I am a master of organizing and decluttering. My house is very small; there is no room for anything superfluous in 900 square feet. Minimalism is a necessity, but I prefer it that way. I live by the creed that sentimentality is for suckers. But my anti-clutter lifestyle hides a shameful secret: I have a storage unit, and it’s a mess. It started out as a practicality. When my husband and I moved into our tiny beach bungalow, we needed space to store old work files and samples, as well as a few pieces of extra furniture. Then, little by little, we started adding items that we didn’t want to part with just yet. The worst offender is my trunk, which contains mementos from childhood to my mid-20s. I’m not being sentimental — I stand by my creed — but for some reason, I can’t seem to let it go. While it’s not the biggest thing in my storage unit, to me it’s the most obnoxious, excessive waste of space. It’s a fake-wood-paneled, paper-thin, cedar-lined box with rusty, brass-plated fittings. The lock has been damaged, so the entire lid is taped shut with duct tape. When my dad downsized, I moved the trunk here and told myself it was temporary: I’d review and toss the contents within three months. That was five years ago. Inside it is nothing I would ever want in my house, so it sits there, hidden at the back of the storage unit, waiting. I’m paying $130 a month to store my secret stash of junk.
Inside it is nothing I would ever want in my house, so it sits there, hidden at the back of the storage unit, waiting.
I was tired of lying to myself about my organizational skills, so I decided it was time to pare down the storage unit, starting with my trunk. If I could get through that gargantuan task, other items in storage would seem more tossable. I gave myself a day to clear out the trunk, and just for kicks I applied one of Marie Kondo’s key teachings to the project — if it doesn’t spark joy, get rid of it. I open the trunk and pull out a square, blue vinyl case. On the front is an illustration of a ballerina and the words “My Ballet Box.” It’s bulging with every pair of ballet slippers I have ever owned. The ones from third grade are completely trashed. They are blown out at the top, and I’ve pinned the elastic to the shoe to hold them together. I was wearing these shoes when I heard a mean little girl say I was too fat to be a ballerina, sowing my first seeds of doubt. It makes me angry with myself that some nameless person had such a large influence on me. Unfortunately, she was right — I didn’t have the body for ballet and gave it up in junior high for jazz and dance team instead. My silly third-grade self still yearns to give it a shot, while my “today” self knows it’s never happening. But it does make me feel better that I can still reenact every eight-count of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” when we go old-school in my hip-hop class. Next up is my “bag of funny” — costumes and wigs from my four-year stint with a comedy group I belonged to after grad school. We thought we would all become famous actors. A few did. I wasn’t one of them. In this bag I find Gerald, the extremely lifelike monkey puppet, who killed it onstage once but was never seen again because the director axed the sketch. I haven’t performed in years, but I’ve kept Gerald locked in the storage facility, as who knows when you’ll need a realistic monkey puppet for your comedy comeback. I hug him and sneeze; his fur is dusty. Poor Gerald. He was meant for something better. Putting my hand down into the trunk, I stab myself in the palm with the pointy top of my piano award. It’s gold-tone plastic and shaped like a treble clef. I’m filled with pride as I pick it up by its hefty marble base. When I was in junior high, I took first place in the regional Beethoven competition. But this trophy doesn’t say first place. The brass plate on it reads “Participant.” Hmmm. Could it be that I didn’t win first place? I can’t believe that I have been keeping a physical reminder of a memory that might not even be real.
I can’t believe that I have been keeping a physical reminder of a memory that might not even be real.
I sift through more — my softball mitt (I was a terrible player), my training bra (sadly, it still fits), my dried prom corsage (my boyfriend dumped me the next day), a timesheet from my very first job (I got fired) — and it hits me. For all these years, I’ve been keeping a trunk of my failures. So much for sparking joy. These items are a reminder of the things I couldn’t accomplish, or didn’t, or thought I was good at and wasn’t. Maybe the reason I have kept these items secretly locked away is that nobody needs constant reminders of their low points. But I also realize that my failures deserve some credit, as they served as catalysts in my personal and professional development. Do I want to display these artifacts of my loser-ness proudly in my house or pay good money to store them? No. Does revisiting them occasionally help me remember the lessons I learned from them? Definitely. When I look at the tank top I designed for the freshman orientation committee, it’s now clear to me why nobody wanted to wear it: It’s hideous. But thanks to that ugly shirt, I worked to become a better designer, which allowed me to start my own business 10 years later.
Everyone needs a mess to clean up at times, and I have plenty. My storage unit is still there, still annoyingly full, and still on the down low (until now). Unless I want to sleep on boxes of work files instead of my bed, I’m not at a point where I can get rid of it yet, but in cleaning out my trunk, I made a start. I gathered all the cringe-worthy reminders of my missteps and took pictures of each item. I’m a person who has failed a lot. But I did overcome these failures to accomplish some pretty good things, and I don’t want to forget what was in my trunk, as it has made me who I am. In true Kondo fashion, I thanked the items in my trunk for their service, packed up everything into 12 Hefty trash bags, and threw it all out, except for Gerald. I could never do that to Gerald.