By Ben Olson
Anyone who has seen the A&E show Hoarders knows what it’s like to see someone literally buried under the weight of their possessions.
If you haven’t seen the show, it profiles people who suffer from a disease that makes it difficult for them to part with even the tiniest possessions. With cameras rolling and tears running down their family members’ faces, the subjects of the show feel helpless when confronted with the mountain of junk and garbage taking over their homes. Often there are only narrow pathways that they use to travel from room to room, navigating past the mountains of ephemera, collectibles, two-liter plastic bottles and stacks of newspapers mounded against every wall.
Then a “junk whisperer” appears and begins to coach the hoarder into stepping out of the house and allowing removal specialists to comb through, filling dumpsters to the brim in the hopes that a fresh, clean start will help them lead fuller lives without all the weight of their stuff.
The show is difficult to watch at times, but ultimately shows the extremes that people will go to protect the often useless possessions that seem to rule our lives. Hoarders is a physical manifestation of the extremes our culture of consumerism has reached.
There’s a reason you see new mini storage units popping up all over Bonner County. It’s happening everywhere. There just isn’t enough room in our homes to contain the bulk of our things, so we have to rent special rooms for the items that are often hidden behind gates and offer amenities like heating and social hang-out zones for those who can’t go too long without looking at their precious possessions.
The consumerist culture of America is out of control. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman said a consumerist culture values transience and mobility rather than duration and stability. The “newness” of things is paramount, and the reinvention of oneself is seemingly as easy as clicking on an item online and seeing it arrive in a day or two. We are a “nowist” culture, that values immediate or quickly acquired satisfaction more than the producer culture of yesteryear, in which people’s lives were defined by what they made, what they created through time and effort. When something wears out or malfunctions, we toss it in the bin and order up another.
I have strived to keep my possessions from ruling my life. There was a time in my 20s when I could fit everything I owned in the back of my car, but those days are long gone. Now, I sigh when I notice my grandfather’s antiques stacked against my kitchen wall or the darkroom supplies I can’t bring myself to throw away or the boxes of memorabilia that I simply move from one place to another each time I change living quarters.
It’s only when you lose a genuinely valuable possession — no, I’m not talking about monetary value — that you realize there is a difference between the possessions that enrich our lives and those which only seem to own us.
Last weekend, my partner Cadie accidentally ran over her ukulele with her car tire while camping. This is the same uke she bought from a luthier in Ho Chi Minh City while we were backpacking in Vietnam about seven years ago. Like a child lugging around a ragdoll, Cadie has carried that uke around relentlessly on all of our adventures large and small, pulling it out to play a few songs while we canoe down raging rivers, cross oceans, camp beside lakes and attend backyard barbecues.
It was more than just a trivial possession to her, a thing that could be easily replaced. It was a companion and a friend. We mourned the loss of the uke, but also celebrated the seven years of memories we shared with it by our sides.
The following morning, Cadie and I sat by the river with a remnant of the shattered ukulele. She read a piece she wrote about how important it had been to her, including a comprehensive list of all the fantastic places we’ve traveled with it. Then she tossed the splinter into the river. We watched it take to the current, eddy on a rock or two, then continue out of sight. It had received a sendoff worthy of a cherished friend, not just an inanimate object that could be replaced without thought.
I’ve learned a lot from my partner over the years, but that weekend I learned to honor the objects in our lives that rise above the baubles and tchotchkes that catch our fancy, but only seem to weigh us down in the end. I learned that there are items I own that I wouldn’t care if I ever saw again, which begs the question: Why am I holding onto them in the first place?
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