When my mom died, in 2015, I was faced with a decision—or rather, a multitude of decisions: what to retrieve from her house—my childhood home—and what to leave behind. Some decisions were relatively easy. I wished I could take her piano, which she taught me to play when I was 5, but transporting it from New York to Norfolk—and hiring movers to haul it up the four flights of stairs in my apartment building—didn’t seem practical. Moreover, I didn’t have the space for it. In the end, my sister and I agreed to donate it to a nearby church.
There was, however, a lot of other stuff to consider. While the house was of modest size, it had a large basement filled with things that my mother had saved. I wouldn’t say she was a hoarder, exactly, since everything was neatly organized, and there was plenty of room to navigate it. Still, I spent many hours, during several visits, considering the emotional value of these objects.
For starters, there were hundreds of old family photographs, and I took most of them. Many are now framed on my walls, and there’s something comforting about looking up at the face of my father when he was 10 years old; a photo of my grandfather’s “football” (soccer) team from 1909; my parents lounging on the grass in New York’s Riverside Park, circa 1950; portraits of my maternal grandparents; a portrait of a great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War; my own Little League team photo from 1964, and many others.
I also took dozens of letters—some written by that great-grandfather shortly before he died from a gunshot wound in 1863; a few of my mother’s diaries; poems and short stories written by my dad, and sermons written by another great-grandfather, who was a Methodist minister.
My mother had also kept a lot of my childhood toys, which I couldn’t resist: my Lionel trainset, a Paladin figure (the old TV Western character) atop a beautiful white horse, Matchbox cars, plastic dinosaurs, and so on.
There were musical instruments as well: The Dan Electro guitar I got for Christmas when I was 9, my father’s mandolin, and a pair of maracas that my parents bought for me in Mexico when I was 12.
In yet another chest of drawers, I found a cross made of wood from the old altar at the church I attended while growing up, my father’s microscope (he was an amateur naturalist), and a pocket knife that had belonged to my maternal grandfather.
Finally, there were books and records—hundreds of them. I took as many as I could, including a guidebook from the 1964-65 World’s Fair.
ALL OF THESE ITEMS remain in my possession and most are openly displayed on window sills, walls or bookshelves. I realize that this might seem odd to some folks. After all, I know many people who are minimalists and shun the idea of owning too many things. One friend tells me that all of his worldly possessions could fit into his car.
As an idea, that appeals to me. I have a Subaru Forester, myself, and I’ve often wondered what I would take with me if I had to limit the haul to what I could fit into the cargo area—or, more radically, what I could fit into a backpack.
This thought experiment reflects another side of me: the side that relates to Thoreau, who made a compelling case that stripping ourselves of all but the basic necessities can reconnect us with what truly matters: the natural world, other people, and the vast inner landscape of our own minds. This explains as well why Into the Wild is one of my favorite books and movies. As you may know, it is the real-life story of Chris McCandless, who took off after college—without telling his family—with the dream of living alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Before he left, he gave away most of his savings, then subsequently burned what little cash he had in his pocket to free himself from all attachments.
As a student of Zen Buddhism, I’ve also been drawn for nearly 50 years to the spareness of zendos—meditation halls—and the lives of monks.
All of these musings, however, are wholly at odds with how I live. My apartment is, in fact, crammed with many things in addition to those I’ve already mentioned: a couple of thousand books, roughly 800 LPs, hundreds of CDs, a component stereo system, a flat-screen TV, a digital piano, four guitars, including that Dan Electro, sports equipment, many other tchotchkes, and, of course, the usual array of clothes, kitchen stuff and tools.
Unfortunately, unlike my mom’s house, it’s not neat. On the contrary, it suggests that I am indeed a hoarder. I even have piles of old magazines, saved because, in my mind, I might reread them someday. (Yeah, right.)
And yet, I wonder about that word—hoarder. Countless people have far more possessions than I do—and yet their homes wouldn’t scream “hoarder lives here” if you were to walk into them. The difference is that they have a lot more space—something I long for. Not infrequently, I dream of a house with a large dedicated library containing display cases for the memorabilia in addition to the bookshelves, a music room, a rec room with a pool table and wet bar, a fully stocked gourmet kitchen, and a patio with an outdoor swimming pool.
Unless I win the Powerball, though, that’s not in my future. My residence is what it is, and it’s all I can afford. Thus, I’m left with this dilemma—to continue living amidst an abundance of clutter, or to purge.
THERE’S NO DOUBT that I need to do some purging, since cramming so much into a small space makes cleaning difficult. But purge to what degree?
Clearly—given my attraction to the ideas of Thoreau—there’s some part of me that feels weighed down by all my stuff: some part of me that would feel liberated if I packed up my Subaru and lit out for the territory, as it were, leaving 95 percent of my possessions behind.
And yet I know that if I did, I miss many of these things—not only my books, whose familiar spines alone inspire me, and my records—how could I part with my original copy of Rubber Soul?!—but all of those photographs and sentimental keepsakes.
There must be a middle way.
For starters, come winter break, I’m going to try to find the motivation to bag up, and haul to the dumpster or thrift store, all the things I definitely don’t need, like those old magazines and clothes I never wear. Additionally, I’m sure I can fill at least a few boxes with books that I won’t miss, and donate them somewhere. Trouble is, this will barely make a dent—but at least it’ll be a start.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to ponder what it is—deep down—that makes me want to hold onto all of these things. I’ve read a bit about the psychology of hoarding, and I didn’t find the articles all that helpful—although this passage from a piece in Psychology Today piqued my interest:
“It can be difficult to determine whether someone is a hoarder or just a pack rat, someone who just likes to hang on to things,” the article states. “The main determinant of whether a behavior is just a personal preference or a disorder usually has to do with whether, and how much, that behavior has begun to negatively impact daily functioning.”
I don’t think the current state of things has a major impact on my ability to function: I still get my work done and enjoy my downtime at home. And yet clearly, I wouldn’t be writing this if it didn’t have some negative effect. But I think that has more to do with the chaos than the clutter. I have a bad habit of retrieving books from their shelves, for example, when I want to read a passage, then leaving them lying about. I always feel better when I put things back in their proper place.
On balance, I think I “just like to hang on to things.” The closest I can come to an explanation for this tendency is that my possessions provide a sense of continuity in a world of unsettling change, from the deaths of loved ones to the drifting away of friends as they move to new stages of life, to the closing of favorite pubs or bookstores. That attachment to the feeling of continuity, I realize, is at odds with my Buddhist orientation. So be it. If I contradict myself, to paraphrase Whitman, very well, then. This is simply who I am.