The BBC used to air a show about people who were living in piles of clutter. No, that’s too polite a way of describing it. They were existing in mountains of crap and they could hardly move for the sheer amounts of newspapers, books, clothing, stuff. I’ve repressed the name of the show because it was wrenching to watch the poor souls who were at the mercy of their possessions. Who were hoarders.

pile of books in shallow focus photography

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The commentators featured on the show followed a template that characterized nearly every episode I watched: they’d be contacted by people (or their worried families) who had lost control of their stuff and would visit their homes to assess what had to be done to rectify the problem. This usually involved a painful process of pop psychology during which the people involved were forced to confront their personal issues. You know, asking them to take a look at the old pain that had somehow been ameliorated by having 313 empty milk cartons stacked next to thirty-four years of old National Geographic Magazines.

pile of covered books

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The people examined their souls, frequently weeping over the life choices denied to them because of the junk in the way. Halfway through the program, a catharsis occurred: the people would realize the damage done by uncontrolled belongings, slowly agreeing to clear away the detritus, at the same time recognizing some of the actual, personal issues causing the build-up of stuff. Sometimes it was life-affirming.

The big payoff, of course, was the combination of neatened rooms and orderly surroundings the chastened souls had achieve after shoveling through their disordered psyches as well as their crammed dwellings. Even as the cameras withdrew, however, one couldn’t help but question whether there might have to be revisits later down the road. Whether the bits and pieces would start to pile up once more as ordinary life resumed, along with the quirks and pinches of this or that odd mental construction, necessitating an increase in stuff to make things a little better. Changing such a pervasive pattern might be more difficult than it appeared.

Why do I bring this up, you ask?

We have lived in our house well over forty-five years. It is a big old Denver square and it includes a full basement. Throughout our lives here, we have had as our motto: “We’ll put (it) in the basement for right now. We’ll decide what to do with (it) later.” [Cue hollow laughter.]

It gets worse: we’re old now. That means we’ve accumulated a lot of stuff over the years. Feelings flavor many of the things we’ve stacked hither and yon. Every time we begin sorting through our belongings, we stumble onto a path through Old Times and have to contend with the memories hidden in them, joyous and/or tinged with sorrow. You can imagine the gritty determination engendered by the prospect of dealing with our treasures. If we could agree to it, we could make a grand sweep through the Valley of Stuff and toss out nearly everything. But who knows what might be lost forever?

We’ve made inroads, but I keep thinking we ought to hire one of those BBC commentator/pop psychologists to come browbeat us into detached attitudes. We could distance ourselves from our former stages of development and turn cool gazes upon the mere things no longer defining us. But what would define us?

They say you can’t take it with you. And like it or not, you eventually have to go. So you leave what you can’t throw away to the people you love, and hope they get a laugh or two from what you’ve left them. And that they’re able to let your dust be carried away on a breeze.