I have a quilt my grandmother gave to me years ago. All of her grandchildren got one—my sister and our cousins. My sister’s had princesses on it. One cousin got flowers, another got tractors. For whatever reason, I got a blanket with Dale Earnhardt on it.
This was several years before he died and I guess he was at the height of his fame, but I’ve never watched a single NASCAR race. Not one, my whole life. I remember feeling slighted, like, everyone got things that they like but I got Dale Earnhardt?
Nevertheless it was a comfy quilt, lovingly given by my sweet Nana, so I slept with it every night. I called it Dale. Dale taught me a valuable lesson about wearing my weirdness as a badge of honor. My parents bought me the ugliest hat on earth as a souvenir from Israel last year, but because Dale became so special, I wear that hat everyday.
I took Dale camping with friends. It came to Friday night football games, it flew with me on long trips, it was spread across my college dorm room bed. I took Dale on dates—Fourth of July, a girlfriend and I laid back on Dale and watched the fireworks. Picnics, travel, whatever.
I would miss Dale dearly if I lost that blanket. But as I was rethinking the value of things, Dale taught me another lesson. See, this blanket could have deep intrinsic value if I let it. I could say, “My Nana gave me this—this is special. It holds so many memories.” But I’d be wrong.
If I were to lose Dale in a housefire the memories would not be burned, they'd still exist. Looking back, Dale appeared in frame but the ‘movie’ was about those people and that time. When we play back our memories like a movie, all those sentimental things appear in frame, out of focus, as props—not as characters.
I learned that our memories are not in things, but experiences. Sure, an item might trigger memories. That’s how it can add joy to your life. But no prop could upstage the actors or divert the plot.
When you think of sentimental items in this way, it’s difficult to imagine some new thing reaching those heights. There could never be another Dale—no other quilt could take me back to high school or college, to those memories. Having Dale makes buying a new quilt seem silly.
My list of truly sentimental items is short: A guitar that my parents bought me, a cigar box handmade by an uncle, a bracelet made by an old friend, a couple of trinkets from grade school buddies, a few handwritten notes, a knife from one grandfather, and a watch from another. And Dale.
I can’t picture any new trinket ever matching those things in value, for the memories that they trigger. It makes chasing new sentimental items seem like such a silly pursuit to me. Or the idea that right out of the box on Christmas day something could match those things in sentimental value… just doesn't seem right.
Collect experiences, not things.