Searching Through Memories
When I left home for college, 300 miles south of the city I grew up in, I thought it would be just as fun and easy. What I hadn't taken into account were the years of memories I'd collected that far outweighed the minimal possessions I owned at age six. I had more photos, more notes from friends, more birthday and random celebratory cards, more journals, more trinkets — all of these things had meaning because of the people and the events associated with them. I wanted to take everything with me from my now-too-small room that I had shared with my sister until she left for college.
I picked and chose and felt guilty about the things I left behind. For the next four years after leaving home, I would move from dorm to on-campus apartment to off-campus apartment to another off-campus apartment. Four years, four "homes." Each time, I would simply throw my belongings in various boxes and tote bags and carry them with me, never bothering to sort through the piles of new memories that were now mixed with the old.
But then the time to move away to college finally arrived and it was on to a new town. Time to pack, but I had accumulated so many belongings. I realized it was finally time to truly rid myself of the excess "stuff." As I went through the normal boxes and bags of things, I began to shed many of the items I once held dear in the past — not because they lost their own individual meaning, but because the associated memories had faded in my mind. Other memories that were more relevant to the person I was that day took over in importance. Over time, I found new meaning in new things and found myself unwavering at the idea of putting aside the items that once defined my life experiences — and that can be terrifying. How do I not lose myself entirely as I shed the layers of "stuff" I've carried from place to place?
For most people in the process of moving, this same dilemma of what to take and what to leave is in the forefront of their minds. As we toss things to make the labor of moving easier, we have to ask ourselves why we held onto certain things in the first place. Are we scared the memories of those moments will be lost without a physical representation? Which then begs the question: are those tangible objects what truly define us?
"Everything is in process," wrote Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, in The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. Chödrön acknowledges that it is a basic human tendency to want permanence and to fear change. "We are certain about who we are and who others are and it blinds us. If another version of reality comes knocking on our door, our fixed ideas keep us from accepting it."
Relocation helps brings about the realization that we are not static. Often, it's the practice of uprooting yourself, moving somewhere new, diving into "the places that scare you" that helps you begin to understand and learn new things about who you are. By embracing our changing surroundings, we can also learn how to accept the ways in which we change as people, too. And, soon, we become less attached to the physical representations of the past, because all of those memories we've collected and hold dear are too numerous to contain in a box. We are more than just the possessions we carry with us; we are constantly changing beings, which can be realized as we push ourselves out of our comfort zones and gain more experiences through the new places we live and the new people we meet.
But it doesn't mean we need to completely abandon our past either; we simply need to learn how to cherish those memories without holding onto them in a desperate attempt to never let things change. As we move through different cities with different faces, we dig deeper into the core of who we truly are through the objects we choose to take with us from phase to phase and the people we continue to hold dear to us as well. Those are what grounds us and gives us a sense of who we are. No matter where I go, the stuffed animal tiger I've called my friend since I was three comes with me, and the board of postcards from around the world sent by friends and family hangs on my wall. It is the combination of our past and present experiences that makes this continual journey of self-discovery all the more beautiful.
• The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön