Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Obscure Ability to Find What You're Looking For

Two nights ago I had a dream that, when I woke up, stuck like caramel in my teeth. I was in my old house, the one on Maryleborn Road, where I lived in high school. Somehow the house was mine, I owned it with Matt. It had the old green carpet and the dark paneling, prior to the redo (to the benefit of all, believe me) my mom did. Our landlord's leather sofa was in the exact same place, but the living room seemed stretched, much larger than it had been in life. The house was absolutely piled with stuff, papers and folders and books and notes and objects, just piles and piles of things everywhere, and since there was so much space, the stacks were endless.

My father wanted me to go somewhere with him, and before we left, I had to find an array of items, perhaps ten of them. They were all things from the non-recent past, years-old items or notes or paperwork. I felt sort of triumphant that I knew I had these things, that I had done the right thing and saved them, but because the house was much larger than my memory of it and there were hundreds of piles, I couldn't find what he wanted me to find. He was reminding me in his gently-annoyed voice that it was time to leave, past time, and that I had told him I had these things, and why hadn't I found them so we could leave? I was assuring him that I just needed a few more minutes, because I knew I had the stuff, I had saved it all like I was supposed to, but there were just so many piles to look through. I had located probably two or three of the ten items I had to find when I woke up. There were other elements to this dream, but that was the gist of it.

It was crystal-clear to me what this dream was about, even at the moment I woke from it.

My household "filing system" involves piles like this, through which I sort every so often, weeding out the trash, and I try to put the keeper items in filing bins or other places where they belong. The piles include things like medical receipts, gift certificates or cards, the manual from the CPR class I took a few weeks ago, issues of Yoga Journal, catalogs from Williams Sonoma with recipes in them that I want to cut out and try, newspaper articles that caught my eye, holiday/birthday cards that I don't have the heart to throw away, car insurance renewal certificates, things like that. It's been a year or more since the last cleanout, though, so the pile on the dining room table and the pile under the bookshelf are getting kind of tottery. In our garage are boxes and boxes of things from the non-recent past, things that either I'm sentimentally attached to or that I think I'll use or need someday.

In 2008, I took it upon myself to seriously clean out the garage, and I did throw away or donate several boxes of stuff. Although I felt immensely better after the experience was over, it was every bit as hard as I thought it would be, not a pleasant or surprisingly happy experience in the least. I am not a hoarder, but I am a pack-rat, to the point where a book I read about hoarding (Stuff, by Frost and Steketee, a ridiculously fascinating read) had passages of explanation that were extremely familiar to my own feelings about my possessions.

For hoarders, getting rid of the stuff never feels good. Never. Your life is generally better after it's all gone, because that big elephant in the room isn't shitting you out of house and home, but the process of doing it is inescapably wrenching. There is still quite a lot of stuff in my garage, and it's past time for me to go through it a second time and get rid of what I can get rid of, but I haven't. It ripped me up the last time and I'm not brave enough yet to do it again.

The stuff in the piles in my house is necessary stuff; my CPR certification is in there, too. Along with documents that I need to use to deduct donations and expenses from my 2011 tax return. But it's mixed in with expired coupons and issues of Reader's Digest that I'll never have the time to read. (This phenomenon is discussed in Stuff, too.) So even though I've done the right thing to save all the stuff that I need, I've also done the wrong thing in saving everything else. I'll have what I need, sure, but I also have hundreds of things I don't need, and this will keep me from ever finding/enjoying the stuff that I really do need and want.

Some guy did an experiment in 2008, which he blogged into a book, where he whittled the objects he owned down to 100. He encouraged readers to do the same, to find a way to live in the modern world with 100 possessions only. When I read about it, I thought he was insane. Admirable, but insane. Much as I wanted to pare down to less than I have, and reject consumerism that wasn't making me happy, and whatnot, I couldn't possibly live with so few things. Could I? I mean, I would probably have 100 things just in my kitchen. I wouldn't have any clothes or shoes. Or books, God, the books.

[Sidebar: thinking about getting rid of some books spun me off onto a long thought tangent about detachment, ownership of art, and future technology. Another post for another day.]

I think the sameyness of only owning 100 things would get to me, but the simplicity of it certainly appeals. Part of what I love about staying in hotel rooms (and particularly in the yurt I stayed in during my yoga teacher training) is the limitedness of it, the fact that you only have your one suitcase of stuff, and the furniture that the hotel has already put in the room for you, and that's it. The bathroom with its tiny trash can. The clinically tidy bedside table. So different from my spilling-out-at-the-edges life here at home.

It's a rabbit-hole for me to abhor the pack-rattiness that makes me fill up my garage and the messiness that makes me create those tottering piles in my dining room. It's a total waste of time. I yam what I yam. But this dream reminded me that I couldn't hope to accomplish my New Year's resolution of paring down my ownership if I continued to think that everything needed to be kept. I'll never find what I need that way. I'll never leave for whatever destination awaits me outside the house where I grew up; I'll be stuck shuffling through piles and piles of needless things for ever. 


Anonymous said...

I'm always surprised by how little I need when I'm away and how hard it is to get rid of things when I'm at home. It's interesting to hear of how your feelings have changed and are shifting, too.

I'm not much better at getting rid of things, but I've stopped acquiring as much by asking "Do I want to dust this? Do I want to evacuate it?"

Katharine Coldiron said...

If I dusted even remotely as much as I ought to, this would be a consideration. But I am a much lazier housekeeper than I am an acquirer.