Every morning when I walk Stella, we pass a house on a corner that looks like a hoarder house. You can see stuff stacked up in the windowsills, pressing against the glass, and there are large tarps all over the back porch covering more piles of stuff. The car parked out in front of the house is filled with junk as well. According to other neighbors, a woman lives there alone, but I’ve never actually seen her.
The yard however, is well maintained. The porch may be covered in crap, but she pays someone to take good care of the lawn and shrubbery. So it did occur to me that maybe she just had some back porch clutter, and what could be seen in the windows was not indicative of the whole house, and maybe I was jumping to conclusions.
However, last night, our neighborhood was full of fire trucks due to a fire that started in her house, apparently while she was gone. It blew out the windows in the upper stories and shot flames up into the night sky. The news headline about the fire read, “Clutter Hampering Portland Firefighters at North Portland House Fire”. She had a cat that they could not get to and it died in the fire.
A house cluttered to a degree that makes it unsafe for firefighters to go in and do their job is probably accurately described as a hoarder house. And from obsessive watching of the show Hoarders, I can only imagine there were a lot of emotional/mental factors that led the home owner to this point. As we walked past the house this morning, I felt sad for her, the loss of her cat, and what will happen to her now. Was this house her only option? Would she repair it, move back in, and work on her clutter? Or would she keep doing the same thing, either here or in a new house or even a relative’s house? Did she feel responsible for what happened, or just unlucky? Of the things she lost in the fire, what did she miss?
When I was in college, I had a really bizarre summer job through a temp agency doing fire restoration. A crew of us would go into a house where there had been a fire, and we would take everything out of a smoke damaged area, clean the space and all the objects, and then put everything back exactly as it was, smelling sweetly of this orange blossom scented water we would spray on it. Sometimes instead of going to a burned house we would stay at the factory and clean boxes and boxes of people’s possessions that had been through a fire. Once cleaned, we would put them into new cardboard boxes, spritz the boxes with the orange water, and send them back. One of the guys who worked there, I think his name was Louis, had worked there forever and said that the idea with the cleaning and the orange spray was to erase the sense-memory of the fire for the family. We used heavy duty chemicals that would strip even crusted soot off of stuff, and Louis taught me how to wash everything from toys to umbrellas to paper.
Louis had great stories from his years in the job, a lot of them involving hoarded houses. He was one of the people who would go into the houses to pack up the boxes of stuff and bring them back to the factory, and he loved to piece together the backstories of the families by looking through their possessions. Like an archeologist on a dig, he would triumphantly hold up a marriage certificate he was carefully washing and proclaim, “Aha! They’ve actually been married TWICE – to each other! See the date on this one? It’s earlier than the first one I cleaned. Looks like they split up for a little while, then got back together. They’re real huggy and lovey with each other right now, but that’s typical after a fire. Huh. Wonder how long this second one will last.” He also told stories of houses with shimmering walls of cockroaches, or houses where the stuff was stacked chest high with narrow walking trails and the kids would squirrel away food in little hidey-holes all over the house. Louis was one of the most fascinating people I’d ever met, and even if he did spend a lot of time trying to get me to go square dancing with him, listening to him really made the time fly.
The fire in our neighborhood has made me think though, what story would my stuff tell if it was packed up in boxes and examined by a stranger? Would it accurately represent me? Would I be embarrassed by the things they found? It’s an interesting thing to think about. And a little sobering/cringy/alarming.
I think I might do a little clutter clearing tonight.
My Mom used to make our birthdays incredibly special. She made pinatas, she decorated cakes, and she would put a big red rattan “throne” at the head of the table for the birthday girl to sit in, along with a silver crown to wear from a Halloween princess costume she had made. There was always a special birthday breakfast that morning, even if it was a school morning, and sometimes I would come downstairs to find a florist’s box next to my plate with a fluffy pink corsage to wear to school. Often I had a new dress or blouse to wear too, and at some point during the day she would bring hand decorated cupcakes to my classroom (this was before schools were concerned about the cleanliness of student’s home food handling, and in a time where you never heard a grade school kid say, “Is that gluten free?” or “I’m lactose intolerant” or “I only eat organic”). Dinner was the birthday girl’s choice (I frequently chose to go to McDonald’s, klassy!). The year I turned seven, she made me an ice cream cake roll in the shape of the number 7, covered in pink frosting roses and powdered sugar. The year I turned ten (my golden birthday, since I was 10 on the 10th) she went all out and made me a three tiered cake, like a wedding cake, with light green frosting and pale pink roses (interestingly enough, pink and green ended up being my wedding colors too). It was all very elaborate, and made my birthday my favorite day of the year.
And oh, the presents. I usually would get one big item (Barbie dolls, a bike, roller skates, a camera, a new outfit, a watch, etc.), and then tons of little surprise items as well. In addition to the gifts my family gave me, I would also have a party with school friends, and a ton of loot would come in from that as well.
I am not a person who gets all shy and humble and “Oh you shouldn’t have I can’t accept this” about presents. I love getting presents. I love giving them too. I never expect them, but when they are given, I accept them with love, gratitude, and joy, even if it turns out to be something I don’t want. For me, it’s about the exchange of energy and goodwill, and that always feels great.
In recent years though, I have found that once the receiving glow has worn off, getting a bunch of new stuff all at once, whether it happens on Christmas or my birthday, has come with an under layer of anxiety as well. I think a lot of that has to do with feeling like I have too many possessions already, so adding to the pile is really stressful (where will I put it all? Do I actually need any of it? Do I like it enough to keep it? If it’s a duplicate should I toss the one I already have even though it’s still good?).
This year I had complicated feelings around the idea of getting gifts. On one hand, I am very happy with the progress I’ve made on not bringing a lot of new stuff into my life. But I am also in a serious state of withdrawal around not having a new stuff high on a regular basis anymore. So I wanted stuff, but also kind of didn’t. And I wondered – would my birthday feel forgotten and blah without presents?
But there was one thing I really did need – a new computer. My old computer is from 2006, and its limping painfully towards its end. I’ve killed the battery (it’s a laptop), I constantly get a “memory disk is full” message, it’s glacially slow, and there is some kind of problem with the power cord that causes it to suddenly disconnect without my noticing, until it suddenly shuts itself off in the middle of a project. I have been living in fear that it will croak while I am in the middle of narrating an audio book, and I will lose all my recording. I do a lot of my work on my computer, so it is not something I could live without – if I could only rescue a couple items in a fire, it would be my computer and my phone. So it was clear to me that sooner than later, I needed to figure out how to get a new one.
I’d been saving money towards the cause since December. I’d managed to amass over half of what I needed, and I figured my birthday could help me get almost, if not all the way, to my goal. When anyone asked me what I wanted for my birthday this year, I asked for either money or a gift certificate to the Apple store. And four days after my birthday, I found the the perfect computer for my needs, and paid 95% cash for it.
It was definitely a different birthday for me – no towering stack of presents to unwrap, just a handful of cards with money in them. But I couldn’t have been happier. The one gift I got was exactly what I wanted and needed, and I absolutely love it and will use it extensively every single day. I don’t feel any anxiety around trying to figure out what to do with a bunch of new things I didn’t really need, and the lack of a bunch of gifts didn’t make things feel any less special. I had a lovely birthday lunch and a birthday dinner with some of my dearest girlfriends, as well as a birthday dinner “date” with Ron. I felt very special, loved, and celebrated.
It was, in every sense, “just right.” It was lagom. I hope to make a habit of it.
Well, here we are, 2013. Can you believe it? I can’t. Thirteen is supposed to be an unlucky number. I’m not sure I buy that though – I have some very good associations with that number. My mom’s birthday is May 13th, and she’s one of the best people I know. And, I was born on May 10th, so she came home from the hospital with me on her birthday – so I guess the 13th is when I really ventured out into the world.
I’ve tried multiple times to keep a blog. And multiple times, I have failed at it. Maybe this will be my lucky year, this unlucky 2013, and I will finally persevere. Part of the problem in the past has been the fact that I used blogging as a diary/journal, writing about whatever struck my fancy on a given day. I suck at that. In fact, throughout my life, I’ve kept diaries and journals intermittently, but only tended to write in them when I was having a really bad day. I went back and read one of my childhood diaries once, and was horrified at the thought someone would find it and read it and think I had the worst childhood ever (I didn’t – it was super normal and quite happy). Without a focus of some kind, there was no point to me starting another blog.
For the last several years, I have had a “theme” for my year. I print it out and keep it over my desk and refer to it when I’m making decisions, or losing focus, or down in the dumps. For instance, one year it was “F*ck the Haters.” Last year it was “Run Your Own Race.” Having a yearly theme has proved to be a good thing for me – it grounds me, pulls me back to my hopes and dreams, and keeps me from getting too scattered. I am a woman who is easily scattered.
At the end of 2012, I had an experience that helped me land on my theme for 2013. I’m a professional actress – I make my living mostly doing live theatre, voice over, and commercial gigs, with some teaching scattered in there to make ends meet. I am fortunate to usually be able to work in Portland, OR, where I live, but I ended up with an opportunity to work on a show in Naples, Florida this past fall. For the first time since college, I lived with roommates in a house. I had my own room, but shared a bathroom, kitchen, and other living space with three other women. I was there for two months, and took one large suitcase full of clothes, and one box with electronics/home goods.
Before I go further, it’s important to know another fact about me – I am a recovered (okay, recovering) shopaholic. I love to shop. I love STUFF. I love clothes, shoes, jewelry, makeup, music, books, household goods, electronics – I LOVE IT ALL. I cannot get enough. I’m not proud of it, and there are times in my life it has gotten me into financial trouble and emotional strife. I am aware of my problem, and the circumstances that make that behavior crop up for me. I’m a work in progress, to say the least.
But an interesting thing happened while I was in Florida – I rarely wanted more than I had packed into that one suitcase and box. Did I shop while I was there? Yes, yes I did. Mostly as a result of having too much time on my hands. But I never bought more stuff because I really wanted for anything. I was happy and totally covered with what I had. And that was a new feeling for me. I had just enough of everything. And when I got home, I was overwhelmed by all our STUFF. Stuff that needed to be sorted or cleaned, stuff I didn’t have a home for, stuff that wasn’t ours, stuff we’ve had forever but never used, stuff I think I might need someday, some stuff I don’t even like but for some reason keep.
Prior to heading to Florida I had been reading a lot about minimalism. And I am FASCINATED with the show “Hoarders” on A&E. Both extremes rivet me. I am nowhere near hoarder status, but I don’t think I could be a minimalist either. (In the Florida house, we had maybe six forks for four people, which meant we were constantly doing dishes. I’ve read minimalist blogs where people had one fork per person, to be washed after every meal. No thanks.)
But then I stumbled across a great blog called livinglagom.com. What is lagom? It’s a Swedish word that doesn’t have an English translation, unsurprisingly. But the gist of it is that it means balance – not too little, not too much – just right. Like Goldilocks. Or you know, being content with “enough”.
Now THAT is a concept I can get on board with.
So my theme for this year, is lagom – more specifically finding my lagom. How will this play out? I have no idea. But I am going to try to find it – my lagom. I’m guessing it will start with my relationship with my stuff. But I am curious to see how it will affect other areas of my life – career, relationships, food, etc. The idea that by the end of 2013 I might feel just right feels…well, just right.
So welcome to my journey. Feel free to comment, encourage, roll your eyes, judge, laugh, whatever. I’m probably doing all of that too.