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Does a New Year Mean a New You?

It’s time for resolutions—but think carefully before chucking out your memories.

The time for New Year’s resolutions has come round again. Most of us are probably exhausted from 2020 and hope that 2021 will be better. We can’t solve all the problems in the world, nor can we single-handedly wave away the coronavirus pandemic, but we are ready for a change.

So where do we start? Many of the old favourites, such as having a new haircut, taking out a subscription at the gym, or being more sociable, are out of the question. We could cut down on the alcohol or chocolate, but we’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work. And we’re never going to write that best-selling novel or make a patchwork quilt. What’s left?

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Time to tidy up?
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Tidying up, or de-cluttering as it’s fashionably called, seems to be the answer. There can’t be many of us who don’t have boxes or cupboards or lofts or garages of stuff we have collected over the years and can’t quite chuck. Maybe it has sentimental value, or we think it could come in useful sometime, or we just haven’t got round to doing anything about it.

And there’s been plenty of time over the past months to dip into Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in which she advocates simplifying our lives and abandoning anything that doesn’t spark joy. By adopting the KonMari method, and swapping consumerism for tidiness, our lives will become calmer and less stressful. And isn’t a peaceful life just what we would like at the moment after a tumultuous year?

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Minimalism
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Yes, this notion does have a certain appeal. The digital and print media are replete with images of stylish rooms and homes, usually minimally decked out with carefully chosen furniture and objects, and devoid of much of the "mess" many of us face on a daily basis. Oh, we might think, wouldn’t it be lovely to live in such a tidy environment and not constantly be searching for a spare bit of table to put yet more things down?

Well, maybe. But then again, maybe not. I recall some doubts when several years ago I was invited to a friend’s house that was more like a museum or art gallery. Everything was interesting, elegant, and strategically placed, and I was suitably impressed. But after I’d left, I was overwhelmed by a single question. Where were their memories? Have they gone to the dump long ago or are they sitting in the loft?

Of course, this may be an excuse for my less-than-perfect home, but I have always got enormous satisfaction from looking at the many and varied (and certainly not matching or coordinated) objects on my desk, or around the room, and remembering where each has come from. It’s not about wallowing in nostalgia, it’s just that objects remind me of people and places I’ve known and loved, or perhaps not always loved.

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Old photos and letters can spark memories
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Memories are the essence of our being. We feel frustrated when there is something we can’t remember and we lose our independence of movement and spirit when our memory fails us more completely. Life story work is an important form of therapy, particularly for those with dementia, that encourages people and their families to review their lives and build their own personal biography. Trigger points, such as photographs, letters, music, and objects can often stimulate memories and bring pleasure. They remind us of who we are.

To come back to our New Year resolutions, then, is de-cluttering a good idea? I would definitely say yes. Unless we’re the ultra-tidy type already, or we’ve recently done a good sort out, the chances are that there is plenty we can let go of and never miss. All the same, I would add a few cautions. My five main provisos are about giving top priority to your own motivations, wishes, and identity, and not being swayed by fashionable austerity, trendy minimalism, or any other motive that may have been thrust upon you. It’s your life after all.

First of all, begin where you want to begin. If you can’t fit another thing in your wardrobe, start by seeing if there is anything there that you want to get rid of. Or if you want more space in your kitchen cupboards to put the new mugs you were given for your birthday, then attack those. The advice is sometimes given to leave photographs and other very personal mementos to the last. But if you are in the mood to go through these, just do it.

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Records missing their record player
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Second, don’t be too influenced by what anybody else says. Decide for yourself which things you want to keep and which things can go. I say this with feeling as some years ago I was encouraged to get rid of a record player I had had as a teenager. I still wish I hadn’t given that away.

Third, don’t feel you have failed if you don’t manage to dispose of much the first time around. It may be that clearing the loft, for instance, is a three- or four-stage job. Some things that can’t be discarded at the initial attempt may be easier to lose further down the line.

Fourth, and if you have any doubts at all, don’t get rid of things immediately. Put them aside and, as with a difficult email, think about it overnight before taking a decision. Try not to be impetuous if you will regret it later.

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Retail therapy - adding to the problem
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And fifth, give yourself a pat on the back even if your efforts don’t come to much. The main thing is that you’ve given tidying up a try. Don’t worry if it’s all too difficult or if you find you really do want to keep most things. Just don’t go straight out for a bit of retail therapy.

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