When my grandmother died, my grandfather and my step-aunt had to clean out her “Chamber of Horrors,” the room stacked floor-to-ceiling with things, with a narrow corridor running around it. The times I went to visit, it didn't look messy, just full of boxes and shelves, and boxes on shelves. She was the one who wrote the label on the door, and her expression was ruefully self-deprecating when she referred to it.
But there wasn't just the chamber of horrors. The bookshelves in the narrow main hall, full of old Reader's Digest and Time-Life books. The metal storage shed in the backyard, never opened in the dozen years they lived in that house.
So when I was home from college for a couple of weeks, Mom drove with me and my two younger sisters out to Arizona to help Grandpa and Aunt Billie with the cleanup, sorting boxes on the back patio.
Turns out the boxes in the storage shed had been packed when my grandparents got remarried in the early 70s after almost 30 years apart. We turned out box after box, every one a little different, every one a mix of mysterious newspaper clippings, photos of my father as a child, photos of unknown people, coupons, jewelry, mayonnaise jars, whatever.
And the last box I opened... Southeast Arizona does have its share of cockroaches, and while Aunt Billie threw a bug bomb in the shed, it didn't quite kill everything. So I opened a box from the back, and before I could even dig into the mysterious contents, the surviving bugs swarmed out. That was the point, in the middle of a 90F afternoon, when I stopped to go inside and watch some TV and get that out of my head.
A few years ago I read Stuff which is a fascinating and compassionate look at hoarding. As you might guess, I saw my grandmother in many of the pages.
I also saw myself. One variety of hoarding comes from an emotional attachment to objects: this necklace belonged to my grandmother; that clock was a gift from a friend I haven't seen in years; this bottle is from the time that we had a picnic at the beach. Everyone does it a little bit, I think, but I find I have to periodically ask myself if I need that object for its memories, thinking back on that jar that must have meant something for some reason in 1965.
Another variety of hoarding is a desire to avoid waste, to make sure everything is used. While my tool closet sometimes resembles this, it's relatively easy to look in a room and ask myself if I'm really going to use that pile of hinges or that jar of odd-sized screws. But in the digital realm, it's easy to hoard thousands of photos, bookmarks, or PDFs.
“Oh, this is like cleaning out the garage!”
As we worked on a site revamp, one of the clients realized what we were doing, tossing out pages that no one visited, that duplicated other pages, that were woefully out of date. She said it not with anxiety or horror, but with a sort of delight.
Our team at work has been gradually moving through content reviews and updates of parts of the college's site. As we go, I'm seeing all the reactions that people might have to disruption of their belongings or their surroundings.
The group that didn't think their site needed much change watching a usability study and saying “just burn it all down.” The people who ask “but where are we going to put...?” Sometimes I find myself making a folder called “archive” knowing that it's a box in a metal shed full of things from another life that may outlive (the job of) the person who put it there. At least digital boxes don't get roaches. That memory, of those boxes, and the woman who couldn't or wouldn't control the stuff—it gives me compassion for myself and my folder called “stuff” and our site editors and all of their stuff.
And sometimes, things disappear, and you remembered that they existed once, and you realize that maybe it wasn't necessary. Maybe it was good to let them disappear.
In memory of Susan Kellogg Nelson, 1914–1995
The saying in the title comes from my mother-in-law. I find it oddly comforting.