Cards That Matter

I am continually helping clients grapple with the greeting cards they have received and collected. While I have alluded to the issue in my posts over the years, my last post dedicated specifically to greeting cards was in 2012. I have just reread it, and I still agree with my advice. Give it a read here: Our Love-Hate Relationship with Greeting Cards.

In that post, I mentioned that my mother had passed away earlier that year and that I had saved all the sympathy cards people sent me. I wrote, “I treasured each personal message. Missives that reach us when we are at our most vulnerable take on a special significance. At some point in the future, I may decide to throw them away. How you react in a similar situation will depend on you.”

Eleven years later, I still have those cards. I also still have the cards that I received after my father’s passing three years later. Earlier this year, when my little dog Alfie passed away, I received quite a few sympathy cards. I was very touched that so many people reached out to acknowledge my loss. Of course I have saved those as well.

As I usually do when I get greeting cards (for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries), I displayed the cards on top of my piano. While I did quite a bit of clearing things out after Alfie’s passing in February (see Changing It Up), the cards stayed up for a while. When I finally cleared them off and got ready to put them in my memorabilia box, I was thinking about how to keep them all together. Should I use a ribbon? A rubber band? An envelope? Then my eye fell on Alfie’s bow tie.

Each time we took Alfie to the groomer, he would be sent home wearing something decorative, such as a bandana or bow tie. Often it was themed to the time of year, such as a red, white, and blue bandana in July or a Christmas-patterned bandana in December. I got into the habit of displaying the accessory around the piano lamp for a few weeks and then donating it. Alfie’s last grooming was two weeks before he died, and he came home wearing a red sparkling bow tie, presumably in honor of Valentine’s Day which was a few days later.

I decided that Alfie’s last bow tie was the perfect way to hold together the sympathy cards I had received to commemorate his passing. It was adjustable, so I was able to make it fit perfectly.

In that 2012 post about greeting cards, I concluded by saying, “It’s all about keeping what is important to you, and recycling or tossing the rest. Don’t keep anything out of guilt. Keep it because it’s something you can’t bear to part with.”

Organizing Memorabilia

For several months, I have been working with a client who had moved into a new apartment and wanted to ensure that it was set up in an organized and maintainable fashion. As we unpacked boxes and put things away, we set aside two categories of items that I knew would be time-consuming to tackle: photos and memorabilia.

When we were done with every room and every storage area in the apartment, it was time to tackle the photos and memorabilia. I suggested we start with the memorabilia.

My client describes herself as a sentimentalist. She was also quick to point out that we would be organizing memorabilia from three homes: her adult apartment, her childhood home, and her mother’s apartment. Her mother passed away recently and that memorabilia had ended up mixed in with my client’s stuff. So what to do with a lifetime’s worth of memorabilia and then some?

The answer is: divide and conquer. The sheer volume of memorabilia was overwhelming, but breaking it down into smaller groups would be the key to making it manageable.

We started by going through each piece of paper and deciding what broad category it belonged to. Was it related to my client’s parents, to her childhood, to her work life, to her adult years? Was it a card she had received at some point ?

We spent several sessions going through the unsorted papers, always with a garbage bag nearby. For every piece of paper that she saved, another one went in the trash. As we performed this exercise, I recalled the words of Australian organizer Peter Walsh, who said, “If everything is important, then nothing is important.”

Once we had touched every single piece of paper and sorted it into a category, we focused on each category and reviewed every paper again. I sorted things into subcategories to ensure that there were no duplicates. We eventually ended up with a core set of papers that my client considered special.

Now it was time to figure out how to contain everything. I measured the size and shape of each pile and later e-mailed my client with some suggested purchases. She ended up buying four boxes of different sizes and colors made by Bigso, ordered via Amazon.

The picture below shows what the end result was. We settled on these four names for her categories: My Cards, Professional, Mom & Dad, and Memorabilia. (The last category encompasses everything that didn’t fit into one of those other categories). I used my labeler to label the boxes, and then we found a shelf in her closet where they all fit and which is easy for her to access without a stepladder. That means she can continue to add things to the boxes as her life goes on.

She was thrilled with how things turned out, and I was thrilled for her. Now we are turning our attention to the photographs, which is even more challenging than the memorabilia. But we are forging on, with the vision of orderly, labeled photo boxes dancing in our future.


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. 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.

Use What You Have

Lots of times we hold on to something “just in case”.  We may not have a use for it now, but we can imagine it coming in handy at some point in the future.  While this is not a bad plan, it gets out of control when we use that excuse to hold on to too many things, or things that are big and take up a lot of space.

I’ve started a new policy of using up my “just in case” things even if they are not my first choice for that task but will suffice.  Here are some examples.

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Our Love-Hate Relationship with Greeting Cards

In this age of electronic greetings, it’s delightful to get an honest-to-goodness card in the mail.  Someone went to the trouble to buy the card, sign it, address it, stamp it, and mail it.  That person must really like you!

Getting a birthday or anniversary or congratulations or thank you card, with a personal message in it – and in your friend or relative’s familiar handwriting – feels great.  But then what?

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