I’m a hoarder. Not the type that needs an intervention from Oprah or any other reality (?) show, but a hoarder nonetheless. I have great difficulty letting go of the things I’ve accumulated over the years and often attach more sentiment to some objects than they deserve. This often causes problems for me, especially when I’m attempting to de-clutter my office at home.
Of course, what I mean by “office” is the one room in the house that is mine. It has my computer, my comics and other books, and many silly little toys I really enjoy. It’s also the only room in our house that could truly be called cluttered. The problem is that I have such a high tolerance for clutter, my room can have rather a lot of it (which seriously annoys my wife).
Chrisie has a very low tolerance for clutter, but she doesn’t say much about my room because she knows if I’m allowed one cluttered space that the clutter won’t infect the rest of our house. It’s a good system we have that has worked well for a number of years. She must have started cheating though, because recently I started losing my tolerance for clutter. I figure she must have been planting subliminal thoughts in me while I slept, or possibly something left over from all those bizarre mind experiments the CIA conducted. Whatever nefarious method she employed, the result was the same. I recently walked through my room and though, who lives like this? I have got to clean this up. That’s how I know she was cheating on our arrangement. I don’t have thoughts like that.
I started looking around my office and wondered how I let it get so bad. Why did I even hold on to this stuff? Some of it I can make a pretty strong argument for holding on to, such as letters from m wife. I have literally every single thing Chrisie ever wrote to me (even from before we dated). Every card, every note, every scrap of paper. I eve kept all the ones she wrote when she wasn’t interested in me at all and were, um, unkind. That’s not a problem. Most people even think it’s sweet. The problem is I’ve also kept every other card other people have given me. Cards for birthdays, high school graduation, college graduation, our wedding, and anything else. Most people seem to think hanging on to this other stuff is just weird.
I decided that I would de-clutter my room on the next Saturday. I thought I could easily tackle the project in a day (hah!). I started out strong. I convinced myself that I would not need whatever spare part, computer component, or various thing I had been saving for the day it might be useful and quickly filled my first garbage bag and box for stuff to donate. Then I came to a pile of cards and notes. My over developed sentimentality had imbued these years of accumulated items with value they did not deserve. I was almost physically ill thinking about throwing away a birthday card that was over ten years old with nothing personal other than a handwritten “Happy Birthday” from someone I hadn’t even kept in touch with. Insight knocked me over the head while I was pondering that card and reminded me of a specific summer day.
It was July of 1997 (this is important). My brother had been married for a year and their refrigerator had gone out. My parents decided to give them their “extra” fridge. Yes, they have two: the normal one in the kitchen and one in the back of the house where they keep items used less often. Since I drove a pickup, I was volunteered to help my dad transport the refrigerator to Nashville.
I arrived at my parents house on a Saturday in July of 1997 (so important I’m repeating it) thinking I would help load the fridge, drive to Nashville, help unload it, and return home. I was wrong. The fridge we were moving to my brother’s had not been emptied. Dad and I made room in the front fridge for some things and brought in a garbage can to toss anything that was past its expiration date. Part way through the process I remembered my parents’ “back” fridge had gone out in June. When they bought a new one, they put it in the kitchen and moved the one from the kitchen to the back.
“Hey, Dad, didn’t you guys just put this fridge back here last month?”
“Then why are we throwing away so much? Shouldn’t this out of date stuff already have been tossed?”
“Your mother moved it all.” I understood then. I’m a little OCD about the dates on food, my mom, not so much. It’s a difference of philosophies. I view expiration dates as law even though I know the milk is probably still good a day after the date printed on it (though you won’t catch me drinking it), and my mom sees them as even less than suggestions. Even as the garbage can was filling up I was willing to overlook it and just get the job done. At least, I was willing to overlook it until I grabbed the cream cheese.
There were two boxes of cream cheese on one of the shelves in the fridge door. I grabbed them to check the date. I couldn’t believe what I read kneeling on the floor being cooled by the open refrigerator that July day in 1997 (important!). The date printed on the box of cream cheese was “3-31 ’87.” I’ll let that sink in. Nineteen eighty-seven. According to the manufacturer, those two boxes of cream cheese expired over a ten years before. A decade before. I realize that some people are willing to consume food even weeks past a printed expiration date, but this stuff was probably developing its own language by now. There is no defensible reason to hold on to cream cheese for that long.
After reminding me of this, Insight tapped me to bring me back from my memory and I looked at the birthday card with a new perspective. I was holding a card well past its shelf-life. I suddenly understood there was no reason to hang on to it and tossed it out. I made short work of the remaining stack. I did save a worthy few, but I tossed more than I kept. I even managed to get my room pretty clean. Even Chrisie was impressed.
Insight wasn’t done with me though. I also realized that, much like everything cluttering my room, I also hang on to other things I don’t need anymore. Heartaches and incidents I have allowed to clutter my mind. Just like that birthday card, I finally understood I don’t have to hang on to it. There are many things I can just let go. I can just toss it out.
But not all those things from my wife. None of it has an expiration date.