We’re increasingly storing mementos of life events online (23,000 selfies anyone?) and constantly told keeping ‘useless’ stuff is bad for us, but argues Marisa Bate, her ever-increasing stash of mementos brings her joy and futureproofs her mental wellbeing
Words by Marisa Bate
When I was about 12 or 13, I began writing in diaries and sticking things in them; cinema tickets, photos from a school trip to the Isle of Wight, pictures of Jared Leto’s face torn out of magazines with red love hearts drawn around his levitating head.
As I got older I carried on collecting things: gig tickets, plane tickets, napkins a boy had put his number on even if I didn’t like the boy, shells, so many shells, from any beach I’d come across . I’d keep letters from friends they’d send when they were living in San Sebastian or La Reunion, I’d keep receipts from restaurants on birthdays and those free notepads from hotels when I went to LA or Goa on work trips for the first time.
As I began to move from university halls to flats, hopscotching from city to city, my pile of stuff grew, a small heap of important, defining moments I didn’t want to lose. They eventually found their home in a Matches Fashion box that a former colleague had received in the office. As a junior, I could only dream of shopping somewhere like that, so I was more than pleased with the signature marble painted box that she gave to me instead of the recycling bin. Instantly I knew I would keep my most precious things in it.
Yet whilst these things are sacred to me, they are, according to psychologist Dr Jonathan Pointer of therapysanctuary.com, imbued and embellished. ‘Each time we remember something we reconstruct the events in our head,’ he says. ‘This reconstruction includes what we perceived happened, our imagination of what might have happened, and information from other sources. This all gets used to create a memory.’
My heap-turned-box continued to grow with stuff. Mementos of ex-boyfriends, almost-boyfriends and men I wished had been my boyfriend got tucked away, somewhere safe, where they would always remain, even when the boy himself was long gone. On quiet evenings, I’d open up the box and rustle through. The mementos were like confetti, flashes of memories raining down and I’d catch myself in them. I’d see myself when I was younger, bolder, braver, wearing short shorts and staying out till the sun was up.
They’d remind me of first jobs and office romances. At one job, an intense office flirtation rushed up like leaves in the wind. He would leave any interview with Taylor Swift on my desk knowing I was a super fan. He’d leave Post-It notes on my desk with private jokes. I’ve kept them all. And not because of anything I long for, but as a souvenir, a time stamp of a moment in my life that I don’t want, but I don’t want to forget either. The first time my mum met by current partner, we drove to West Wittering beach and walked along a strip of shore that means a great deal to me, welcoming him into the family by sharing this quasi-sacred spot. I still have the parking ticket from that warm July day. I keep these things because they are the physical manifestations of precious moments, sad and happy, painful and empowering.
Today, however, we’re in a moment of anti-stuff. The climate emergency tells us to recycle, buy less, consume less, own less. Marie Kondo has encouraged millions of people to throw things away that don’t spark joy. We’re not meant to have clutter, unnecessary material items, it’s bad for the planet, it’s bad for our mental health.
And while we do have to make serious life changes in order to protect the planet, and perhaps Marie Kondo has a point – how much stuff do we *really* need? – there are somethings we don’t need, but we want because they feel like an extension of ourselves we can’t possibly part with. Those scraps of paper, faded yellow with time, are gateways to the experiences in our life that have been formative, sometimes transformative. And I take comfort knowing those pieces of me are there, safe, evidence of times my memory might let slip away, evidence of the various forms of me, evidence that I want to rediscover when I’m 44, and 54 and 64 and 74. That’s what sparks joy to me – as much as throwing away excess bed linen seems to spark in Marie Kondo.
Increasingly generations will keep their mementos online, on Facebook, on Instagram. But that’s not quite the same. ‘Our online lives will also alter our memory of what happened,’ claims Dr Pointer. ‘This is because what we put online is often a modified version of reality. Therefore, over time, it is likely that our memory of what actually happened becomes corrupted by this misinformation, and becomes real to us.’ And whilst mementos are susceptible to a similar ‘corruption’ according to Dr Pointer, that is to a lesser degree. ‘Both are highly constructed, but given that people tend to post information about themselves to boost a particular version of themselves to their followers, online memories would be even more vulnerable to corruption”
No one has ever seen inside my box. They probably never will. I love the privacy of it. And nothing beats sitting in a dressing gown, hair in a towel, wading through the confetti of times gone by – little stubs of paper that tell years’ worth of stories, like an Amsterdam tram ticket from when I lived there for two years with my first proper love. I’d ride the trams and feel alive hearing a language I couldn’t understand and falling in love with a landscape that wasn’t my own but was becoming part of me. Two years’ worth of stories is in that tiny yellow ticket. It’s worth a thousand Instagram selfies or diary entries to me. And when I look at it, I remember a loving man, a great adventure and an important time that is no longer, but will always exist, in part, hidden away in my Matches box. And what a shame it would be if we were all to lose those little irreplaceable mementos forever.