I found a rock the other day. A shiny metallic piece of schist about the size of a travel bar of soap. It’s a beautiful specimen of its own accord, found as part of the mélange of rocks jumbled up in Alaska’s glacially-formed landscape. I decided to keep the rock as a small souvenir, a tactile memento of my first winter spent in interior Alaska. Amateur geologist that I am, I thought the schist would make an excellent addition to my rock and mineral collection.
You see, I am a collector. My rock collection is testament to this. Boxes and boxes of rocks I have picked up from places I have visited now sit begrudgingly in my parents’ basement. The finest specimens I keep on display in a little nook in their basement workroom, but without a permanent space yet to call my own, most of my treasures still wait in expectation for when they will once again see the light of day.
The rocks I collect are not only intrinsically beautiful, but they all have added meaning for where I was when I collected them. I am a collector—of things, yes, but also of experiences. Working as a dog musher north of the Arctic Circle is just the latest life experience I am collecting. Though I won’t need to hold the little piece of schist in my hand to remember my winter spent in Bettles, Alaska, it can serve as a conversation starter or as a token to trigger my memories of time spent here.
At the same time that I am adding to my ever-expanding rock collection, I am also living in a repurposed trailer that housed construction workers who built the trans-Alaskan pipeline. Some nights I theoretically sketch out in my head if I could imagine an entire home being placed in the 8’ by 14’ unit that makes up my apartment. Kitchen here, bathroom there, sleeping loft above. It’s an enthralling exercise, as I have a growing interest in tiny homes. Living in staff housing, as I typically do, I am accustomed to occupying smaller spaces, though none of them ever being a bona fide tiny home and none ever being a permanent residence either. Regardless, constantly moving into and out of staff housing for the past number of years has given me great practice in small living, as well as showing me how simple it can be to live out of a couple duffel bags in a small space for an extended period of time.
But sometimes I have to wonder to myself: can a collector of things live in a tiny house?
It seems like my desire for tiny house living might be at odds with my natural inclination as a collector. The tiny house philosophy, after all, is about living a life with fewer things in general. To live in a small space, you have to cut out what is non-essential. I’m afraid it may be that my rock collection, though exceedingly cherished, is fairly non-essential to my everyday life.
And yet though I contemplate tiny house living more and more, the older I get the more things I accumulate, and the more reluctant I am to dispose of the things which I have acquired. Though I believe myself to be in one of the lowest percentiles for possessions owned by a 30 year-old American, my various hobbies have resulted in quite a collection of things. In addition to my rock collection, I now own a wide assortment of backpacking and camping gear, snowshoes, cross-country skis, a canoe, and two bicycles. And that’s not to mention other things like the massive volumes of books that I have accumulated. If push came to shove, I believe, I could still fairly readily pack all my essentials into my hatchback with my canoe and bicycles strapped on the outside. As for now though, with ample storage space at my parents’ place, I don’t yet have to make the decision between being a collector and living in a tiny house.
But if I do at some point opt to try the tiny house lifestyle, it might come to the point where I must make the choice between having more things and living simply in a tiny home. As that potential day is still far down the road, I can only speculate what the outcome might be. Perhaps in ten years, my collection of rocks won’t seem as important to me as it does today. Perhaps I’ll somehow incorporate my rock collection into the build of my tiny house. Maybe I will still be a limited collector of things. Or maybe I’ll have to switch to just being a collector of life experiences instead.
Only time and future experience will tell if being a collector of things can be compatible with living in a tiny house. In the meantime, I’ll continue practicing the tiny house ethic of being mindfully intentional with the items I do decide to keep. Each item I decide to hold onto must serve some practical purpose or be imbued with some sort of special significance. With that in mind, I will be very intentional about the one souvenir rock I will ultimately bring home to my collection from Alaska.
In my room, hidden way back in a drawer behind some inconspicuous items of clothing, I keep a few shoeboxes full of a spattering of mementos: old ticket stubs, tattered maps, random photographs, past letters, and much of the standard sentimental bric-a-brac. It’s a collection of worthless trinkets and scraps of paper, mostly. The contents of my box are all items I have collected here and there over time, relating to things I have done or places I have visited. I keep them because they remind me of all the inputs that have gone into my personal development.
This habit of mine was started earnestly in college, as I was beginning to collect all these new ideas and experiences through the course of my formal education. I desired a way to keep track of what I had been part of, and thus the genesis of the shoebox receptacle. Summer internships followed college semesters, and my collection continued to grow. Graduate school saw the start of my second shoebox. Souvenirs from rambling travels and post-graduate jobs are now filling up a third.
It’s not often I go back and look through these shoeboxes. Mostly they just wait in silence, ignored by their own creator. But sometimes I do go back. Sometimes I remember something small—a scrap or a brochure—that I stowed away in there and will rummage around in search of it. Oftentimes in the search I will get sidetracked, mesmerized by little tokens I had once set aside and had since forgotten. I’ll sit and reminisce for a spell. These little tokens in the box help remind me about what has shaped me.
I feel much the same way about my journals as I do my shoeboxes. I have kept a semi-regular journaling habit ever since graduating from high school, an anthology of thoughts and words instead of a collection of paper bits. Often I don’t look back at what I had written either. Most of it no longer concerns me. But I still cherish my journals dearly, and would feel deeply grieved if they were lost. And, when I do look back into the archives of my old entries, I am able to see myself at a different stage in life. It’s a personal historical record found nowhere else. It is often helpful to remind ourselves of who we once were in order to see who we are becoming.
I think of my shoeboxes full of keepsakes and my journal compilations collectively as my ‘paper trail.’ They are the acquired evidence of the life I have lived. While in other aspects of my life I tend to be reserved and cloistered out of a penchant for privacy, I have been very intentional about maintaining my paper trail evidence. However, I don’t show anyone my paper trail—at least I haven’t yet. They exist for my own perusal only. Though it is a collection of intentionally kept evidence, it is evidence that is not ready to be released to inquisitive eyes.
Yet, I don’t anticipate this always being the case. Call it conceited, but I live with the background imagination running through my mind of being important enough that a biographer will one day write the story of my life. From what I have read about the lives of my personal heroes, most of them left a lot of traces of their passing in life—even the most enigmatic of the bunch. I want to be kind to my future biographer by leaving them this paper trail, this life-long collection of scraps that leads them to discover insights about who I was as a person and how I got to be there.
My shoeboxes slowly continue to fill and my completed journals gradually pile up. My secretive paper trail gets cumulatively larger as I build this life for myself. I am quite fond of my paper trail. Do you have one of your own?