“To gain knowledge, add something every day. To gain wisdom, subtract something every day.”
Temperatures are hardly balmy out here on the coast come winter’s thick, but I’ve decided to do a little molting nonetheless. Before you get sicked out, though, let me explain.
I have often spoken on this blog of the enormous discomfort my possessions tend to bring me. Of my random and frantic attempts to pare down my “stuff,” of the ever-towering Goodwill pile that has existed, in some form, in every place I’ve lived for the past 10 years, even when I had little more than could fit into a suitcase, even when the nearest Goodwill was a clean 4,000 miles distant. Of the way I’ll shuffle anxiously around the house before bed, scouring bookshelves and desk drawers for junk I might cast off. It helps me sleep better. It helps me think better.
I wasn’t always this way.
As I child, I was an unwieldy packrat. I’d stash bags full of old papers and notes in my closet, I’d hang stubbornly on to yellowy magazines and newspapers, bottle caps, shoelaces, sticks, rocks, anything. Me, the collector, always.
It drove my ascetically bent mother half crazy. Several times a year, she’d march me into my room, where I’d be forced to sit for an entire day, sorting out the detritus, pile by pile. I’d shriek and protest if she ushered the process along too quickly or too callously, but always, two-thirds of it went into the garbage or to the Goodwill by the time we were done. And always, within six months, I’d accumulated new piles of interesting junk. I couldn’t help it! The world seemed so full of beauty – discarded pens, cloudy agates, the impossibly intricate machinery of a broken watch. It was literally everywhere I looked, and I wanted to cling to it. I was like a bald, overgrown crow, flitting nervously about my stash of shiny objects, sqwaking territorially whenever anyone came too close. I could think of a potential use for everything.
At some moments, though, when I’d chance to see my prized “collections” through other people’s eyes, I felt a little ashamed. Once in third grade, I had my friend Christy Weisen over. When I led her into my room, she wrinkled her nose and pronounced it a “fire hazard.”
I merely giggled, but I also suddenly felt somewhat unsettled by the enormous heaps of clothes and toys around which I was forced to navigate daily to get to my bed, my closet, my dresser. Luckily, the sensation passed, and I persisted in my collecting.
When I reached pre-adolescence, my mother and I drew an uneasy truce; she gave up on the de-cluttering sessions so long as I promised to keep the door shut, and to keep a path to the door cleared so she might get in and out safely when entering couldn’t be avoided.
As I grew into a teenager, my collection sprouted new arms. Pez dispensers. Plastic lunch boxes. Care bears. Adidas track suits. And instead of existing in unsightly piles, the clutter took on a decorative function. I covered every inch of the walls and ceiling with posters and magazine pages and bumper stickers and God knows what else. I required an entire wall of shelving just to contain the wealth of trinkets and treasures I’d amassed in fifteen-some-odd years.
My friends were endlessly fascinated. My very best friend and I had a game we’d sometimes play: we’d sit on the floor next to my bed, reach our arms under without looking, and then pull out the first thing our hands landed upon. It could be a long-lost pair of rank jeans, a broken cash box with a little combination lock, a ball of clay, a cigar, a forgotten stash of Halloween candy. Endlessly fascinating.
When I started travelling in my early twenties, I was forced to reform. Most airlines allow for a maximum of two suitcases, even when you’re moving somewhere for an extended period of time. You can cart along more, yeah, but it is exorbinantly expensive, and I’m almost as cheap as I am junk-obsessed. So it was. Slowly and with much grousing, I learned to need less.
And owing to the fact that I never lived in any country or state longer than two years, I no longer had the time to accumulate at the rate I did when I was a kid. As I was always forced to give up anything I might have collected over my short stay in Rat’s Ass, Wherever, after awhile I began to see little point in collecting the stuff in the first place. You start to look at needs and wants differently when you know you’re leaving, I guess. When you can already see ahead to the day when you’ll be forced to part with anything that exceeds your pitiful luggage allotment. Even before it’s yours, you envision it being gone, and the act of accruing loses much of its luster. So I began, grumblingly, to proceed in the opposite direction.
Sometimes, I’d take it as far as I could, just to see. I made do for three months in Korea with a single plate, bowl, pot, knife, spoon and chopsticks set. In Mexico, where books were scarce and money was scarcer, I’d read the same novels over and over to economize. (To this day, I have entire chapters of a certain Nora Roberts romance rag memorized. I read it literally four times in a row, turning straight back to the first page as soon as I’d finished the last one. Sometimes, in the shower or driving in my car, I’ll still find myself reciting dialogue from that book. Completely bizarre.)
And each time I returned home from one of my adventures, my mom would point to the towering stack of storage bins housed in her garage and insist I pare them down, just a little more. Over the course of years, they became fewer and fewer, until only my books, journals, clothes and photo albums remained.
Now I am moved back home. I’ve been settled in Oregon for a year and a half and I’ve retrieved and unpacked most of those boxes. I’ve been reunited with my glorious stuff after years on the road and it’s …. Well, it’s complex.
Don’t get me wrong. The sedentary life does have its own, lesser thrills, and I’ve in the past year allowed myself a few luxuries I’ve never in my adult and thus far transient life enjoyed: impractically large furniture, potted plants, a wok, a large shoe collection.
But standing still has also forced me to abide a rather unpleasant truth: I’ve never stopped being a secret packrat. I’ve merely reformed myself to unfetter as quickly as I accumulate, and that is something quite different. In fact, it feels like cheating, in a way, because in the end, my stuff is still owning me instead of the other way around. I still overpack every single time I go anywhere. I still buy dumb crap I don’t need. I still attach way too much value to my things and pick up rocks and acorns from the edges of sidewalks and tape fortune cookie fortunes to my mirror. Then, in fits of pique, I get rid of it all. But, as it was when I was a kid, within weeks, new junk has accumulated to fill the void. Always. It’s like one of those nightmares where you’re trying to outrun a wave and it’s always eternally just about to break right behind you. Only it’s not a dream.
But all is not lost. In fact, I’ve made significant progress in the last month. I am so broke that I couldn’t buy much of anything new, even if I wanted to. Daily, I throw piles of clothes and trinkets into my current Goodwill pile, which has now overflowed to three bins in the entryway. And now I’m confronting a new complication: the more I get rid of, the more I am merely only left with the things I am most attached to. Each round of reduction gets exponentially more painful. When you’ve accumulated piles of shit for years and years, it’s easy to pare down. You haven’t even looked at half of said shit in who knows how long. A lot of it is broken, or junky or meaningless. But when the ridding is a constant process, when you stop accumulating and merely start deducting, you end up at a certain point with only things you really like or have some sort of sentimental attachment to.
Thus begins the real work. And thus, these two feathers. They mark the start of a new experiment. A painful, nonsensical one. A necessary one.
In 2011, I want to hop permanently off the hamster wheel of getting and ridding. I want to cast away the things that weigh me down in a way that is more lasting and true. I want to challenge myself to stop being so fucking grabby. So each day from here on out to an indeterminate point in the future, I will throw away one thing I really like. Aside from a short eulogy for the object marked for extermination and perhaps a photo, I will do it without ceremony and, I hope, with minimal weeping and lamenting. There is only one rule: when it goes into the giveaway pile, it cannot under any circumstances come back out. So. Here goes.
Day 1: Pink and blue decorative feathers – I really like these two feathers. I got the blue one at my friend Kelly’s wedding in Mexico last March and the pink one at her wedding reception in Portland a few months later. I’ve had them tucked into my jewelry box for almost a year because I keep thinking it would look super cool if I wore one or both of them tucked into a headband. I have yet to do so. Goodbye, feathers.