Burn Notice: Personal Effects Going Up in Smoke

This Friday, I’m going to burn my high school diploma.

The wonderfully great part of that story – it’s only the start of something much, much bigger: A “Life Bonfire” – my opportunity to purge some of the personal “crap” that I’ve felt compelled to hold on to all these years.

I’m going to torch personal effects like…

• Honors and awards

• Projects

• Random keepsakes

Rationale: I’m going to burn anything that I don’t want to burden others with when I’m gone – high school diploma included.

I got this idea when my great aunt passed away several years ago.

When she died, my mom was responsible for handling all the stuff she left behind. She shared keepsakes with other members of our family, donated some items to charitable causes and sold the rest in an estate sale.

But there were a handful of things – personal, one-of-a kind items – that fell into a unique category. These were keepsakes that only had three logical destinations: A box in a loved one’s attic, in the landfill or on the wall of an Applebee’s.

I asked my mom for some examples of these personal treasures she found at my great aunt’s house:

• An autograph book from when my great aunt was in the 7th grade. My mom said it was a popular keepsake for teenage girls, where their friends could write sweet notes to you and/or about that person.

• My great aunt’s certificate for Junior Red Cross training. It was probably 85 to 90 years old.

Both very personal items that immediately did not have any relevance or significance with my great aunt gone. I’ll admit, it’s a little sad to think about, but it’s part of life, right?

I discovered a long time ago that the picture below is not practical…

…so my solution: “Life Bonfire.”

I’ve been thinking about this ceremonial blaze since I walked through my great aunt’s house one last time. That was my opportunity to pick out anything and everything that I wanted to hold on to.

There wasn’t anything.

That might sound harsh and cold, but a 7th-grade autograph book and/or a random certificate weren’t going to enhance the incredible memories I had of my mom’s aunt, who was like a third grandmother to me.

The wonderfully great memories I had were enough for me.

Not to mention, I had my own junk that I’d been accumulating for 35+ years.

But that did NOT keep my mom from gently persuading.

“Don’t you want this?”

“How about that?”

Then she mentioned the fire.

“You know whatever we can’t rid of, we’re probably going to have to burn,” she said.

I think it was mainly a take-something-please tactic, but my mom’s plea simply made me shift my focus and perspective to my life…to my keepsakes…to my personal “treasures.”

As we drove home that night, I started thinking normal, healthy, every-day thoughts. You know… “What if we were killed in a car accident tonight and someone had to go through all our crap?”

“I don’t want somebody else burning my stuff,” I thought to myself. “More importantly, I don’t want it to end up in some box in Crash’s closest so his kids’ kids can donate it to the landfill someday.”

“Now who was Drew again, Grandpa Crasher?”

“Why is his mouth open in all these pictures? He looks silly!”

At this point of the post, I think it’s important to share this quick note: I’m not dying and I don’t plan on dying anytime soon. (I’ve got too much to do.) I simply thought a “Life Bonfire” was a chance to reminisce one last time and purge. Take the inevitable into my own hands and live out the Neil Young creed: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

So, that’s what I’m doing.

This Friday night, I’m going to pour me a glass of Jameson, fire up a cigar and stoke a blazing bonfire with some of my “treasures.” I might share a story about each item before it’s turned to ashes, or I might just tuck my lips, nod my head and sigh as I give it toss into the flames.

I wanted to share some of the things I’m letting go of. Here are some of the general items:

School Projects

Old newspaper articles that I wrote during and after college

Internship Projects


Certificates and Awards

Race Numbers

Stuff from Former Jobs

Printed Collateral from e-Partners in Giving, the failed company I started in 2008

Some of the items are a little more unique and personal (Confession: A little harder to part with):

A Letter of Recommendation

My first newspaper story – EVER.
(from Journalism I in ninth grade)

One-of-a-kind Cartoons and doodles from junior high

My self portrait from my college photography class

 My Infamous High School Diploma

FINAL THOUGHTS: I had a couple people read through this before I hit “Publish Post.” I had an uneasy feeling. Something didn’t feel right.

One of my friends said, “As an outsider, it might sound a little harsh.”

That’s the last thing I want to come across.

I want to stress how interesting and emotional this personal experiment has been. I’ve experienced a wave of emotions – from sadness to confusion. I’ve also debated whether I should actually go through with it.

A countless number of questions have surfaced, like:

• Should I hold on to this stuff and share it with Crash when he’s older? Will he care?

• Is getting rid of your parents’ and/or grandparents’ “treasures” just part of life? Am I denying my grandchildren this opportunity?

• Am I being insensitive and/or hyper-cynical?

• Will I regret this in 10 or 15 years?

• Should I just put this “crap” back in the attic and shut the hell up?

Please know…I’m not discounting these incredible memories – just the trivial symbols associated with them.

My high school graduation was one of the best days of my life. I remember it like it was yesterday. It represented an incredible journey and tremendous hope of things to come. It was a springboard to independence – the first step towards my future and destiny. I remember never feeling more confident, alive and excited. IN. MY. LIFE.

I don’t need a piece of paper to enhance that memory.

I’m really curious how other’s feel about this. Please share. (And keep the fire extinguisher close by.)

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14 Comments on “Burn Notice: Personal Effects Going Up in Smoke”

  1. Shawn Campbell
    March 20, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

    Wow, I can’t believe no one has posted a comment on this yet. I admire your thoughts on this. I have gone thru the deaths of both my parents and the deaths of their parents and the same with my husband’s parents so I know all about all the old “stuff” you end up with. My grandmother kept all the letters I had wrote her. That is back when you had to hand write the letter, envelope and mail it and then you would wait in anticipation to get a response back which would take at least a week, more if the person you were writing to was too busy to write back as soon as they got your letter. I was 18 when my Grandmother passed away. My Mom found my letters and gave them to me. I thought how silly it was but like you said I put them in a box that in turn went into the attic along with all the other stuff from my childhood and high school years. I still have the notes that I wrote to my now husband of 27 years in that box. When my oldest daughter was in high school and we were moving to a bigger house I found that box and went thru it with her, she giggled and thought most of it was funny how we did stuff “back in the day”. Something that struck me funny was the lingo I used in the letters to my Grandmother back then sounded almost exactly like how my teenage daughter spoke now. In this time of texting and e-mail I treasure those letters and notes and I know that if my house burned down they would be gone and that thought makes me sad. Once every 5 years or so I go thru that box and it triggers a memory, sometimes a good memory, sometimes a bad memory. My daughters have wrote me letters when they have gone to camp and they have wrote me letters when they felt their world was crumbling around them and they also wrote me letters when they wanted to say sorry and how much they loved me. One day their daughters will read these letters and that thought makes me smile. With technology moving as fast as it is I wonder what my grandchildren will think of cell phones, texting and e-mail when they are teens. Will they laugh at how it was done “back in the day”? I hope you reconsider burning your things because I think Crash will treasure them in the not too distant future.

  2. Diane Marie
    March 20, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    I don't know you, but I've had these same thoughts after cleaning out my parents' house and my grandmother's house. None of them ever threw anything away. So now I have correspondence between my grandmother and my great-grandmother from the early 1900's through The Great Depression, a stack of lovely postcards that were written to my grandmother before the turn of the 20th century when she was a young child, letters my father wrote to his mother when he was a 20 year old soldier in WWII Berlin, my great-grandmother's wedding ring, my mother's elementary school homework, family photographs from the 1800s, a small bible that belonged to my great grandfather…among other things. What to do with these things? I do know I cannot throw them away. And then there's my stuff, too, and I hate to burden my children with all these choices. So burn away, if you think you can do it without regret, and don't look back.

  3. Anonymous
    March 20, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

    After my brother passed it was really great to go through his treasures as a family. Seeing what were important moments in his life made us laugh and share . It provided a much needed relief from the heartache. Felt kinda like giving him one last hug and a pat on the butt before sending him off. I an grateful that he left us this opportunity. If you need to purge, by all means purge away, but may keep 1 or 2 of your most prized "possession" for your family to find.Chris Reno

  4. Amy, Matt, Zachary, Andrew, and Madelena
    March 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    I like the idea of getting rid of it all as we all have those boxes of stuff we never look at again. But when we do, it's fun to get the feeling of youth back. I don't see anything wrong with burning it all, but someone might want to still have access to what you did growing up. So if all the records are burned, you don't really exist anymore. Maybe you should make a video of yourself telling the stories that go along with each item or make a digital photo album. Something that only takes up digital space but will still be accessible if you're not around to tell the story.

  5. Cassi
    March 20, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

    I'm conflicted by your situation here, Drew. I'm an only child, and on my mother's side, the only grandchild. My mom died when I was 21, and in the five years that followed, I lost both of my maternal grandparents as well. In a very real sense, I was the sole blood survivor of that family. Being as it was, I inherited a TON of crap – we're talking generational crap from great-great-packrats of yestercentury. And as Dustin and I cleaned out my grandfather's house (the last of my maternal family to go), I was equally frustrated and fascinated by what we found. Pictures (MY GOD!!! THE PICTURES!!!), newspaper articles, bits of clothing, pressed flowers, yearbooks, pay stubs and tax returns from 1904 – the list goes on ad nauseam. And while Dustin found it tedious and horrible (can't say I blame him), through the lens of my grief – grief for one half of my family – I was so happy to have these things. All of the odd mementos that had meant so much to my family members (many of whom I had never met, but knew through my great-grandmother's vivid storytelling), helped me feel like maybe I wasn't so alone after all. Holding these things that people I loved had once held and cherished, made me feel not so alone.Okay, so all of this blither blather aside, I guess my point is that life takes unexpected turns. People we love die suddenly. And when these things happen, it's easy to feel as though you have lost not only the physical connection with that person, but any connection at all with your history. And sometimes these little physical reminders, which may seem meaningless in the present may be the only way in which our loved ones can feel connected to us when we're gone.That being said, we did sell/shred/trash almost everything in that house. But I did keep my grandfather's high school diploma.

  6. Monica O'Donnell
    March 20, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

    Wow!! I love this idea Drew. I am thinking of all of the junk I have that I would be embarrassed if my family found. I am a hoarder when it comes to mementos, cards, pictures, etc. I think I might have to have a burn party myself.

  7. DaveQuinn247
    March 20, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    I always think about this when I walk through an estate sale. I don't think i could get rid of the personal trinkets that provide me a sort of road map to my history, but I do believe in shedding the STUFF in my life. Defining this is often tough, but is the critical component in either giving loved ones an opportunity to say goodbye or working them in to the ground to clean up my life's mess. Either way, thanks for hitting the publish button. See you this weekend!

  8. Drew Myers
    March 20, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    You guys have no idea how much I appreciate and cherish your insight. I never dreamed this personal experiment would spark this much dialogue. (In hindsight, that was pretty naive on my part.) I'm anxious to see how this plays out – my thoughts and emotions on Friday night could be the REAL story. Thanks for reading!

  9. Shawn Campbell
    March 20, 2012 at 11:58 pm #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Nina
    March 21, 2012 at 9:24 am #

    I do regular purges of stuff like this at our house, but I do have a storage box for sentimental things to keep for each of us. If something is really important, it goes in the box, or if it doesn't fit, a picture of it goes in the box. The point is that it's a set amount of space that I can collect important things in, not an attic or a mini storage center full of crap. I love pulling this box out periodically and going through these tangible reminders of life. I hope to share it with my kids and grandkids someday too. I will say, I know what a burden it is to sort through the crap that amasses during a lifetime, but it was so wonderful for me to have a lot of these kinds of things you're describing (newpaper articles, a receipt for my mom's wedding dress, an old report card) when my dad passed away last year and when my grandparent's have died. It was nice to have something to pick up and hold and examine that reminded me of my dad, even though I know I won't be able to touch or hold him again. And since my son didn't get to know him, I hope I can share these treasures with him so he can have a glimpse of my dad's life too. Memories are wonderful, but sometimes a physical reminder is an easier way to share things with others and eventually, our memories can fail us too.

  11. Drew Myers
    March 21, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    Nina, I love the idea of ONE box – keep the "best of the best," the most special things. It's funny, I NEVER said I was burning everything – my quasi-hoarder self could not consciously do that. Thank you for sharing! DM

  12. Gillianomunchausen
    March 23, 2012 at 12:37 am #

    This is exactly the kind of writing and introspection that I love you for Drew.

  13. Will
    March 26, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    I really enjoyed this post Drew. I'm sorry I didn't see it before you actually did the burning. I would agree with you on a lot of the things. However, there are some things I would hang on to like my high school diploma and articles I wrote. We periodically go through our stuff and get rid of things that are no longer relevant. Do you not want Crash to read these articles some day? To be honest with I'm surprised you still had the Sigma Nu certificate. 🙂

  14. Drew Myers
    March 27, 2012 at 8:35 am #

    I have posted the follow-up post – what an extraordinary journey. I encourage everyone to "purge" a little. It really makes you realize the things that are truly important: http://bit.ly/H8jYlo

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