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My name is Joan and I am a hoarder.
Both my parents had what I, a layperson--but an expert on those two--would diagnose as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (although we didn’t call it that in the olden days.) My mother would stack neatly ironed handkerchiefs in a bureau drawer. My father would choose one every day for his breast pocket, and if I simply opened that drawer and looked in, my father would soon say, “Who opened my handkerchief drawer?”
My mother hated it when my father would eat a banana. She’d insist that he take the peel outside to the garbage pail—even if it was midnight during a blizzard. God forbid he should put it in the kitchen trash and “smell up the whole house”! If the garbage man came late to pick up the refuse, my parents would be peering out the curtain, fraught with concern.
I realize that my life-long messiness and hoarding is the flip side of that OCD.
We live in a 300-year-old house in a New England village with a vast basement that looks like a wine cellar with rough stone walls. That cellar used to be filled with trunks and storage boxes from my entire life, and everywhere I went, the guilty knowledge of that cellar was an albatross hanging around my neck. But then one day the basement flooded—an act of God—and we had to rent a dumpster and throw everything out. It was agonizing to open a trunk and see the water-soaked portraits of my parents that I drew when I was a teen-ager, not to mention all my high school souvenirs, letters home from camp, term papers that got an A+--but it all had to go and I felt better—lighter—afterwards. Now the cellar holds only mousetraps, Christmas decorations and a few bottles of stored wine.
It was an A-ha moment, as Oprah would say. And if only that were the end of my story. But no. You see, there’s our attic, filled with household account books going back to the 1970’s and clothes that I couldn’t bear to throw away and all my daughters’ dance recital costumes.
Plus, I have way, way too many books shelved in three different rooms—art and photography books in the studio, hardback books and family photo albums in the library, and paperback books on shelves in my son’s room. (On a trip back he expressed concern that the tall bookcase holding the old New Yorkers and paperbacks was sagging and might fall over and kill him in his sleep.)
In our own bedroom is a low table made of a glass-topped display case that holds some of my daguerreotypes and ambrotypes – part of just one of my collections. (Don’t ask how many “collections” I have!) Coming back from a trip to Mexico some years ago, I put my Mexican photographs and a pristine new photo album on top of the table, thinking I could put the photos in the album one day while watching television. Now, of course, you can’t even see the daguerreotypes in the case underneath all the un-organized travel photos.
I realize that there is a whole spate of reality shows about hoarders on TV these days, no doubt with useful advice for people with my problem, and some helpful therapy thrown in--but I would never watch one. It’s too terrifying to think about those pitiful people huddled among piles of newspapers and trash until they’re crushed to death by their belongings and no one notices until the neighbors complain about an unpleasant odor in the hall. And it's even more terrifying to think that I am one of them! Besides, I'm less interested in the why of hoarding--what makes us do it--than I am in the what now--how do I undo it?
Over the holidays, I announced that my New Year’s resolution was to de-hoard my life. When I stated my resolution at our New Year’s day dinner, my daughter, Marina, was thrilled. “Write it down!” she cried. “Make a list of what you’ll do every day. I just wish I could quit my job and come home and help you do it.”
(Marina is incredibly neat and clean and organized. Once when she moved into a house in Los Angeles with four other people, she said to me over the phone “I’m having the best day. I’ve spent the whole weekend cleaning the bathroom, which has never been cleaned before.” On another weekend, when everyone was out, she spent the day cleaning the kitchen and alphabetizing the spices. I can hear my parents laughing in the Great Beyond.)
I’m sorry that Marina’s not around to help me with my resolution. It’s going a little slower than I thought, one step forward, two steps back. I’ve finished the pile of papers and files next to the computer, but in doing so discovered a whole cache of staples, ink cassettes and people’s business cards that need to be alphabetized into a Rolodex. Next project is my vanity and the nearby wicker stand filled with a lifetime of half-used cosmetics, lipsticks and creams.
(In my defense—when you’re almost 71 years old, you’ve had a lot of opportunity to “collect” such things, and daughter Eleni used to be a magazine beauty editor—which means free cosmetics.)
After the cache of makeup by the vanity I’ll move on to the travel photos on the bedside table. Not to put them into albums, but to stash them into those decorative shoe-box-sized boxes with room for labels like “Veracruz—2008”. And I am going to take a box of books every week and donate them to the local library, which sells them at book sales several times a year.
By spring I may have moved well into the Studio, with all its paintings, prints and art supplies. And by New Year’s Eve next year, if all goes well, I hope to have lost…not those persistent ten pounds around my middle, but two tons of junk.
God grant me the serenity to reorganize the things I need, the courage to toss the things I don't, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Wish me luck!