I’m about to tell you the most embarrassing story I’ve ever told anyone. If you read to the end, you are a true friend. Here it goes: When I was 10 or 11, my father gave me a stuffed blue elephant for Christmas. The blue was royal blue, blue as Snow White’s dress, blue as the innermost circle of a peacock’s eye, blue as the sky after a hurricane.
Up until this point, I’d never had a binky or a favorite stuffed animal. I thought kids who attached to toys were weird. But, my God, that elephant.
When I squeezed him to my chest, he felt alive. I was way too old for stuffed animals. I listened to New Kids on the Block and kept hairspray and a mirror in my school locker. By elementary school definitions, I was cool. And yet, I slept with that elephant in my bed until I went to college. Even I knew enough not to bring him to the dorms.
He was, indeed, a him. A gender determined on that long ago Christmas morning. The blue elephant became a stand-in for the father who’d left, the complicated, rarely-present, getting-sober father I could not attach to safely.
I wish I could tell you the moment those realizations dawned, I grabbed the elephant and drove to the nearest Goodwill. Nope. I gave the elephant a hug.
He is now tucked at the bottom of a giant plastic container bound for my basement. And there he will stay. Until I have a change of heart.
This summer, as we’ve engaged in a massive decluttering project, I’ve tried hard to rid myself of the blue elephant. But each time I toss him into a Goodwill pile, my chest compresses and breath catches in my throat.
To clutter means to “collect in heaps, to crowd together in disorder.” But for me to clutter is simply “to cling.”
In my clutter, I cling to a past I can never return to, the past where my mother lived, and I lived with her. I cling to a future where the object I hold might one day have a purpose, as if past, present, and future will magically align in a perfect synchronous rhythm, and all the secrets of the universe will be revealed.
But I’m trying to let go.
I’ve spent all summer decluttering our house. And I’ve reduced our clutter to one third its amount, maybe even two thirds. There are bags full of papers to shred in my guest room. There are boxes stuffed with recycling in the garage. There are weekly, sometimes twice weekly, drives to Goodwill.
“I’m coming out as a hoarder,” I told my neighbor a few weeks ago, as I dragged garbage bags bulging with donations to our front curb.
There were also piles of things out there that I had not yet bagged, so the curb looked like the perfect place for Oscar the Grouch to set up camp. Two people on a walk pointed and whispered when they passed my midden.
Another neighbor came outside and offered to leave a bag full of my clothes on his porch for a Purple Heart pickup in the morning. It was at this precise moment that I noticed the bag was white, full of my old bras, and they were all visible.
“Yes. Thank you,” I told him, too tired to be embarrassed. Too angry at everything that’s happened in the past year to feel ashamed. I don’t really have time for shame anymore. I’m decluttering a house.
The more I declutter, the more I realize objects have as much to do with my past as my future, or the fantasy of who I wish I could be if conditions –– I mean, my entire personality –– were different.
The first time I went to Goodwill this summer, I grabbed a ten-pound free weight out of a shopping cart headed for the warehouse. What if I had the sudden desire to lift the free weight one morning? Shouldn’t I exercise more? I want to be a person who exercises more. Can I be that person, please?
“I think I’m going to keep this.” I said, as I clutched the weight.
“No. No. I can’t.” I replied to myself, while a staff member looked on, and I finally let go.
“Does everyone do this?” I asked her.
“You’d be surprised how many,” she said.
So there you have it. We all have our blue elephants. We live in rooms of blue elephants. And all our rationalizations for keeping them are good –– or good enough.
My blue elephant is inanimate, thank goodness, no matter how alive he once seemed to me. We’ve all seen the scary movies where the toys come alive in the middle of the night, and I’d prefer not to be murdered in my sleep.
He’ll probably go to Goodwill tomorrow.
Or maybe not.