I admit it -- I'm a packrat. But at least two or three times a year, I go through a major de-cluttering. I go through the piles of paper and sort through my clothes and books, trying to get rid of things I don't need or want. It's surprisingly difficult for me to part with these items, even when I haven't looked at them for months or years. When I finally do manage to dispose of the unnecessary items, it's great -- I feel energized, as though I've cleared the decks and I'm ready to go full steam ahead. Why, then, is it so hard for me to give up my stuff?
Some of it has to do with pragmatic issues. I might need this item in future, so I save it, "just in case." This can be a perfectly sensible mindset, but as almost anything could have some use in future, it doesn't help me sort out what I am likely to use and what I am unlikely to use. I also hate the idea of waste -- throwing perfectly usable items away seems wrong. In this respect, Freecycle has been very helpful. Rather than tossing something in the trash, I post it to the Freecycle list. In most cases, I've been able to find takers for all kinds of stuff that would be unwelcome at most traditional charity organizations. I feel better, knowing that I'm not contributing to landfill waste and that my unwanted things will find a purposeful existence in someone else's life.
But my response goes beyond simple issues of practicality. Letting go of these things means giving up hope. When I look at the boxes of data that are stuffed into the closet in my office, I still cling to the idea that I can publish the research, even though some of these studies were conducted more than a decade ago. The bins of fabric represent the potential for garments and quilts that I have long planned, but never begun. To give them away is to admit defeat, to bow to the ugly reality of failure, and I refuse to do so.
The simple fact is that I often have a strong emotional response to the idea of getting rid of things. How can I part with the collection of carved animals from my younger days, many of which were gifts from my family? To dispose of a gift feels like a rejection of the giver, disrespectful and crass. And what about the tattered puppets that so entertained me as a child, but which now languish in a bag in my closet? Would that I could find someone who might love them as I do, but their next destination would surely be the garbage can, and how can I consign them to that fate? I'm even unwilling to get rid of the small stack of worksheets from high school chemistry I found, impersonal and meaningless as they are. Letting these things go means letting go of my past. The link to my childhood is already so fragile that I hold these objects in hope that they will represent an anchor to that earlier life which I remember only dimly.
Indeed, it seems that I hold some items in hope that I could return to that prior self. I have a pair of rainbow toe socks in my dresser that I have worn only once. Why have these not been donated to charity? Because when I was a child, I wanted rainbow toe socks desperately. To my eyes, they represented the height of fashion. As an adult, though, I find these socks terribly uncomfortable. I have no idea why I own a pair -- did I buy them or were they a gift? -- but I keep them in hopes that they will give me the same joy today that they would have in my childhood. In one episode of the sitcom Mad About You, Jamie Buchman, bemoaning her current, dull self, said, "I used to wear hats!" -- indicating that she was once young and hip. She then attempted to recapture her former self by putting on a hat, as if by doing so, she could shed her existing persona and become again her former, cooler self. I can empathize. I, too, wore hats with blithe abandon in my young adulthood. And although I rarely wear those hats any more, they still linger in my closet, waiting to transport me back in time. We often imbue objects with magical qualities and perceive them as transformative, able to shape us into our idealized self.
In some cases, I have become the caretaker for someone else's past. My mother's doll collection resides in cardboard boxes, each doll wrapped in acid-free paper. A lovely, cream-colored vest, handmade by my partner's grandmother, resides in one of my dresser drawers. These are not items I cherish for themselves -- I care little for the dolls, which hold no precious memories for me, and the vest is not a style I would wear. But they are fragments of these women's lives, imbued with their departed spirits. I have been charged to hold them in memorium, to protect and care for their possessions, and I am no more able to carelessly dispose of these objects than would a museum curator or a funeral director.
My house is full and overflowing, but the process of divesting myself of possessions is a perilous path. Each object is richly textured with meaning . . . imbued with significance . . . full of memories. Disposing of these items speaks volumes about who I am, who I was, and who I could be. All too often, it's just easier to keep the stuff than to face those questions.