If you opened up my kitchen cabinet a month ago, you'd find the mug I bought for my freshman college dorm and another that says "Casey's 30th Birthday!" There's a shot glass with "Phi Sig Spring Formal 2011," a mug from a coffee shop in New Zealand, and a Champagne flute with my best friend's wedding date on it. You might even pull down the delightfully tacky Swarovski crystal chalice that's engraved with my name, from an event I went to years ago. I've carefully wrapped and transported each of these items from dorms to apartments over the past eight years—even across the country—but the thing is, I don't use any of them. My cabinet was a Museum of Unused Drinkware and, for years, I didn't have the heart to change the exhibit.
Recently, when I realized I could barely squeeze-in the things I actually use, I decided the time had come for a major edit. I took every single piece out, laying them out across my kitchen floor, and only put back the items I truly love and, more importantly, use (thanks KonMari, for that tip!). The process wasn't linear: I initially put back a few mugs, before realizing I far prefer the mugs I already keep on display on my open shelves. I considered holding onto several plates I'd purchased on-sale at Anthropologie for my first apartment, but rarely use anymore (the once-cute design now feels cheesy and dated). By the end of the process, I decided to donate nearly all of my mugs and a good portion of dishware.
After donating them, I expected to feel a sense of loss over the pieces that marked important moments or funny memories. Instead, I just felt relief—the annoyance I felt towards maneuvering around my sentimental talismans had outweighed the joy they gave me. At a certain point, your past begins to weigh down your present and future—and that's what I'm trying to avoid. Without them, my cabinet felt infinitely more useable and emboldened me to apply the same strategy to the rest of my home.
I reassessed each sentimental item in my home and asked myself if the memory was worth the space it took up. More often than not, the answer was "No." Over time, I was able to create a few ground rules for myself, curating a collection of things that are important to me, and finding new homes for the rest. Here's how to incorporate and celebrate meaningful items at home, while minimizing clutter and emotional weight:
Throughout the process, I recognized a theme emerging: The longer I'd kept something, the more importance I'd ascribed to it. One of the items I gave away is a mug I bought for my first college dorm. The mug itself isn't special—I bought it at Urban Outfitters with my mom, somewhere between a huge Bed, Bath, and Beyond haul and Target—but it's one of the few "home" items I had for four years in college. As I got further and further from graduation, the mug felt more and more special to me, even though it hadn't been particularly special to me in college. Had I given it away at graduation, I wouldn't have even missed it. At the same time, had I kept it another 20 years, I'd probably have a much harder time giving it away. As time goes on, random items can feel like a part of us (think of the 'blankie' you slept with as a baby). Giving items away sooner rather than later helps make cumulative life clutter manageable.
The addendum to the point above is that, of course, there will be plenty of items that are worth keeping forever—but these can also be edited! When my friend's parents moved from their family home into a much smaller house after their three kids left for college, they gave each one a plastic bin, no larger than a box that would fit under a bed, and told them they could only keep the sentimental items that fit in the bin. This meant they had to carefully consider and edit what really mattered to them—soccer trophies were donated or recycled, but championship medals kept; old books given away, but diaries went into the bin. When my parents recently turned my childhood room into a guest room, I had tons of things to sift through and could have easily moved five boxes of memorabilia into my apartment. Instead, I gave myself the "one box" allotment. In the end, I ended up with a bin of treasures that means the world to me, rather than five boxes I barely know the contents of. Each time I add something to it, like a journal from a trip, I try to remove one item, which also means I get to revisit the items—and the memories they represent— frequently. Also, this is so much easier to do now that so many things are digital. (Most of my past school work and photos are on on the cloud and a hard drive!)
Whenever possible, use and display your sentimental items so that you can fully enjoy them! We keep cups we bought in Vietnam on our open shelves, paper mobiles from Iceland in our bedroom, and a mirror from a Food52 pop-up (my first editorial job) in our living room. We've even turned a few items into wall art. Jonah and I had a folder of business cards and menus from our all-time favorite meals, but they were just gathering dust under the bed. We recently went through them and chose our favorite to frame and recycled the rest, so we can keep them on display and refer back to our favorite dishes (we've even been inspired to recreate a few since putting them on display!). I love that nearly every piece of art in our apartment—whether a photograph by Jonah's dad or lace from my mom's hometown in Guatemala—has meaning.
There are plenty of items that I love now, but lose their impact over time. These are usually items that are time-specific, like a baby or wedding announcement. I keep these on the side of our refrigerator, but edit these more often than any other sentimental item in our home. If I walk past it several days in a row without noticing it, I either add it to my memory box or recycle it.
Here are some of my favorite places to donate gently-used items in Los Angeles: Out of the Closet, Venice Community Housing (they do a collaboration with Heath Ceramics for dinnerware each year!), Dress for Success, and Good Shepherd Shelter