Last night I hung out with some very amazing friends. The conversation is always good with these people, and it ranged from standardized testing to The Beastie Boys to hoarding. Somehow those things are connected, I’m certain. Late in the evening, my friend Katie began to tell us about her elderly next-door neighbor and how she was a hoarder. She has since moved out of the house, and her children come by once in a while, but the home is not being lived in (by humans, anyway). We all laughed a bit, I imagine we all were thinking about the TV shows we’ve seen, those unbelievably sad and yet totally scary depictions of people who can’t seem to throw things out. Then, my friend asked us if we wanted to see the place – the neighbor didn’t live there after all, and the door was unlocked. I felt a bit like a 12 year old again, creeping through someone’s yard in the middle of the night, flashlight apps ablaze (well, that part was not like being 12, but you get the picture). And then we got to the side door, which, as predicted, was easy to open.
Never. Never in my entire life have I seen anything like this place. My friend Paul was brave enough to step inside and look around – and when I say step inside, I mean that Paul stepped up on top of the largest pile of papers, wrappers, food cartons and general junk that I’ve ever seen. Tin plates from pot-pies, baby items, newspapers, all things that this person could not bear to part with. I was reminded of the Shel Silverstein poem "Sarah Sylvia Cynthia Stout" who would not take the garbage out. We were all clearly stunned by what we saw, and there was a lot of nervous laughter as we got out of there. Afterwards, I came home and thought about it until I fell asleep. And I woke up thinking about it.
People intrigue me. Human beings are strange, strange creatures. I mean, I do understand that hoarding doesn’t just happen on its own. There are likely a variety of underlying issues that manifest in hoarding, but seeing it with my own eyes really shook me. The reasons that a person behaves a certain way, or doesn’t behave a certain way for that matter, are constantly a topic of conversation at my house. It’s not judging, really. Maybe it is. I just think that when we stop questioning things, or being surprised by things, we lose part of our humanity. Was that what happened to the woman who used to live in that house? What do her children do in there when they come by, as my friend suggests they do? Was it always like that? These questions kept me awake last night.
Yesterday at a Writing Project gathering, we read an essay by Margaret Wheatley titled “Willing to be Disturbed.” It’s a piece I’ve read several times and each time I revisit it, something strikes me differently. Today I thought about Wheatley’s words while I was processing what I'd witnessed. Wheatley writes, “Lately, I’ve been listening for what surprises me…when I notice what surprises me, I’m able to see my own views more clearly, including my beliefs and assumptions. Noticing what surprises and disturbs me has been a very useful way to see invisible beliefs. If what you say surprises me, I must have been assuming that something else was true…my shock at your position exposes my own position…these moments are great gifts. If I can see my beliefs and assumptions, I can decide whether I still value them.” My beliefs and assumptions about human nature were challenged last night. Once the laughing and joking were over, I became very aware of how that experience made me feel. And frankly, I’m not certain I like to think so deeply about why people do the things they do. It’s scary stuff.