“The difference between sentiment and being sentimental is the following: Sentiment is when a driver swerves out of the way to avoid hitting a rabbit on the road. Being sentimental is when the same driver, when swerving away from the rabbit, hits a pedestrian.”
~ Frank Herbert

I have been asked countless times since beginning to live more simply and to even approach minimalism in a very real way. How do I deal with sentimental objects? How do I decide what to keep and what to purge? Does nothing mean anything to me? It is kind of a bizarre question. I am sentimental. I attach feeling and emotion to a number of tangible items. I have even found myself doing so more since my grandmother passed away with severe Alzheimer’s and dementia. I watched as disease ripped apart her mind and her memory. But then I realized that all the cards we had given her, all the jokes we shared, all the pictures surrounding her….they meant nothing. They brought back no moment for her. It was then I realized that I had spent too much of my life capturing moments on film or blogging about them and subsequently ceasing to actually live them. So maybe this post is more about living in each moment rather than how to decide what sentimental items go and which stay? I am not sure yet.

I can tell you that in my life experiences the hardest things for me to sort through were those in the sentimental clutter category. To paraphrase professional organizer and designer Peter Walsh, it wasn’t just about the stuff. It was about who or what it reminded me of. That first report card I got less than an A on reminded me of my good buddy Wesley that died that year because he was in the class with me that I landed my first C. My high school yearbook didn’t remind me of all the people I now chat with on Facebook but rather the friends I made at the restaurant I worked at to make enough money to buy the $60 yearbook. That cheap, gold ring my grandfather supposedly wore a few decades ago? It meant nothing to me more than to provide a connection to a grandfather I never knew. For years and years I held on to those things – as well as others – packing them up and moving them from Virginia to Georgia to New York and back to Georgia again.

I do want to give myself credit though in that by the time I got married I had parted ways with so many things. In fact, all that was left was the truly important things. Old report cards had been scanned in and saved to disk. Cub scout awards had been trashed (as I never really liked the scouts anyway). A ton of old birthday cards had been ceremoniously burned in a small little celebration of life I had out at the fire barrel one night. All that remained was the most difficult stuff to get rid of, is the stuff soaked in memories. Like so many, I had become attached to things that reminded me of the past as well as my loved ones. Here’s the ironic part though. Because I didn’t want to clutter my personal space or my bedroom or my living room I would hide those things away in boxes and the attic and at one point (*gasp*) a storage unit!

So, how do you get rid of the stuff that means so much, and evokes so much emotion? How do you honor your minimalist values and your desire for simple living?  The answer involves seizing the day, focusing on what is most important, and honoring your personal history.

  • Box it up. My wife made me a wooden box about the size of a shoebox for Christmas last year. She did an amazing job and when I received it I knew right away what the purpose was. It became my “treasure chest” and to this day it rests next to my bed. In it I have put our wedding photo, my grandfathers old pipe, the first letter my wife ever sent me (when we were dating), my great uncles bottle opener (from WWII), a little plastic chicken my nephew gave me, and a few other things. I love showing people what is in it and telling them about each item. For me it keeps the memories alive and makes them a part of my everyday life.
  • Use it or lose it. I have not heard of a newlywed couple registering for china in a long time. Why? Probably because people are realizing more and more that there is no real use for it. It isn’t practical in our, ahem, disposable society and it often claims more space than it is worth. The same goes for watches, purses, shoes, etc. If you don’t use it, lose it! It doesn’t matter who gave it to you. If it did, you probably would be using it more, eh?
  • Go digital. I wrote a few months back about organizing your digital photos. I personally have gone a bit further. I have scanned in important documents, cards, letters, newspaper clippings, etc. Anything paper-related that matters to me has been scanned in and backed up (external hard drive, DVD, and cloud).
  • Record it. I have a great file of MP3 files and even videos of special people in my life telling me stories, recounting events, etc. All of these files are backed up as well and secured so that I can cherish and even share said stories for as long as possible. It is a great way of holding on to memories that may otherwise escape you or decay over time. I am not at all saying digital files are the most safe or the longest lasting. They are, however, the most convenient and the most reliable right now. To hear where I got the idea from just check out StoryCorps on NPR.


Most importantly, remember that minimizing and decluttering your sentimentalities doesn’t necessarily mean giving up your past altogether. Rather, it means making way for future memories and unlocking the truths that make things so special to you in the first place. Whatever the case, do not allow your present to get overwhelmed by your past. Let go and live!