Some possession resist the ruthlessness. For instance, I have five bone china teacups that I inherited from my late first husband. They aren’t five perfectly matching teacups. They have exactly the same pattern of flowers printed on the outside one one side, and on the inside on the other side, and they all have gold rims. But three of them have tiny round handles, and five have slightly less tiny triangular handles.
The thing is, shortly after we first moved in together, back in 1991, Ray told me that they had belonged to his grandmother and one other relative. I am pretty sure that he told me many more details than that—for instance, since they are nearly identical yet clearly come for two slightly different sets, did three of them come from one relative and two from the other?—but all I remember is that Ray called them “Grandma’s Teacups.” And so, since he died, I have hung onto them, keeping them packed away in an upper cabinet, because what kind of monster would throw away the only things his late husband had had to remember his grandmother by?
Ray only had the teacups. No matching saucers or any other items from the china set. Because he felt that teacups ought to have saucers, when he found a single bone china saucer with a similar rose pattern (and the gold paint on the rim) at a Goodwill or Value Village or similar, he bought it. Never mind that Grandma’s cups were no longer white but had turned that antique ivory color that really old bone china takes, while the saucer was new enough that it remained very white—he thought of the saucer as belong with the teacups, so I kept it, too.
Ray died more than 21 years ago, and for most of that time the five teacups and one saucer were carefully kept untouched in a cabinet. And even during the most ruthless stage of the move from Ballard to Shoreline, I refused to even consider giving them up. Never mind that so many other things I had owned for years were subjected to the criteria that if I couldn’t remember when I last used it, it goes—the teacups and the saucer stayed.
I like tea. I have a lot of specific blends of tea of which I am particularly fond. At the office, for instance, I drink the company-provided coffee in the morning, then switch to my own teabags in the afternoon. At home I have a rather more extensive collection to teabags. I also have some loose teas, but as I mentioned a couple of months ago, making single cups of tea with an infuser was more fuss than I was willing to take. Until I bought an infuser pot, which lets me make 4-5 cups of tea from loose leaves in a single action.
Since I bought the infuser, I have developed a new Sunday routine (that sometimes also happens on Saturday): rather than grinding coffee beans and making a pot of coffee, now I heat a couple of quarts of water to boiling, select one of my loose teas, make a pot of tea, and then get out one of the bone china teacups and use it to drink the tea over the course of the day. I usually wind up making a second pot because 4-5 cups of tea don’t contain quite enough caffeine to cover my current addiction.
For the first few weeks after I obtained the pot, I was choosing a different teacup out of the set while using the one saucer with it. About a month ago when I was preparing to take a carload of stuff to Value Village I had an epiphany. At that time, I had two quests, if you were, that I pursued at each visit to Value Village: after I dropped off stuff, I would park, grab one of the scores of coupons on our dash (there was a 7 month period while we were prepping to move and then moving and then unpacking were every weekend I took at least one—and usually multiple—carloads of stuff to Value Village, and I got a coupon each time), then go inside and first go through all the commerative plates hoping to find a tiger plate to replace the one tiger plate that broke during the move, then go through the glassware hoping to find a sixth cut crystal white wine glass to complete my set. Since I’m already doing that, I could also start going through the dinnerware looking for china tea saucers that had a rose motif and a gold rim. Because since my five cups didn’t exactly match, there is no reason the saucers have to, either.
One my first trip looking for saucers I realized I needed to add another must-have. In addition to having roses and a gold rim, the saucers also had to have that little depression in the middle into which the cup would sit. I found a pair the met the criteria on the second trip, so now I have three saucers to go with my five teacups.
And I also have instituted a rotation system, so after I use a cup and a saucer, each goes to the bottom of the pile. The upshot of all of this is that all of the teacups and all of the saucers I own are getting used on a regular basis, so I should not feel guilty for hanging onto them.
Now, if any of my friends who like tea would like to come over sometime for a tea party where we get to use them all at once, not only will I not object, I may also get a bit teary-eyed. But that’s okay.
Because a little bit of sentimentality is always allowed.
One reason those ghosts are so strong is because they are really a manifestation of anxiety. Spend any part of your childhood or young adult life where food and shelter were in jeopardy because of money issues, and those anxieties get a lot of power. And because we survived some of those situations thanks to some packrat in the family who kept that old appliance when they bought a new one which we can now use after ours broke until we can afford to replace it, well, those anxieties can rightly remind us that “You might need that someday!” is true.
To get out of the abstract for a bit: one of the tasks that has been on my list for a while was to go through the closet and my chest of drawers to purge clothes that I don’t wear anymore. We last did that seriously two years ago while preparing to move… and we did it again when we unpacked, because after all that packing and moving we were both feeling that we had not been ruthless enough in the purge leading up to the move.
But we’re both also busy with work and chores and so on, so it is easy to put it off. I have also learned that those ghosts will enlist the aid of my inner procrastinator in interesting ways. Usually I distract myself with another chore or project that is important, but manages to grow into something bigger. The trick, I have learned, is to actually say out loud, either to myself or my husband, “I really want to go through the closet and drawers this weekend to get rid of the clothes that don’t fit me any more.” And even though whether they fit isn’t the only reason I plan to get rid of some clothes, if that’s the only part I admit out loud, it’s harder for my to procrastinate.
Yes, I just admitted that I have to trick myself. The funny part is that it works.
Weekend before last I started at the closet. One reason it had become urgent is that the closet is so full of clothes that it is difficult to put clean clothes away after I do the laundry. It’s a struggle to squeeze things in. The side effects of that are that it is difficult to find a particular garment when we want and that a lot of shirts especially get weird creases because everything’s jammed in.
Because I had been doing other housework that day, I didn’t get started on the closet until nearly 2:30 in the afternoon. As I pulled things out of the closet, giving them a look over and trying them on, it was easy to toss things that don’t fit (or don’t fit comfortably), or if they have another physical issue (there was one really nice dress shirt that I really like that got a coffee stain on it that resisted all my attempts to remove, and it wound up being put back in the closet because the packrat ghosts in my head convinced me that I could think of something to remove the stain later.
It was more difficult to put things in the “get rid of” pile that had no physical problems, but that I just know I’ll never wear again. There are a few reasons that I know I won’t wear something ever again. Sometimes it’s something that I bought because I thought it would go really well with something else and I either no longer own that other garment or once the outfit was assembled it didn’t look good or it had a major impracticality or whatever. Other times it’s just that while it looked good in the store, later I didn’t like how it looked on me. And other times it’s just, I’m over that–whatever look it was.
If I keep it, it will just hang in the closet. It will be looked at from time to time while I’m looking for something else, but I will never pull it out and actually wear it. I know that. No matter how much I know that, I feel a tide of guilt rising inside as I contemplate tossing it into the “give away” pile.
The trick I have used in that situation is to ask myself, “If my friend Kristin were here, what would she ask me?” And what I imagine Kristin (who I sometimes call “the Ruthless One” in these circumstances) would ask me is, “Are you really ever going to wear that, or is it just going to take up space that you could put to better use with things you actually do use?”
And once I have imagined Kristin saying that (or similar), the guilt recedes and I can put the shirt or whatever into the pile.
A bit over two hours later, I had pulled every shirt, sweater, pair of pants, jacket, and so on out of the closet, tried it on, put it into a pile, and then had re-hung all the clothes that I was keeping. I had an embarassingly enormous pile of clothes to go, and an impressive mass of empty hangers. And I was tired and sweaty and felt grungy and grumpy.
I checked in with Michael about how many of the hangers to keep, I bagged up the clothes and the hangers, and I hopped in the shower to wash the grunge and (mostly repressed) guilt away.
I looked at the chest of drawers–three of the six drawers so overfull that they couldn’t be fully slid in, looked at the time, and decided that it was not procrastinating to put that off until next week if I loaded up the car and actually took all the stuff we had in the get-rid of piles away. And it wasn’t just an excuse, between that and the other housework I’d been on my feet and moving for many hours. Value Village was only open until 8pm, and we were now past 5.
So we loaded up the car (which took longer than I thought), drove up to the donation center, dropped the things off, did a quick run through the store on my usual quests (I am trying to replace one decorative plate that got broken while we were hanging the set on the wall at the new place, I keep hoping to find a matching sixth cut crystal wine glass for one of my sets, and I have slowly been acquiring semi-matching bone china saucers to go with a small set of teacups that belonged to my late first-husband’s grandmother — and which, yes, I actually use!). And then we stopped at a nearby sushi place for dinner.
Then, this last weekend, I went through the drawers. Since taking things off hangers wasn’t involved, it went a bit faster. The pile of things to get rid of wasn’t nearly as impressive as the one I’d had the weekend before. But now I am able to easily open and close all six drawers on my side, and there is actually room in the drawers for some new things when they come along (because they will).
Michael, on the other, spent something like five minutes going through his drawers, and all he did was move heavy winter things to the drawers drawers in the bed pedestal (we decided after the move that they only we we’d remember to use them at all was keep seasonal stuff in them), because as the hot weather had come on, he’d started pulling summer clothes out of the drawer, but hadn’t transferred. But all the drawers on his side now easily slide closed, so, win!
Of course, while he was a lot of packrat tendencies, his are focused differently than mine. And he doesn’t have the same habits I have of, for instance, if I have to toss out a couple of socks because they wear out, I will replace the two thrown out pairs with six… and then a month later not remember that I have already more than replaced those “bunch of socks I had to throw out” and buy another six-pack.
One last trick for dealing with all of those ghosts. Whenever I win a little battle with them, I make an extra donation to either Northwest Harvest or True Colors United–gotta use that guilt for something useful, right?
I have mentioned many times that I am a packrat from a long line of packrats. Other people might refer to us as hoarders, and certainly some family members leaned more toward that end of the spectrum than others. After Grandma died, for instance, my mom and her older sister found at least five “spare” microwave ovens squirreled away among the thousands of boxed up things stuffed in every closet of Grandma’s home. One of those microwaves my Aunt recognized immediately, and not just because of the scorch marks, as one that my Aunt had thrown away when it suffered a major electrical problem.
For years after Grandma’s death, mom and her sister have been ocassionally producing weird things that were packed up at Grandma’s that they hope that one of us will take and use.
My maternal-maternal great-grandfather (who insisted all of us kids call him ‘Shorty’ rather than Great-grandpa) died when I was 14 years old. At the time he and Great-grandma lived in a little house that was about a three minute bicycle ride from our home. Grandma and all of her brothers and a huge number of the grandchildren (Mom’s first cousins) and great-grandchildren (my second cousins) came to the small Colorado town for the funeral and to help with the arrangements. Great-grandma went back to southwest Washington to live with Grandma, then she died a year later.
Because of a couple of photographs, we know that during the first Christmas after Shorty’s death, that Grandma and Great-grandma decorated a tree in Grandma’s house with a combination of Great-grandma’s ornaments and Grandma’s. As far as any of us know, Great-grandma’s ornaments then stayed boxed up and unused for the next 32 years. When Mom found them, they were still in the original box packed inside a bigger box with other things of Great-grandma’s. There was a note attached to the outside of the box in Grandma’s handwriting that said, “Mother’s decorations.” Inside the box Mom found a handwritten retail receipt from the little “five-and-dime” store that had once been in the tiny Colorado town where I was born (And where Shorty and Great-grandma lived for a bit over 20 years). It had a date: December 1956, and noted that the ornaments were being sold at half price because two of the glass ornaments broke during shipping.
Mom split them up, with myself and one of my cousins getting three each. Mom kept four for herself.
I suspect that the reason they sat unused in that box for all that time was three-fold. The first Christmas after Great-grandma died, I suspect Grandma was just too sad about them to use them. The next dozens of years if Grandma thought about them at all, she probably decided not to use them because she was afraid they would get broken, and then she wouldn’t have these things of her mother’s any longer. And I think the third reason is that the longer they stayed boxed up, the less often Grandma even remembered they existed.
The last phenomenon is one I became accutely aware of during the move 20 months ago, as I kept finding boxes of things squirreled away in the old house that I had forgotten we had.
This is one of the reasons I insist, no matter what colors and theme we’re doing on any Christmas, that Great-grandma’s three ornaments always go on our tree. As kitschy and ordinary as they are, they represent my Great-grandma and make me remember happy times with her whenever I look at them. But the other part is that I don’t want them to sit in a box unseen for years. There is no point keeping them if they aren’t going to be seen and used. Their only value is in being seen.
Yeah, if one ever got broken, I would be upset. But I would also remind myself that for 19 years they gave Great-grandma (and anyone who visited her during the season) a bit of holiday cheer, and for 10 years and counting they have contributed to my Christmas cheer. That’s a pretty good return on G-grandma’s original investment of less than a dollar.
It isn’t the first one I’ve owned. Back in the ’90s I had one medication that had to be taken five times a day. That was no fun, let me tell you. So I had a pill minder back then that actually consisted of seven little four-compartment pill-minders. On a Tuesday morning I could pop up Tuesday’s four-compartment piece, take the morning pills, and then put the Tuesday minder in my backpack, go to work, and throughout the day take my other doses.
That served me fine for years. Even though as it got older most of the words printed on the little lids had rubbed off, and a couple of the little lids wouldn’t stay latched as the little plastic catches wore down. But the penny-pincher inside me kept saying that I could keep making do with it. Despite a few times when I had to dig around in the bottom of the pack to find the pills that had fallen out.
But my meds changed. The one that had previously needed to be taken as five little pills every four hours or so was replaced by one larger pill just once a day. Other medications that had come in small pills were replaced with new ones in very large pills and I had to admit that the old rickety minder with it’s tiny compartments wasn’t right any more. I just needed one with larger compartments divided into only a morning and evening for each day. So I bought a new one (the one pictured above). Which worked fine for years, until one lid broke off week before last.
I figured, oh, it’s just one day, and beside, I don’t carry this thing around with me any more, it stays home, right? Except just about every time I picked it up to open a compartment and take out the pills for that morning or evening, I’d spill some or all of the pills out of the broken compartment. I had to admit it was time to buy a new one and throw this one away.
The new one is pretty and new and shiny… and has a different kind of locking mechanism that means when I unluck, say, Wednesday morning’s compartment, all of the morning compartments are unlocked. So I have to be careful to relock each of the others each time.
Which gives a bit more insight into the sorts of behaviors that could turn one into a full-on hoarder: sometimes we hang on to things because they are familiar. And when we are forced to swtich to a new thing, we find things that are different from the old thing annoying. Because of the years of familiarity, very tiny inconveniences become very outsized annoyances.
The last couple of days while I’ve been using the new minder, I’ve been thinking about how my out of proportion annoyance is not unlike the irrational way that people often react to changes in society in general. Those of us who have spent our whole lives struggling for equal rights often find ourselves having to ask others (sometimes our own relatives) why it bothers them so much? How can decriminalizing my love life possibly hurt them? How does legal recognition of my marriage possibly hurt them? It isn’t logical.
And that’s precisely right. It isn’t a rational response. It is an out-of-proportion reacting to change. Men kissing men in public was unheard of when they were younger, why can’t it stay that way, they ask? And so on.
This doesn’t mean that they are right. Just as me clinging to the broken pill-minder did me no good, them clinging to the past does nothing good. There are notions that belong in the dustbin of history. Hoarding prejudice isn’t the answer to anything.
Now, before I get into my own comments on this topic, a disclaimer: my use case probably doesn’t match your use case2. I’m not suggesting that anyone use their tools the way I use mine. My talking about the tools I use and how I use them is in no way meant as an indictment of anyone who uses different tools (or none at all) or uses them differently.
I’m not rearranging my whole phone according to his recommendations after reading it4, but the article did make me think about how I let things on my phone distract me from other things I want to do—often things I meant to do on the phone itself. What I have done is cleaned up my notification settings. There were a number of apps I didn’t really want to see alerts from cluttering up my Notification Center and the Earlier Today list. It’s funny how every time I noticed those unwanted alerts before I would think, “I need to remember to go turn those off.” To be fair, the reason is usually that I would tap another alert that I did want and go read an urgent email or message. By the time I’d handled that, I would have forgotten about the annoying alerts.
Rinse and repeat.
This article has made me consider rearranging my homescreen. There are a few apps that I use many times a day that aren’t on the first screen. The app where I record and track my blood sugar readings, meals & snacks, and insulin doses, for instance. I put in on the second page because it’s color is the same another app I use multiple times, and I kept clicking on the wrong one. The article’s suggestion of having a first screen with no more than six apps that you use frequently got me thinking: is the reason that these two are confused because they are surrounded both buried among 22 other icons, many of which are only tapped a few times a week?
Right now all of the apps I have on the phone fit into only two screens. I pull that off by having a lot of apps in folders. My reason for doing this is that back when I had three to five screens worth of icons I would spend a lot of time swiping back and forth trying to find things. I figured just have two screens would cut down on that. Except I swipe back and forth between them a few times sometimes when trying to find an app.
So, I am thinking of rearranging my screen.
I’ve always had a problem with rabbit-holing. I’ll be getting ready for work, for instance, and notice that the empty tube from the middle of a used toilet paper roll is sitting on the counter. I’ll grab it and carry it out to the kitchen to drop in the recycle bin, where I might decide to grab a sip of coffee or water. I’ll pour some coffee into my much from the coffee maker and spill a little coffee on the counter, which prompts me to grab a rag, and the next thing I know I’ve wiping down the whole counter, and noticing that the stove could use a quick wipe, and say, there’s a couple of dishes in the sink that should go in the dishwasher, but…
And then ten or fifteen minutes later I’m finally heading out of the kitchen, but I forget that I was going to the bathroom and head into the bedroom to pick out clothes to wear, at which point I realize I haven’t actually showered yet. So I head toward the bathroom again.
Which eventually leads to a moment when I glance at a clock or my watch and freak out because it’s a lot later than I thought it was.
This tendency to be easily distracted did cause me to be sent for evaluation for hyperkinetic impulse disorder5 in school more than once. But each time they decided I didn’t have it6.
For now, I’ve turned off the badges on things like the Mail app that I check regularly, anyway. And greatly reduced the number of apps that show notifications.
I already have a lot of apps in folders, and for anything that I don’t check real frequently I use search to find them. I’m not quite ready to go as far as this guy: Beautility, My Ultimate iPhone Setup, but I certainly understand his reasoning!
I’m thinking of this as an extension of the project we started last year when we learned our old building was going on the market and knew moving was likely. We’ve been reducing and de-cluttering and taking long hard looks at all the stuff we have. A lot of things were gotten rid of because we seldom (if ever) use them7. So thinking about how I have my phone (and other devices) set up is probably a good next logical step.
Let’s see how this works!
1. The modern equivalent of the infamous “milkman’s cheery whistle” style essay: where a pundit laments modern society in general by waxing nostalgic about one particular thing the author thought was wonderful.
2. This is a great phrase my friend Duncan introduced me to. People have different workflows, opinions, and uses for the tools they use. We can legitimately like something without being a mindless fanboy or apologist. We can just as legitimately dislike something without being a hater3. I think it’s a much better approach to think of things this way than to angrily ask, “Why would anyone use X?” And so forth.
3. However, if you only comment on someone else’s blog post to call them a fanboy, sheep, or some other disparaging term because they like a product you don’t, particularly if you include a blanket statement such as, “I don’t use products by so-and-so and never will,” you are acting in a way 100% indistinguishable from a hater.
5. This was the name given to what is now commonly called ADD/ADHD back in the day. The modern name (and definition) wasn’t adopted until I was in my twenties.
6. I could get into a long and very boring discussion of standard deviations and what constitutes a symptom as opposed to a quirk in different people’s perspectives. But maybe some other day.
7. And I’m not just talking about the embarrassingly large amounts of things we found boxed up in the back of closets that had been there so long, we literally had forgotten the closet was that deep8. An example: about a year or so before Ray died, he found a silk jacket during one of his thriftstore runs with his mom. It was a beautiful dark purple and dark teal (a color combo I was really into), it was in very good shape, silk lining as well as a silk outer shell, it was a nice, light weight that would be perfect for the mildly chilly parts of our falls and springs, and it appeared to be my size. It fit me well across the shoulders and was more than roomy enough for my belly. But the sleeves were about four inches short. But it was gorgeous! And it had clearly been expensive. The label wasn’t in English, and the size was odd enough that we strongly suspected it might have been custom made made for another short, round guy, right? Anyway, other than the sleeves, it was perfect. But because of the sleeves, I almost never wore it. I wore it when a few times we went out back when Ray was alive, because it made him happy to see me in it, and I just never talked about the sleeves. Then for about 19 years after his death, the jacket lived in among our coats and jackets in the closet. Every now and then, when the weather was chilly but not actually cold, I would pull it out and put it on—and then remember the sleeves as soon as I lifted an arm. So I would take it back off and hang it up. Because Ray had bought it for me. And it was gorgeous and still in great shape and so on. During the unpacking, it (with a lot of other old jackets and coats) were hauled off to Value Village. I hope that someone who it actually fits found it and wears it and keeps warm while looking great.9
8. Though that was a thing!
9. Then there’s a complete different phenomenon: after we did the purge of the coats, one of the coats I kept was a long cloth raincoat10 that I had bought many years ago at a fancy men’s store. We had several formal functions we were going to that year, and a coat that I could wear over my suit seemed like a good idea. And it worked great and I looked good, and it was awesome. And then it spend most of the next 14-15 years hanging in that same closet. I wore it more often than the silk jacket, but I kept thinking that I should save it for appropriate occasions11. I didn’t get rid of it in the purge, I kept it. Then when the weather started turning cold and wet, I started to pull it out, but immediately had the thought, “But shouldn’t I save this for—?” Fortunately, I also immediately remembered that the whole point was that we decided only to keep coats/jackets that we actually wear. So during this, the wettest time of the year, it has worked well to keep me warm and dry. And what’s the point of owning such a coat if you don’t wear it, right?
10. It’s a microfibre cloth, and water beads on it rather than soaks in. So it really does keep you dry, but with out the crinkling and squeaking and other odd noises you get with plasticized and rubberized fabrics.
11. Whatever that means.
It’s a really complex web of guilt trips that we’re programmed with. And while most of those guilt trips are about necessities, not all of them are. We also have been taught to feel guilt over a lot of useless stuff. Specifically: anything that has ever been a gift. Don’t get me wrong: I love gifts. I love finding gifts for people I love. I love giving them. I love when someone gives something to me. Most people do. But we’ve all gotten those gifts that leave us scratching our heads. Why did this person think I would love this strange, ugly thing whose only purpose is to hang on a wall or sit on a shelf and isn’t like anything else I own at all?
The truth is, we know that we’ve made similar mistakes in gifting to other people. We found something we thought was cool, or thought they would like, but it’s really not. So when we get gifts like that ourselves, we smile and say “thank you.” And we are grateful that they thought of us and went to the trouble and expense of getting this thing for us, even if we have no clue what we’re going to do with it.
But no matter how useless or inappropriate the gift is, we packrats have a very hard time getting rid of it. Years later it will still be on a shelf or in a closet somewhere, next to a bunch of other things I never use. Even if I’ve decided that it’s time for a purge and I’m specifically going through a part of the house looking for things to take to the thrift store, I’ll pick up the thing I never use that was a gift and immediately hear my grandma’s voice in the back of my head: “You can’t get rid of that! So-and-so gave it to you, and what sort of ungrateful person would get rid of a heartfelt gift?” Getting rid of the gift would be the same thing as saying I don’t love that person as much as I think I do. Getting rid of the gift would mean I don’t appreciate how lucky I am that people think of me fondly enough to get a gift. Getting rid of the gift means that I’m a very bad person.
All of that runs through my head at the thought of getting rid of any gift. Even a silly old knick knack that I don’t merely don’t like, but actually think is repulsive. Even gifts given by people who are no longer a part of my life.
When my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and various aunts and uncles were inducing all this guilt, they weren’t meaning to turn me into a borderline hoarder—they were trying to teach me not to be ungrateful. They wanted me to treasure friends and value friendship and be thankful for the love that came into my life. Just as they had been taught. The fact that they were all packrats because of it didn’t even cross their minds.
Every single weird little kickknack and odd odject d’art that was crammed into the homes of each of my great-grandparents had a story. If I pointed at something and asked about it they would tell a story about the dear friend or long-deceased relative or whoever that had given them the thing. The story they told didn’t always involve the gift itself. But it was about the person and how wonderful or funny or dear they had been. Each dusty item was a memorial to someone they cared about.
And it isn’t just gifts that do that. My late husband, Ray, was even more into plushies than I am. Some of the plush tigers and bunnies and such he owned for a very long time before we met. Many of them had spent years in storage while he was living in a series of rented rooms in other people’s houses. But some went with him to each of those rooms. Some were later kept near his favorite chair in the apartments he and I shared.
The problem is that Ray was a heavy smoker—like his mom and sister and brothers who liked to visit a lot. And many of those plushies became badly nicotine stained. I’ve spent years periodically taking the stained ones out and trying various cleaning solutions on them. Some cleaned up easily, but other have just resisted.
But every time I thought it was time to throw in the towel and admit they couldn’t be cleaned, I would immediate think, “But Ray adored it! What kind of heartless widower would throw away something your husband loved!?” So they would go back into the closet or the back of a shelf until the next time I tried to clean them.
The process happened again during the move. For the first time in a long while I had all of the stained ones in a single place and I went through trying to clean all of them yet again. As before, they resist the commercial soap and various homemade concoctions I’ve put together from recipes on the web and so forth. They just won’t come clean. And since they are so badly stained, they shouldn’t be donated to a thrift store. When I mentioned this to Michael, he very delicately suggested it was time to “retire” them. I probably should have made a Bladerunner joke, but instead I just said, “I know. I just may have to hold a funeral for them.”
When Grandma died, we found literally hundreds and hundreds of teddy bears, easter bunnies, and assorted other plushies, each packed in plastic bags and crammed impossibly densely into a couple of closets. A lot of them had little notes attached in Grandma’s handwritting with some person’s name and a date. The vast majority of the names were people none of the family recognized. Grandma did lots of volunteer work at church, and over the years she helped and came to know a dizzying array of people who were there for a while and moved on with their life when they got through whatever calamity had brought them to the charity program. And Grandma seemed to remember them all.
For a few years after her death, everytime I saw either my mother or my aunt, they would try to foist some of those plushies off on me. “It belonged to your grandmother!” they would protest if I suggested donating it to a thrift store. It didn’t matter that many of them looked like they had come from a thrift store before Grandma got them. It didn’t matter that they had been hidden away somewhere in some cases for many decades. It didn’t matter that none of us had any knowledge of their existence before Grandma’s death; not one of us had a fond memory of Grandma telling the story of how this one was given to her. To my mom and my aunt, suggestions that we didn’t want them amounted to saying we didn’t want to remember Grandma, or something.
I don’t want to be that person. I recognize that hanging onto these things that I don’t and can’t enjoy simply because they were his is as irrational as my Mom being upset when I suggested a hunk of junk that had clearly once been a dime store window display that one of Grandma’s charity cases had picked up as salvage somewhere and given to her wasn’t a family heirloom.
There’s a difference between hanging on to something that you love or reminds you of someone you love (and that you have room for and you can enjoy and/or it serves a purpose), and hanging on because you feel guilt toward someone who is not going to be harmed in any way if you don’t keep it.
But I’m still probably going to hold a little funeral for the plushies…
I’d come home from work, load up the car, drive to new place, unload the car, then possibly do a couple of small things before driving back. While I was out Michael would be packing more boxes. Once I got home I would usually start packing, too. Sometimes I would simply load up the car and drive up again. Then the next weekend it was multiple trips every day again. Until the day of the big move, and we started sleeping at the new place. Then my routine became come home from work, hop in the car and drive back to the old place to pack more little things and/or clean. And so on. Thus did the once familiar and happy-making route become a dreaded chore.
We managed to take at least one night off each week. One night where each of us came home from work and did virtually no packing and there was absolutely no driving back and forth. I didn’t always skip any and all moving activity on the night off. Just not having to spend that time—nearly on hour—in transit was quite a relief.
A couple of weekends ago, when I said to some friends how much I was looking forward to the weekend that I knew would arrive eventually when I didn’t have to drive that route again and again, one friend shuddered and said, “Oh! I know that feeling. Believe me!”
It isn’t fun… Read More…
For instance, this weekend while cleaning out one of the closes at the old place (a closet next to the bathroom that we have previously referred to as the supplemental medicine cabinet) from which we had packed all the essentials weeks ago, I found a basket shoved in the very back of one shelf that include a bunch of hair ties sorted by color. I stopped using hair ties sometime around 1992 when I decided that my balding had progressed to a point where I should stop putting the long hair in back into a ponytail. So far as I know, Michael has never used hair ties. I recognized the ties and the basket right away, of course. They belongs to Ray. While the chemo thinned his hair a bit, Ray had never been a balding man, and he loved wearing his hair long, dying it interesting colors, and often wore different sorts of hair ties/binders in complementary or contrasting colors, depending on his mood. But Ray died 20 years ago. Sure, in the immediate aftermath of his death, I hung onto all sorts of things that some time later I was able to be a bit more rational about, but this is ridiculous!
It gets worse.
Also way back in the back of that shelf? A good dozen old prescription bottles all with Ray’s name on them. Part of why this is worse is that right after he died, at the request of the coroner’s office, I had bagged up what I thought was every single one of his prescriptions and handed them over. So it has been my belief for 20 years that there were no bottles of his medicine in the house. So clearly I haven’t been paying attention to the things that have been pushed to the back of this closet. Maybe that’s understandable, but…
There’s another closet where we kept tools and some other things. Like the aforementioned closet, we’d already pulled things out we knew we needed to keep some time ago. I knew that most of what we left behind at this point needs to be donated or otherwise gotten rid of, but we need to go through it to determine which things go to an electronics recycler, and which can go to Value Village. I thought that I owned exactly three of those outside light timers. These are devices which are equipped with a light sensor that will turn lights on automatically when the sun sets, and keep them on for the amount of time that you have selected. I believed that I owned three because for several years I used two outside, and then I found a fancier one that had multiple outputs, and I have found a specialized outdoor extension cord with a nifty stake and a lid device. I knew I was being a packrat for holding onto the two that I was no longer using, but what I didn’t know is that I actually owned a total of five of these things, at least one of which looks so shiny and new, that I don’t think it has ever actually been used!
There was a more amusing manifestation last week. While unpacking boxes of things from the kitchen, my husband was sorting cooking tools into piles, then selecting only a few of the best of each category. At one point he said, “We own too many pie servers!” When I disagreed, he said, “The only way we would need this many pie servers is if we hosted an Insane Pie Night!”
Studies have been conducted exploring the roots of hoarding behavior. Most articles, reports, and documentaries focus how hanging onto things relieves anxiety for some people, or on how the behavior is reinforced any time something that the hoarder has kept turns out to be useful for either the hoarder or a loved one. I have tried to explain how guilty I feel any time that I discard something which I don’t really need any longer–how I always hear the voice of my grandmothers, great-grandmothers, great-grandfather, et cetera admonishing me, “You might need that someday!” or “It’s wasteful to throw that away!”
But I think not enough attention is paid to another couple of aspects of human perception that plays into this behavior.
Whatever circumstances we grew up with feel normal; other circumstances aren’t just unusual, but feel wrong. For example, growing up among packrats means that I’m acclimated to rooms being stuffed full of things–bookcases that are packed not just with books lined up neatly, but with lots of extra books and other things stuffed into the spaces above the books on each shelf, behind the books, et cetera. Shelves that are mostly empty, with a small number of figurines or something tastefully displayed look wrong to me. Too much empty space in a room actually grates on my nerves, that’s how accustomed I am to having nearly every space available in a room used for storing something.
When an object is expected, we don’t really perceive it as separate from the environment. One of my friends sums this up as, “Once something has been left somewhere that it doesn’t belong for a couple of days, it becomes invisible to my husband.” I’ve done it zillions of times. For example, I come home from a Christmas gathering with friends with several gifts. Some of the gifts are books or other objects where I already have an idea of where it belongs, so I put them into spots on existing shelves or in a cabinet or whatever. But then there is the cool little toy or gadget someone gave me. I wind up leaving it on on end table or on a spot on a shelf in front of things which belong there, with the sincere intention to figure out later where it belongs… and then it just sits there. I never get around to figuring out where it should go (or whether maybe I should pass it on to someone else). It sits there for weeks or months, until some time when it is in the way. I’ll then pick it up, wonder briefly why it is there, of all places, and then, most likely, set it down in another place it doesn’t belong, where the whole process starts over.
It’s not that I don’t understand the importance of things having a place. Nor that I don’t realize that there is a cost to storing all this stuff I don’t actually need or use. Nor am I ignorant of just how much energy and time I waste looking for things when I can’t remember where they were left. It’s that dealing with it right that moment isn’t a priority, and once the object, whatever it is, has entered the category of being invisible, it never occurs to me to do anything about it when it isn’t actively hindering something.
I don’t have a solution to this. It’s a long hard fight that I have been waging with myself for years. I have reached a point in this move where I’m irritated enough at myself over this, that anything that I feel the slightest hesitation about whether we need it is being chucked into the nearest “get rid of it” box. I’ve felt an enormous sense of relief every time I’ve carried another load of things to Value Village. But I know how this works. I know that while I may be better at it for the next few months, the old behaviors will start creeping in.
The fight goes on!
Let’s start with shoes. Typically I have about four pairs of shoes at any given time: the shoes that I wear on workdays, slightly more interesting and casual shoes I wear other days, one pair of shoes suitable for formal occasions when I’d wear a suit and tie or the like (they happen irregularly and lately have most often been funerals, but when you need to dress up, you need to), and then there’s a pair of sort-of sandals that I can get my feet into even if I have really bad gout attacks in both feet at the same time, and otherwise are the pair I grab if I’m running out to take out the trash or some other temporary errand outside.
That last gives you an important clue about me. I don’t like wearing shoes. When I was a kid, my grandpa, who also ran around his house without shoes all the time, always said it was because he was an Okie at heart. “You can take the boy out of Oklahoma, but never take Oklahoma out of the boy.”
My workday shoes are never dressup shoes. They are usually some variant of hiking boot or pseudo-hiking boot, because for about two decades now my commute home has always included a few miles of walking–by choice. You’ll never get me to go to a gym regularly, but when given a choice between a crowded bus ride (or worse, waiting interminably for a bus because a traffic issue elsewhere in downtown has delayed all the buses) or a walk that will clear my head and doesn’t cost me anything, I’d rather take the walk.
My most recent pair of workday shoes were in need of replacement. It’s funny how shoes will be absolutely fine one day many months after buying them and walking several miles a day in them, and then one day you take a step and you can feel that the undersole support is collapsing. But buying new shoes takes time that I haven’t had lately, because every moment of my life has been filled with either tasks at work with looming dire deadlines, or trying to get through the enormous list of tasks that have to be done to get moved.
And then a bit over a week ago as I was packing, I found a pair of hiking boots in the closet that I hadn’t thrown out when I replaced them. I tried them on, and the undersole support felt intact. The entire shoe felt so much better than my current pair. So I started wearing them. A day or so later, my husband showed me a box of black leather tennis shoes, brand new in a box from the back of another closet. In my size. “I think you bought these as part of a two-for-one sale a while back,” he suggested.
So I told him about finding the other pair, which prompted him to ask whether I had thrown away the current pair that I knew needed replacing. “Well, no,” I admitted. “I just started wearing these because they’re in better shape, but I wore them for a long time a year or so ago, and they’re liable to break down soon.” To which he replied that if that happened I could switch to the brand new pair. And he threw away the current shoes.
Fast forward to the night I decided to squeeze in one more run of things over to the new place, and as I was running up the stairs with a box, it suddenly felt as if something had gotten hung up on my shoe was the flapping about.
Nope. The sole was simply coming off.
By chance, that brand new pair of shoes my husband had found had been carried over to the new place on a previous trip, and it didn’t take me many minutes to find them, so I could go back to running up and down the stairs.
I’m not sure which part of this I should be most embarassed about: that I was working in shoes that hurt my feet and choosing to put off fixing the problem until after the move; that I had hung onto an old pair of shoes I probably should have thrown out and had completely forgotten they were in the closet; that I had completely forgotten a pair of new shoes I bought some time back and let them get lost in the closet.
I recognize that packrat behavior is deeply ingrained in both of us. I have often commented that I’m a packrat, son of packrats, grandson of packrats, great-grandson of packrats (and probably more). I don’t intend that as some kind of excuse that the behavior is something I can’t help doing, but rather to remind myself that I have a ton of learned behaviors, attitudes, and assumptions that reinforce the bahavior. The fight is constant.
We have hauled a lot of stuff to Value Village. We’ve recycled so, so much paper that had been filed and boxed and not looked at in years. We’ve thrown away a lot of stuff. We’ve given away a lot of stuff. But there is still so much stuff!
Even though my goal for this move was not to move anything that we’d just unpack and get rid of, we both suspect that we’re going to decide, while unpacking, that a not insignificant fraction of what we’ve hung onto should have been pitched. We’ve also reached a point where we realize, due to time constraints, that a chunk of stuff that we haven’t had time to go through is going to have to be moved and sorted afterward.
I think the important thing will be not to let ourselves feel guilty about this. We had a plan. We had the goals. Some days we just don’t feel the same level of ruthlessness as others. And earlier in the process, when the number of boxes had not yet swelled into the triple digits, it was easier to be optimistic about how much we’d gotten rid of as opposed to how much we’ve kept.
Sometimes we fool ourselves, and those packrat habits of thinking have tricky ways to making us think we’re being practical in our decision making. And sometimes things fool us. Like the pair of boots and looked and felt as if they were in much better shape had had more wear left in them than the did.
At least I didn’t fall down the stairs when the shoe failed. Have to look at the bright side, right?