In Praise of Precious Junk

I would make a terrible Buddhist. The whole release your attachment to stuff tenet, which if I’m reading Buddhist writing correctly, is a pretty big deal is not my jam. I am not a hoarder or even a collector, but I am a saver of IMPORTANT THINGS. Some of those things include books, letters, rocks and seashells, and old notebooks full of the very cringey, but often incredibly self-righteous, ramblings of my younger self. We all have them, some in poem or song lyric form. Right.

Recently, I was summoned to my mother’s house to retrieve boxes of personal things I had stored in my childhood bedroom. Why this purge needed to occur immediately, after a mere fifteen years of not living in the house anymore is a mystery, but the subtext of “your piles are in the living room” was clear.

A lot of boxes contained envelopes of photographs from high school and college. Others housed a more eclectic collection of items like mix tapes, graduation tassels, cards and notes with cryptic messages that read like World War II Navaho code breakers, but were apparently hilarious inside jokes, a hat box with hats in it from an unfortunate Debbie Gibson phase, just about every original cast recording CD of every musical ever, my Mulder and Scully action figures still in the package (NOTE!).

“When did you make a Billy Joel scrap book?” my brother teased.

“Shut your damn mouth,” I said.

Opening each cardboard wormhole was an exercise in riding out embarrassment, nostalgia, and confusion. A lot of it would need to go, but what? How would I choose? It was all so precious to me, even some of things I had no clue about—a pencil sharpener shaped like a chicken, promotional flare from my stint as a Disney Store “cast member.”


A musician friend of mine did a Kickstarter for his recent album and we had long discussions about the different reward items—hand written lyrics, old press photos, bits of recording gear—he didn’t see the want behind these things. “Anything can be a thing to someone!” I told him emphatically, if not very scientifically. But it’s true. We don’t have to work too hard to imbibe something with meaning, to cast a spell over it declaring it sacred, immutable 4EVA. I know it’s not the CD or the yearbook or the shoe box of movie ticket stubs that matter, it’s the emotional charge they carry, it’s that they are tunnels to places, times, and people that we can return to and in doing so give us back parts of ourselves. Heady stuff. Memories are a serious business. They are touchstones that can nourish us when we’re in the deep valleys and sustain us over the course of wicked storms. They are the scaffolds that uphold our version of the truth.

We need the junk to make meaning for us when nothing else makes sense.

I was served this reminder last week when I happened to be standing on a street in Portsmouth NH, a pretty, seacoast town lined with quaint shops and sleepy cafes that make it feel like a bit of Paris transplanted to northern new England, when a motorcade of police cruisers pulled up the boulevard. An ordinary flatbed truck, the kind you might hurry up to pass on the highway in order to get out from behind its slow drag, followed carrying one item: a flat piece of rusty metal maybe 6 feet long and 3 feet wide. The metal was strapped down like a patient on an operating table. Small banners tacked to the sides of the truck bed lifted slightly as it moved passed with the phrase “9/11 Never Forget” written in red script against an image of the New York City skyline.

The piece was part of a metal beam taken from one of the towers and brought to Portsmouth to eventually become part of a permanent memorial. It was an odd feeling to cue up on the sidewalk and watch the piece zip by with the same fascination and urgency reserved for a glimpse of a traveling dignitary. I unconsciously put a hand over my heart and nodded. It feels ludicrous to say we’ll somehow forget one of the most horrific tragedies to take place on American soil in the twenty-first century, that we somehow need these artifacts to help us remember, but it also feels unthinkable to say, “It’s only a hunk of metal, it’s only building scrap.”

Maybe there’s no threshold of preservation because maybe once the spell is cast upon a thing it can never be truly broken. That’s a 24-hour genie on call, always at the ready to gift you back a memory, a moment, and for a lot of us, that’s worth keeping a few shoe boxes full of precious junk.



12 thoughts on “In Praise of Precious Junk

  1. Wow. I loved the bit about how memories are scaffolds that hold up our version of the truth. And how the junk helps to make sense of ourselves. Who hasn’t experienced a flood of memories at their fingertips when cleaning out a loved one’s things?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kate! I am as guilty as anyone of holding on to things too long, but sometimes you just need those touchstones, you know what I mean? Sometimes it really, really helps. Thanks for reading! xo

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I can imagine it was a very strange feeling seeing the ‘piece of metal’ in Portsmouth. I’ve had a some bad events in my life that meant I lost a lot of the items I’d saved as keepsakes. I guess that’s the main reason I write my own blog – so I can preserve the memories :). Mir xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mir! I am a preservationist like yourself..the trinkets and things and items I have stored that STILL have a personal charge for me, but to anyone else would be “trash” are too many to count. And it was startling to see a piece of the WTC zip by like any other kind of scrap metal; it rushed me back to that day in a nanosecond. That’s power. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sheila, this is so beautifully written, and so true. Over the summer, I was tasked with cleaning out the house in which I grew up, and am amazed at how much “junk” I held onto. Most of it is small–I can’t keep the furniture and stuff like that–but there’s so much of it, and everything has a whole string memories attached to it Finally, the closing date was 9/11 (ironically) and on the 12th, I drove by and saw that the buyers had put two kitchen stools they’d said they wanted to keep out on the curb. Our kitchen stools! I didn’t mind leaving them to the new people, but seeing them out there was too much. So I immediately pulled over, grabbed them off the curb, and tossed them in the trunk. They’re still in there now. I haven’t found the heart to tell my husband that I took stuff from the house even *after the sale* but it’s true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mary..thanks! Wow..your story is really powerful…even more so with releasing the shell of an entire house, an entire universe of memories and experiences…i don’t blame you for grabbing those stools..I would have done the same…you take what you need and keep it weirdness….a part of your heart is in that “stuff,” and that’s all ok…oxoxo!

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  4. Yup….. I too take the middle ground on this! I believe less is more when it comes to “things”, yet I have those priceless reminders of people or places that no one else would be attached to. Another things I collect is a quote from a favorite book ~ I have tons of those quotes, if I can find them. 😉 Thanks for this heart-warming post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mary Lou..thank YOU so much for your great words and insight. I agree…there are some “things” that I just will never matter how silly it seems to covet them a bit…I love your quote collecting…I am going to start a new journal for JUST that! Thanks! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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