I’m not a big keeper of stuff. This is relative. Compared to, say, my mother-in-law—a woman who has the orange plastic bucket her 37-year-old son used for trick-or-treating in the late ‘80s—I keep nothing. Compared to, I don’t know, my childless brother with an allergy to clutter, I have too much.
It would be easier to have a benchmark—something to reference, like a Farmer’s Almanac but instead of weather it would report “stuff you need this year and how much of it you do, in fact, need.”
Here are the pairs of sneakers you should own. Here are the books to keep and the ones to toss. Give away those empty file folders. Since these guides don’t exist, I’m over here faced with figuring out what works for me, seemingly all the time, for every subject matter.
I have four sets of dinner plates, one hairbrush, two jars of face cream, two laptop computers and six bottles of essential oil (not one of which feels essential, if we are truth-telling). I toss my kids’ artwork easily. I throw away old holiday cards and I don’t keep the vases that come with arrangements delivered to my house.
I don’t include my four kids’ belongings in my decluttering efforts. Their rooms are off-limits now that they’re older. Instead, I focus on my own items—sorting through clothes, discarding worn-out pieces like pilled sweaters and stained sweatshirts. I also part with unnecessary accessories, like excess headbands and impulse-bought necklaces. Pro tip: resist buying pricey items before a yoga class; the yoga is spirit-lifting enough.
After I’m through most sections of my closet and dresser, I reach my jean pile. It’s been side-eyeing me the whole time.
What is it about my jean pile? Let me describe my daily life to you:
I wake up any time between 6 and 7am. I roll out of bed, put my contacts in and put on one of the five sweatshirts I’ve held onto this year. I stick my feet in slippers (two pairs of those) or socks (several pairs of those.) I pour coffee into the same mug I use every morning.
Keeping mementos attached to a period of time that walked out the door.
Once my coffee is poured, I take care of four children—getting the big kids off to school, feeding my toddler, signing homework folders and putting out snacks and water bottles for my kids to grab. After I wave goodbye to the bus, I go back upstairs to brush my teeth and get dressed.
I write and I practice yoga. These are the two parts of my life that aren’t loading the dishwasher and folding laundry and grocery shopping and opening Amazon packages and prying chokeable objects out of my two-year-old’s clenched hand and driving all over the city for dance and art club and piano and, “Shoot I forgot my flute at school, can we run back?”
Do I need jeans to go to yoga? Definitively no. Do I need jeans to write? Oh my god. Will I wear jeans to pick up my kids from school so other moms think I live a super cute life? Every once in a while, sure.
I don’t wear jeans enough to keep them all. And yet, in every purge, they remain. High-waisted ones, light-washed ones, cool ones with holes cut out over the knees. I have black jeans, skinny jeans, dark-washed “nice” jeans to wear with the blouses I just got rid of. I even have a pair with red fringe that dangles from the hem to make me look bohemian even though I don’t think true bohemians pay $200 for fringed jeans.
What I don’t have, when it comes to these jeans, is the desire to wear them.
A few weeks ago I had coffee with a friend. We were discussing career, family and moving cities, and all those life topics one can have with a female friend who knows the push and pull of life moving around her. In the midst of this conversation she said effortlessly, “what we need changes.”
Ah ha! I thought. This is why I keep the jeans.
Sometimes we keep things because we want to remember a time passed. To remember our college days or our first job or a great trip. We want to remember our pre-child days when our bodies and our sleep schedules were our own. Keeping mementos attached to a period of time that walked out the door.
Other times we hold on for the opposite reason: To give ourselves the option for something in the future. If I keep the crystal wine glasses I’ll have a lovely dinner party. If I keep the running shoes in my closet I’ll train for a half marathon.
If I keep the stack of denim piled high in my closet, I’ll have events that require something other than yoga pants.
I can fantasize about living different lives where I wear the jeans—a business owner who pairs jeans with blazers or going back to teaching. These are lives that belong to others, but sometimes I daydream they could be mine.
I daydream as a way to remember I’ve arrived to my daily life through choices I have made. I choose to run errands mid-morning because my writing is part-time and flexible. I choose to pick up a sick child because I am the parent home at 1pm.
Regret is a strong word. It evokes dissatisfaction, a sense of wrong. I do not regret I live a life that doesn’t require me to wear nicer clothes day-to-day. But I can have longing. I can long for the girl who, all those years ago, didn’t know what her day-to-day would look like once she was a woman.
Any choice we make brings loss. I cannot be the teacher who teaches teenagers about Hemingway and also cooks a pot roast at noon on a Wednesday, after writing that morning while her child was with a sitter. There are women who balance more than I do, who choose to live more parts than I do, and these women integrate these parts beautifully into their daily lives—they wear the jeans and the leggings. But I suspect these women still find themselves, at times, imagining another way. Thinking about other choices. We can be rooted in our daily lives and also lament those other versions of ourselves that were left, like unopened gifts under a tree.
I don’t keep the jeans because I think I’ll wear a pair.
I keep them because they are a reminder of what I didn’t choose, what I did and what I still could. I keep them to remember the possibilities that are still ahead.