Tag Archives: collect


When I was little girl and my family moved to Montana, my brother and I started spending hours collecting rocks on the  foothill behind our house. We had an old coffee can and our main ambition was to find quartz and smokey quartz crystals to put in it. This entailed scanning the ground while we walked with sharp attention to detail. Any glimmer required some dirt scratching to see what treasure we’d unearthed. My brother also got into panning for gold and tumbling rocks. He was much more committed than I.

Years later, I still find myself staring at the ground for treasures as I walk along. S., now three years old, has inherited the passion distraction. Yesterday we walked D. to the train station so he could catch a flight home to the U.S.. It was raining quite heavily, but S. and I plodded along, hand in hand, scanning the ground for treasures. She picked up little leaves and said, “It’s for my collection.” Or, “I’m collectin’ this for you, Mommy.” So far this week, in addition to numerous interesting leaves and flowers we would never see in Kansas, we’ve seen some possum poo, interesting skinks, and very speedy caterpillars scooting down the hill in the rain.

S. and I glued our collected leaves (but not the poo, bugs or skinks) to a piece of scrap cardboard. We showed it to D. and it went into the recycling bin a few days later. I love seeing beauty in the little things, but need I worry about S’s new fascination with collecting every pretty little flower or seed she finds on the ground? Each one she drops, she shrieks, “Oh! My flower!” and I try to brush it off so she won’t keep thinking about what was lost. In the meantime, yesterday, I told D. I really still wanted to find my umbrella that I last saw in Florida in 2010.

Collecting is a fun activity. I just need to keep working on the letting go part of it.

sharing a home

a skink in the back yard - not the lizard I saw last night

Last night around 1 a.m. as I tiptoed down the stairs to return some milk to the fridge, I noticed a little grey blur on the floor. As soon as I began to wonder what it was, it quickly flitted away behind the curtains. I recognized it as some type of lizard, made sure I walked clear of its path,  left the stove light on for D. who gets up very early, and went back to bed. When he got up some thirty minutes later, I was still awake and told him about the lizard so he wouldn’t be startled.

When I saw the thing, I momentarily considered catching it and throwing it outside in the rain. But I am not terribly concerned about lizards who eat bugs and don’t bite humans. I no longer have a baby crawling on the floor, no cats or dogs who are going to catch it for me, no real concerns about the thing except it’s kind of creepy to have a lizard in the house when you don’t know what kind it is.

In North America we’ve had plenty of critters trying to invade our space. We had a bird make a perch on our balcony, we watched our cat bring a live mouse in the house and let it go, we’ve had rats eat through the wires of our car engine (twice), our dogs caught a baby raccoon in our yard, and the raccoons feasted regularly on our compost. Add to that wild turkeys, an occasional fox, deer and many rabbits, squirrels and snakes who had a habitat in our yard even though we lived near the center of the city.

I grew up mostly in the country. Animals and pests are just a part of home life. But what happens when your floor isn’t cleared enough to see the lizard scampering across it, or the pile of newspapers is so huge you can’t find the mouse building a nest in it? You just hear the random scurrying and scratching. Does it become a part of your home life? Common sounds you’re used to hearing, unconcerned that you’re sharing your home with critters?

My father (the HP) lives in a rural Mid-Western community and I recall being terrified my first summer, having moved there from Montana in high school, when I stepped outside to what sounded like a rain forest. Then one night (I should’ve known hoarding was an issue by then), I was even more frightened when I heard loud scratching and crawling noises in my ceiling. When I told my parents about it the next day, they flatly said there were squirrels making a nest in the rafters. No one cared. No one did anything about it. More recently, my brother declared he wanted my father’s stamp collection (which represented his only happy childhood memory), and my father nonchalantly declared that mice had probably eaten through the stamp books. Never mind that incompatibility with hoarding crap you collect and letting it get destroyed. I can’t understand how hoarders get to the point of not caring about the critters in their home that they cannot see or access – only hear or smell. Does it become another comforting part of the hoard, or does it ever terrify them that their home is taking on a life of its own?

Wall-E, collector or hoarder?

S. loves WALL-E, and even though her attention wanes, she thinks the love relationship between Eva and WALL-E is charming. In fact, she says of Eva, “hers his mommy.” When the film was televised recently, I suddenly reanalyzed the scene where WALL-E takes Eva to his home.

WALL-E’s job is to compact trash and stack it up. In the process he finds all kinds of treasures, some only a robot would think to keep. I find this activity heart-warming, probably because I imagine my grandfather doing the same during his trash collecting days. He was always unearthing treasures that he stored up until he died.

WALL-E brings Eva to his home to show her his collected treasures and makes the effort to impress this fancy new she-bot with the things of earth: lighters, light bulbs, television, and a plant growing in a shoe. That is, of course, the turning point in their relationship.

The question I’ve been grappling with in my work on memory hoarding, however, is when collecting crosses the line into hoarding. Sure WALL-E’s place is a bit like the set of Sanford and Son, but he has everything neatly arranged and organized in trays that rotate so he can easily access them. He lives alone, can easily move about, and he uses many of the discarded scraps that he finds, especially the spare robot parts.

WALL-E’s collecting brings him out into the world, is a source of pride, and generally a social behavior. He is only too happy to bring Eva around to see his stuff. Had he been a robot-hoarder, he’d likely be less eager to bring by a lady-friend. Hoarding continually proves itself to be an isolating activity in which the relationship to stuff takes precedence over the relationship to loved-ones. Family is slowly ousted by things and friends are not welcome into the hoard. Fear and embarrassment seem to dictate much of what the outside world is allowed to see.

When the object of collecting, however, is memory itself, and sharing that memory becomes a social project, is it hoarded? Or would hoarded memory also necessarily isolate the individual?

broken symbolism of stuff

Flipping TV channels last night while trying to find that perfect somniferous program to replace Frasier (alas, I cannot), I witnessed Bethenny of Bethenny Ever After deciding she wants to collect snow globes (the nice ones, not the ones you buy in the airport), and the New Adventures of Old Christine‘s old Christine saying how much she loved a ring that she never wore, didn’t fit, and couldn’t find.

In both cases, the items of importance were symbolic. For Bethenny, the snow globes were meant to replace unhappy childhood memories, now that she’s living her dream. Her husband couldn’t reconcile Bethenny’s proclaimed aversion to stuff with her desire to collect globes, but he gave her a break when she pointed out that it wasn’t Gucci bags or something more extravagant. (Come on, Jason, she took you on a private plane and you’re bitching about a $50 snow globe?)

In Christine’s case, the ring was her ex-husband’s mother’s and he wanted to give it to his second wife. Christine felt that giving up the ring was akin to saying the relationship never existed. That’s a point I can understand, but personally don’t subscribe to. Having inherited my father’s wedding band, from second vows with my mother, I don’t see the purpose of holding on to a symbol when the thing it symbolizes is no longer precious. I don’t even know if I still have that ring, but every time I looked at it in the past I was just filled with a sense of frustration. What do I do with that and the family portraits that are nicely framed? Now they represent something that seems either failed or just absent … ancient history. It wouldn’t quite be sane to have a shrine of all these artifacts to failed marriages. At least, it wouldn’t be very healthful for me.

So what do we do with symbolic stuff that no longer represents what it should? Gretchen of the Real Housewives of Orange County took her diamond ring from her first marriage and repurposed it into a custom made ring for her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. I find that both sweet and creepy, but she did manage to transform something no longer personally valuable to her into a meaningful object for someone she loved.

I sold my first wedding band (original price tag of $18) with a bunch of other trinkets to a man who owns a thrift shop in a neighboring town. I had already forgotten about it until I asked myself just now where that ring went.

up in the air

up in the air

For our movie date night this weekend, D. and I watched Up in the Air on demand. The story line has George Clooney living out of a suitcase, with a home in Omaha that is more empty and less attractive than the hotel rooms he frequents on business travel. His character says he travels some 320 days of the year and he gives seminars using a “backpack of life” metaphor.

The movie gave me pause. The man lives a stripped-down life, empty of people but not human contact, empty of things, but still he hoards intangibles. He has a life goal of reaching 10 million air miles, he belongs to hundreds of fidelity programs (Hilton Honors points or Marriott Rewards, for example), he even has a collection of hotel keys in his wallet and frequently mistakes the one he needs. He has a certain amount of clutter, small as it may be, and comes into contact with hundreds of people daily because of his job as a professional communicator.

In his speaking engagements, the man asks the audience to imagine all of their things from little to big (knick-knacks to couches) being put into a backpack and to feel the straps dig into their shoulders. The unbearable weight of things is then compared to the unbearable weight of people as we are asked to put in our acquaintances and fill up the backpack until we get to our most significant other, and again he asks us to feel the weight.

I’m highly suggestible and participated in the imagining. While the “things” felt somewhat heavy, the people backpack was incredibly light. I do not feel burdened by the people in my life and said as much to D. He quickly reminded me: that was not the case when he met me. I suddenly remembered the dread I felt dealing with my family and friends and the incredible weight on my life they incurred, especially as I was going through my divorce. I had all of these relationships that seemed to be important but were not giving me support in return when I needed it. In fact, they were more crushing to me than the weight of actually ending of my marriage.

It took me a year or more to clean up the relationships, to learn to let go, to break up with friends. Today when I think about the people in my life and the amount of space they take, I cannot see this as a burden. I feel incredibly light and joyful when I think about putting my grandma in that backpack, or my daughter who I would carry a million miles over, joyfully, or my husband who has carried me in countless times of weakness.

I’m sometimes bothered that I have trouble building deep friendships with people and D. and I frequently discuss – why is it that no one seems to like us? Or for me – what’s my problem that I keep choosing friends who will not be available or able to help me when I need it? But the stripped-down life that we live now, knowing who the real friends are, is far less heavy than the one I lived under false pretenses six years ago.

The point of the film, for me at least, is that absence can be just as heavy as fullness. The George Clooney character was tied up in his inability to commit or settle and he had real moments of burdened pain because of these absences and superficialities. In the end, empty is just as burdensome as filled-past-the-brim.

gleaning with Varda

I finally had the occasion to watch Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) by Agnès Varda (2000) over the last few days. Although Varda is more interested in gleaning as a cultural activity from its artistic depiction and production to its life-sustaining ability (not for the pure sake of accumulating), her film got at some root questions about the activities of gleaning, picking, and recuperating. One of Varda’s interviewees, a judge, explains that the edict authorizing gleaning in 1554 is the same in today’s penal code: after the harvest, those who are in need (les pauvres, les malheureux, les gens défavorisés, etc.) can glean from sun up to sun down. Varda asks, how can we explain gleaning, though, for those who are not needy but simply enjoy it? “C’est comme s’ils avaient besoin de quelque chose pour manger. S’ils glanent par plaisir, c’est qu’ils ont besoin de quelque chose pour leur plaisir.” The Maître explains that the law still applies if they respect the conditions of gleaning. These people still have a need, a need for pleasure, that they are trying to fulfill.

At the root of gleaning lies need. The force (la pulsion) that compels is what interests me now as much as what is gleaned (l’objet).

Varda, herself a gleaner of sorts, collects images with her camera and is especially interested in the image of her own aging and foreign hand being filmed by the camera held in her other hand. She says she has little memory and that gleaning functions, for her, to summarize the journeys she has taken – c’est les objets qui racontent le voyage.

In some sense what we collect will always tell the story of where we’ve been and who we are because something within us, specifically related to our inner needs, dictates what objects we will pick up – especially if we must stoop over and humble ourselves to pick up someone else’s castoffs. What does it say about me if I’m willing (or what would it say about me that I would be willing, what is it in me that makes it worthwhile for me) to sift through someone’s trash to find … a fountain pen, a worn-out French text, a fragment or relic of beauty that would only be beautiful to me?

This isn’t really about me and, yet, it is only about me. What do my collections reveal about my own connection to my memory and the vacant spaces in me they are attempting to fill, whether they be theoretical or physical?


the normalcy of stuff

I was watching bad television last night and trying to fall asleep when I noticed that the New York apartment set for this bad sitcom was unusually cluttered. There were numerous odd and interesting objects around the place like a reel-to-reel film projector, and I do not know the characters well enough to assume this has something to do with their persona. I can only guess that the set designers were trying to give an eclectic feel to the place where a young, financially struggling couple lived. Personally, I would characterize that place as comfortably cluttered. There were knickknacks everywhere and no real blank space for the eye to rest.

As I struggle to dig out of our stuff and continue to remove the nonessential items, I’ve begun to wonder how much “stuff” is normal. I understand that hoarding can be diagnosed when the things get in the way of living well and personal relationships are put at risk. But what about the rest of us who are just decorating, collecting, or too busy to put things away? [Note: I should not say “us,” since I have already proven my problem to lie deeper.] What does society have to say about a nearly empty home? Even rented serviced apartments have decorative bowls and vases and coffee-table books to make the place feel more homey.

What about you? How do you live?

hoarding dreams

I woke up in the midst of a long complicated dream this morning. Someone, a relative, had died. I was supposed to help a young woman (perhaps a cousin?) go through the house and prepare it for sale. After the real estate agent had been through the house, we set to work removing damaged Christmas decorations from the garage. Apparently the mother of the family had committed suicide, but we couldn’t work out why she had been preparing for Christmas if she was not planning to be around.

The garage was not filled to the brim (unlike the photo here), and we could walk around in it unencumbered, but there were various fishing rods and tackle, about 15 bicycles lined up, bags of Christmas decorations, and so on. Everything was very neatly organized in rows or tacked up on the walls. The sadness weighing on the house was clear as I tried to strip away the things that made it ugly. While I felt separated from the stuff, each object had specific memory engrained in it. But the hoarders had abandoned the collected things, and no one was home to guard it.


“I’m a collector.”

A repeated mantra among hoarders. There is a line crossed between collecting and hoarding, as hoarding makes your home unlivable and interferes with your daily tasks. You can’t sit on your couch because of the pile of papers or eat dinner at your table because you’d have to move your tools, phonebooks, what-have-you somewhere else? Your stuff is interfering with your life. That characterizes a large part of my late childhood and adolescence.

stamp albumMy brother told me that during a recent visit to my father’s house, our dad asked him if there was anything he wanted to have. My brother said that stamp collecting with my dad was one of his only happy childhood memories. My dad apparently replied that he wasn’t sure if the stamp books were still intact because they were somewhere in the rubbermade bins in the back yard (covered by a tarp), and some of them had holes in the bottom from mice or rats chewing through them and were probably now moldy. Here the hoarding has ruined the one thing it set out to protect.

My dad is a collector, my brother is a collector, and I used to be (and likely still am) a collector. But what are we collecting if it turns our happy memories into rot?