Nothing will cure a hoard better than selling your home, though natural disasters might have a similar effect. We put our home in Kansas on the market in March and it went under contract within three days. A week later we were at our house to clean out what remained after five years of absence. Our tenant and good friend A. called me a tornado, because I whipped through the piles of stuff without mercy sending the bulk towards the trash heap. It is easy to sort unaffected when you have absolutely forgotten the things in the hall closet even existed. We took two car-fulls of useful things to the emergency shelter to donate (some of it belonged to A.) and were grateful for the tax receipts. In spite of this culling, there was still some furniture and exercise equipment lingering. The tenants posted items on craigslist, had a yard sale, sold a few more items of theirs and ours, took a commission, and donated the rest. Today the real estate agent told me that he removed 12 bags of trash from the house (what??!!) after the tenants moved out, and the house is now cleaned and empty. I wish I could see the empty house today, but that would be a long way to fly just to have the satisfaction of knowing our former home is ready for a new owner to love it.
Tag Archives: empty
Yesterday we finalized an application on a new place to live: this time it is unfurnished and unequipped. We’ve already struck a deal with the owner to purchase his refrigerator, washing machine, microwave oven and kettle. In our current rental everything has been provided except for linens. That means in the last six months I have only purchased some bedding, kiddy plates, measuring cups, spatulas, a meat thermometer and a cupcake tin. We are moving in three weeks and D. has given me the green light to shop.
After spending the last 16 months in declutter mode, this responsibility is daunting. We want to keep things minimal in case we move again in six months, but at the same time we finally get to make things the way we like them. Do we buy only cheap things, throw our mattresses on the floor, forego a kitchen table and wait to see if we will ship some furniture over from the States? Or do we have an opportunity to make things the way we like them?
As I shop online (we do not have a vehicle here), I had to study the latest Ikea catalogue for options. I’m highly impressionable, and my normal response to Ikea’s marketing is, “My life would be better if my house looked like that.” Only this time, I realized these houses look unusually cluttered, cramped, and dangerously close to something not so beautiful. If one tiny little element (say that gorgeous set of cheapy vases on the make-shift mantle) is out of place, the whole room looks off-kilter. Yet, Ikea has the magic to make me believe it’s possible to have all that stuff in one small space. Look at those rows of books up so high no one can reach them. If they’re that high, though, even I won’t read them. And if I won’t read them – I don’t need them in my home. *sigh*
Maybe this little hoarder is reforming after all, but I still feel like my heart could jump out of my chest as I think about all that empty space.
I wrote the following blogpost on March 10, 2009 for my research-related blog (which incidentally has seen less action over 5 years than this one saw in its first 6 months). Likely because of our recent move, this has been weighing on my mind, and I think the content much more appropriate to readers here. (Reposted with my own permission).
I received this message from a childhood friend yesterday on facebook, “My parents were just visiting and told me your old house has been razed….new home coming up. This follows a kitchen fire last year but I didn’t think they’d take the whole house down!”
I have known for years now that you can never really go home, but now that I know I can never revisit the place, I am pondering what that means. I can’t think of one reason I would want to return there. To remember the address, however, I typed in “Meadowview Ln” into Google Maps which suggested Meadow View Dr, and led me to click on a picture. When I turned just one click to the right, there before me was my house.
When I lived there the road wasn’t paved and cattle were kept in the field on “the hill” behind us. So now, I see the house for the first time in ages on the web, and it really no longer exists. I click up and down the street and remember Kory’s house and Kristen’s house and see a lot of houses that weren’t there before.
I told my mom the house was gone and she asked, “OK, so where’s the picture??? That is crazy and I think the kitchen is the only part we remodeled!!! Well, it has been a few years, hasn’t it.” It’s funny to think of asking for a picture of something no longer there. Proof that it’s gone? An empty lot? We can never go back. Not if we wanted, not if we had to.
Many Pieds-Noirs have been returning to Algeria in recent years. They bring back film that recaptures their homes and they play it for those who cannot physically return. When Jacques Derrida saw his homeland played back for him by Safaa Fathy, he found the past unrecognizable (see Tourner les mots), and Hélène Cixous traveled to Derrida’s Algeria with photos of his past, trying to make sense of what she was witnessing for the first time (Si près). But many Pieds-Noirs do not even see the present when they return. They only see what used to be.
In my case, this picture triggers memories of the dirt road and how big that hill to the right seemed when I rode my bike down it, and many of those houses now there were once just fields and empty lots. I see my past transposed onto the new siding and attempting to erase that ugly truck. But can I see an empty lot?
Last week the last three boxes of my books arrived to my new office. I felt immediate joy and reconnection: “at-homeness” with the contents. I lovingly placed the carefully chosen texts onto my barren shelves. They barely made a dent in the void, as I am surrounded by 32 of these beautiful new bookshelves.
Boxes emptied and books put away, melancholy almost immediately ensued. I’m surrounded by space now, here and at home. It feels scary and open but full of possibility and imagination.
The biggest void and absence of home will be over tomorrow morning, though, when D. finally arrives.
A friend came to see me while I was packing up and asked if I was going to post a picture of my desktop. It is visibly empty, and all cared-about belongings have been removed from drawers. Last week was a frenzy of sorting, tossing, shoving into suitcases, trying to be clear-headed, vomiting, washing, and leaving behind my most cared about “stuff” in the world – my best friend, D. He has been left with the chaotic mess of empty envelopes, half-filled plastic bags, coat hangers, shampoo bottles, and the like. While absurdly we continue to wait for his paperwork, he has to sift through the rubble. In the meantime, S. and I are on the other side of the planet, shuffling about dazed, waking up at 3 a.m. not knowing what day it is, and feeling empty without him.
The best I can do to describe my present state of disorganization is “spinning.” I grab a very very important new piece of paper — like my bank account information — put it in a logical place, and promptly forget where I put it. Then I grab my passport and join it to the pile where I think I’m going to need it next — like with rental applications — and then I need it for banking and can’t seem to find it. I’m a whirlwind of mess, chronically sleep deprived, untethered, cry at the littlest, “maybe that’s daddy?” when S. hears a noise… and so on. And my “stuff” is not here to hold me down, make me feel embedded, push roots into the earth, or any other metaphorical fodder that it is supposed to do. My landmarks are missing, the biggest one being my partner, and it feels like my legs have been chopped off in a sense.
None of this is to complain, because I’ve fallen into a weird community of genuinely happy, smiling, friendly, eager to serve and please people. Strangers stop and talk, everyone looks relaxed, the sun is so brilliantly white that everything outside seems to sparkle until 4 p.m. when it starts to get dark. Then the lights sparkle some more on the water. I feel guarded and suspicious of all this openness. In fact, I thought I had been living in a very friendly town until yesterday. Now I don’t know what to expect. Unanchored, weightless, temporary, and very sad.
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.
The house continues to empty and the absence of our two dogs makes our home strangely silent and peaceful. All that’s left now are errant pet hairs and odors that linger in the carpet, soon to be washed away. Books continue to go into boxes, filed away into storage or sorted for donation. And yet, our departure is still postponed as we await more government documentation. It’s odd to be living in a wider space with much of the clutter swept away. My brain seems to be less distracted, but the waiting makes me wonder if all of this is only an exercise with no eventual jumping off point. I’m learning to embrace the emptiness, the silence of the vacant space, the void that was previously a cozy hoard tucking me in, weighing me down to one spot.
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?
Yesterday I finished reading the Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera which spends its final chapters expounding on the noble love that people give their dogs – more noble than love for humans because there is no real power dynamic at play. I read through tears because yesterday I also sent my six year old cocker spaniel to live with a new family. This loss does not bring me lightness. The absence of her dog bed in the living room, or her sad droopy eyes staring up at me hopefully, feels like a gaping wound. There is something missing that has been a fixture of my daily life for the past six years.
Although not nearly animal hoarders, we still have two cats and a dog who will also need new homes. The expense and complications of migrating with four animals is too much, and we know we haven’t been giving the dogs the attention they deserve, especially since the birth of our daughter who is always our priority. I look at her and I know she is what matters most, and she is coping just fine with one less animal in the house.
To me, and I know this is temporary, it just feels like a part of me has been lopped off suddenly. Not quite a limb, but maybe the tip of a toe. It hurts, but I know that extremity is going to make someone else very happy and that she, too, will be frolicking in a new yard and getting the daily walks and pats and hugs she deserves.
As we try to pare down our things, Christmas strikes. Our parents were rather restrained this year, preferring to give us cash over objects, but we still ended up with a pile of relatively useless things. I laughed when we opened more Chicago Cutlery, as that was one of the first items I successfully sold on craigslist. If nothing else, at least I used and successfully disposed of several bows and gift bags that had been lingering in our storage.
I was, for me, extremely restrained this year. Full aware that we can’t take much with us when we move, I had to opt for tiny toys for our daughter. For D. and me, our gifts centered around delicious food and electronics needed for our trip and life thereafter.
But for the last few weeks, every online shopping stop and visit to Target were accompanied by a sort of tug, holding me back, reminding me of how big a suitcase is. How do you choose what to gift within those bounds, all while knowing that in a few months we will have an empty home? I cannot lie: that new home needing to be outfitted with the basics (like cutlery) is beckoning me.