Archive for January, 2023

In my obsessive ruminations on the paranormal, I am often struck by how we cope with the thought of death and the fear of non-existence. I think one of those ways involves the compulsive collecting, or hoarding, of material items. I have around 150 religious icons, ranging from multiple prints of the Virgin Mary to such an abundance of rosaries that I have run out of places to drape them. My husband has so many knives, watches, small wooden boxes, war books, flashlights, lanterns, and other assorted and sundry items, that they have overflowed their hiding places and now pile up on night stands and dressers. There are enough skulls and Halloween decor in the house, including creepy portraits of people who are not, and never were, related to us, that the house has taken on a Haunted Mansion meets goth antique store vibe. We used to think it was simply cool and we were “collectors”, but now, all I can see is us warding the house against death, loss, and grief by filling it up with items that have emotions and/or memories attached to them, as a way to keep us alive via attachment to physical objects.

My shrine is packed with statues of saints, Buddhas, and assorted religious relics. One of those is a small, ornate, silver box that once belonged to my paternal grandmother. It’s lined with velvet, and for some reason, retains her scent of Oscar de la Renta and an Avon powder. I open it up every now and then and inhale that fragrance, all that I have left of her. I wish that I had more of her items, more than just her broken Buddha and her silver box with a shiny, pink stone inside. And yet, I do not have anything else; and so, I evoke her through those twin items that remind me that once, she hugged me and smelled like powder and Oscar de la Renta perfume; once, she was real. And maybe, just maybe, we can keep our loved ones alive who abandoned us in death if we surround ourselves with their precious items, if we place photographs of them on shrines, if we wind their old clocks . . .

And just to be sure, we buy more icons, owl figurines (my grandmother loved owls), incense (I have two drawers full of incense sticks now, and another drawer filled with essential oils, lighters, and matches) and tiny weapons so that we will feel safe and protected from dark forces that seek to rip us out of this life and take away all of our toys and security blankets, but far worse, rip away our memories, our invocations to loved ones passed, even our emotional lives, wrapped up in the things we buy and collect and lovingly display because, of course, they mean something, and without all those reminders, we might simply forget, and forgetting is like dying itself.

I watch “Hoarders” because I understand the power of objects. When your own emotional life is so rife with pain, loss, and grief, how comforting to think that a photo, a painting, or an old deck of cards can absorb some of your feelings, can provide a safe container for the mysterious despair that pervades this material existence. Of course, it doesn’t work; you can’t retrieve a loved one from the dead by displaying their earring box on your shrine, nor can you find God by displaying hundreds of images of His mother around your house. You can’t banish scary spirits with drawers full of incense nor protect yourself from spiritual harm with one hundred rosaries and assorted crucifixes. You can’t protect yourself from the loss of your object-body by hoarding interesting objects, each one a bit like a body, that maybe you think will contain you and hold you safely so that when you lose your object-body, you will live on in bits and pieces of your collections. If would be lovely if that were true; but even the most die-hard hoarder knows the truth: you can’t live on through your things, and you can’t take them with you wherever we end up going.

And that leaves us with the gaping, empty, hole of existence, whether in our bodies or out of them. If you have faith, real faith, then you hold the get-out-of-jail-free card. If you rely on “evidence”, then all you have is confusion and contradiction, and, once again, the necessity of faith. If you have had a direct experience of the Divine, the Immortal, the Godhead, the Universal Consciousness, then you most assuredly feel, like I do, a real sense of shame for hoarding graven images and lots of non-graven ones, too. Those of us who have been given a glimpse of eternity should know better than to purchase another pink crystal salt lamp, and yet, the temptation is overwhelming to hedge our bets, just in case we can escape the Grim Reaper by diving headfirst into our stuffed pumpkin collection and hiding.

There were these two brothers who hoarded out an apartment in New York to such an extent that the only way they could escape their home was through a window, and after awhile, they couldn’t even exit the window. The neighbors started to complain about the horrible smell emanating from their apartment, and finally, the authorities were notified. It took days to clear out the apartment to the point that they could search for the brothers. As it turns out, they had passed away under a huge stack of books and papers that had collapsed, crushing and asphyxiating them until their souls escaped their confines (if, indeed, their souls could find their way out). I do not wish this to be my fate, nor anyone else’s. There is no sense of safety when your objects destroy you.

I would love to end these considerations by coming up with a solution to this problem that didn’t sound trite and parental, or condescendingly “spiritual” in nature, but I will not, because fear of death and poor coping mechanisms in the face of trauma are very human concerns, and we all deal with our emotions differently. I don’t judge those who hoard, those who hide behind walls of important objects, collections, or books, because I understand the urge to protect yourself from ineffable, mysterious, incorporeal forces cannot be grasped nor studied nor examined. In the face of the unknown, it is of tremendous comfort to surround yourself with the bodies of your objects, the solid evidence that spirit can be converted into matter, and that matter can enfold and define you. But eventually, that matter will rot away, just as your object-body will decay and decompose, and you need to know that what is left is the only thing worth having in the first place: a sense of self, a belief in your worth as a spiritual being, but most of all, the understanding that you are not, in the end, the equivalent of a giant mound of garbage.

For your items, collections, and objects will serve as your tomb if you live to serve them.

—Kirsten A. Thorne, PhD

For more information on the Collyer brothers, go here: https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/collyer-brothers-brownstone-gallery-1.1187698

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