I sat in the attic, staring at “the pile.” When we moved into this house, four years ago, it felt like a godsend to have so much space for everything: the woman who owned the house had asked us not to live upstairs, but she said we were welcome to use it for storage. So whenever something appeared in my life that I needed but did not need, I put it upstairs. The screen printing machine I bought off eBay and then basically destroyed after a single use? I put it upstairs. The VCR my ex-boyfriend bought me from the thrift store in Walla Walla so I could watch the VHS love letter he made me? (I know, right?) I put it upstairs. In fact, all the ex-boyfriend stuff went upstairs, and all the clothes that I meant to mend, and all the books from my old classroom. Hence: the pile.
A nomad is a member of a community of people who live in different locations, moving from one place to another. Nomadic people are less common among homo sapiens than they once were, but they’re still around. In Tibet, for example, approximately 40 percent of the ethnic population is nomadic or semi-nomadic. Nomadic communities follow resources as they change, and they travel with their livestock. But they can’t hold on to much; what they have to hold onto is each other. It used to be this way for more people: that people only needed people, and food, and that was it. We once kept each other alive, secure enough with the impermanence of our time on earth.
Nomads cannot have piles. That’s what I thought as I stared at all my stuff, which had accumulated over four years, and now needed to move to a house with no storage for anything. The woman who owned the house with the upstairs had to sell it; she couldn’t afford to keep it anymore. She had her own piles up there, and for four years, I’d admired them: peeling-paint wall fixtures, ancient glass, tin tchotchkes from a forgotten era. She wouldn’t be able to hold onto her piles, either; she lives in Arizona now, with even less storage than our new house has. I had no idea where to begin with all of this stuff. Most of it was going to have to go.
I’m not a hoarder. I subscribe to over 50 magazines and don’t bat an eyelash at recycling them, even unread, after six months. I am, however, sentimental. For example, I keep boyfriend boxes. I got this idea from an episode of “Friends” I watched when I was too young not to idealize the Ross-and-Rachel relationship model (some semblance of sexual attraction, but otherwise no compatibility whatsoever, but still, IT’S LOVE). There was this episode where Ross and Rachel get into a fight, and Rachel pulls out a box of things that she kept from when she and Ross were dating (there’s a movie ticket stub in there, and, at the other end of the spectrum, a dinosaur bone), and she cry-shouts at him, “Don’t say that I have no sentiment!” I was about 7 when that came out and I was like, “When I get a boyfriend I’m totally putting old soda straws from our dates in a box."
And I did! My first boyfriend box got so full I had to start a second one because I kept literally EVERYTHING of any significance. Like, there’s a clump of grass in there. Want to know why? ME TOO. I have NO MEMORY of where that clump of grass came from. There’s a lot of stuff like that — plastic figurines, bits of string, bumper stickers — that I don’t recognize anymore and couldn’t even fabricate stories about. As I got older, I got better at weeding out the random miscellany from my relationships, so the boyfriend boxes shrunk incrementally as my relationships matured. Now they’re all love letters and mix tapes, but they’re still there.
And they were all in the attic, in the pile.
It is so easy to put something aside. Consider your bookshelf. You have the books you liked in college; the ones you can’t let go of because they were recent gifts and it’s too soon; and then you have the rest: books you’re going to read one day, when you have the time. But you will never have the time; the books will never be read; you are always going to be “meaning to read that.” There’s something comfortable about this: letting something go without having to really let it go.
My friend J is the most transient 20-something I know. He spends springs and summers farming on the west coast, and falls and winters farming in New Orleans. He moves effortlessly; his worldly possessions fit into a rucksack. (Seriously: it’s a rucksack. Like, from “Tom Sawyer.”) When I met him, he was nesting in his uncle’s cabin uptown. He had three shirts, a pair of pants, a jacket, a camping stove, a copy of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” and a 10-pound bag of red quinoa. Maybe he embodies some kind of awful cliche, but whatever. I admired him for it.
Years after we met, I visited him at his mom’s house in Florida, and I understood his minimalism. His mom’s house is BRIMMING. You name it, and it’s there: the walls are covered inch-to-inch in original artwork and family photographs and ancient maps; the common rooms have multiple couches each, with coffee tables crowded with pottery and doodads; the kitchen has two sinks and every tool man has ever invented to deal with making food. It is a beautiful, strange house you can get lost in. I can also understand how growing up in that kind of house might make a person want to fall off the grid in his ‘20s.
Most of us are not immune to some degree of hoarding. (We can call it collecting, if we want to be gentle, but.) Psychologists agree that hoarding comes from extreme anxiety around making decisions; but paradoxically, hoarding both relieves anxiety and produces it. The more you have, the more you are insulated from the outside world, but also, the more you are isolated. Need for insulation and fear of isolation are perhaps two of the greatest pulls we face as human beings. I want to keep my boyfriend boxes, because I want some kind of physical proof that after all is said and done, my life has meant something.
Going through the pile in the attic meant acknowledging my failures. I was never going to read those books; I was never going to be a master screen printer; I didn’t need 20 pounds of beeswax because I wasn’t going to start a lipgloss business next year. That relationship ended, that skirt just doesn’t fit me anymore, and that portable blender will never revolutionize the way I do smoothies. Everyone knows that moving is traumatic. But we don’t always understand. It’s not the moving part that is so hard; it’s the leaving behind.
We filled my roommate Hannah’s truck three times with all the stuff we decided to get rid of. There were times I stood in the empty house and wept alone, because I didn’t know what else to do.
But I moved into this new (smaller, noisier) house down the street, and Hannah and Derek came with me. The Thursday after we moved in we had Family Dinner at a new window, with new sun coming in. Nomads trust each other; their community is strong. The BBC interviewed a member of a Tibetan nomadic community named Jigme. He said, “At night, right before bed, we howl into the dark to remind would-be thieves, wolves and local hungry ghosts to stay away from our herds.” I read that and thought: there is a world of difference between howling together, and howling alone.