Why hang onto stuff?

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I ran into a woman recently who lived in Kings County for many years and then moved away. This summer, she came back to visit and, as a means of letting go of her past, she burned the five boxes of stuff left stored here. She told me how therapeutic the ceremony she invented for herself was.

That comment got me thinking about the stuff we accumulate. I’ll never forget helping to clear out my great aunts’ house in Annapolis County. There were 40-year-old nursing uniforms, reams of lightly-used wrapping paper and countless jars of jam under the bed in the spare room.

What makes people hoard? Is it living through an economic depression, or could it be a genuine compulsion? Between Oprah and a new American TV show, there’s suddenly a spotlight on individuals who hang onto belongings.

I like a certain amount of clutter, but I cannot understand people who pile up belongings and are unable to get rid of useless items. Apparently, there are between 700,000 and 1.4 million people in the U.S. who have a compulsive hoarding syndrome. They can’t throw anything away. Making decisions is difficult, and their daily functioning is impaired as a result of the hoarding.

Take English shopaholic Joan Cunnane. She’d been a compulsive shopper for years when her body was found underneath a pile of clothing and other items after she died of natural causes. Miss Cunnane's bungalow was so crammed with purchases, it took five visits to the house before she was found. Police had to bring in a truck and a dumpster to clear it out.

That order of waste is incomprehensible, to my mind. In a world where the few have so much and the many so little materially, it just doesn’t make sense to hang onto things that have no use.

If you are famous, hoarding takes on a different flavour. Take 610 cardboard boxes, filing cabinets and a shipping container left behind by the late Andy Warhol. His junk somehow has more meaning than most - an estimated six years will be devoted to the project. Hired by the Andy Warhol Foundation, the four archivists currently combing through everything from taxi cab receipts to fan mail, are carefully cataloging, photographing and researching the often strange items Warhol tossed in. When the 58-year-old artist died in 1987, his four-story New York townhouse was packedf. Apparently, the only rooms that looked normal were the bathroom and kitchen. A drawer of jewels worth $1 million was among the trove. About 1973 Warhol started filling boxes, dating them and sending them off to a New Jersey storage facility. One contained $17,000, another held a mummified human foot belonging to an ancient Egyptian and a third the orange nut bread sent by one of his Pittsburgh-area cousins, along with a note telling him to enjoy it with a cup of coffee. Even piled unchronicled in boxes, Warhol’s hoarding is valuable junk.

An exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia this summer called Sometimes Always reutilized a range of discontinued audio formats: cassette players, reel-to-reel recorders, eight track players and record turntables. I wasn’t sure how it was gallery material, but then some contemporary art strikes me that way. Certainly the fact somebody had been unable to throw all that electronic gear out led to some creativity. One person's trash is another person's treasure.

That sentiment spawned the Freecycle Network, made up of 4,834 groups with over six million members around the globe. It's a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people giving and getting stuff for free. The website all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. There are 10 groups in Nova Scotia and each one is moderated by a local volunteer. The over 500-member Kings County group currently lists about 260 items wanted or on offer.

What a terrific idea it is to share the hoard. Burning old stuff may be freeing, but recycling it is better.

Organizations: Andy Warhol Foundation, Freecycle Network

Geographic location: Kings, Annapolis County, U.S. Nova Scotia New York New Jersey Pittsburgh

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