We gather our past in clutter

I may have mentioned Marie Kondo and her magical tidy method a few times before.

‘ere’s the rub:

When you are young you mainly look forward.  You look to the future.  You are unstoppable; and “old” stuff like outmoded toys and too-small clothes get thrown out with delight as “holding you back”.  Sentimentality is a no-no, it’s “not modern” (it already wasn’t “modern” many generations back).

You can’t understand why old people “hoard” seemingly worthless stuff.  Why hold onto that chipped old cup?

As you grow, you come to realize that there is this memento from a moment you spent with your parents, maybe the last one, and the reason you are never throwing that trinket away, is because it triggers that memory every time you look at it.  Or the champagne glasses you used at your wedding – just two, for you and your spouse.  Throw them out?  Never!   The first fluffy toy your baby ever owned.  She doesn’t need that little bear anymore, but you?  You hang onto it because you can still see that blissful little angel sleeping with teddy clutched against her.  Photos that were never taken; a gallery of memories.

Much of the mess in our current teenage household is functional mess, stuff that was used (or gets used all the time) and hasn’t been put back into its correct place.  It swims around “in RAM”, so to speak.  But behind that mess lurks the clutter – memory gallery triggers.

Throwing them out is telling them that you don’t need those memories anymore.  Because without the trigger around, how often will you actually think back to those moments?

People who hoard clutter are actually addicted to the past.

This is why older people’s houses tend to get more, not less, cluttered (even though the functional mess tends to go away with its perpetrators).  As people get older, there is more past to remember and less future to look forward to.  And a person who has lost her vision can bury herself in clutter.

It’s school holiday, which is clear-up time.  (Every day is jolly clear-up time, but more so in the holidays.)  We tackle more than the functional mess; we tackle the clutter.  Outgrown clothes, outdated toys, etc (hardly any of these around now).

I don’t know why I’m writing this messy, cluttered post, except to say that the reason people hoard, is because they are desperately trying to hang onto their past – our past is what shapes who we are.  Modern pop-psychology tries to convince us that we can be whoever we like, but the fact is that our childhood lives within us no matter who we decide we want to be from now on.  And our young adult past.  Past relationships, past occupations, past knowledge.  Our brains are cluttered too, with knowledge or experience of tons of unrelated things.

Who are we indeed?

And what’s left of us when we go unwillingly into that “good night”?  Basically, our memories – and the memories others have of us.

That’s why it’s so darned difficult to throw out clutter.  Even broken clutter.  The memory that is attached, is not broken.

I’m not writing this as a crit for Konmari who I think is absolutely awesome.  I’m writing it in defense of having a home that doesn’t look like an office.  A bit messy, a bit cluttered, and stack-full of memories.


173 thoughts on “We gather our past in clutter

  1. Clutter drives me nuts, I’ll be honest. But I am often fighting a losing battle, so I simply try to keep my own personal belongings and space to a minimum and resist hoarding wherever I can.

    • Well done! Wish that could be said of more men – there would be a lot fewer “hag” women around! I’m sure C appreciates your efforts.

    • Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but I am in the minority over here so I fade into the background when things get hectic.
      I cannot think straight if there is too much ‘going-on’ around me. I like to have stuff, and I have worked in extremely frenetic situations often enough , be it in the salon, restaurant or office. But I prefer some semblance of order. Not to the point that I flip if a sock is out of place or a book is not alphabetically filed – that sort of anal retentive nonsense is as bad as living in terminal clutter.
      But a clean, tidy, ‘lived-in’ atmosphere is just fine.
      It’s like if you have a place for something then why not put it away?

      How’s my cover coming along btw? 🙂

  2. I loved this post. I am re-blogging this on my site. I once wrote about being a hoarder and your post explains the why behind a lot of it. I hate clutter too and right now my house is cluttered, with sewing, with crafting, and with painting projects but each one is something special. Underneath my projects and the clutter arising from each thing I have going on, are the memories of my past, my childhood, my parents, And now I am making fond memories with my children and grandchildren. Yes, there is a lot of clutter, but there are also a lot of memories and fun.

    • 🙂 It’s a balance. Sometimes it’s time to take a big box and bubble wrap and pack the overload away into a far cupboard. A year or two later, when going through it, you’ll know clearly what is important clutter and what is not really. I also likea clean, “zen” feel about a place, if I can get it organized. Not always so easy. 😉

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  4. I loved this piece by gipsika (aka The Red Ant) as it explains why I cling on to some stuff I maybe should get rid of. I do keep corks from champagne bottles given to me on special occasions (not many) n a jar so I can remember who the champagne was from and why. :0)

  5. It’s not clutter: it’s the accumulation of a life time of memories, as you so rightly say. Three times I have rescued my Winnie the Pooh mug from the garbage. And I’m hanging on to him. He’s 25 years old this year. C’mon, Winnie!

  6. I’m with you on this one – our house is cluttered and usually a mess too! I find it so hard to throw away anything the kids make or draw. We’ve tonnes of books – even their baby books I hate to depart with; and toys – don’t mention toys. I know as they get older (they are only 5 and 8) it may get easier to get rid of some of this stuff but for now its just part of the big mess!

    • I have books that were my mother’s when she was a toddler… 🙂 3rd generation is already finished with them. Don’t throw out books – books are friends!

    • Your are right, books are friends – and I love it when I read stories to my kids that I read as a child and there is that link when they love it as much as you did! How wonderful to still have your mum’s book – that is memories for you:)

    • Absolutely! It’s like sharing one’s own childhood with them.

      Yes, it is memories – occasionally she asks for one of them back 😀

    • Don’t be too hasty to make them pick out toys to give away. Kids can be very generous the one moment and the next, they want that toy back.

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  8. I have, this very evening, been cleaning my mother’s Africa Service Medal from WW2, my silver cigarette case as a 21st birthday present from my (then) girlfriend (since) wife, and looking with enjoyment at an old album of pictures of past cats and our first horse.
    Any questions? 🙂

  9. My house is currently full of other people’s stuff. My dads my mums and my stepdads. Trouble is i am the keeper of said treasures resulting in a house which is no longer my own. All have died in the last 2 years and keeping stuff won’t bring them back. I dont want my dads things or his treasurers they don’t belong to me
    .i just want him.

    • 😦 I’m so sorry to hear this!

      I haven’t lost my parents yet; my mother-in-law passed away recently and I need to be very careful not to push my hubbs to throw anything out or give anything away.

      Their treasures don’t bring them back, that is true. One probably needs to go through each and every item and see how it makes one feel; is it sentimental because it was his, or do you have special memories concerning that specific item? Does it bring past moments to life? Keep only the things that really mean something to you personally. I know… I’m sentimental about many, many of my children’s baby clothes (because they’re not babies anymore) and it is difficult giving anything away. Somewhere you need to find a balance. Maybe even create a “spider room” where you keep all the treasures that you don’t want to display in your living space but can’t let go yet? It is only fair to give yourself time, lots of time. Mourning takes a while. It does fade, over time. Not the love, only the pain. Sometimes it takes many years. (Sorry, I had to edit this comment. You do understand.)

    • Thank you . I have a spider room as you call it . Love that phrase. Its my box room and its full. Not ready to tackle the things in there yet. My dads watch and caps and jumpers are probably my most treasured possessions . I wear his jumpers sometimes when i feel upset and its like he is giving me a hug. Its lovely. He died very very suddenly and I know its better for the person if it happens like that but its rubbish for the nearest and dearest. Noone wants a knock on the door from.the police in the middle of the night.
      Life throws us these curved balls..Time for me to grow up I guess..

    • :’-( That is a bad one! Middle of the night? Shortly after losing your mother and your step-dad?

      A friend of mine called it a “spider room” – she says every house must have one. It puts one in mind of an old-fashioned attic with sparse light coming in through the attic window and the dust standing like a cloud in those rays. Broken spinning wheels and seaman’s chests with baroque dresses in them.

  10. At 90 years old last February I am fully qualified to participate here. I am still healthy and look forward to hanging on for at least a couple of hundred more years since I have still much to do. I have spent much of my life exploring my various potentials and discovered nothing so far particularly successful but it’s still an adventure trying. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York City when Mayor Laguardia was in charge and no mayor since has compared. Although FDR had many faults he also did pretty well. Those two still clutter my memory irretrievably. The world has done wonderfully in creating new gadgets since then but something very vital seems to have been lost on the way and we seem to be dispensing with the clutter of this rather weary old planet. I have grown rather fond of this somewhat essential clutter of tigers and lions and penguins and elephants and am rather sad to see them go. Fred Allen and Jack Benny are sorely missed and Pogo was a masterpiece creation that could have done wonders with the present presidential candidates who don’t quite reach the intellectual level of The Three Stooges but if this is all current events have to offer we are in serious trouble. A day or so ago an Earth-like planet has been announces only about for light years away but we are still too feeble to get there when this planet starts getting real nasty. Throwing away an entire planet seems somewhat excessive in the spirit of cleaning up. After all, even God needed chaos out of which to create Santa Claus and The Three Little Pigs so if we run out of chaos we are in trouble.

  11. Reblogged this on MumblingTrouble and commented:
    Most definitely how I feel about my things. My clothes, especially, because I need that comfort. It’s difficult to let go, even when people are telling you that you have to, and you know they’re right. Teddies, clothes, broken trinkets, they will never be “useless” to me.

  12. My preferences tend towards tidiness with sentiment for only a handful of keepsakes, but just today I found myself lingering over the chaos of my daughter’s closet – marveling at the pieces of self layered in reckless abandon. Beloved books and forgotten drawings, last year’s assignments and castaway clothes. On the surface it was a colorful mess, but on second glance they were a collection of stories.

  13. Thanks for this post, thought provoking! It is a struggle, sometimes, to decide what is kept and what goes on the chopping block. I’ve had a few regrets of things I let go of from childhood recently. I think that the lesson in that for me is to slow down a little when I’m in that whirlwind declutter mode. The more I declutter, the more I learn. I recently wrote about two ET glasses and a sheet of Michael Jackson puffy stickers (!) that I just cannot and will not let go of. These are more recent acquisitions but still unlock happy memories from my childhood. Go figure.

    • It makes sense.

      The modern trend is to be minimalist and have living rooms that look like airport foyers. I agree the “functional” mess needs to be cleared up of course; for instance one can put all crockery away in boxes except the exact number of items one uses daily. We’ve done that to our cutlery. We don’t throw it out – what if we get guests? But it’s out of the way and the kitchen is a lot more manageable. And we don’t hang onto every bit of memory clutter either, but you can imagine – childhood memories from 5 people…

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    • 🙂 Thanks! Funny, I first thought, if any post gets highlighted, why this one, but it’s getting better – now I really feel much better (and even less apologetic) about my cluttered home! 😀

  16. I read this post and I liked it . Yes its true that some people keep thier memories wherever they want I too that . I love to keep memories of past because evrytime when I go through them I feel happy about thinking that particular time. As of now , I have more good memories of past .

    • I read this post and I liked it . Yes its true that some people keep thier memories wherever they want I too that . I love to keep memories of past because evrytime when I go through them I feel happy about thinking that particular time. As of now , I have more good memories of past .

    • Although there is doubtless a sentimental value in treasuring otherwise worthless objects for reminiscence there are other qualities in ordinary things worth considering. As one ages the constant flood of currency is overwhelming and the past mingles with myth and hope and misunderstanding and even chameleons of remembrance where odd associations out od similarity tend to cluster like rhymes in poetry where mere sound makes a relationship. Saved objects are like a banister on a long stairway to steady one’s safety from of an accident and resolve truth from fiction. Saved fragments out of time assure one of a lost reality.

      Beyond that, as an artist and sometime sculptor even the cheapest and seemingly most useless of common things like metal and plastic containers and the intricate foam packaging for technical objects have a sculptural lure that is seductive for an alert observer. Since I live alone in a one room apartment this can become a vice but, unlike other modern temptations, it requires no expense.

  17. My best friend of eight years ditched me a few months ago (for reasons I still don’t know). While going through my stuff one day I came across a bag that contained all the letters, cards and gifts she’d given me over those eight years. I thought I should throw them away but a part of me told me to keep them as memories of the good times I spent with her. For a long time I couldn’t decide what to do until I approached my Psychology teacher, who simply told me to throw the stuff away because there was no use of hanging onto it if I had no emotional bond with the person who’d gifted me those things. The stuff had no value. She solved within minutes a problem I’d been struggling with for months.

    • Yes! Thank you for highlighting another side to this. Sometimes we hang onto stuff that makes us sad or negative with the memories it carries. I have a little philosophy, I ditch it, calling it “bad karma”.

      As for the friend, if you still feel she means something to you, perhaps contact her. Was it an overt show-down or did she simply disappear? I lost a friend too, whom I’m quietly sure I offended somehow, but she never let me know, just stopped all contact. Something like that is very sad and especially with long, deep friendships dating back to childhood, it hurts. It is worth simply trying to call her – or email her – and ask, “Did I offend you in some way? Can we talk about it?”

      But if she made it clear she wants nothing to do with you, then good riddance. One needs to move on.

      Someone once posted on my FB profile, “People come into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime.” Sometimes one simply needs to accept that perhaps it was a “season” friend.

    • I tried contacting her because it was difficult to accept that it might be all over. But it is and I’ve moved on. One of my close relatives told me people who sort out things are better than people you say nothing and ignore you.

    • It is definitely easier to accept if you know definitely that it is over. Whether it is friendships or love affairs, we give a part of our life to the people. It’s definitely easier to cut the ties if you know there are no more ties on their end.

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  19. Very good post, thank you. And I also think it is very true, I can see that with some people I know. Holding on to a pair of jeans that will never fit ever again because they had a great night out wearing them; or the likes.
    What helps me to keep clutter on a minimum level is drawing it. So I have sketchbooks filled with drawings of things that mean something to me, and I can throw out the “original” that only takes up space but is never used anymore.

    • Since the onset of the computer in graphic work I have developed a technique wherein, instead of initiating a creative exploration on a blank sheet of paper I explore possibilities of patterns of line and color physically in a surface with novel ways to apply patterns using wetting with inks or other color material or acetone or oils or dye materials or even collage techniques as a base for further exploration. These experiments can then be scanned and varied with Photoshop texture and color manipulation and printed out for further physical manipulation. Then these variations can be scanned and saved for future exploration. This relates to an absence of clutter in that the files provide all the base patterns for further variation and the paper originals themselves can be discarded so that at end there are no paper originals but merely a library of ideas that can be printed out physically at any time for new creative efforts taking no physical space at all.

  20. I find it interesting how we (we as a society) attach memories to inanimate objects. It wasn’t something I had really thought about before until I was drawn into a conversation about hoarding; someone very close to me hoards and I on the other hand have an aversion to clutter, but still have a few items that no matter what I can’t seem to part with. It was during this conversation that my co-debater made the light bulb go off for me; it wasn’t the object itself that was being hoarded, or cherished, or whatever, but the memory that said item represented. Anyway, wonderful post and I really enjoyed reading it!

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  23. I totally agree. I am on a decluttering/minimalism kick, but there are still those many items that hold memories that are hard to get rid of. It is not too surprising that the biggest names in minimalism and decluttering are younger single people. It is interesting how when we grow older (and I am not even that old yet!) we do want to maintain many of those memory items and that is what forms our clutter, not the functional items, that we have long ago gotten rid of. http://www.hopepostkids.com

    • That’s right. It’s the young people who are “decluttering” wizzes, until you ask them to throw out that one childhood item they themselves are clinging to. 😀

  24. Very wise words. This ‘clutter’ is the exact reason why we can never let go of things. Does not matter what it is, the memories always hold us us back. After reading this, i can say no matter how much we try and de-clutter our mind, our desks, our house, there will always be somethings we will just wanna hold on to and leav them right where they stand.

  25. Thank you so much for writing this. I myself am a “clutter collector”. It’s indeed collected and kept for nostalgic reasons. Not so much aesthetic wise. It’s so nice to see such a relatable post. Wish you the best of luck for the future.

  26. The perfume that permeats from a parent’s old glasses, your first baseball and the first time you ever wore a sports shoe that wasn’t meant for school. Thesse little things still bring much joy in my life. These are the essence of our lives. You’ve got the post point on! Keep writing the awesomeness ^_^

  27. I dislike clutter simply because I am an OC-type-of-person. However, I collect remnants. These remnants somehow represent how memorable that specific event was for me. I keep these remnants inside a big box and whenever I feel like checking it, I always feel a hint of nostalgia. I treasure these “clutters” simply because it gives me wonderful memories. 🙂

    P.S: Thank you for writing this!

  28. I can relate to your post gipsika. I have become a terrible hoarder and am surrounded by sentimental clutter! It is making me miserable but I just find it so difficult to let things go.

    • If it is making you miserable you need to go through it anyway and decide, cautiously. Maybe only keep the best memories? Acc. Marie Kondo, the things around us are there to make us happy. Too much stuff can make us feel choked and imprisoned. Trust me, been there!

    • All my life I have been a lousy housekeeper. I like stuff. The things I keep are like the visible surface of the sea, full of swirls, of small ripples, of large swells and laces of foam. Somehow it tells about what’s under the surface where even something long can be based on the bottom but protrudes above the surface. I bake, I cook, I invent. I have shelves full of possible ingredients for experiments, electric mixer, a slicer, toaster, a microwave, a blender, the germs for ideas. As a designer I have a small workbench with a vise and a drill press and underneath files and hammers and a staple gun, all sorts of screwdrivers, drills, wrenches, clamps, shears, pliers. I have interesting rocks that can be painted to look like lions and bulls and other creatures. I have metal rods and aluminum extrusions, a soldering gun and a glue gun and a hot air gun for playing with odd ideas. I have over hundred small drawers full of weird objects, of electronic motors, of resistors, condensers, transformers, coils, a multimeter, cables for my computers, and auxiliary equipment such as a couple of printers, a couple of scanners, files of information of documents, rolls of tape, all sorts of papers, files of my poetry, files of finance, of official documents. I paint and draw and and braze small structures. There are brushes and pens and bottles and cans and boxes of colors and three of my walls are full of all sorts of books and my paintings cover a couple of the other walls.

      My one room apartment is a workshop for my brain which is far more full of all sorts of equipment and I know pretty well where most things are. My house is not a just a place to show or watch films or eat. It is a workplace and, to a reasonable degree, it works. It is a nest of possibility and it is my life.

  29. ‘Pictures that were never taken.’ I love that! I’m not one who loves clutter but I do keep things with sentimental value. They all belong to a especial box in a especial drawer of miscellaneous things 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  30. My sibling and I have this problem! Our strategy is to get rid of junk before it becomes of sentimental value. Those ugly selfies? Delete them before night, so it doesn’t preserve that day’s memories. It’s strange, but it works. 🙂

  31. That’s indeed one of my habits. Clutter. And its such a task for me to throw away things from past. Love to gather them as memories… Wish I could keep all the old gold things with me forever… 🙂 Liked ur post a lot!

    • I find this an extremely cogent observation. Any system, be it a household or a business or, to get basic, a human mind, tends to a static base organization in order to perform by seizing its tools and formats and materials out of this meaningful placement to engage in a pointed activity. But any pointed activity such as cooking or cleaning or carpentry or creative works such as painting or sculpture or writing something requiring ready available references demands a totally different form of organization pointed at a different goal. When a creative person is engaged in multiple activities, such as any of the above, the apparent confusion is actually a situation not obvious to someone with a sterile attitude demanding simple systems of order. A family household with various members who each have individual dynamics can easily arrive at a meld of multiple activities requiring multiple intersecting orders. Pristine restrictions imprisons creativity and can easily become totalitarian to no sensible purpose but the demands of an unimaginative mind.

  32. Our strongest memories are the ones that are anchored to strong emotions as well as easily recognizable landmarks, often things. Which is why there are some things we just CANNOT get rid of, but there’s probably quite a few things that we’re not as attached to as we think.

    And these things come to a head if we ever have to move to another place.

    • I wonder why there is so much emphasis on getting rid of things as if there is a kind of worship of stripping away the delightful and individual variations in memory, a kind of Alzheimerization of solidities, like the concept of an aircraft designer creating an object that moves with no protrusions at blinding speed through the atmosphere. I don’t want to divorce myself from my past which gives my life meaning, even those unbearable moments when my loved ones died or the horrible accident that crippled my son for life. They are the blood and bones of my entire being. I am no damned machine, an organic robot production tool. The wrinkles and scars in my hands are my marks of having lived and done all sorts of things. This is the only life I will have and I treasure my past, my present and whatever future I may still gain for I am a creature not of three but four dimensions.

  33. I know I have way too much cluster, still have my Nintendo DS from when i was a child, can’t seem to part with it even tho I have lost all the games. But I organize all my cluster and can’t help but smile when I see a new memory in all my old pieces.

  34. Joined a Weight Watcher decluttering thread a few years back and it kept me accountable on my clutter free journey! We have to toss a few pieces per day, and I now enjoy a clutter free home, and a garage I can park him! Amazing how something as simple as reducing clutter, can relieve stress! I loved reading your perspective on how clutter might have come into being!

  35. Reblogged this on juantetcts and commented:
    In a recent Weight Watcher meeting, we spoke about clutter and how it interferes with our weight loss process. For me, mental clutter had as much of an impact on my weight as physical clutter. Although I lost over 70 pounds on Weight Watchers over nine years ago, I never noticed the relationship between the two. It makes perfect sense now, looking back. I loved the correlation of hoarders being addicted to the past, and this take on memory gallery triggers! I thought I was aware of all of my eating triggers, but now I need to add memories to the list! This article is definitely “food for thought!”

    • 🙂 That’s interesting indeed! Suze Orman also correlates hanging onto too much stuff with being unable to get ahead financially. She sees it as the fear of loss, not rising letting go of something and thereby not being able to make space for something new.

      Balance, like with everything else. I guess living in a totally Zen, minimalist environment without any kind of “interest piece” fr the eyes to rest on would become cold and clinical very fast.

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    • 🙂 I so understand where you are… we are supposed to move, into another house that was my m-i-l’s. My house is full of our own clutter (though we’ve already thinned it out astoundingly – the only really hoarded items are books, DVDs and music, and even those have been culled) and hers is much fuller of clutter, over a much longer lifetime, plus of people who left theirs there additionally to hers. It’s frustrating.

  37. Haha! I love this. I too have decided to embrace my cluttering ways. It shows me what a memory-rich I live. I blogged on it and titled it, “For The Love of Chambermaids” 🙂

  38. Boy! Talk about stuff! I’ve got it.But slowly getting rid of it. Why? So my son won’t have to handle it when I’m gone. I try to give away as much as I can. BUT still hang on to things I truly love.

  39. Actually, there’s more than one type of clutter. The stuff mentioned here are things used and put away to be forgotten and those can be tossed easily but the nostalgic stuff that retains memories, odors, feel of those wonderful things that happened in the past bear witness it was not all a dream and that magic is a firm part of yourself, something far to precious to be discarded. And collected stuff is not all luggage from the past. Some of it is hopes for the future and when you get old there is not a hell of a lot of the future left to dream with. At 90 I am pretty much shoved out of society but as an artist I have no idea how long my present will hang around. I have collected all sorts of potential ideas for painting and sculpture, all sorts of half finished poems and essays that still have a faint glow that might, out of a dream or a chance thought or an inspiration from an exhibition that could brighten and take fire into the unexpected delight of something entirely new. These things sit on shelves and in boxes and crouch in storage in dark corners of the basement and at times, late at night, I can hear their muffled cries to be born.

  40. These orphans of inspiration require more than a pen in hand and a piece of blank paper and determination. It’s hard to say exactly how to set the flame to light the fire. Graphically I have many times taken a beautiful pattern of shapes and colors and turned it every which way to direct its inherent energies into an image I was sure lurked within its potentials and nothing appeared until, perhaps months later, the light of the setting sun flashed across it as it lay dormant near a window and something quite obvious and perfectly clear leaped into being. One never knows how to evoke this magic until it happens. Before that, it was just paper clutter.

  41. Pingback: Will The Memories Die? – TomSlatin.com

  42. Oh sweet joy…someone that thinks like me! Every piece of my “clutter” has a memory attached. Whether from my childhood or my children’s…I hang on to them. Over the years I have let things go that I wished I had not. I will continue to be “the keeper of memories” because once you let them go you can’t get them back.

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