Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Lure of Hoarding: Keeping Our Appointments with Memory

I'm a mad thrifter and lover of op shops, but I also like the idea of decluttering. Indeed, thrifting and decluttering are both megatrends that have swept the consumer world in recent years, yet they have totally opposing aims. Does a love of thrifting inevitably lead to hoarding? Can a scourer of op shops like me actually lead a minimalist lifestyle?

My preoccupation with hoarding comes from the fact that my parents display totally opposing tendencies in this area.

My father is a hoarder of sorts. This trait took years to fully reveal itself, and remains limited to a few rooms in the house because my mother is a tidiness freak. 

While I was growing up my dad’s hoarding hardly impacted on me – except as an exemplar of untidiness – apart from the garage and garden shed, both almost unusable because stuffed with useless junk, including a canoe that to this day hangs upside down from the roof of the shed like some bizarre art installation, and is purported to have a hole in it. Oh, and my dad's huge glass-topped mahogany desk, whose surface was even then obscured by papers, that my mum had to suffer in their bedroom for many years. As she's gotten older, it's become harder for her to control my dad's messiness.

When we kids grew up and moved out of the house, Dad inherited a bedroom that became his 'office'. He used to complete his watercolour paintings in there, but it's so full of junk now, apart from a small space cleared for a computer and chair, that he’s abandoned it for this purpose. With its boxes of obsolete papers, discarded canvases, painting materials and plastic bags of electrical cables taking up most of the floor space, and the desk obscured by nests of manila folders stuffed with papers, it's a safety hazard.

Ominously my father has been 'given' another room for his painting, a tiny room at the back of the house that was formerly a spare-cum-sewing room. So far it's sufficiently free of junk that my dad can paint again but I predict that in a few months this room too will be unusable. He will occasionally create messy outposts in the rest of the house – for example, spreading his tax return documents around the dining room table, completing a painting project in the sunroom – but these are always temporary and are soon shooed back into the general chaos by my mother.

Dad is in some ways not a typical hoarder. Hoarding is often associated with compulsive shopping; Dad hardly ever shops for non-necessities unless he has to. Nor does he actively accumulate material objects in other ways (although he used to buy the odd broken-down car that he would tinker with on weekends). It's the past he hoards: religious pamphlets, old copies of journals, financial and administrative documents, and anything to do with his political battles with his teachers union, the local council and government bodies. He still has papers from at least fifty years ago.

While hoarding didn’t impact much on my childhood, its roots were present in subtle ways. For example, I knew one thing that would always garner my mother's approval (the usual things didn't really cut it with her): 'cleaning the kitchen' at night. What this meant was not just doing the dishes, but sorting, filing and taming the accumulations of junk that regularly spread themselves around the kitchen benches (this wasn’t just Dad of course – we are a family of seven). Organising this assortment of mail, torn pieces of envelope with phone numbers written on them, tiny miscellaneous toys, coins, sets of keys and so on, and creating sweet if temporary order, was something that my mother and I could both rejoice in.

Has Dad passed down his hoarding tendencies to me? Not at first glance. I'm a tidiness freak and I like to think I’m a great declutterer, but in that regard I’m fooling myself. I'm good at getting rid of some things but not others.

I hold onto clothes for longer than many, but I can get rid of the most treasured garment once I’ve made the decision; I actually enjoy the process of weeding out my wardrobe and dropping off a bag of goodies at my favourite op shop. Once it's time for a piece to go, I don't give it another thought.

But the fact is I do have my own hoarding weakness – books. I have five bookshelves if you don't count the one in my office that is stuffed with folders of edited educational materials.

I find it very hard to let books go. I have thrown the odd few out, but my decisions are extremely conservative. And I still have many books that I won't read again and that bear little relationship to how I live my life these days. Do I really need my secondhand copies of Emotional Intelligence and Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? (These books were both written before the financial crisis – if they were so influential, why didn't their sage advice for corporate types stop the Goldman Sachs executives plundering the USA and destroying the world economy?) To me the knowledge these books hold represents security, and a link with past versions of me, and I can’t let them go, not yet anyway.

Another thing I hold onto is appointment diaries. Mine go as far back as 1994. I keep them in my bookshelves so it doesn’t feel as if I’m hoarding them. I tell myself they’re useful as primary sources for memoir writing and so on, but they’re really just another link with earlier versions of my life and myself. In the rare times I go through one, trying to discover when some long-ago incident occurred, I’m strangely comforted by the mundanity of the various lists I was so fond of making. Whatever my emotional and material struggles, I continued to go to the supermarket, have my hair cut, drop my books back to the library and pay my rent.

Flyers relating to arts and cultural events – exhibitions, readings, films, plays – are another weakness. It’s so easy to forget the details of these experiences, and while there’s enough room in my filing cabinet, I can’t bring myself to throw away anything that jogs my memory.

In fact, the things I hold onto suggest that I’m more like my father than is comfortable to contemplate. Like him, it’s reminders of the past that I cling to. In the absence of a photographic memory, these refugees from my past testify to my changing life and the things that continue to sustain it.

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might like Furni-phobia: the fear of buying big-ticket consumer goods.

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