Writing Calisthenics

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The Burden of Things

I've been watching re-runs of the A&E series "Hoarders" on Netflix and it strikes me that we humans have a strange and complex relationship to the things with which we surround ourselves.  My father-in-law was a hoarder so I've taken an interest in this behavior as it seems he may have passed this tendency on to his daughters.  He also suffered from an obsessive compulsion to organize, label, fold, and generally neaten the things he collected.  In doing so, his disorder took on an architectural, almost artistic aspect unlike anything I've ever seen on the A&E series.  What always struck me about his collections though, was the amount of energy they consumed.  I could never quite fathom the justification for the work required to keep emptied bags of low-fat, low-salt, flavored, and buttered bags of microwave popcorn cleaned, folded, and separated in their own neat stacks.
    I never had the opportunity to ask my father-in-law why he collected all of this stuff.  Did he honestly think that finally, in this new millennium, he'd get around to reading the neatly stacked and dated newspaper clippings about Nixon's impeachment and Carter's economic policies?  Was he planning so many projects that a gallon bucket filled with rat-tail and bastard files seemed a necessary collection?  Was the time he'd save and the money he'd make on redemption day by labeling the count of aluminum cans on the outside of every bag in his floor-to-ceiling collection worth turning a two car garage into a single?  As I watch the painful look of defeat on the faces of these hoarders with each thing that gets thrown away, I can only believe the answer is "yes".

    We acquire things for a reason.  It may be that we anticipate the joy that having that thing will bring or the ways our lives will change once we have it.  We may pick up a book for the pleasure that reading it will give us or the new skills or ideas we'll acquire.  We may buy a torch to create that golden caramel crust on a crème brulee or maybe to loosen corroded bolts on an old metal sawhorse.  We might buy mitts and a thermometer to make a cake or to tune the engine of an antique car.  What we often don't realize, is that with every one of these things, we take on a burden.
    When we acquire something, what we're really acquiring is the promise that thing offers.  This wrench promises to be the perfect tool to remove that frozen nut; that painting promises that its unique mixture of colors will deliver hours, or even years of happiness; this seasoning promises to be the secret ingredient to transform this pot of chicken soup from bland to extraordinary.  But things are inanimate.  In order for them to live up to their promise, it requires a commitment from us: that we'll use that wrench to remove that nut, that we'll take the time to admire the painting, and that we'll actually cook that chicken soup. 
    The acquisition itself can be very rewarding.  We've added a new branch of possibility to our life.  We have the potential to do things, taste things, feel things, think things, that were not available to us before.  It's also very rewarding to follow through on those possibilities.  It fills us with a sense of accomplishment and justifies the acquisition.
    The story has a very different ending we don't follow through though.  The thing becomes an obstacle.  It becomes unfulfilled potential that reminds us every time we see it.  We trip over it — sometimes literally — when we just want to pass by.  We make excuses.  We make plans to get back to it.  We feel the weight of having let ourselves down.
    In some ways, perishable things are a blessing.  They rot and decay until we can no longer deny them and we finally throw them away.  It's durable goods whose promise has such an odious half-life.  They become the furniture we stumble over in the darkness of our self-criticism.  When an elliptical trainer's potential is reduced to a place to hang your drying shirts, we pretend we're blind and train ourselves to walk around it.

    The solution seems simple: get rid of it or do something with it.  This is where my heart breaks for those with hoarding disorders because I understand how impossibly painful that decision can be.  Life reaches its own critical mass where one more requirement, one more responsibility imposed on us from within or without could make us explode.  We can't possibly do any more than we're already doing, and yet we're surrounded by promises we've made to things and to ourselves that we will never have the time or the energy to keep. 
    To some though, the alternative feels like its own death.  Giving up on that promise, giving up on that thing is like giving up on that part of ourselves.  It's an admission that this is a skill we'll never acquire, a challenge we'll never take, and one more thing we'll never become.  It's an emotional bankruptcy; a public and tangible admission that somehow life got away from us and that we haven't become everything that we've planned.
    It takes painful foresight to realize that this kind of bankruptcy offers an opportunity to start over and reach a new and fresh potential.  It takes an even greater strength of will and understanding of self to walk away from accumulation and own up to our limited ability to keep the promise of the things we acquire.
    My oldest son is a talented video editor.  For his 15th birthday we bought him a flat-screen television for his room so he could do his captures and editing without having to vie for cycles on the family screens.  After his initial burst of excitement and gratitude we noticed he actually seemed depressed about the whole thing.  When my wife asked him about it, he finally admitted that the he felt like it was too much.  He said that every time he looked at the television, he felt like he should be doing something with it.  He felt deflated, as if the pressure to do something useful with it had sucked all the fun out of what was once a joy-filled hobby.
    We took the television out of his room and we'll let him pick out something that doesn't have such an imposing weight to it.  Maybe he'll choose nothing at all.  Whatever he decides though, I'm thankful for this wisdom beyond his years and his innate understanding of the burden of things.


February 7, 2011 at 9:26 AM jeanne said...

Hello, Mark.

You're dead on target about our things providing the "potential to do things, taste things, feel things, think things, that were not available to us before." In my laundry room is a stacked set of drawers in which I keep ephemera. Textured paper, foreign labels, texts with peculiar or pleasing font, brochures from travels in foreign places, black & white images and such. Each drawer is labeled for these characteristics. I have collage and decoupage and some undefined works in my mind that have yet to find their way into existence.

I have always bought books as a form of "pantry staple." I buy very selectively, yet have no plan to read them immediately. I want them on hand for when I am primed and prepared for that particular book.
I collect LP's, cassettes, and CD's. I collect gloves, scarves, hats and mittens. I collect essays and reviews clipped from magazines and printed from the internet. I save paintbrushes, picture frames, movie ticket stubs, foreign currency (valid and void), Lite-Brite cubes, hats, glassware, and candles.

It's all neatly organized and accessible. I can put my hand on any of it to use, to lend or to give away when it's needed. Yet it IS, as you say, a burden.

I travel a lot. When I go far, I go for 6 to 8 weeks. I go with very little in my small bag. It seems, then, that the day has more hours. I dress, have my coffee and go to meet my life. There's no puttering, sorting, cleaning, gleaning, stashing, or wasted hours of devotion to my things.

My sister and I have (and occasionally still) run estate sales. We often had to get a dumpster BEFORE the sale in order to cope with the glut of stuff. If we didn't throw out some of it, customers wouldn't see what was there.

This summer, my sister and I are organizing a monthly flea market for the summer. I will begin by selling my own things. I may find myself giving some of these things away. I'm 58 and my intention for the next 20 or 30 years is to have more experiences. I now collect people, places and ideas. These new collections demand fewer possessions.

Thanks for this essay. I'm adding it to my collection.

February 13, 2011 at 5:40 PM Melissa said...

Mark, this is a wonderful essay. (I didn't even know you had this blog!) I have heard so many people talk about the Hoarders show in very negative terms: "How can anyone live like that??" or they talk about how often they clean and how disgusting the hoarders are. When I am around people who are doing this, I always keep my mouth shut and thank my lucky stars that they can't see MY house! I wouldn't qualify for one of those shows yet, but I definitely have hoarding tendencies. I think you are right on the money about how objects represent possibilities, dreams, aspirations. There is a true sense of anguish in letting them go. I once, after much urging to do so, got rid of an old coffee table that I had inherited - nothing special, but it had always been in my life - and I STILL regret it. Even though there is really no place in the house for it. I think some people have an emotional attachment to things that others just can't understand.

Anyway, just wanted to say it was nice to see someone who actually felt a sense of compassion for those people rather than contempt. :-)

January 13, 2012 at 10:53 AM Anonymous said...

I think most hoarding tendencies essentially sum up to three words: Fear of death. Anyone who knows a hoarder, or is one, can probably understand that without further explanation.

All last decade, I collected vintage computers in an effort to fulfill certain needs that I could not fulfill as a child/teen due to lack of funds. It was a *huge* turning point for me to realize that sharing my collection could bring others happiness as well as unburden my family. My collection has hit a break-even point -- I bring in 2-3 pieces a year, but I also expel 2-3 pieces a year. In 2012, I am certain the expulsion rate overtakes the intake.

I will always hold onto a few systems and keep them working; the difference is that "a few" now means "less than 8". It used to mean "less than 50".

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