I was a clever gatherer of things.
Mostly paper. In neat piles. Inside of drawers. Resting innocuously on shelves. Tucked into boxes that lurked in the shadowy recesses of my garage.
Except for occasional accusations of hoarding, I imagined only I could see them. During those moments of embarrassing exposure, I’d acquiesce, decommissioning just enough stuff to deal with the prevailing winds of spousal dissatisfaction.
After all, did I really need a college term paper on Igneous rock? Hubert Humphrey’s letter of response to my teenage angst at his loss in the 1968 presidential race. Or every birthday card ever sent to me since the age of 16, for that matter?
An unqualified yes. I believed the items had value. If for nothing else, than a time machine journey back to less complicated days. Or to more complicated days, when young love went wrong and I was suffering the exquisite pain of youthful indulgences.
My so-called hoarding wasn’t the type of nostalgia that comes dangerously close to living in the past. It was a naughty little habit involving a bit of harmless Throwback Thursday.
When my partner of 35 years died, bequeathing me his own Smithsonian-like cache of memorabilia, the hoarding issue took on a depth and proportion I’d never have imagined.
In the years before he passed, I had proposed massive, joint Spring clean-ups. Downsizing as a team sport. An, I’ll do mine if you do yours! activity. But he couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. Or was overwhelmed – like I was – by the thought of tossing a piece of his past onto the garbage heap of history.
Lacking the obvious requisite moral high ground to judge him too harshly, I’d back away.
But his death, and an oncoming move, forced me to sift through his endless cartons of paper. Uncoil dozens of his architectural drawings. Page through high school yearbooks in constant search of what might be noteworthy. Relevant. Must-haves to add to my own collection of memories. Wondering, sometimes aloud, in utter frustration, while sitting on the floor of the garage, what he’d want me to keep. What should live on after him. What shed light or learning. On his life or mine. Or our life together.
I became judge and jury at a time when grief and healing should have been my only occupation.
In the end, the best reason to travel through life with as few things as possible is that we aren’t traveling through life alone. In good faith, I could not place the burden of litigating my own museum of stuff onto anyone else. Certainly not someone I loved.
Downsizing my own stuff was my responsibility.
The Unquantifiable Thing that Keeps Us Stuck
It’s impossible to put a convincing finger on the difficulty of parting with vestiges of the past.
Perhaps we need proof of our own experience. A tombstone reminder that something happened to us on this planet, on such and such a date. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Without interpretation or misrepresentation by the faulty fingerprints of our recollection. Or someone else’s memory.
Or perhaps it’s just vanity, Laziness. Or a codification only we can understand, but can’t articulate.
Latter-Day Definitions of Downsizing
My new spouse and I recently moved into a new house.
In the process we stood in violation of our new Golden Rule for packing: If unused for two years – donate it. Or trash it. No exceptions.
But aren’t there always treasured exceptions?
Can we be expected to manage through life with only one KitchenAid Artisan 5 quart Stand Mixer in Blood Orange? Find culinary expediency with just a single 4 quart Instant Pot? Destroy hard drives from computers with 20th Century expiration dates? Toss out a rain-soaked, stained loose leaf page with Jayne Mansfield’s unintelligible autograph?
I think not.
(Photography provided by jr Korpa from Unsplash)