July 19, 2007
I've always been a pack rat. I used to save every letter I got, every note I drafted but didn't mail, every card to every gift. My scribbled-in Hello Kitty diary and my first-ever plastic address book (the red one with hearts) that stored vitals for my camp friends, crushes and boyfriends, now shares space in shoeboxes of mementos and shelves of memorabilia. They document my life -- and the people in it.
Every so often, I'll poke through my shoeboxes, read letters, look at pictures and leaf through my address book. I'm immediately transported to that 10-year-old girl who's giddy about getting her new cabbage patch, butterflied about her new crush, nostalgic about summer camp the year before.
Over time, I'd collected more people, more memories and more roommates, but had less space and less time. Forced to decide what I could and couldn't save, I guess I was growing up.
Clutter soon became my nemesis, and I began to envy my ultra-organized friends who'd neatly stack their clothes and move from relationship to relationship without reminiscing.
As I stored my sweet address book and graduated to a daily planner, then to a cell phone, I'd refill and upgrade as needed. I'd learned to toss cool magazines and old shoes (eventually), but still valued my nostalgia -- and those who've come through my life. I guess I hope they valued me, too.
Still, gradually -- with difficulty -- I'd delete numbers that no longer "applied" to my life (the random guy; the ex-boyfriend; the sorority sister; the old job).
Then, the dangerous new phase -- including technology -- arrived in the late '90s/early 2000s. All bets were off.
My poor handwriting quickly morphed into a sans serif, size-10 font and postage became obsolete. What had gone into my diary, I started blogging; what I used to hold inside, I'm e-mailing; and when I used to call to say "hi" and plan, I'm texting. Enter the almighty Smartphone and high-speed Internet and suddenly, I'm compelled to my QWERTY.
I'm beginning -- and ending -- relationships through a keyboard.
The good news about technology is that my new shoeboxes are actually empty. My collections are smaller, and there's been a notable difference in the number of letters I've received.
But it's deceptive. Every one of my virtual online closets is overflowing. And now there's unlimited storage.
Question is, when -- and does -- a packrat hit delete?
My slightly defunct Yahoo! account -- my first-ever account -- which first limited, then expanded, its storage, still houses notes dating to the birth of the World Wide Web -- from boys I dated, to rejection letters to fights with friends to job applications.
My Hotmail account now gathers junk mail, online matches and Smartphone bills while my new Smartphone -- the regrettable bane of my existence -- stores nearly 1,000 names and endless text messages.
Today's pleasure -- and danger -- is that I needn't return to my childhood closet to reminisce; I just scroll my way through loves lost and watch the births, and deaths, of my relationships.
It's an emotional rollercoaster -- and it's my virtual life. Documented.
In 2004, I opened a then-sub-geek Gmail account, making my storage amazingly and frighteningly boundless. On a whim, I can Google my life and search by keyword, name, emotion or date. I can access old chats with emoticons, the hmms and the hee-hees. And dangerously, I can save messages ... somewhere ... discretely ... with the archive function.
So sometimes, at the regrettable end of a chapter, like with my shoeboxes, I'll precariously dig into my texts and e-mails. This is unwise, because like any overstuffed closet, sometimes things fall out.
I'll find old messages tracing back to week one of the relationship, noting changes in tone -- from flirty to insecure to confident to comfortable to loving and sweet to supportive to happy to arrogant to annoyed to manipulative to insecure to pessimistic to ridiculous to the sublime.
It seems that even e-clutter collects dust. The past 10 months replay in a few hours and the once unclear becomes obvious. It's exhilarating and often painful.
Envying my anal-retentive friends, I attempt another purge. I hold my breath, and agree that I am "sure I want to delete" his phone number.
Like cleaning out my closets or shredding old bills (and collecting new ones), it feels cleansing and a little -- or a lot -- sad. My fingers shake and my heart sort of jumps and sinks.
Sure I've made some progress. But when it comes to "his" e-mails, well, I simply archive.
You see, the problem with packrats is that no matter how much you toss, there's always a stash somewhere.
D. Lehon is a freelance writer living in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.