What We Hold On To

half visible fountain and pigeons and things
Photo courtesy of Justin Duyao

How do you decide what to put in a yard sale and what’s worth holding on to?

What makes a particular thing mantle-worthy? What makes it expendible? 

Personally, I like to own only a few things. The all-purpose journal. (To-do lists. Poems. Scrap paper.) The everyday pant. (School. Work. Home.) Having any more than a few things — or anything that I don’t particularly love — stresses me out. My stuff is my responsibility, after all: What if I have to get outta town fast? How many trips down the stairs will all these things take?

I was always very proud of how quickly I could pack up my college dorm, for example. While everyone else was hauling their boxes into elevators on dollies, I was zooming down US-167, stretching the gulf between me and White County, Arkansas as wide as I could.

That’s the key: if everything you own fits in one big bag, you can toss that bag over the saddle of your horse and gallop into the sunset, no problem. Nothing to stumble over. 

I suppose I associate scarcity with escape plans. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean I don’t buy things. I love buying things. According to my own extensive research, impulse purchases are the most effective treatment for the incurably sad. It’s really only important to me that the sum of my collection, measured by mass (i.e. the resistance that a body of matter offers to a change in its speed or position), remains generally the same.

Achieving this equilibrium requires a bit of pruning, much like a garden, where it is just as important to water your plants as it is to trim dead branches. I think Jesus said something about that. Philosophers, in fact, thought up an entire -ology to study this kind of pruning. “Axiology,” they call it (axia being the Greek word for “worth” or “value”), which is the study of the nature of valuation — that is, the kinds of things folks decide are valuable. All the same, I wouldn’t say this essay is as much axiological as it is troubled. 

I’m troubled by the ways things bind together with memory in my life — by the way unbreakable attachments form and residues compile. I’m troubled by the power certain things hold over me: These tennis shoes that wore a hole in the heel ages ago. That rug I stole from my sister’s room when she left for college, which has followed me everywhere (and never once matched the other furniture in my room). 

Why do we hold on to some things and not others?

In my horticultural pruning process, I come across objects like these that vibrate with importance. Not quite sentimentalism, more a kinder form of haunting. Sometimes, even when the branch is dead, I simply can’t cut it — nor can I pick the thing up without thinking about people, places, feelings. These objects are ripe with memory, pregnant with sounds and smells from long, long ago. They take on the quality of a quilt, which stitches together scraps from any number of moments across time. Only these scraps are alive, like fireflies I’ve caught in a mason jar or worms that wriggle in the palm of my hand.

It is these particularly wormy sorts of things that have foiled some of my most earnest escape plans. Perhaps this essay, then, is an attempt at self diagnosis. Or maybe it’s an exploration into my rather sticky habit of remembering. 

What we take with us

In college, I spent a summer in Peru taking Spanish classes with a few friends. We all met up in Atlanta before puddle jumping our way steadily southward. When we finally arrived and started unloading our luggage, I was astounded at how differently we all packed. 

I, for instance, stuffed a backpack with books and spare shirts. (I sweat.) Kyle brought a big, blocky suitcase filled with khakis, button-ups, and an impressive variety of shoes. John, on the other hand, squeezed a collapsible suitcase inside his primary one for all the trinkets he planned on bringing back. 

Much later, while the rest of us spent our week off of class in Arequipa, sipping vermouth, nibbling tapas, and wandering around those glorious cobblestone ruins, John spent his time bartering for anklets and soccer jerseys in tourist-trap markets. I told him on the train to Ica that was the worst way he could have spent his time, collecting so many souvenirs when he never actually saw the place they came from. He told me I’d get home from the trip and have nothing to show for it. 

On the flight home, somewhere between Mexico City and Atlanta, a bottle of Argentinian wine John had secured between an alpaca doll and an extravagantly embroidered blanket burst. He found his collapsible suitcase in a puddle, at baggage claim. 

What things carry

Ann Patchett talks about anthropomorphizing things, which is a funny way to put it. In reference to the dozen champagne glasses she’d found in the back of her china cabinet while getting rid of things, she wrote “Everything about the glasses disappointed me: their number, their ridiculous height, the idea of them sitting up there all these years, waiting for me to throw a party. (See, there, I’m doing it again: the glasses were waiting.)” 

I wouldn’t say my things develop opinions of me. They do carry something, though. 

These socks I’m wearing, for example, are important because my grandpa got them for me for Christmas a few years ago, before we got into that big fight about Baptism. They have a hole in the toe from a campfire in Brian Head and another in the heel from the time I got my car half stuck in a river, just outside Hoodsport. 

I have a shirt with a hole from another campfire in Joshua Tree, which is worn down so thin at the elbows you can see through them. That one’s been to Cochabamba, Jinja, Porto Rafti, and — my personal favorite — those sand dunes near Traverse City. It’s been to Upper Twin Lake more than a few times. It’s been fly fishing in Missoula. It fell off a skateboard in Little Rock. It also fell in the mud, once, trying to get my car unstuck in Arizona. (I get my car stuck a lot.) That was a particularly slushy winter.

I also have a shirt I don’t wear anymore. That one’s another Christmas gift, this time from an ex who shall go unnamed. These are the oddest sorts of mementos, in my opinion: the ones you shouldn’t keep but also can’t get rid of — though I have tried, on numerous occasions, to give this particular one away. It comes back like a boomerang. (It also fits irritatingly well.)

These sorts of “things” seem to follow us around, waiting for us to make up our minds about them. Different, though, from the shoebox under the bed in my childhood bedroom. Those things are ways of holding on to, tucking away moments in time you wish never ended. 

But the kind of things I’m talking about are malicious — maleficent, even. They’re permeated with some supernatural something. 

For instance, I have a mug from the same unnamable name that sits on a shelf in my cabinet and goes largely unused. Sometimes it sits, other times it lurks. The problem is it’s a perfectly fine mug. It holds hot things so I don’t have to. It fits in my hand wonderfully. Its only unforgivable sin is its origin story.

I also have pajama shorts I cannot wear. At one point, the unnamable name and I bought matching pairs and strutted them around her parents’ house in Bakersfield, like we were married or something. 

That evening, her dad made this fantastic brisket, while her mother made sesame udon. I cut the tomatoes for the caprese salad. It was cool enough to sit outside around the fire, too, so we all waddled like penguins, drinks in hand, from the dining room to the backyard after we finished eating. The next morning, we all watched The Goonies, cozied up in our pajama shorts. 

How this all works

The best way I can describe the process of fusing memory and object is with the word residue. The Latin residuüm translates to “something remaining”; the Old French (14 c.) residu evokes “something left over, something left behind.” 

Sometimes, residue is literal, the way a pillow takes on a certain shape after it’s been used a certain way by a certain person. Other times, it’s figurative, so that memories stick around like the smell of oranges on your fingers, a bruise that should’ve cleared up days ago, or the way you can still see the faintest, glimmering outlines of things when you close your eyes. 

Go ahead, try it. 

My mom ran a daycare until I started middle school, which really just meant my friends came over after school to rewatch Star Wars most days of the week. Around dinner time, after their moms had picked them up, I would identify the owner of that day’s left-behind jacket by smell. 

Cameron’s smell reminded me of his big, waggily-tailed chocolate lab. 

Taylor’s, his nervous laugh, his sweaty palms.

This effect is true of language, as well. Different words have different smells, different flavors. English professors will call this particular form of residu “connotation.” Arranging words into poems, then, is a lot like making soup. You know it’s working when you can smell it from the other room. 

Poetry, in my mind, is just an informal method of documentation. Storing things away, burying them into lines on pages — or as Chris Offutt puts it, “ridding” yourself of certain stories, so they don’t have to bounce around in your head anymore. 

Whether intended or not, words have a clever way of holding onto memories long after they’ve faded, so that when you read them a little while later, all of the sudden, no time has passed at all. 

As it relates to memory, words are different from things because they give you the opportunity to choose what moments you hold onto and with what words you hold onto them. Things, on the other hand, take on this terrible autonomy, so that whatever control you once had over feeling transfers to them and away from you

What words carry

I think that’s my only good reason for writing. While Ann Patchett goes through her cupboards and drawers to de-clutter the clutter that’s piled up over the years, I collect poems in notebooks and leave them in stacks by my bedside table. They’re relics of moments I know I’ll forget, if I let myself — monuments for places and people I want to keep on living, exactly as they were when I found them. Not so different from those piles of rocks we leave near bends in trails, in part so the earth remembers we were there, in part to remind those behind us which paths we followed before.

In truth, I have a terrible memory. I get this from my mom. She plays it off very well, of course. I learned from her how to “aha” at references I don’t understand, speak fluently about movies I’ve never seen, nod along, hmm and hah in diligent, confused agreement. She’s an expert at those forms of forgetting. 

Writing might be my cleverest form of remembering yet. And yet, I’m terrified of it. As far as careers are concerned, writing for money means remembering for a living. And as terrified as I am to lose track of all my memories, I’m equally uneasy revisiting them. 

The thing is, I don’t have any control over words once they’re written down. If I leave them alone long enough, they metamorphosize ten times over. For this reason, those books of poems by my bedside table have never been reopened. They’re time capsules I have no plans to dig up. Even though it’s freeing to entrust those memories to the page, it’s never exactly easy to travel backwards in time, later on. 

Still, I like knowing those words are somewhere in the world. As for the things I hold on to, I like that my possessions have found a way to transcend boring old regular thingness. As terrible as it is to be haunted by memories, the irreversible, crematorial process of forgetting seems somehow worse.

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Justin Duyao is a creative writer and editor. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is pursing an MA in Critical Studies from the Pacific Northwest College of Art. He holds degrees in English Literature, French and Religious Thought from Harding University, and his research interests include studies of consciousness, sociolinguistics, and semiology.