The Cleanse

David Byrne serenades me: “And you may find yourself in a beautiful house… And you may ask yourself. Well, How did I get here?” I am, as he says in Once in a Lifetime, watching the days go by. “And you may tell yourself. This is not my beautiful house.

Because soon, it won’t be.

As the day fast approaches for my downsizing move, I slowly and systematically slog through all the stuff in mine. I have spent hours every day, for what feels like eons, sifting, sorting, tossing, packing. I am starring in an extended, drawn out, multi-month episode of Hoarders on TLC, a show I watch regularly, with a mix of morbid fascination and horror. I rubberneck, like a gawker at a roadside crash, unable to turn away, mostly to assure myself that I am not one.

Which, despite the mountains of stuff I’ve accumulated after 18 years in this house, I am decidedly not. I have almost neurotically categorized and stored my things.  Cabinets, closets, drawers, and, well, containers, contain everything in an orderly way. There are no half empty Spam tins littering my carpets, which are not covered with animal fur and excrement. No small creatures, welcome or otherwise, live with me.

But still. There’s sooooooo much stuff. I find myself constantly adding verses to the Talking Heads song: “How did I get all these things? And why am I having such a hard time getting rid of them?” I wonder why most of us are so determined to accumulate stuff and so reluctant to liberate ourselves of it.

For me, at least, the answer is as multifaceted as the mess. First, the collecting is so much easier than the dispersing. It’s fun to get stuff. We “need” stuff for inside and outside our homes. We need a really lot of stuff to achieve and maintain beauty. We cannot go out unclad or unshod, and every season – nay, every day – requires an entirely new ensemble. We need the every day going-to-Trader-Joe’s-wear, the I-want-people-to-think-I’m-an-adult-and-take-me-seriously outfits, and a full complement of Even-though-I-never-go-out-to-nice-places-I-should-have-something-just-in-case clothes. And of course apparently there is no legal or scientific limit to the number of black or white GAP t-shirts one can own.

Inside the house, I’ve discovered, there can never be enough serving bowls, frying pans, and utensils for obscure culinary feats, even though I abhor both cooking and entertaining. My sister Suzanne often wonders how my children did not starve or become severely malnourished growing up.

And the tchotchkes… or knick-knacks, for the Yiddish-ly uninitiated. Oh the tchotchkes! It seems every flat surface and vacant wall space begs to be occupied by some cute, creative, or culturally significant 3D item.

Children must each have one of literally everything in the universe, so said universe does not become unbalanced and implode into a black hole more rapidly than it otherwise will in several billion years. In my basement, every Hot Wheels car, Pokémon toy, and Batman action figure ever created sits idle in color-coded storage bins, like Andy’s toys in Toy Story, waiting for someone to play with them. Maybe the black hole would have been useful in that it would have instantly consumed and vaporized them. The toys. Not the children.

Then there is the practicality argument that I engage in with myself which resembles some of the dialogue on Hoarders a little too closely for my comfort. I carefully curated this collection. It feels frivolous to just toss or donate things that there’s a miniscule chance that I might remotely have a need for in the very distant future (but prior to universal black hole implosion). When you face getting rid of nearly everything, surely that increases the chance that you might miss something.

“What if I really want to make paella?” I think (please refer back to the paragraph about cooking. I’m not sure why I need a kitchen. Maybe, like Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, I should just store sweaters in the oven). I’ve unearthed a blue speckled paella pan from beneath a swath of gold and brown toile fabric that I meant to turn into pillows “and still might in the new apartment?” I ask even myself askance. Fresh start, right? Empty nest, empty the drawers. Every time I’m tempted to keep something, scenes from the show pop into my head, and reason triumphs over emotional attachment.

Keeping the stuff for practicality’s sake is one thing, but emotion is another beast entirely, and tougher to get past.

After having cleaned out mom’s apartment after she died recently, it’s odd to find myself going through this exercise again in my own home, but I’m glad to spare my adult children the task. “But mom gave me that,” I think, as I look at a perfectly hideous costume necklace she gave me. It’s sort of hidden away and I haven’t worn it once, but I feel sacrilegious parting with it, as if I’d offend her and desecrate her memory. Yet I pry it away from my own grasping clutches, and do so over and over again with items that glow with radioactive emotion. The straw bag I bought in the street bazaar in Nairobi; the countless small replica Mets batting helmets that the boys ate soft ice cream from in Shea Stadium; the simmering spices my mom gave me “to make the house smell nice when you go to sell it.”

The corollary to the emotional issue is the bargain argument. “But it only cost $3 at the summer sidewalk sale” is no more a reason to keep something than it was to buy it in the first place. I stringently adhere to the “if you haven’t used or worn it in a year, toss it” rule.

Going through all this stuff is not nearly as fun, and is exponentially more exhausting, than hunting for and gathering it. I work for hours each day and then feel as if I’ve entered the Twilight Zone because I seem to make no progress.

I drop on the couch, exhausted and defeated, and watch Hoarders. It brings a small measure of comfort as I revel in the fact that at least I don’t have to walk a path carved out of a seven-foot pile of things the cameras, therapists, family members, and organizers need to navigate.

So I toss, and toss, and toss some more.

Of course I have kept many things. Things I believe I really need, will use, and most importantly, will bring me joy. Some have true sentimental value: my father’s cane collection (he has now been gone almost 14 years). The samovar my mother’s grandmother carried with her from Russia to America. The boys’ bronzed baby shoes.

For the most part, though, I realize that the stuff is not the people. It’s not the memories. It’s not emotion. As the people on the news whose homes have floated away or burned down always say, “It’s just stuff.” I find unequivocally that the more I let go, the more I get back.


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