January is almost over, and that means with every passing day the South loses its ability to cope with cold weather. In this respect I differ from my southern brethren. Bring on the cold, I say and springtime be damned. It will get here soon enough and it will come with a righteous fury. Tornadoes, hail stones and an Old Testament heat wave. Enjoy your Shetland sweaters will you may because tomorrow – well, tomorrow the high is ninety-two and the heat index might hit the century mark.
There is this television show – I have never seen it, but have heard about it – that is dedicated to people who save and collect and hoard items in their homes. It is a lot like this woman out in Las Vegas – missing for months and they find her foot sticking out from a pile of junk in the back room of her home. Then there is that sad documentary about women who have too many cats. And I admit that is some brutal stuff. God knows we ought to feel sorry for those people and I admit for my own part a decent enough curiosity (let’s not call it a fascination just yet) with what it is within those people that makes them hang on to so much worthless junk. What compulsive need are they trying to fulfill? Is this a compulsion with which they were born? The moment their father’s sperm said “how do you do?” to their mother’s egg – is that when it started? Or did mom and dad hoard, too? Or did life kick them in the face in so many ways that they make sense out of everything by hanging on to newspapers and receipts and baseball cards and old coke bottles? I might even sympathize with that last one, but let’s not yet talk about my own coping methods. We will. But not tonight.
I wager that most people look at hoarders and read that story in the news and feel a bit of revulsion or perhaps sympathy and I guess I do to, but you know who really makes me scratch my head? These people who are the polar opposite of hoarders – the ones who own practically nothing. I think about these people – and I am sure they are wonderful, perfectly decent folks – who have no books in their home, no records or cds, no videos of any sort, not to mention comic books or baseball cards or newspaper clippings of a funny editorial cartoon or a concert review or a headline from a presidential election or a war or a football game or something. But then I think that concerning these people, we are left with two options. In the first case, we can think that they have fantastic, vivid memories – a sort of never-ending movie in their brains that recalls every beautiful and heart wrenching moment that they have ever experienced. In the second case, we can deduce that the physical lack of stuff, any of which stands in as an icon or relic to memory, is in fact proof that they are devoid of sentimentality.
A word of caution here – sentimentality is a cruel, cruel mistress. Everyone laughed at Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation but everyone also knows that when a real person in real life with real friends and a real family is driven that crazy by sentimental notions, it makes life hell for everyone else. I have often heard a pretty wise man – a preacher, actually – say that the problem around the holidays is not our obsession with gifts and status, but it is instead sentimentality. The problem is that sentimentality convinces us that with enough smiles and hugs, everything is alright. A warm, fuzzy feeling solves everything. And so for the hoarders among us, sentimentality is a danger because those pictures and clippings and old t-shirts, if too great in number, start to wrap around our ankles like thick vines and soon we are trapped in a terrible garden of our design.
And yet yet yet – who are these miserable souls who are so driven by order and cleanliness that they drive out from their homes and offices and from their very physical existence any physical reminder of special feelings and memories or pleasant associations with friends and family? What emotional wound are they trying to salve with that sort of madness? Oh sure the apartment is clean as a whistle but the emotions are as hollow as the Grand Canyon. These poor souls. I mean that, with all the sincerity of your drunk uncle pounding the Thanksgiving table, making his final point about the necessity of a lower corporate tax rate. (which is to say, most sincere, despite the silliness of the presentation). These people have so consolidated their lives into compact machines, neat and orderly, that their clutter is hidden and buried.
And that is the rub, old boy. For the hoarder, everything is out in the open – gross and obvious. For the mid-level clutter magnet, the mess still sits upon nightstands and kitchen counters waiting to be cleaned on a Sunday afternoon during halftime of the Saints game. But for these other people, life is so compacted and inward, they need to be unwound. God save me from my clutter, indeed. But who will deliver me from this tightly wound bondage, devoid of books and magazines, and all contained on a boring computer chip.
We slowed down considerably right there, didn’t we? Sometimes it is good and very good to slow down at night time and lay out our case while Miles sings on that trumpet with that mute stuffed in the bell and there is that piano – Bill Evans? Wynton Kelly? John Lewis? – pacing along. It sounds like a city street and I remember an old Italian spot in an Alabama town named for Alabama city with the candles made out of Chianti bottles all waxed red and green and white and I would see the large piano in the back room by the toilet after a meal of manicotti and sweet tea because we were Baptist. And the song stuck in my head and I heard again when I was eighteen and I was handed over to Trane and Davis and now now now it all makes sense and life can move like it did for Auden.