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Is It Hoarding, Collecting, or Archiving? Keep? Toss?

Do you surround yourself with stuff to make yourself feel real or "material"?

Key points

  • It's hard to accept that stuff we treasure is not valuable to others. Not everyone sees the same potential, or the same uselessness, in an item.
  • If you give yourself a mantra in order to keep items, such as "It's practically brand new!" or "They don't make these anymore!" consider why.
  • Do your material items make you feel more valuable and more "material" yourself? Do possessions make you feel worthy? Are these useful responses?
  • If tangible objects help secure intangible memories and emotions, must we keep ourselves surrounded by them to keep the past safe?

“Let me know when you write a column about people who keep EVERYTHING just in case they ever need it…but never do,” asked James Lattin, a friend from college. “Baseball cards? Still got ‘em. Old letters from friends and family? Check. Treasured albums on vinyl? But of course! Papers written in elementary school? The only one I remember is still in my possession. And yes, the extra screw that came in the furniture assembly kit that looked like it might come in handy one day--I’ve still got that, too.”

“Just in case” might be the most tempting phrase when it comes to keeping things we don’t need; it’s the equivalent of an alcoholic’s “just one more” or an unfaithful partner’s “just this once.” It’s the enabling mantra, a version of a permission slip, or an emotional hall-pass.

Other mantras are effective, if not quite as seductive. These include but are not limited to: “There’s nothing wrong with that”; “That’s practically new”; “But look what it can do!”; “They don’t make these anymore.”

Creative, smart, and curious readers and friends wrote to me after my previous post on what items we decide to keep, what we decide to give or throw away, and what our emotional responses are to those choices.

Writer, speaker, and scholar Nancy Bocksor wrote to me directly, telling me that "Cleaning out my mom's house was emotionally complex because she and I are 'historians, not hoarders.' She had been collecting newspapers and clippings since Hitler took over Germany –page one of VE Day in the 'Dayton Daily News,'--that kind of thing. No one wanted them. I tried. It about killed me to throw them away. She lived through a Depression and WWII and I threw it away."

I wrote Nancy back and said, from the heart, that she honored her mother by releasing them both from the "stuff" of even the carefully curated materials. "You dealt with them with tenderness even as you put them away into history," I explained, and said these hard words that I know are tough truths to admit: No one needs these papers and books now. They are digitally archived. Unless they are in perfect condition or rare editions, no library will take them.

It's hard to accept that stuff we treasured is not a treasure for others.

Other have their have their own stories to tell. The future doesn't always leave much room for the past.

It's what old people think, and I say this as a woman in her sixties. While I think it's simply fascinating to sit down and thumb through pages of LIFE magazines from the year I was born, for example, I no longer expect anybody younger than I am even to pretend they think it's fun.

It's easy to say "She's a hoarder" about somebody we don't like.

And it's easy to say "He's a collector" about somebody we do like.

About ourselves, however, we'll say something like, "it's true, I am an archivist."

(That "what I happen to 'archive' are tablecloths, napkins, tea towels and table runners, all of which are rarely, meaning never, ironed and pretty much remain randomly stuffed into a dark cabinet" is the part we leave out.)

I have made literal the idea of "material" and materiality by clinging to my cache of fabric.

But getting rid of our stuff makes us feel immaterial, and that's one reason we don't like to do it.

James Lattin, the friend I mentioned earlier who will never have a screw loose-—and who also happens to be Robert A. Magowan Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business-—assigns almost talismanic power to certain pieces of property: “You know the portkeys in the Harry Potter series? A magical object that instantly transports the person who touches it to a specific location? Well, old baby clothes are like a portkey to the past. The touch and the feel make those old memories more immediate and more tangible. It’s like a tool for augmenting and intensifying those old memories.”

But do we want to be the gatekeepers and key-holders of the past, especially when the past is shared with others who are no longer with us? Those keys, and the rings that hold them, can turn into heavy chains, however, and no longer represent merely healthy ties that bind.

Judith Wenger cleaned out her late sister’s condo after she died and told me, “I cried ugly. What should I do with my late sister’s three diplomas? She had no children and neither did I. What else could I do but let them go?”

This wasn’t Judith’s first encounter with the process of clearing out after loved ones died. She explained, “When I cleaned out my parents' places (first a senior apartment, then assisted living), we sibs took things that had meaning. It made me sad, but it also taught me to downsize my own life.”

My brother and I had a similar experience when going through my father's stuff after he passed away. Although my brother has kids who loved their grandpa, my brother and I made the choice to be the last ones to touch anything we knew that nobody else would respect, understand, or care about. I never regretted those decisions. Better, we thought, that two people who loved him should have been the last one to touch these items; I didn't like the idea of having strangers judging his old ties or pajamas at thrift shops.

I kept an old frame, a couple of pots (now resting in peace with their iron brethren, because nothing lasts forever), a few books, and a few of his ties (I judged them as best).

The idea that somebody will have to go through my stuff now makes me think twice, Judith-like. Any purchase must offer immediate satisfaction because the last thing I want is to do at the end of my life is leave behind me a legacy of tchotchkes.

We should all get those colored-paper circle stickers and put them on the backs of stuff (paintings, photos, knick-knacks) indicating "This goes to the Whitney Museum," "This goes to Goodwill," and "This can be the first thing on the dumpster and I'm sorry you even have to look it." be continued...

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