When I lived in a small town in Colorado, I knew a woman who most
people would describe as a hoarder. She made her home in a log cabin not
far from a winding river, under ragged cottonwood trees that shed downy
tufts in early summer, and showers of gold each autumn. You could see
all the this-and-thats stacked high against the windows where the
curtains didn’t cover, all the way up to a shipstyle porthole on the
second floor. The overall impression was that the cabin sloshed nearly
to its brims with things.
Her airstream out front was full of dressers and armoires. Her
backyard was like a sculpture garden for the partially broken mundane. A
trampoline. Odds and ends of lumber. Stacks of salvaged tile. She told
me once that she was storing six clawfoot bathtubs. Sometimes, she’d
find a dress or a pair of pants she thought would strike my fancy, load
it into a salvaged plastic grocery bag, and hang it from my gate latch
for me to find when I came home from work.
The objects she kept were beautiful, not junk, except insofar as there were far, far more of them than she’d ever be able to use. But given the stigma attached to hoarding, she was always self-conscious about her collection. Rarely did she allow anyone else inside her house, including the tenants who rented the small studio apartment she had built in a shed out back.
Her impulse to gather stuff was something I understood. My parents
are the sort of people who keep things until they are completely worn
out. There is still a beige, orange and brown carpet in their house from
1968. They drive the same Ford Explorer they bought used in 1990. Some
of my childhood friends’ parents took this frugality to even greater
heights, introducing us to Dumpster diving in middle school. It was both
amazing and shocking the things we would find, that others had tossed
out. Working stereos. Leather jackets. Perfectly good sneakers. Piles
and piles and piles of compact disks, and all their flimsy “jewel”
cases. Artifacts now as exotic maybe as arrowheads, but lacking the
beauty of something made by hand and cared for as if it carried the same
worth as the labor from which it was made, for a purpose with real
stakes: Food, and by extension, staying alive.
Somewhere amidst sifting through other peoples’ discards, I started
to hate throwing things away. I could see history in my belongings. The
pants I wore when a friend and I picked up a couch off a curb one night
and drove around with it until we decided to unload it in the middle of a
baseball diamond. The stained copy of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams
that I read when I first discovered a path towards becoming a writer.
It wasn’t just that these things were physical extensions of memory.
They were also made of materials that were themselves more valuable than
the objects they had become. Sunlight. Plants. Trees. Soil that had
once hosted a self-sustaining world. They had, in other words, a deep
cost far beyond their pricetag, and beyond their value in my own life.
Each thing, I came to feel, had to justify the sacrifice that made
it. I was an art major, so this was sort of a crippling place to end up.
I would look at my oil paints and see heavy metal mines. I would look
at my canvases and see cotton farms sucking up water in Arizona desert. I
would think, There are already so many paintings. I started
drawing by sewing instead, using bedsheets I picked up at thriftstores,
thread left over from mending projects, making objects that could be
both artful and utilitarian. Eventually, weighed down by all the things
that I had made that I now felt responsible for, I turned almost all my
creative energy to writing. This, at least, made compact things, I
reasoned, though I was fully aware of the logical fallacy there. The
Internet servers humming with energy. The magazines and newspapers that
become garbage so soon after being read.
When I moved to Oregon, I did not take much with me. Still, I had a
lot that I didn’t expressly need packed into my Subaru and a six by
eight foot trailer. I could have purchased a new mattress. I could have
gotten a different shelf and a new desk. Was I really going to read all
of those books again?
But what would happen to these things if I put them aside? In the
process of packing up my stuff, my hoarding friend’s logic had come to
seem a very sane response to a society where everything has become so
disposable. When people critique capitalism, they will often say: We
care too much about acquiring stuff—nicer cars, bigger TVs, bigger
houses. I think that’s off base. The problem is not that we care TOO
much about stuff. It’s that we do not place enough value on the stuff we
Photo of the ne’er-do-well Dumpster divers of Paonia, Colorado by the author. Photo of author making topographical map quilt by Riley Nagler. This post originally appeared April 3, 2018.