Sunday, May 16, 2010



Saint Kevin's Monastery in the Wicklow Mountains, Ireland

On Wednesday nights, I’ve begun to tune in to a riveting reality show called “Hoarders.” It is set here in England, and profiles the lives of people who hang onto piles of unusable and unnecessary collections, until their piles have spilled into the outside world, devastating their neighbours and their families, and most tragically, themselves. Space is a precious commodity here in the UK, our homes much smaller than those in the states, so their collections fill up the skinny hallways and tiny sitting rooms much faster,  thus exacerbating the severity of their plight.

These people may function fairly well in careers and in friendships outside of their homes, although not all of them do. Some of them have become imprisoned by the stacks of papers and plastic cartons and boxes that permeate their world, and they hide among their piles in shame, embarrassed to allow anyone else into their sphere. Others are able to find clean shirts and trousers, somehow, amongst their piles, and trot off to their workplaces and afternoon pub gatherings with friends, never revealing the enormity of the problem that lurks within their homes, behind closed curtains and locked doors.

I am fascinated by them for a variety of reasons. My sister was a hoarder, and my mother, and my father, to some extent, as well. Perhaps this compulsion to collect became a part of our genetic history, I have thought, passed down by ancestors who lost so much in their treks from their home countries to the United States, and across the states in wagons, where all that they owned was reduced to a couple of trunks and a few old dusty pictures. Perhaps it is just a facet of human nature gone awry, accentuated by our western focus on material wealth. I don’t know—but it seems to flow through our family’s blood, an inexorable trait, like our stocky builds, our angular faces, our sturdy thighs.

This peculiarity of the human condition fascinates me, too, because I have struggled against it myself. I moved many times, as a young person, from a tent in a field, to a pickup truck, to hole in the ground (or kiva) in Santa Fe, to a dorm room in the Marin Headlands, to a room that once held pigs in a village in Mexico. Each move, back then, forced me to come to terms with the amount of stuff I held onto, and through it all, I managed to keep my hoarding to an acceptable level—a few boxes of books and pictures, a can full of protest buttons, a container filled with posters and tee shirts.

Then I became a mother, a wife, a householder. And for the last 25 years of my life my definition of necessary stuff expanded, until it encompassed all things related to my son, my husband’s interests, my spiritual beliefs, and my career, eventually filling a three bedroom home. Books, clothes, Christmas decorations, pictures of my son in all his stages, school mementoes, all his awards, articles I found interesting, literary journals, magazines, boxes of my own writings, in various drafts, with and without critiques, pens, markers, scrapbooking materials, books on social work, religious texts, books about how to write, how to organize your writing, how to publish your writing, how to get over a writing drought—the stuff surrounding me, creeping into every available space. I kept it neat and tidy, stacked and hidden, but still. It was too much stuff.

From time to time, I would venture into the home where my mother and sister resided, attempting to help them come to terms with the mounds of things they held onto, and several times, when my sister was away, I would plough through it myself, filling dumpsters and second hand stores with the things they had collected, clearing the hallways of debris so that my mother could get through them without falling, cleaning off their beds so they could actually sleep in them. But usually, within months of my efforts, their place would be packed, again, and I would be filled with feelings of helplessness and resentment. Finally, I decided, for the sake of our relationship, to leave them to sort it out on their own, and I would meet them at the door, when I came to visit, taking them to dinner or to church, rather than trying to spend time in their home.

It hindered their quality of life. They’d lose things and misplace important papers and spend hours searching for documents that were hidden under piles of trash. They couldn’t organize their daily activities, they’d forget to write down dates for appointments, and, if they did write them down, they couldn’t remember where they had left their calendars. They couldn’t have friends come to visit. Once, my mother fell over a vacuum sweeper and broke her shoulder. Another time, she fell out of the small area she had carved out as a sleeping space at the edge of her bed, and broke her nose.

My social work training and my writer’s nature led me to search for and to analyze the deep seated issues that drove their need to hold onto things that did not matter, and their almost psychotic refusal to part with the most inconsequential collections. (I once came across a bag filled with dryer lint, that my sister had been saving, she said, to use as a stuffing for a pillow one day.) For both of them, the collecting was a response to their many losses, I think, an effort to claim back a part of themselves, to hang onto history, to return to a time that was somehow more meaningful, when they felt more complete. Or, perhaps it was an effort to stave off the emptiness they felt inside, as if their things could protect them, somehow, from feeling alone.

Then Debra got sick, and it began to dawn on her that her time on this earth was short. Shortly after she was diagnosed, she let me go through the boxes in her bedroom, and she became willing to part with the Oprah magazines that she had saved for five years, her collection of greeting cards, enough to open a Hallmark store, her Child Life book series, that filled an entire bookcase, along with myriads of other collections. It was as if a light switched on in her head, and she saw, suddenly, how little these things meant to her.

A month later, I returned to visit, quickly realizing that they could no longer manage on their own, and I brought them to live with me. The night we left, my mother scurried around, trying to figure out what to bring with her, but, by then, my sister didn’t care about any of it. She wanted to feel better, she wanted to sleep comfortably, and she wanted to be able to eat. She left all of her stuff behind, not giving it a second glance.

My sister died at hospice house, in a room that held a few of her favourite belongings, some Christmas decorations, my mother, and me. And, in the end, it was all that she needed.

It was very hard for my mother to let go of her things, and I tried to surround her with the possessions that mattered most to her. We brought her china cabinets into my living room, and filled them with her depression glass and her Indianapolis Race Car glasses. We put up all of her old pictures and hung her plates on the wall. Still she felt uncomfortable and displaced, in my home, as if, without her things to define her, she no longer belonged in the world. And before long, she became ill herself, dying less than a year after my sister. Perhaps parting with her possessions was just too much for her, along with losing her daughter. Perhaps the loss was too great for her to survive it.

When they passed, I became obsessed finding a way to change my life. I wanted to experience the world free of the clutter that had turned my mother and my sister into prisoners. And six months after my mom died, I arrived in England, my new home, with two suitcases. I gave away my record albums, shelves full of books, clothes and dishes and pots and pans. I left my furniture for my son, and gave Mom’s china cabinets to two of my nieces. I still have stuff stored back in the states, but I hope to pare it down each time I return, to get down to the bare essentials, to free myself of the material possessions that clog my life and weigh me down. I’ve lived a whole year with just a few things, and for the most part, I haven’t missed the stuff I’ve left behind.

Recently, I travelled to the site of a monastery outside Dublin that was formed in the 6th century by Saint Kevin. It was a cluster of stone buildings and churches set in a beautiful valley at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains. The story goes that he allowed anyone to come to his monastery, to take refuge there, but they had to leave all their possessions at the archway, and they could enter only with the clothes on their backs. Mother Teresa required the nuns in her order to limit their possessions to only what could fill one paper bag. It is who we are, that matters, she told them, and how we treat each other, not what we own.

I don’t know that I could emulate the example of Saint Kevin or Mother Teresa. But I know that my life feels simpler, now, that I own less, and that I am able to tread much more lightly through my days, no longer shackled by the treachery of stuff.