secret hoards

my two-pallet corner (behind the post) of our shared basement

Meet my basement hoard. I have two pallets' worth of stuff that doesn't fit in my two small closets upstairs, though most of one pallet is only a stack of empty moving boxes. The two stacked chairs I'm keeping temporarily for a friend, and they're holding a box of walnuts to shell. There are two space heaters, one bought and one given, which I should sell after realizing they weren't saving money on the electric bill over the old baseboard heaters. There's a narrow, under-the-bed plastic bin holding wrapping supplies. There's my sleeping bag. There's a big basket of miscellaneous, lesser-used kitchen items, along with more empty boxes. There's an outbox bag of things to consign. My laundry basket sits on a green Rubbermaid bin of mementos and old letters, much of which I should recycle. In the corner on the low metal shelving are my cat carrier, extra cat food, and a bag of onions and garlic. Some of my more delicate laundry is hanging to dry from the overhead rack. That's about it. The other stuff in the photo isn't mine.

I show you this hoard because I've spent a good chunk of my two-and-a-half-week, unpaid vacation helping a friend move, at his request. We did some purging beforehand at my insistence, filling five big boxes, two for consignment, two for Goodwill, and one for family members. But unlike what one would expect before an impending move—a lot of culling and wrapping with newspaper, moving tape, and U-haul boxes—this period mostly involved our playing rummy, doing crosswords, and making homemade pizza. That was because my friend a) hadn't wanted to move and, unbeknownst to me, b) never intended to start packing until just before moving so he could live as long as he could in an intact house. This procrastinated packing method, which I don't recommend, made moving day acutely painful for all involved, so painful and time-crunched that after 11 hours, I had an urge to go home and start throwing out half my own stuff—and we all know I already have less stuff than many Americans, constitutionally and on purpose. My home is a regular revolving door of things in, things out. For proof, compare the scene below with one from a few years ago and another from six months ago in the same space.

bedroom reading nook with temporary ottoman (an upended planter with a throw pillow on top)

While I'm no Martha Stewart, queen of the label machine, I do have the reputation in my social circle of maintaining an organized home. In fact, some friends have suggested I take up professional organizing. I could indeed. I could use my common-sense knowledge of the benefits of baskets, wire shelving, Goodwill, and consignment stores to help others declutter and downsize. After all, January is the premier time in America for organization and slimming down, since most people are looking around at their Christmas hauls and wondering where to put everything, including what to do about the few extra pounds around their bellies or hips.

We have begun the month of resolutions: I promise to become a fitter, healthier, tidier person after all that shameful holiday gluttony. Apartment Therapy even holds a month-long home detoxing event each year called the January Cure, full of advice and tips for cleaning and organizing. Magazines such as Real Simple and Martha Stewart Living publish lists of organizing tips throughout the year. But most people know this stuff already, even intuitively: if cupboards, drawers, and shelves are full to bursting and causing stress, something must be done. Most people can order their chaos themselves, when they prioritize it.

my clothes closet, work-in-progress

So the biggest problem for professional organizers must be the clients themselves since the people most in need of professional help are the least likely to seek it: the ones who drag boxes of DVDs, unread books, college papers, and dirty old shoes around town with them on each move, the ones who store old cars, dirt bikes, and half-working stereos at friends' houses like large souvenirs (I will force you to remember me by tying you down with the physical dregs of my life), the ones who stumble into trouble with new lovers because of never in twenty years going through their junk drawers and tossing out phone numbers of girls they once talked up at a bar and don't remember.

The sentimental, keep-everything types must challenge even professionals. Do you use it often? Do you really like it? Those are the two main culling questions. It's the sentimental stuff that gets in the way, that we don't quite know what to do with, like high school yearbooks and childhood art projects. I can easily convince a person to donate an inferior can opener when a better one is lying beside it in the drawer, but it's much harder to make him paw through a box of old papers and photos, especially when a box of playing cards lies on the kitchen table for work breaks.

evolving space: main living area (January 1, 2013)

And then there are the hoarders, the full-on possession addicts in need of therapy. While I was wrapping up kitchen items with saved (free) newspapers on Saturday, I came across a December 9th headline in The Oregonian: "When things consume a life." I ripped out the article for later, the story of an old, legally blind Portland woman, a hoarder known to city officials after various complaints over the years from frustrated neighbors, who caught fire from a heating pad in her piles-stacked-to-the-ceiling home and died of extensive, third-degree burns. You can read journalist Anna Griffin's article online under the more prosaic title, "Hoarder killed in North Portland house fire lived in plain sight, leaving a trail of questions."

I've been mulling over the reporter's rhetorical question, "Why didn't anyone save her from herself?," as well as one firefighter's answer: "People have the right to live how they want, even to their own detriment," as well as an admission by the old woman's clergyman that she was "a very difficult person . . . [who] expected everyone to adjust to her." These statements are classic themes in the world of substance addiction, so it makes sense that they would apply to other forms of addiction like hoarding or obsessive-compulsive germophobia: difficult people whose addictions affect themselves and others negatively but who must ultimately choose to save themselves.

At what point do people become addicted to their possessions? At what point do the eccentricities of addicts cross a line and harm others? And at what point, if at all, do others have the social right or obligation to step in to mediate? While I'm reflecting on these questions, I'll continue weeding through my closets, those few private spaces I can control.

entryway/broom closet, work-in-progress

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