An easy way to measure our progress down this narrow path we call life is thru reflection, which simply means looking back at a period of time in our life and examining experiences as well as searching for meaning. While we often tend to look at our own experiences with rose tinted glasses, focusing on the highlights, or rather fun times, we often neglect the true lesson that often seems so elusive. I know in my lifetime I’ve often looked back in hindsight and discovered an epiphany, or better yet, a teachable moment, when truly thinking about the trials and tribulations that I’ve been thru. Often what I thought in the moment was unpleasant or even torture has thru reflection has revealed itself to be a lesson in disguise.
I reflect on the past year living with my mother in Toledo, Ohio. I was an adult child at 30 years old, and staying with a woman who I had selfishly began to think of as a hoarder. For those who don’t know, a hoarder is someone who can’t let go of everyday objects, specifically stuff that many consider garbage, keeping such items in their houses to the point where the house is taken over by trash. Such was the case with my mom.
But before going any further, I want to make clear that this post is no way an attempt to embarrass or ostracize my mother. Rather, I want to extol the virtue I found in her own obsessed reasoning in simply refusing to throw away stuff I would deem trash but eventually came around to realize was in fact gold.
Simply put, my mother will save anything that she can find a perceived use in. Whether it be ketchup or sugar packets from McDonalds, plastic silverware both unwashed and unused, or old boxes of magazines she swore would get donated one day, my mother keeps everything, often to the point that it winds up stacked in boxes in cabinets, closets, the living room, and even her utility room. While she hasn’t gone to extremes as the typical hoarders we think of when we use that pejorative, avoiding collecting actual garbage or leftover food, her natural tendency to preserve everyday household items often appears far worse than what I thought was a disease in that time period.
Imagine the dread of walking into a home and wanting to sit at the dinner table to eat a nice bowl of rice and beans only to see a box of paper napkins in front of you, or trying to sit at a stationary desk to write a letter and encountering a stack of year old newspapers. Such was the predicament I found myself in while living there, my anxiety soaring thru the roof at my own disgust of such cramped space. I personally came from a house that my mother spitefully declared sterile, having nothing but white walls and little to no decorations. I lived simple and elegant, and as I look back now, very wasteful myself.
Let me explain.
Garbage in many ways is a very modern concept. The very idea of throwing precious metals, plastics, or even unspoiled food away would have undoubtedly horrified previous generations that had little to no sense of scope of the readily available disposable resources later generations have come to take for granted. In times of scarcity and rationing, function was a priority over consumption, and the very thought of purchasing something just to toss it away without much thought later would have been completely foreign. This is even more evident as a city dweller, because trash to me is something that a garbage truck picks every Monday morning, the very thought of where it ends up piled not even crossing my mind.
The shock then of having to wash styrofoam plates or reuse plastic deli meat containers as a form of tupperware at first drove me nuts, because I had grown accustomed to this carefree and luxurious lifestyle of not worrying about the impact my consumption had on the environment. I often wound up getting into an argument with my mother over such matters, feeling completely flabbergasted on her insistence that all this stuff taking up precious space in our house had value or more life left in it. To me, it was meant for the garbage can, and that was the end of the argument.
Whereas she was inclined to save and preserve everything, I pitched anything and everything away. Imagine her own shock when I threw away the 20 or so cat food containers in the trash that were sitting in our utility room, for what in my mind felt like 2 years. Or the horror on her face when I decided it was time to clean her precious spare bed room filled from floor to roof with boxes of trays, napkins, and leftover cereal boxes. She insisted she was going to take the stuff to an elementary art teacher who could use them. I accepted her argument for the first 4 months but then took matters into my hand when I realized nothing had moved, and that the room had become even more packed, to the point where I couldn’t even see the floor.
It isn’t hard to imagine the stress of having to witness and live with such a state affairs if you’ve ever seen one of those shows on HGTV depicting hoarders. The people that appear crazy on television seem to feel no sense of claustrophobia or shame at living in spaces that most would consider unlivable. I felt the same about my mom. She slept in a room that was filled with cat knick knacks and shoes and very little walking space. She never seemed to mind eating in her bed because the kitchen table was littered with plastic cups and books. Having a living room stacked with boxes of used clothes and last December’s packed Christmas decorations never seemed to bother her, nor running out of closet space because it was filled with plastic bags filled with more plastic bags. On the contrary, she seemed at peace about the whole affair.
As the year progressed, I attempted in vain to clean and organize the house. Whenever I pitched something, or took a box to a donation center, another item or box took that previous thing’s spot. It was like a factory or big box store. One item left the house only for something else to takes it spot. I worked harder, faster, spending hours everyday organizing and cleaning, only to find that such attempts were hopeless. A discarded box of Cheerios went into to the trashcan only to be replaced with a new one and reality slowly sank in: cleaning the house was never going to happen.
During the process my relationship with my mother deteriorated. She grew bitter and resentful, alleging that I was attempting to hurt her by throwing old newspaper and napkins away. She said I had no sense of priority, that I wasn’t thinking about how she was helping other people. She swore she was going to take a box of plastic cup lids to the art teacher at the right time, that the clothes would get donated. That there was a very specific reason for why she was holding onto every single damn thing. And sure as shit, as I began to grow weary of such futile attempts of clearing the house out, I began to side with her.
I found myself becoming inclined to hold onto metal cans and lids, as well as aluminum pop tabs. I began saving used staples and paper clips and bag ties in a plastic container, feeling joy when the dish they sat in grew full. Being a former eBay business owner and reseller, I began to see the dollar signs in a box of useless stuff such as plastic lids and straws and pens without caps, discarded but secretly hoarding value. I had seen other people sell such stuff on eBay and make a fortune in the process, and I began to think that maybe I could do the same. Surely someone would 20 to 50 bucks on a box of styrofoam dishes?
As I write this blog post I chuckle as I reuse the back of printed on office paper, insistent that I don’t have to buy new paper because this is suitable to write on. I find myself daily walking the streets and see the wasted potential of tossed pop cans and plastic bottles, convinced I’ll save the world by selling such stuff. The very idea of discarding something that can be washed and reused seems ordinary now, and I owe such thinking to my mother as well as a Chinese mentor that taught me the value of recycling.
See, while living with my mother, I had a moment of clarity. I felt a spirit take hold of me and tell me that I was failing to see the beauty in what my mother was doing. Where I seemed to be disgusted because of her lifestyle, she found purpose and meaning in the sacrifice of space for the nobility of seeing value in something that was seemingly valueless. Yes, I secretly hoped she could clean a little bit more (Okay, a lot more!) or find a way to organize all the boxes that were piling up, but the dang truth was I was hesitantly growing to admire what she was doing.
When I left home in March of this year, I left behind an attic full of boxes of old magazines and maps as well as an antique lamp, a used pencil sharpener, and a ton of electrical cords waiting to be picked up by a tech wizard, all waiting to be sold online. My goal was to find all the stuff in her house and hopefully make a small profit for her off the stuff that McDonald’s didn’t want anymore. I never did see my plan come to fruition because I simply never found the time to finish my goal. I moved to Cleveland and began a new life in a homeless shelter where I continue to live today.
But I now see in my own heart me one day carrying on my mother’s legacy. As I work in the kitchen here in the City Mission, I make sure not to throw away any leftover salt and pepper packets. Whenever people throw away a bag lunch, I take the time to pick out any unopened plastic forks or knives, insistent that at the very least they get used before being tossed in the trash.
I see in my future having my own place and carrying the work and cause that my mother instilled in me. I dream of recycling everything, of finding a home and place for everything I touch, in hope that one day I can be like my mother and find a purpose in everything, and to a larger extent everybody. And while I still shudder at the thought of living in a house or apartment filled with boxes of expired coupons, I now see the lesson that was being taught to me last year. Everything has value, whether anyone agrees or not, and that in my eyes is in itself a value to cherish and hold dear.
And yes, while I continue to pray my mother finds it in herself to clean the house up and enjoy a stress free and anxiety reducing living space, I’m glad to know that somewhere out in the world a little bunny is smiling right now, knowing someone is taking the effort to keep their own household trash free. Thank God there is still a patch of green grass left for it to frolick in, even if the downside to such a garden of Eden is having to roll my eyes and hold my breath the next time I come home to visit. God bless my mother in her own folly, because rather than stigmatize and hate someone I would call a hoarder, I now know a mother I can respect. We may disagree on how she lives her life, but I cannot deny the good work she does in living the lifestyle of not a hoarder, but rather a reuser, knowing she sees something discarded trast that I don’t. I can only hope to be like her one day, because in the end, that is her legacy to the world, but especially to all the little bunnies god graced the earth with.
God bless and please, reuse and recycle!