vacant Tiger Stadium in downtown Detroit, including the sixth game of the 1968 World Series, a beautiful game where we sent the Cardinals packing. Mickey Lolich was carried out of the stadium on the arms of his teammates to amazing shouts and screams of victory.

So, somehow, playing on my insecurities and promising to be my best friend forever (Where is he now? Southern California. When was the last time I spoke to him? 1973. Connect the dots.) I surrendered the cards. Ever the thinking man, I made him sign a contract on a paper plate that stated in exchange for those cards, he would remain true. I've since lost the plate—attorneys out there, is it still binding?!

Those cards were precious to me, as was Cary's friendship at the time. Both proved more temporal than I could have ever imagined.

When my folks split up, I moved in with my dad. I took my collection of Matchbox cars with me. I loved those cars. Same deal. I got one for birthdays, special occasions, when I managed to save enough of my allowance to go to the toy store before spending it somewhere else... I amassed a sweet little collection of cars. The several ambulances, all with working parts—the doors, the bonnets... you may vaguely be able to imagine how much I enjoyed playing with those cars. Some schmuck stole them from our storage locker downstairs. I was distraught. Really broken up. Those cars were some of the few things I carried with me from my family home into my new "broken" home with my father. And now they were gone.

I've lived in many cities in the US, and carted objects around with me until I didn't any longer. At some point, I decided that I was not willing to move 15 crates of LPs anymore. This was before the advent of CDs. Just got tired of schlepping. Same story with books. It used to be important to me that you came into my home, saw my books, and knew how well read I was. I didn't go to an Ivy League university; I got a decent public education and pursued my own intellectual curiosity—it led me to read a lot of unassigned books. Which was fine.

Same goes for my drums. I played the piano as a child—I had some talent, but I was lazy and didn't care to practice. My teacher did little to encourage me. I wanted to play Elton John and she had me learning Mozart. Certainly now I would prefer to have done it her way, but that's another story. I was willful and disinterested and didn't practice. What I wanted to play was the drums. My parents were having no part of drums in the house. Michael Lober lived across the street, and he had drums. 'Nuff said.

When I was 18, I bought myself a set of drums. I was so scared when I went to purchase them that I had the guy who owned them play them for me so I could hear what they sounded like. I had never sat down before a drum kit before in my life. They must have sounded fine, they certainly looked good (1967 white pearl Ludwig solid wood—sweet!) and so I bought them. I taught myself how to play. I was not very good for some time. But I eventually helped put myself through college playing in bands and touring the U.P. in odd little groups playing everything from top 40 covers to country weddings. It was a blast.

Those drums were the only drums I ever owned. They followed me from Marquette, MI, to Milwaukee, Chicago, New York, Washington, DC, and Seattle. When I moved back to New York and into a six-floor walk-up, I came to the realization that I was not going out on the road with Joan Armatrading. And that dragging a five-piece kit and all the attendant hardware, cymbals, stands, etc., up and down six flights of stairs was not what I wanted to do anymore. So I told myself the next time I brought them downstairs to go play with someone, they weren't going back up, they were going to Sam Ash. A friend drove me and them over there, and we left with a bunch of cash and a lighter load.

All of this is to say that we can tell ourselves anything about anything at any time. Believe it or don't. It's possibly only narrative and not factual at all. It may even be factual. But when the story is holding you back from moving forward, when it's creating such a ponderous weight of stated or implied import that you can no longer move under its weight, it may be time to tell yourself a different story.

I've lost some things not on my time, and others left much later than perhaps they could or should have. Those drums are hopefully being played by someone else right now. And the fact that I don't own them doesn't diminish the significant memories I have of all the music I created with so many other talented players. Maybe Cary Adler's son or daughter ended up with that collection of cards. Maybe they got lost in a fire. I had a great time collecting them. I might have more money in my IRA if I still had them. But I don't.

I still let myself have a best friend, and I don't need him to sign a contract today. I accept that he might need to leave my life for any number of reasons. Or I might need to leave his. Or we might find ourselves in diapers in 50 years in a "retirement" home side by side. Not my concern today. If I can truly appreciate what is present in my life right now, right here, the rest of it will take care of itself. The objects that surround me needn't define me. Can't define me. I'm so much more than the sum total of what you will see when you enter my home today. Have a cup of tea with me and sit on the glider on the porch. You'll probably learn much more about me and what I care about than if you studied my home for weeks.

So if you have to tell yourself something to make yourself keep something... So and so gave it to me and it would hurt their feelings, or, that was my childhood...—sit with it for a while and see if you want to hold onto it for something that informs who you are today. If it doesn't bring you joy today, perhaps it's time to let it go.

Declutter Your Life Podcast by Andrew Mellen. Available on iTunes!