Volume 73, Number 4 | May 26 - June 1, 2004

Notebook


Confessions of a hordaholic, a.k.a. pack rat extraordinaire

By Wickham Boyle

It is age or disposition? Do we realize as we grow older that we are hoardaholics, keeping way too much? Or are we born that way and it only reaches a critical mass when we get to be middle-aged?

I notice now that I have kept far too much. I am holding on to too much weight, too many books, too much paper, too many old sheets, baby clothes, too-tight clothes, sports equipment and extra cooking accoutrements.

We are putting in a new floor in our front room and that means moving everything out. Obviously you can’t build a floor with objects on top of it. So my construction guys made a simple request: Move every single item out from the huge front room. They didn’t care where, just out of their way. Easier said than done. Because when I was forced to move everything, I began to experience an unsettling sense of clutter that went much further than physical stuff.

For quite a while I wanted to feng shui my life, to simplify, to throw out and to have a breathable sense of calm surrounding me. What stops me? After all, throwing things away is free. I simply make piles of books, or toys, and set them on the loading dock outside my loft. They disappear in no time. It might even be construed as public service if I donate my business clothes, that are WAY TOO SMALL, to an organization that bestows them on a needy, slimmer, working woman. If I gave away all the small baseball bats, skates and tennis rackets, some kids would be smacking and gliding in a park. If I gave away my deceased mother’s capes some lovely older woman might be strutting her stuff happily swathed in a mohair wrap.

What keeps me keeping stuff?

I have to look at my body as the first indicator that I am not content to simply have enough. One does not become chubby, portly, round, zaftig or thick by wanting her fair share. No. Gaining and retaining weight and losing space in the house comes from wanting too much, abundance beyond what one person can use efficiently. Within that neediness is also a fear of truly needing something. That uncertainty then spins into the perception that one day we will not be able to provide for ourselves, or worse, for our family. And so we hoard.

Suppose when my daughter gets an apartment she needs sheets, pots, pans, mountains of books or tiny ice skates. Suppose when she has kids she would like to have her own baby clothes. Suppose I need to be able to pull out all of John Cheever’s novels on a winter night and begin reading without waiting at the library. Suppose some of these first editions are valuable. Could the child-size spurs and velvet riding hardhats ever be valuable by any whacked-out stretch of the imagination? When I answer that I can’t see any use for this stuff cluttering my home and my body, I still can’t find my way to let go of it.

This supposition of potential value was a part of what kept me in a very abusive relationship for over a decade. Suppose I let go of this horrible handsome man and he becomes valuable; I will have missed it. Suppose he learns to be kind, loving and employed. Instead, I released him and he continued to be chronically unemployed and unresponsive as a parent. That was a remarkable lesson for me. I let him go. I made space in my life for a real relationship and subsequently found and married the love of my life. Why is it so much harder to throw out ice skates and sweaters?

I know that there are professional people who come into your house and douse the fires of clutter by ruthless tossing. I know there are nutrition experts and body mavens who will do the same for your body. But I am a hardheaded individualist and believe that a woman must do this for herself. I have high standards and to many people my home looks extraordinarily neat, especially for a wide-open space with very few closets. But I am the one who knows what lurks under beds and behind bookcases. I know where my clutter is buried and it haunts me because I cannot find a way to release it.

The good news for me is that I have stopped the accretion. I know I have so little space on my bookshelves, so now there is an unspoken law: if new books come in, some have to go. Oh come on, who looks at the Samuelson’s economics text from 1972? The Jean Paul Gautier red wool coat from Paris in 1990 may be cool, but would I even consider putting it on, even if I could close it? Yet, there is the fat old brown book and the glaring red coat.

I have gleaned many things from my idiosyncratic hoarding in the last year. I have some open spaces in my home and I lost 8 pounds, leaving me feeling much stronger from my new workout regime. Perhaps being on a path should be enough. But I am afraid that along with hoarding stuff and chubbiness I am also storing, more deeply, a sense of fear that I might need something and not have it. Maybe this new path needs to incorporate a belief that if I need something, I will find it, and further, I do not always have to possess everything that anyone else wants at a moment’s notice.

So I am off to cull more clutter. And work out. If you want some cool skates, spurs or books — look on my loading dock.

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