Forming irrational attachments to the things in our lives is a subject of interest to scholars and sentimentalists alike. I have read many articles on the whys of collecting. Let's say, for example, when you first put on your winter coat at the start of the season, you reach into your pocket. There you find a movie stub that sets off a raft of memories. It might have been Valentine's Day and a date with a forgotten someone. Maybe the movie comes back in vivid detail or it might be a fond memory of the person, no longer in your life.
Many years ago I attended an art exhibit in New York City in Soho where experimental shows are common. The theme of this one was "personal object." People came to gaze at a hair clip, an earring, postcards, a hair brush, empty soda bottles, and cigarette butts.
There was a room set up as a very campy kitchen from the 1920's chockablock with wonderful artifacts from that era. You could imagine the housewife in her apron stirring something in a dented aluminum pot on the old-fashioned stove. The exhibit, or rather the combination of objects, reminded me of Joseph Cornell's boxes of seemingly unrelated items juxtaposed in surrealist organization that prompted musings among its viewers.
I am currently in the process of clearing away debris, long saved, in my office closet and in containers on my desk. It is difficult to let go of items that once held sufficient interest to warrant holding onto for several years. A round wooden mold for something made for a ship (who can remember its origin?) has absolutely no purpose and with much reluctance was finally relegated to the "get rid of" pile.
I save letters. I love it when I receive a handwritten thank you note from someone I might have interviewed for an article or one of my books. I have a decorator friend with a beautifully, old-fashioned scripty handwriting. He always sends me a sweet message for Valentine's Day and I've kept them all. When I come upon these letters and cards in the process of purging, I reread each one and am rewarded with the same good feeling I got when it first arrived. I have letters from my grandparents, written to me as a child and just seeing their handwriting brings me back to those times.
Perhaps this is why we have trouble getting rid of things. The objects remind of us loved ones, as well as experiences. A writer I knew once said that he gets attached to things like a certain writing pen or articles of clothing and even after the pen no longer works or the clothing is worn he can't part with them. Over time they have been infused with memories that come to the surface when he just looks at them.
At this time of year it seems that everyone who owns a store in town can be seen at the Nantucket storage center. We take things out, we put things in. Mostly we are storing. The modern mantra is to live in the now, a chant that has gotten louder as we become more encumbered than ever.
A multibillion-dollar self-storage industry serves one in 10 American households. There are organizations that help people get rid of the stuff they've accumulated.
The Mayo Clinic's web site now lists "hoarding" as a disease.
Author Orhan Panuk who wrote "The Museum of Innocence" says, "We are living in the age of mass-produced objects, things that come without announcing themselves and end up on our tables, on our walls. We use, and often don't even notice them and then they vanish without fanfare." He blames obsessive hoarding on personal heartbreak and sorrowful life histories. But this is an extreme in the collecting category. Panuk believes that the future of museums is in our own homes. Something to ponder as we decide what should go and what should stay.
I admit to having a passion for flea markets, auctions and yard sales, especially when traveling in another country. The detritus of every day things have spirit. When we discover them they have been divested of the memories they once invoked in their past owners: mirrors, kitchen utensils, soup tureens, candle holders, and now fight to be reclaimed for the charm they may hold for their new owners. At Covent Garden in London where I look for brass-ended, fold-up rulers, I was overcome with a feeling of sadness, viewing the cluttered aisles as a way station for objects that needed adoption. I wonder about where the every day objects have been and how many households they have passed through.
There will never be an end to buying, collecting, displaying and then disposing of the myriad of objects Americans purchase. It is a fine art and a dedicated homeowner who can ruthlessly get rid of the things that were bought so long ago they no longer have purpose both tangible and obscure. But this doesn't seem to keep us from consuming. For better or worse, it's the American way.
Leslie Linsley has written more than 50 books on crafts, decorating and home style. She resides on Nantucket with her husband, photographer Jon Aron, and has a store on the island that specializes in her one-of-a-kind creations. Her latest book is "Key West, a Tropical Lifestyle" (Monacelli Press), with photos by Terry Pommett.