I prefer to think of myself as exceptional, and I suppose that I still am, at least technically. However, being unemployed doesn’t exactly make you unique these days.
It’s been several years since I’ve lived below the poverty level. When I got my first job paying an Upper Middle Class salary, I decided to reform my years of tightwad habits and occasionally splurge on items like toilet bowl brush holders and shower curtain rings. I bought a new car. Those were the first steps. Soon I became comfortable with the idea of having money and started accumulating excess: shades of lipstick that I would wear twice and then relinquish to the very back of the medicine cabinet, three ergonomically correct bed pillows (even though I only have one head), three strings of pearls, and – the crowning achievement – a pair of Dansko sandals in every color of the rainbow, so I would never be at a loss to coordinate with an outfit.
But the overriding theme in my life has not been one of excess consumption; it’s one of excess holding on. A hoarding gene runs in my family. Even when my income was a $5 a week pocket allowance from my parents, I was expert at having a lot of stuff. I had drawers full of glossy magazine paper that, at the time, could not be recycled. Horrified at the thought of it going to the landfill or incinerator, I committed myself to a lifetime of collage-making – even though creating art for art’s sake has never been something I’ve found much pleasure in.
By the age of 23, I’d amassed a library of hundreds of books – many bought for a dollar a bag at the library, others from the overstock pile at Barnes & Noble, plenty review copies from my days at the college paper, and most of which I had never read. I couldn’t bear to part with a single one until I’d read it through and determined whether it was a keeper or not. It would have taken several years to accomplish that task, but I was hurried along by my parents’ decision to move across the country. My father refused to haul my shrine of unread books three-thousand miles so that it could continue to be unread by a daughter who no longer even lived with him. (He’d haul his own, but not mine – the cruelty!) So I packed one or two hundred must-haves into large boxes to be shipped to my house and reluctantly sold the rest of the collection for a couple hundred dollars to a used book dealer.
Well, not quite. I used some of the store credit to introduce some new titles into my collection.
My big lesson came when the boxes containing half of the books burst in shipment and the books were lost. The post office sent me paperwork so I could list the contents of the packages (apparently they file the contents of busted packages into a big lost and found library in hopes that they might eventually be reunited with their owners). But the only book I could remember was my dad’s college copy of Roget’s Thesaurus – complete with thumb-indexing! – circa 1954.
Having been unemployed for a few weeks now, I’ve had more than the usual time to clean my house and find loads of crap that I didn’t even know I’d owned: the keys to a car I sold three years ago, bike parts that don’t fit any of the bikes I own (that’s its own accumulation story for another time), a broken hand-vac, marinated grape leaves that I canned seven years ago, several dollars in change and – shocking! – pair upon pair of forgotten sandals. I also began to take more notice of the things I knew I owned, but haven’t used in years (or ever). I’m a quilter, but do I really need 23 drawers full of fabric scraps? And will I ever darn the two dozen socks in the darning pile?
So I’ve decided that this season of unemployment will be a season of plenty for me. I’ll use it to acknowledge the plenty I have and whittle some of it away before I turn 85 and move into a senior care facility, and my relatives are stuck cleaning out a house full of impassable rooms stacked with stuff from floor to ceiling.