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  • Margaret Gerety

Collections and clutter and hoarding, oh my!

Yesterday, for at least the fourth time in my life, I closed the lid on a box of old letters, papers, and photographs and put it back into my closet. The box had spent two weeks strategically positioned in front of my bedroom door so I would see it every time I left the room. We’d been sequestered in the house for months, house improvement projects were running thin, and I figured there was no time like the present to sort, digitize, and toss the box's contents. I managed to chuck a few things and consolidate some photo albums. But I was flabbergasted by my paralysis in facing this task. I am constantly on my soapbox about our collective need to downsize and archive our sentimentality. My parent’s inability to cull and curate their own belongings is the main reason I even started this blog. What was wrong with me? 


my old collection of keys

One of the things that went back in the box was a bag of old keys. They had lived inside my mother’s desk, in a little drawer designed for 20th century items like stamps, envelopes, and checkbooks. They weren't all that attractive, although some had a nice shape and petina. Maybe I kept them because of the handwritten addresses and security box numbers attached to them, written by my father, grandmother, great aunt and uncle, and great grandparents. Or it could have been the memory of playing with them as a little kid. They certainly connect me to my childhood home. But their real power is their collective strength; I wouldn’t have kept a single key if I had found it alone.


Why are collections so sticky?

It got me thinking about other collections I haven’t discarded (yet). There’s my collection of little decorative boxes, my miniature food and figurines, and my little shells (theme: little was cool). Some are wrapped in Kleenex and stored inside of bigger decorative boxes. Others line our basement built-ins, daring my cleaners to dust around them. There’s no question the TV has a larger role in my life than these doo-dads that frame it. 


I think we collect things because it gives us a relatively low-stakes goal and sense of accomplishment. Collecting can give us a sense of control and order in our worlds. But more than anything, our collections are intertwined with our sense of self. This can go for a lot of what we hold on to (read: clutter). There is a sense of “me-ness” that attaches to the things we collect and keep with us throughout our lives. “Rather than viewing those objects as "mine," you may think of them as "me.” It can feel physically painful to throw these items away because you feel like you’re throwing a bit of yourself out with it. 


Is there the difference between collections and clutter?


While there is a big overlap in the Venn diagram of collection and clutter, they have different connotations. A collection feels special and valued. It’s something that we have defined, organized, and displayed with pride. Clutter connotes disorganization. It’s the miscellany that gets in the way our daily lives. We’re usually embarrassed by it. 


While collecting is “universal...and part of human behavior since the earliest human societies,” as it moves beyond survival and necessity, people start talking about clutter, or the big, bad word, hoarding. Some psychologists describe the following traits when distinguishing between collection and clutter (or worse):

  • You stop organizing them. 

  • You can't differentiate between them (they don't hold individual value to you).

  • You don’t display them (e.g., I love the imagery of "a vast graveyard of porcelain dolls”). 

  • The definition of what you’re collecting gets squishy and broad.


Even if our collecting habits can't be classified as a hoarder disorder and other pathological collecting behavior (pet hoarding, impulsive purchasing, food hoarding, etc.), we can relate. We all know the feeling of spending years holding onto things that have limited use and (apparent) value. Here are some examples:

  • "Research." These include books, notes, papers, diaries, and other “intellectual” paraphernalia you swear you'll refer to in the future.

  • Toys, trophies, and memorabilia from a particular time in your life. You know, that little shrine of junk from camp, college, grade school, or that really cool cruise you took.

  • Your collection of CDs, DVDs, VHS, and cassette tapes. The things you used to watch/listen to all the time.

  • Anything your beloved ever owned. This could include your mom’s favorite (now dried-out) pen, dad’s battered leather wallet with old library cards, your kids' yellowed preschool art, not to mention all of old, broken furniture once owned by someone in the family.

can you find the child?

So what about heirlooms?


Heirlooms could be a prized collection or difficult-to-discard clutter; some call it special clutter or "sentimental clutter." Often heirlooms really do get in your physical way (my mom’s old desk, which sat unused in our house for a decade, was one of them!). But sometimes they are immeasurably sentimental and possibly valuable. I think heirlooms should be a small and curated representation of your loved one, not everything they ever owned. Don’t let them fall into the land of clutter. You shouldn't make them a collection either. They shouldn't be part of a group of many things, but a very special, singular belonging.


Back to my box


My box is full of different things - some are collections, some are heirlooms, and some are just clutter. The letters and school papers are connected to my sense of self, for sure. They are physical manifestations of my relationships, and the self-worth I gained from them. I am a pleaser (or "upholder" under Gretchen Rubin's The Four Tendencies rubric), so the A papers from smart teachers and letters and well-wishes from friends and family are physical manifestations of being acknowledged, recognized, and loved. The photos are similar, but also bookmarks to important times in my life. The next step for both is to hand them over to a professional (like my amazing friend Clémence Scouten, who does this for a living) to scan and organize into a family history book that I can edit. I think when I don’t have them physically in front of me, I'll be more discerning about what's important. Once memorialized, I'll also have an easier time letting them go once and for all.


As for the keys and my other little knick-knacks and heirlooms? I think it's a good litmus test if they aren't being displayed. If I'm not showing and talking about them with my kids, then they're verging into clutter territory. I should either make them special or get rid of them. Martha Stewart has this cool family heirloom display box project I'm thinking about using for the keys. Could be a cool and special addition to my powder room.


Now, let’s see if I can follow my own advice!

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