Seven to eight years is what the average physician lives after retirement. A colleague of mine (who since feigns amnesia) advised me of this heartening fact. If true, it doesn’t really leave much time for all that I have planned to do after retirement: travel to wild and exotic places, never-ending reading lists, piles of photos to review and relish, and whatnot; and lest I forget, old letters and the kids memorabilia from birth onwards.
Over the years, I had collected enough worldly goods, memorabilia as well as junk, to fill many a Smithsonian. So much so that it had started to cloud my sensorium, in addition to my house. I gave this some serious thought and figured that my few postretirement years were way too short to reminisce and be nostalgic over so many tons of saved treasures. And that is when I decided to simplify and declutter my life.
I methodically started cleaning out closet after closet and box after box, one at a time. And the bigger the garbage bag I threw out, the better I felt. I researched this and decided to adopt the “five-a-day” principle for Phase 1 of this catharsis—a resolution to discard five redundant objects a day. And I have to say, it felt great. It felt even better than losing weight. Well, almost. And just like weight loss, it became a self-fuelling project till I was almost addicted to it.
And for the first few weeks, things went according to plan. But as I went along and the unnecessities of life went out, I started cutting closer to bone. I convinced myself that there was no place in my life for my son’s first blanket. What use did I have for a 3x3-foot square of red fleece? Even its soft lingering baby smell didn’t sway me.
So out went the blankie and out went the skirts, and out went the box with the alligator purse.
A year later, my father passed away and it took a little while before I could get an air ticket to fly back home. While waiting to fly back for the funeral, distraught, I looked at old pictures and anything that reminded me of him. Perchance, I happened to come across an old pair of his socks, which I had borrowed and forgotten to return—a brown pair that my mother had knit for him years ago. And it came back to me that somewhere I had also saved a short note he had written to me the day we opened my first savings account. I know I had kept them with the keys for one of my most-prized former possessions—a scooter he had bought for me during my internship. These were things that his heart and hands had touched and suddenly I had this irrepressible urge to touch them again. As I looked for them in the my “memories drawer,” a flood of memories came pouring along with my tears.
I searched and searched, but couldn’t find them. I had a growing suspicion that the “five-a-day” principle had made me get rid of them. I couldn’t remember for sure, but knowing how my mind works, I must have reasoned that the scooter had long been relegated to the junkyard, the socks old and tired, and the savings account long since cleaned out. And no need, therefore, to hang on to them. I was inconsolable that afternoon. In a way I was mourning these little reminders just as much as I mourned him.
It made me realize that those old movie tickets from years ago, my mother’s old jewelry box, and my striped bellbottoms were like magic keys, opening doors to rooms full of memories in my mind, which, unless reminded of, I may never open again.
It also dawned on me that organizing and downsizing was great, but discarding these little things so close to my heart was like cutting off some of my roots. And it was vital to my wellbeing to recognize the fine line between the two.
Since then I have tried to strike balance between keepers and losers.
And to rewrite an old ditty:
Sure, bring in the new,
But hang on to the old.
For in the winter of your life,
It may keep out the cold.