I’ve been packing up my house and sorting through my stuff. While each and every thing is just a collection of atoms, there appears to be distinct categories. There are things that are useful like my chopping boards and chairs. Or stuff like paintings and pot plants that add light to my life. But there are also things like my dinted tin dog who spins manically when I wind him up, or that tiny box from China, filled with gritty pebbles, that I collected from that bleak road in Sichuan. These are the things that have achieved the status of memento, and with that title comes an extraordinary super-power. With just one glance they can provoke a flood of feeling. It’s as if left-over fragments of moments and memories have somehow got stuck inside.
When my mother died a few years ago I cleared out her house and brought a little bird home with me. He was made of thick twine, and had shiny metal legs, and tiny beads for eyes. He’d sat on a shelf in my bedroom when I was a kid. Back then he wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. But when I spotted him, still perched on that same shelf after all those years, something shifted in the way I saw him. Perhaps it was his tenacity in committing to a life stuck in one place. Or maybe it was those fragments of feeling that I recognised. Whatever the case, he was no longer just a bundle of twine and metal and beads. He’d climbed beyond the role of mere thing. Twiney Bird had become a memento.
But when I placed Twiney Bird on my kitchen window sill I realised he couldn’t stay. His power was too strong and I was certain that the torrent of memories he stirred would cause me to drown. I thought about stashing him in a bottom drawer, well out of sight and mind. I’m sure that’s the destiny of many powerful things. But Twiney Bird deserved a happier fate. So I took him to the local op shop, in the hope that someone would buy him, and thereby wipe those fragments clean.
Then a week or so later I went back to that same shop looking for something or other. There was Twiney Bird, back on a shelf, this time with a price tag attached to one of his legs. A shudder of recognition rumbled through me. The sheer force of memory that connected us was still strong. I glanced around the store but it was evident that no-one else in the shop felt it. For them, Twiney Bird was just an ordinary thing. Mementos are fussy like that.
So as I’ve been filling boxes, and facing my powerful things, I’ve had to decide what stays and what goes. Some people say that the solution is simple. Only keep things that spark joy. I’m sure the expression has merit. But I’m willing to feel a bit more than just joy and I figure we humans are wired for it. So I’m happy to keep that pencil sketch from Brisbane, even though it stirs a little sad. And I’ll hold onto porcelain Bambi, with her chipped left ear, who conjures a wave of affection. But if the sparks that I sense are grey and foreboding, and hit like a king tide in winter, then much like Twiney Bird, I know it has to go.