“A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”
Once in a while my wife turns on one of those hoarder TV programs. I suppose it’s a common ploy: observe someone worse off than you to make yourself feel better. I’ll watch it for a while with a morbid fascination. A desperate, distraught woman fights ferociously with social workers, clutching an empty pizza box to her chest—a souvenir from years past.
It’s sad, because severe hoarding is a mental illness as real as depression. And while we might shake our heads at such a debilitating condition, it is real. And what’s just as disturbing: many of us are afflicted.
My wife and I have moved more than most folks we know – about eight times in about 35 years. And each time, most of our stuff has travelled with us. Extra beds and frames, chairs, furniture, extra sets of dishes, extra clothing, baby stuff “that our kids might need someday for their children,” and endless boxes of things we can no longer identify.
So in our last house, which is our LAST house, we had high, multi-level shelves installed along each side of our oversized car garage. Today our garage resembles one of those old surplus stores. The deep shelves are loaded with sundry stuff: Old lamps; extra flooring and tile from construction of our house; outdoor equipment; boxes of quilts, photos, boxes of light bulbs, ice coolers; paint supplies, pillows, old TVs, an old microwave oven, and it goes on.
And to boot, we have a full storage space in Eagle River.
I tried adopting a 1:1 rule. One object into the house means one object goes out. It never worked. The ratio runs steady at about 5:1 – a lot more coming in than going out.
But unlike the folks featured on the hoarder TV shows, we have developed an uncanny skill in hiding stuff, and we have the space to do it. If you walk into our home’s main room you might be impressed by the lack of clutter. That’s because the spare bedroom, garage, crawl space, every closet, drawer, shelf is jammed with stuff.
We have multiples of some things. That’s because amidst the mounds of stuff, we can’t find what we’re looking for. So we buy another. We have a lot of paint brushes. The last time I checked, I counted about 6 rolls of masking tape. At one point I counted five hammers, all the same size. We have enough light bulbs to illuminate the Sullivan arena. We forget what we have and buy more. There are way too many places to buy things.
Hoarding is timeless: One might think it is a modern phenomenon, but I knew an old Russian, Mike Ardow, who was the first settler at Nancy Lake many years ago. The back of his cabin and his out buildings were piled high with stuff. But amazingly, he knew where everything was. If you asked him for a sheer pin for an outboard motor, or a Phillips head screwdriver, he dived into piles of stuff and retrieved them.
The difficulty for many of us, I believe, is that WE DON’T KNOW HOW TO GET RID OF OUR STUFF. And as comedian George Carlin might say, a lot of folks don’t want it!
We hate taking it to the dump. A lot of us don’t like holding garage sales or putting things on Craig’s List or eBay. They closed the Salvation Army in Eagle River, so it means driving to the Salvation Army and Goodwill Centers in Anchorage. The Arc of Anchorage will come to one’s location and pick things up, which is awesome. In Eagle River there is the Heart to Heart Pregnancy Center, where we have dropped off stuff in the past. Some people donate through their churches. The Brother Francis Shelter takes donations.
But in general, finding locations for unwanted stuff is difficult, so we hang on to it with the tenacity of the woman clutching the pizza box.
As we get older we try passing a lot of our stuff to our children, who are already burdened with their own stuff. I have about 150 music CDs–you know, the round, disc-like things that look like miniature phonograph records? My son tells me that with the right application on my iPhone, I can jettison the CDs and stream every piece of music ever written. He’s probably right, but I like my CDs. I can still find music CDs once in a while if I visit a store armed with a service dog trained to sniff them out. Besides, my CD player has a radio. And at night in bed with earphones, I can switch back and forth between my music CD, real news on FM radio’s BBC, and reports of galivanting space aliens on AM radio’s Coast to Coast program.
When I go hiking or camping I probably take more stuff than I need; then complain about my pack’s weight. Sometimes I’ll laugh at myself when I think about a book written by an aging Lakota Indian, who described a spirit quest that he went on as a young man. He went into the wilderness and sat in a hole in the ground for four days, a part of his coming of age with the tribe. He had only water. He was hungry and fatigued by the end of his quest, but did experience a vision that helped define his life. He had no stuff.
I think we encumber ourselves with way too many things. They tend to not only complicate our lives, but also get in the way of our lives – of what has true meaning and value. We like our collectibles and toys, but how many do we really need to be happy? I’m sure you’ve noticed that oftentimes a young child, a toddler for instance, will pass over a fancy toy in favor of something simple and ordinary, like a wooden spoon or a small box.
But I am one to talk. I have a mountain of outdoor gear. However, I realize it’s time to load shed. But as certain as the crowds at REI eagerly buying stuff, if I remove one of my five sleeping bags to create a space on one of my shelves, something else will quickly fill it.
And I’m sure it will be something I really need.