There’s a mannequin from the waist up sitting in my room, wearing an Obama mask, a bright purple wig, and a gaudy orange beach hat with a half-marathon medal and old school Polaroid camera dangling from the neck. Where did I get all this stuff and why have I kept it?
I went from hauling bin after bin up four flights of stairs, to months later throwing out three-fourths of it. Why did I ever think I absolutely needed two dartboards, three cowboy hats, four whiffle-ball bats, five jump ropes, six squirt guns, twelve costumes, and eight pairs of roller blades? And that was just the play box.
The roller blades I stockpiled for friends who said, “I’d love to go with you but I don’t own a pair of roller blades.” The dartboards doubled as a determining factor of who did the dishes — and a party favorite. And so on…
My actress friend Beth touched on these odd justifications when she showed trepidation over getting rid of khaki capris or plaid button-ups she could never see herself wearing. “But what if I go on a casting for a bug spray commercial where I need to be a 30 year-old mom on a picnic?”
“Stuff, it just holds you down,” my counselor friend Patrick from college said, standing amidst bags and boxes of nearly everything he owned but was getting rid of.
“No, you can’t do that,” I’d said panicky, riffling through his discarded piles. “I love this shirt on you.”
I understand him now. Filling an entire flight of stairs is junk for a sidewalk sale, months in the making. Nights I would stomp home ferociously angry, and use pitching crap as therapy from sporadic claustrophobia. My brother Zack and I met at the door once in the same state, restless and agitated, and stayed up for six hours cleaning and yelling, “garbage!” with no mercy.
You acquire stuff here and there; a souvenir or a suggestion, like a cool dress that doesn’t quite fit or a book you’d never read. A Boyfriend Box with stuff from exes. Coats that need buttons. A jar of broken earrings, or ones that have lost their match. Just because a book is signed to you means you need to keep it?
My mom used to always say, “Do you love it or wished you loved it?” My eight year-old lip would quiver: “I wiiiished I loved it!” not knowing why I was crying. Perhaps it was the letting go, but to dry my eyes, she’d follow it up with “Think how much another little kid would love these toys. They’ll get good use.”
A point of contention came when I applied her line of thinking to a porcelain doll collection I had kept year after year because it was her gift and her best attempt to make me and my sister into “girly girls.” I lamented dust removal, and kept them high and out of sight, even the porcelain softball player doll. She was just as bad as the rest: something I wouldn’t use, but kept out of guilt, lined up like the Von Trapp children on top of my dresser for a good seven years.
I always knew it was something I was meant to let go of when I rediscovered it while thrifting and didn’t have the urge to buy it back — even things I swore I’d miss.
When I moved into a friend’s place near St. John the Divine, I shuttled with me all that really mattered for day-to-day living in a milk crate and duffle bag. Brought along were a BB gun and fireworks, both my friend vowed would be put to good use. The rest went into Manhattan Storage in Harlem on 135th and Broadway. Two pick-up truckloads of who-knows-what went to the Goodwill store on 79th and Amsterdam, and piles of stuff was picked-through in my apartment trash area. Boots and bras that didn’t quite fit right (but I had always hoped would) were given to chick friends.
This sudden lack of everything felt like Icy Hot on my brain. Ahhhhhh.
It’s what books, movies and TV shows are about: letting your baggage go. Cutting negative associations. Living lighter.
My indecision is obliterated after watching one episode of “Hoarders” on A&E. Granted I was never living in squalor, with rats or rabbits gnawing through drywall, and you’d never find a cat carcass amidst my paints and piano sheet music. But it gives you a glimpse into these strangers’ therapy sessions, into the lives of people who didn’t learn to let go. Or are holding onto something they shouldn’t, either loneliness, grief, or a time in life that came and went.
In the movie “Up in the Air,” George Clooney talks about filling a backpack with all your possessions, then feeling the weight of it all. I fell in literary love with Sloane Crosley after she penned an essay in “I Was Told There’d Be Cake” about how to dispose of her pony collection, given to her over the years by ex-boyfriends who took her literally on her whimsical request for having anything she wanted. (She ended up stuffing it under an F-train subway seat, bound for Brooklyn.) It got me thinking as to why, a decade later, I still had a Nike shoe box full of folded up letters from my sixth grade lover, scrawled with meaningless drivel about Duke basketball, school “sucking balls,” and how he loves the wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin.
“Just because you love it doesn’t mean you have to have it,” my mom would say, stare lowered, parlaying the housecleaning message into a life lesson.
I keep what matters now, part nostalgia, and part practical. Sure I still have my bed, mahogany chest, musical instruments and airplane lamp. I’ve weeded out old saved school assignments, kitchen supplies and socks with holes, and yet kept meaningful mementos from my youth: an Omar Vizquel bobblehead, reminding me of being 12, madly in love and seeing athletes as superheroes…and a framed matted Arnold Schwarzenegger photo, circa 1984. (We would tell people it was our dad. “But he looks like Arnold Sch-“ they’d start in. “Yeah, he gets that a lot” we’d say coolly.)
There’s also my owl, button and VHS collection — although it takes up more room than DVDs, I can’t part with it. All the most-watched ones have sentimental value: “Uncle Buck,” “World According to Garp,” family home videos, and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” where the most gripping scene for me was Joel rounding up potato creatures and silly doodles; Things that reminded him of Clementine for memory erasing. Makes sense. I also insist on keeping every mix-cd made for me, even though they’re burned into my iTunes. Something about the scrawled label, scribbled playlist and simplicity strike me.
I’m either cursed or blessed to have an unwavering memory, and there’s nothing I can do about it but get things out of sight, out of mind. We can’t easily run Norton Anti-virus on our brain or reprogram out past, but we can get a garbage bag, a little courage, and a pick-up truck, then pick up and move on and out.