There’s nothing like coming home to find the doorway blocked by five bicycles. I’m not a fan of walking sideways like a crab but I’ve done it regularly because I have to if I want to get inside my home. I’m a millennial living in the two bedroom apartment I grew up in. I do this because my beloved job – which I’m lucky to have – is part-time and pays minimum wage. I’ve crunched the numbers and I can’t make rent, pay back my student loan, and eat too.
“But what’s up with the bicycles?” you ask. Well, everyone in my family, myself included, has multiple hobbies and side projects. Repairing and selling old bicycles on Craigslist is one the more lucrative projects, so the bikes are here to stay. The result, when combined with our mountains of reading material and rescued furniture waiting to be repaired, is a state of constant chaos. Living surrounded by a dozen or so bikes, bike parts, repair tools, stacks of magazines, and piles of papers was normal for me until I went away for school. You can’t know that your normal isn’t other people’s normal until you have something to compare it to.
I love possessions as much as the next person. As a nerd I’m acutely aware how much nerd culture is about stuff. You want to show the world what you love so you buy the shirt that features the game/movie/show/comic symbol on it. This year’s merch will let everyone know you were at a particular festival or convention. Fashion speaks and nerd fashion does so loud and clear: This is what I love. This is who I am.
Household possessions are much the same. I like this fact: one look at my room and you know what you’re dealing with. My book shelves tell you things about me. The art on my walls tells you where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. On my shelves are a few of my favourite things.
Everything in my room says something about me. What does a cluttered house say? Far too much.
In the graphic novel Bad Houses, by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil, every item piled around the protagonists’ hoarder house holds a memory. Danica struggles to hold onto the life she once had – the time when her husband was alive and when her daughter Anne was a child – and the things that remind her of happier times. Her memories physically invade the house and her hoarding reveals deep emotional pain.
Anne feels like their accumulated possessions are all speaking to her at once, whether she wants to hear them or not. This pains her, making her long for space of her own. When Danica hides some of the hoard in Anne’s room, to create an illusion of order for a house guest, Anne is reduced to tears. I imagine I’d feel the same way if my personal living space were taken from me.
The millennial generation knows too well the need for a room of one’s own and the ache of lacking privacy. Many of my friends have lamented over not having any truly private space while living in their family homes. But when your parents are paying the rent, they don’t see problem with walking through your space to see if you left the window open or to retrieve a sock that made its way into your drawer. Logically they have a point, but the feeling of violation is almost physically painful.
The pain of losing privacy is second only to the pain of being surrounded by too much stuff. A heavily cluttered space is exhausting to look at. Too many textures, shapes, things can all come together and overwhelm your eyes. I find I’m anxious if I’m surrounded by too many things or if I have too little room to move. Different people respond to their environments in different ways, but hoarding draws out a visceral reaction.
My physical reasons for being unhappy around clutter are pretty obvious. Reading Bad Houses made me understand the emotional reasons for my clutter-anxiety: the things that clutter the main living spaces of the apartment aren’t mine and neither are the stories they tell. I worry that the stuff will creep into my room and start to influence the self-expressive space I’ve curated for myself. Like Anne, I hear and see more stories than I can manage whenever I’m surrounded by my family’s things. I can only handle so many memories, or so much information, at a time.
I’m not alone in worrying. My Mom was thrilled when I built her a little bookshelf out of old wine boxes. I did this thinking we’d free up space elsewhere, not thinking about how a collection of books reflect on the owner. When her books were on the shelf, she said she felt like her soul was suddenly bared there in the living room – and I knew exactly what she meant. By trying to help her I accidentally stomped on her sense of privacy.
Living with my family is a work-in-progress. It won’t be forever, but while I’m with my folks we’ll have to take turns filling the space we live in. And if all the things get too invasive, I’ll always have a book to hide in.