My parents have been so good to keep a stack of boxes in the attic for years now – starting with a few mementos from childhood – Girl Scout patches, First Communion plaque, report cards, stuffed animals – and adding on box by box through the years. Camping equipment, photo albums, Star Wars figures, and more! A foot locker full of notes and readings from college and grad school was probably the last deposit.
I finally retrieved the boxes this past December when I visited the family for the Christmas holidays. Dad was working on organizing the attic so it seemed as good a time as any! Into the car trunk they went.
Over the past few months, I’ve been going through the boxes – a bit slower than I had expected! What began as pitching and sorting ended up as a mini “this is your life” episode. I held my baptismal candle in my hand, spend time with dear photos of family and friends, discovered treasures I thought long gone.
The most remarkable moment was realizing that this was it. These boxes, along with the items in my living space and office, were the only “things” that made it through the years of my life.
It was a challenge to see what stuff I had in those boxes and then within moments to realize they are no longer “my” belongings. As a Catholic sister professing the vow of poverty, I have divested myself of all possessions, even the Clifford the Big Red Dog books that I adored as a child. Yet even without that vow, it felt like this stuff was never really mine to begin with. Maybe it’s because they had served their purpose, maybe because they were like sacramentals signifying something greater than the thing itself.
As I try to make sense of this, the image that comes to mind is that of stepping stones. Have you ever crossed a creek or soggy trail hopping from stone to stone? Even the smallest of stones can give you a foothold to take the next step. If you pause on that stone, it might sink in or you might loose your balance. But if you keep moving forward from stone to stone, you can make it across. In our lives, it might be a worn book here, a varsity sports letter there, a photo album of memories, a note book of theological research. We all need to have a solid, tangible “thing” upon which to take that next step. The stuff however small can be great in symbolic value because they are things that got us moving forward.
I made it through all the boxes – a lot of stuff I donated, some I tossed, and a few things I hung onto. I had a few criteria for how I did this, but mostly it was a matter of allowing the stuff to find a new home beyond me and my parents’ attic. Of those few things I hung onto, the needed and useful items (jackknife, Gramma-made bag) got put into the proper places, and the purely memento items now occupy one single box.
I suspect that in the end, the real value of these items we save are already living within us, whether we have the items or not. Still, I am grateful for the stuff, the stepping stones, the sacramentals, for in an instant they can bring back memories and stir new ideas, and they can remind us who we are and Whose we are.
Photo: Chloe the Convent Cat helps with sorting boxes of stuff