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A Rose and Its Thorns

Embracing the painful parts of letting go

Roses
Photography by Tanalee Youngblood

A year ago, I was sitting with a friend in the back corner of our favorite coffee shop, when she asked me what my “rose and thorns” were. I hadn’t heard this question before but the idea was to reflect on something good in your life (the rose), and something challenging or difficult (the thorns). I don’t remember what I answered then but I do remember feeling grateful that I couldn’t immediately choose just one rose and that I struggled to think of a thorn.

Recently, I found myself surrounded by six large boxes filled with all of my family’s photos and mementos. I have a reputation within my family as a ‘ruthless minimalist’ who can easily get rid of things no matter the sentimental weight they carry. And so, when my parents decided to separate earlier this year, I put myself in charge of a task that I knew neither my parents nor my three siblings would want to do. Truth be told, I thought it would be easy for me to sort, divide, and minimize these sentimental things. But it wasn’t.

It took me 20 hours over two days to reduce six boxes down to two. I sorted through 35 years of memories: polaroid photos of my parents dating and later dancing at their wedding, baby books with hospital bracelets and locks of hair, and at least two thousand photos filled with camping trips, snow days, birthday cakes, back-to-school outfits, and graduation gowns. The ones where someone’s thumb was covering the lens were the few easy photos to get rid of.

Letting go of sentimental items—particularly during a time of loss or change—is an incredibly difficult and personal process and it looks different for everyone. There truly is no right way to do it. For some people, saying goodbye to some or any of these things might not even be the right answer, and that’s okay too. For my family, however, these six overflowing boxes were a burden we needed to minimize and organize so that they could remind us of what we were grateful for, and not what we were losing.

As a minimalist, I believe the things we own should bring us happiness. But this doesn’t mean I threw out anything that made me sad. Photo by photo, I carefully pared down our collection and by the end of those two days, I had piles of pictures for each of my family members that I knew would make them (mostly) happy to look through. I realized there was still value in the photos that were too hard to look at right now, so I kept a separate box for those and marked it like a time capsule for us to open in the future. From beginning to end, I trusted my instincts and accepted that I would make mistakes. I reminded myself that getting rid of a photo did not mean letting go of the people in it or the memories it carried. And most importantly, I embraced the fact that letting go was going to be painful this time.

When I talk about minimalism, I usually emphasize how amazing it feels to let go of things. I’ll tell people that getting rid of some or several of their possessions would allow them to focus more on the good things or the “roses” in their lives. And while I still believe this, I know that it’s not always this simple or easy. Letting go has thorns and they are painful, but they are just as important and deserving of our attention.

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