You’ve got (a lot of freakin’) mail

In the past few years, I have decided to live more simply. Meaning: Get rid of all the crap I have accumulated over a lifetime. This isn’t easy because I am a collector. I collect everything from books to stamps to Gone With the Wind memorabilia to cobalt glass. And that’s just the start.

I strive to find the line between saving and hoarding. As hoarding runs in my family – out of control on one side and invisible to the world on the other side – I have to be on guard against it.

Taking after the invisible-hoarding ancestors, you wouldn’t think I have a problem. Everything is filed away or neatly arranged. No stacks of magazines or clutter spilling from every corner. But in closed drawers, locked chests, I have saved every letter, card, invitation and note ever sent to me. Even the hand-written notes from middle school. Remember those? Looping cursive on notebook paper folded into origami-like rectangles and passed under the desk or at lockers. Yeah, I saved them all.

I never thought I would throw anything away until I started traveling. On my first trip to Paris, AirFrance bumped me from my flight home and put me up in an airport hotel for the night. Taking the train back into the city that evening, I sat across from an American filmmaker who had shot documentaries about ex-pats in different countries. He said some people went on vacation and just stayed. I told him that I would love to move to France, but I was too settled in my life. I had too much furniture – what would I do with it? He replied, “So your possessions own you, rather than you owning your possessions.”

I thought for a long time about what he said. What did I really need? Certainly not my plaid sleeper sofa that had been handed down twice. And did I actually have to keep the dresser I bought at a thrift store when I was 20? I sold it at a yard sale that year. My answer was that I wanted to keep only 3 things: an antique desk and 2 lamps, all inherited from my grandmother. They were important to me. The rest was not. Not really.

I began shedding. Donating clothes I no longer wore. Trading in books once I had read them. Emptying file folders of magazine articles and ads from the ’80s. If I hadn’t looked at something in 5 years, I probably didn’t need it. Tax returns aside.

But I have yet to purge any of my correspondence. So on the brink of moving yet again, it’s time. I open up drawers, decorative tins and boxes and begin sorting. At first, it’s slow. I want to open every card and at least look at it, if not read the entire thing. It’s a tiring process. I end up tossing cards quickly for a while, then having second thoughts, hold more tightly to the rest. I take a break, then purge again.

There are tons of birthday cards, some from people whose names I don’t recognize. There are cards for Easter, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day. Cards congratulating me on a new home – although not as many as you’d think, given the number of times I’ve moved. Maybe my friends and family were weary from filling up their address books with my constantly-changing zip codes.

I don’t throw away everything. I hold onto a letter from my grandmother who passed away a few months ago. I save birthday cards from my mother with heart-felt verse inside. Yeah, I know someone at American Greetings wrote them, but I like to believe my mom would have come up with the same words on her own. And I know she meant them.

I re-read a really nice note from a former boss, telling me how much he enjoyed working with me. I crack up at a postcard sent from former co-workers in Rock Hill, SC. Each one of them put their own message on the postcard, making inside jokes about the job, about Rock Hill, sharing a little gossip. Even now, it’s hilarious.

I discover that one year, two of my former roommates (who never met each other) sent me the exact same Christmas card. And I received the same Valentine’s card from my cousin two years in a row. I wonder if he did it intentionally, as he’s got a great sense of humor.

More wistfully, there is a card from a friend who includes a quote about the word “stay,” saying she hopes we always stay friends. We parted ways more than 8 years ago.

Embarrassingly, I discover a wedding invitation from 1993 that I never responded to.

Wedding invitations turn into baby announcements.

So many beautiful Christmas cards….

… some made by hand.

Among the stacks are articles that people sent to me related to my job or hobbies.

A hand-written note is just so much nicer than email!

I am saving some of the really funny cards, especially when they show an inside joke between a friend and me.

These are return addresses from a hilarious friend of mine. Bored at his parents’ house after graduation, he included the “best” Letters to the Editor from the Wall Street Journal that week with his own commentary, like: “Obviously some disgruntled old codger who knows EVERYTHING and sits in the left lane doing 30 in a 45. Am I right?”

I’m glad I kept everything for a while. I’m glad I can go back and see that people cared enough about me to give me birthday cards, to send a Hallmark at Valentine’s Day, to save a few stamps for me. I’m glad they took the time to write me a letter at Christmas or just because. I’m glad they sent me well wishes for a new job or a new home. I’m glad they sent eloquent thank you cards.

If I hadn’t saved all these cards and notes, I would have forgotten how much I am loved. Now, I can savor it without hoarding it.