One of my daily pleasures is doing the crossword puzzle in the New York Times. In yesterday’s puzzle, the clue for 9-down was “Things meant to be used and then thrown away.” I knew the answer right away: ephemera.

I use this word frequently with my clients because I want to help them decide which paper items they should save and which they should let go. Dictionary.com further defines ephemera as “items designed to be useful or important for only a short time, especially pamphlets, notices, tickets, etc.” To this list I would add greeting cards, cocktail napkins, invitations, thank you notes, place cards, receipts, theater programs, newspapers and magazines, postcards, even business cards.

Holiday cards: to be tossed on January 1!

Holiday cards: to be tossed on January 1!

I have seen my clients struggle over all of these pieces of paper. I often hear the word “should” in reference to these items — as in “I should keep that”. There is apparently guilt associated with tossing someone’s wedding invitation or the thank you note they wrote you for the wedding gift. But why should you keep it? Does throwing away the paper signify that you are disrespecting the person or discarding the relationship? When I hear the word “should”, I hear obligation, not joy. We should only keep those items that stir us emotionally, that bring us joy to look at, or tug at our heartstrings in some way.

Some forms of ephemera do bring us joy. Many theater lovers like me enjoy collecting Playbills for shows we have seen. I save magazines in which I am quoted, and my husband still has an issue of a science fiction journal that published a story of his when he was in college. All of these can be stored standing up on the bookshelf. One client saves every card he receives from his wife — we set up a separate file just for those — as they all contain delightful, heartfelt notes.

This is a good time of year to be thinking about ephemera, as you probably have been receiving a lot of holiday cards and you’ll need to to decide what to do with them.  We display ours on our piano so that we can enjoy them during the holiday season, but come the first of the year, out they go. And we have a renewed appreciation for the uncluttered piano once they are gone.

I’ve written in the past on different types of ephemera (see Will This Magazine Change Your Life?, Our Love-Hate Relationship with Greeting Cards, and Business Cards: Information or Clutter?)  If piles of ephemera are creating havoc in your space, ask yourself which ones truly move you, and which ones you are holding on to out of sheer habit. Buy an attractive box and use it to limit the size of your ephemera. Your collection should be small enough that you can sit down and review it in less than an hour. And it should bring you joy to do so.

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