Two Shirts: Finding Compassion about Hoarding

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It started out as a chat about solo parenting. I was at my parents with Ian while Rich was away for the day. He had been up all night earlier that week with Ian while I was away on business. Our baby is incredibly good but sometimes just knowing you're the only adult around can be a drag.

Mom talked about going out of town for training when Doug was little and Daddy held down the fort. She had called late Saturday night and no one answered because they were down at the beach. And when she called again on Sunday, Daddy said they were doing laundry so Doug would have a shirt for school on Monday.

"Doug had plenty of shirts so I didn't understand why they were doing laundry, but Daddy said the one he really wanted to wear was dirty so they were doing laundry."

While she told me this, my father was out in the front yard pushing my fussy son around in the stroller. This was partially because there was no room in their house to easily walk around with him.

Mom sighed. "You know, when Daddy was in high school, he only had two shirts. He used to lie awake in bed worrying about which shirt he would wear because they had different classes on different days and he didn't want everyone to see him wearing the same shirt two days in a row but if he alternated then he'd wear the same shirt to each class. So I guess he wanted to make sure Doug had exactly the shirt he wanted to wear to school."

I looked around my parents' living room. Within arms reach, there were probably two dozen of my father's plaid button down shirts hanging on various pieces of furniture. Ian had pulled several down on us earlier that evening while scampering around on the sofa. There are hundreds of shirts (and many other things) crammed in my parents' ranch home. My parents are pack rats.

Earlier that week, I was reading a trashy magazine in the hair salon. It featured several half page ads for the A&E series Hoarders. One page had a crushed aluminum can with the text "prized possession" under it. Another page showed a shriveled up dish sponge with "sentimental value" under it. Seeing the ads made my stomach hurt and my face got hot with a complicated combination of anger and sadness. I've never actually watched an episode of Hoarders, and I'm not sure I could.

With the show's growing popularity, though, I've noticed several writers casually mention that the clutter in their house has reached Hoarder levels. Heather Armstrong just talked about all the clutter in their home office that looked positively barren to me. And it's the kind of statement made for humor and to relate to most people's habit of keeping a little bit of worthless crap around. George Carlin even has a routine about trying to find a place for our stuff.

My family would probably be considered hoarders. But as we sat in my parents' living room amongst the piles of papers ready to avalanche and the sea of plaid button down shirts hanging from every surface I thought of my dad as an awkward teenager. After fretting his way through the age when what you wear seems more important than anything, I could see where the idea of throwing away or even giving away a perfectly good shirt would be unfathomable.

My father has shirts for every occasion. Dress shirts. Civic League meeting shirts. Yard shirts. Crawling under the house shirts. All of them came from the thrift store and none of them probably cost over $4 each. Would one of those experts from the TV show come in and shovel all of their possessions into a dumpster?

Don't misunderstand, my parents have too much stuff. It's overwhelming and even a little frustrating. But deciding how to get rid of it is heartbreaking. There has to be a middle ground, one without camera crews. Each of us needs to decide for ourselves how many proverbial shirts we need.

Genie Stryker writes at inabottle.org. She's been oversharing most of her life and started a Living Out Loud project in January 2009. Feel free to participate at inabottle.org/livingoutloud

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