On Ridding Oneself of Items That No Longer Serve a Purpose, Over and Over Forever
I am in the process of throwing away old things.
Today, I take three plastic bins from underneath the bathroom sink and set all of their contents on the coffee table, floor, and couch. My mother once told me that certain medicines do not expire regardless of what their labels say: the ginger pills for motion sickness, the ibuprofen for a headache, the decongestants for, well, decongest-ing.
I look at the four-year-old epinephrine and imagine myself ripping it out of its plastic case, swinging the needle into my thigh, holding it there for ten seconds while I struggle to breathe. I have been poisoned inadvertently, or maybe it was on purpose, and now my throat is closing, and now my life is closing, and when the paramedics come to retrieve me one of them holds up the stick and looks straight into the camera at their interlocutor, a detective, and says if only this wasn’t from 2015. I place the epinephrine in a plastic bag to bring somewhere for proper disposal.
One bottle of ginger pills expires next year and the other has no expiration date. I keep the first bottle and set the other in the bag for disposal alongside prescription bottles from the ninth grade. I am now too old for these pills, anyway, and I would rather that someone else be responsible for them. Throwing away old medicine doesn’t bother me.
The easiest things to throw away are the ugly things, the old things that have chipped or warped or torn somehow.
The plastic bins that I used for the medicines were ugly. Past Me took them into the backyard of the house with the stuck-on curtains, the one that we rented when the first house got too big for the interlude between my siblings being away at college and me still being in high school for another year. Past Me crouched on the rocks and spray painted them dark purple. Past Me filled them with sunscreens and aloes and hair sprays. She took them with her to two new college apartments.
Now, they are chipped and dusty and I throw them away in the dumpster at my apartment complex. One of them has a painting of a half-woman, half-tree that I made the other week, brown and teal acrylic spanning two MDF rectangles, tucked safely inside its drawer. My hands could not control the brush the way I wanted them to, and originally I’d wanted to paint stars, anyway.
In my family, getting rid of things means sticking them in a box or a bag by the front door and forgetting that they are there. If I give my sister a bag of clothing to take to Goodwill, it will sit in the trunk of her car until we all forget about it, and then we look through the clothes again to make absolutely sure that we don’t want them, and we adopt back all of the pieces that we may, on second thought, have use for. It is a Recycling, in a way.
The real issue is that I am bad at confronting nostalgia.
Rather than take an item from my childhood, hold it in my hands, and say goodbye to it at the moment I recognize its non-utility in my adult life, I instead let my fingers find the item’s old crevices. I let my eyes gloss over the bubble letters of a birthday card with only a signature inside to accompany the store-bought sentiment. I place the card in a small gift bag for Future Me to have.
I feel an uncomfortable guilt in throwing away things that are not mine of my own volition. How do you throw someone else’s I-thought-of-you away?
How to get rid of the sweater that a friend gave you two years ago? How to free yourself from the ugly scarf that your ex-boyfriend’s mother got for you because you complimented hers once in the tenth grade?
The half-woman, half-tree that I got rid of was originally a set of signs from the home decor store that my a friend had given me: “Coffee and Friends, A Perfect Blend.” “I’m Sorry for What I Said When I Was Hungry.” It was easier for me to throw them away once I made them mine again.
(Were those recyclable? Should I have recycled them?)
I find a pink rock that looks like sea glass. It’s a comfortable weight in my palm. A gift for my seventh birthday, or perhaps my ninth. Why does it mean anything to me anymore, now that I’ve unearthed it from the depths of a metal basket in my closet, now that I realize I did not miss it for all the time it was hidden away?
I wonder: what happens to all of the used condoms in the world? No one agonizes over throwing them away. No one mourns the loss of single-use plastic. (At least, I think they’re made of plastic. They’re called rubbers in some places, right?) Where do they go? Will they decompose into themselves, each filled with enough sperm to populate a U.S. state?
I un-tack all of the postcards, mini-posters, and art prints from the wall by my bookshelf. I peel off the rolled pieces of tape, sometimes taking paper with them, and push the tacks into the cork board in the hall. Two months ago I had been walking through campus with my friend and we found small matching pine branches on the ground. We swung them around and when I got home, I stapled mine to the wall. Now, the leaves are dead.
(I will keep the glass-like pink rock. Even if it is a secondhand nostalgia, one that doesn’t belong firsthand to the Me who sticks it in a different basket.)
I throw things away for my parents, too.
They task me with looking through boxes and cabinets and I make another pile by their front door for Goodwill, a pile that I know will be scrutinized at least twice before reaching its destination, far smaller than it was when I first gave it life.
I set aside a box of things to return to my grandmother, who had given us kitchen signs with phrases like “Sheep Happens” and “If You Want Breakfast In Bed, Sleep in the Kitchen,” who receives them again with the thinly-veiled disdain of someone who has spent years buying things for her family members that they do not want and did not ask for.
A big part of my tendency to keep things stems, I think, from this tradition of giving and keeping that has perpetuated for generations in my family. I unearth a wedding cake topper from my grandmother’s wedding with my grandfather. They divorced when my brother was still small. Why give this piece of her unhappy marriage to my parents? Why let this symbol remain?
(Yet I am thankful that my great-grandmother left us her Yale Shakespeare collection. I am glad to have the chess table that looks like a rounded bookcase, fake book spines adorning the edges all around its pull-out chairs.)
Look up how much this goes for online, says my mother in reference to an old Edward Cullen Barbie doll. See how much this is worth.
By now I have decided that I do not want to be one of those people that keeps things. I do not want to feel guilt when I look at the teacup and saucer that someone bought for me many years ago, a set that sits untouched on a bookshelf in the library room waiting for me to fill it with wax to make it a candle, as I had with a different teacup and saucer once. It still has the note inside.
In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor listens to a child refuse to drink milk from a cafe teacup because it isn’t the same as her cup at home, which is spotted on the inside with painted stars. I think that I would like a cup of stars. Maybe I’ll make one, and add it to my collection of mugs at home, and wait to see if it’s something that I’ll use or not.
The expired medicines are sitting in a plastic bag by the front door.
The old prescriptions and epinephrine and over-the-counters peek out from behind the confines of the opaque plastic. I watch the bag sway from the doorknob, uncertain in its own future, unsure if it will ever really be thrown away or if it will remain here forever. I watch it wonder if it would be comfortable in this stasis or if it would really prefer to be disposed of after all, even if that means it is disassembled and dissolved down a drain somewhere. I move it to the knob on the key drawer instead.
Maybe this counts for something.