Last Saturday night, I took myself to the movies. And when I got home home around midnight, I started rooting through my closets like an angry squirrel. I scoured my bookshelves. I piled things into Trader Joe’s bags and old shoe boxes and ferried them down to the car, piece by piece, until my car vaguely resembled the makeshift dwelling of a homeless person, or perhaps the nest of some sort of animal.
And on Tuesday, I stopped by Goodwill after work, and loaded all of these things into a large blue truck, circling my little Toyota to make sure I’d gotten everything as rain pelted me in the face.
The movie I had seen was “Hello, My Name is Doris.” I thoroughly recommend it. Not because it will make you pack up and donate all of your stuff, but because it’s a sweet and funny movie about a flawed, well-meaning character, finally coming into her own after far too long.
For those of you have not seen it: mild spoilers ahead.
Sally Field plays an older woman who has just lost her mother. Doris (Fields’ character, which is how I will refer to her from now on) has spent her whole life caring for her mother and commuting from Staten Island to a modest, dull accounting job. Doris is not dull. Or boring. But she’s felt that way all her life.
Doris has continued her late mother’s hoarding tendencies, living in a large house with carefully orchestrated pathways between stacks of stuff – everything from old magazines to a lone wooden ski. Doris is clinging to the only life she knows – the life she’s grown old in. But that life has never made her happy.
I laughed along with the other theater-goers (All four of them. While I’m sure the vast majority of people – what little majority there is in the middle of a Saturday night – were perfectly happy with a run-of-the-mill action movie, I very much enjoyed watching Doris’s struggles with the bouncy ball she had been coerced into accepting as a chair. I agree with you Doris. A bouncy ball is not a chair).
But there was something running in the back of my mind as I watched; something that left me uneasy, even as I smiled my way out of the theater and into the parking lot.
I laughed, because it was funny. Because it was supposed to be. But the thought stuck with me, all through the film and followed me out to my car afterward:
This is an image of me in twenty years.
And I didn’t like the view through the looking glass into my future.
Doris has always worked at the same job. She remained at home, living with her ailing mother and commuting to New York, to allow her brother to go to college and get a ‘real job’ and a family and a real life. And she’s surrounded by stuff – her own baggage, her mothers’ and Lord knows who elses’. It’s the baggage of an unfulfilled life. One she never really started living until now.
I have a lot of stuff. I always have. I’m a ‘just-in-case’ kind of girl. I save things. Things that are, to other people’s way of thinking, meaningless junk.
I am the kind of person who will leave a bottle with half an inch of shampoo in it sitting on the rim of the tub, with the full bottles, because ‘it would be a shame to throw that away.’
I am the kind of person who leaves a magazine by the bed, even when I’ve read most of it, because I really should go back and read the articles I missed before – you know, to get my money’s worth. I probably skipped the articles because they didn’t interest me in the first place, but that somehow seems irrelevant to the thought process.
I bookmark articles I mean to read and never go back to. Jobs I mean to apply for and never do. I mark books I mean to read and then forget about them. I buy books and they sit collecting dust on a shelf because for whatever reason, I’m not in the mood for them just now.
I keep hope dresses. Dresses that are just a little too short or a little too tight. Dresses I’m sure I’ll lose enough weight to fit into someday. And dresses that maybe kinda sorta hopefully I might actually have a special occasion to wear. They sit in the closet, despondent. They’re the pretty girls at the party and no one has asked them to dance. And probably no one ever will. At least not as long as they’re with me.
It’s gotten worse in the past few years. A few years ago, I lost someone I loved very much. Someone I couldn’t have even imagined my life without. The loss haunts me every day. It follows me in the car to work. It returns home with me at the end of the day. It’s there whenever I see a movie or book or listen to a song he loved. I’m never without it.
And it’s there in the closetful of books and CDs and DVDs that have been sitting in my office for the past several years. Books that I’ll probably never read, because they belonged to him, and reading them would make me cry. Movies he loved that I can’t bring myself to watch.
And VHS tapes. So many VHS tapes. I don’t even have a VCR anymore. But they’ve been sitting there, like unwanted relatives who have overstayed their welcome, on a shelf in the closet. I haven’t looked at them in a while, but every time I do, I remember a time in my life when weekends were spent watching movies together. When I would go to the big cabinet overflowing with tapes and I’d pick one. And he’d watch whatever I wanted, even if we’d seen it a dozen times before.
And last weekend, I stuffed all of those VHS tapes into a Trader Joe’s bag and carted them off to Goodwill. They’ll probably throw them away. Because they’re worthless. Because nobody watches VHS tapes. Nobody has a VCR anymore. They’ll throw them away. And that’s fine, because I can’t bring myself to.
I am surrounded by stuff – my own and other people’s. It’s stuffed into cupboards and closets and sitting on shelves. Without noticing it, I’ve let this rot – this sedentary creep – slink into my life and wrap its cold, slimy fingers around my throat.
And I can’t let the weight of a life unlived drag me down.
I came home last Saturday night and started rooting through my apartment. On Tuesday, I dropped a whole lot of boxes and bags off at goodwill. I’m sure they’ll throw some of it out – better them than me. I can bring myself to donate it, but there’s something about actually throwing that stuff in the garbage that’s a step too far for me.
I know it’s not the end. It’s just a start. I can look through my still-cluttered apartment and know that this is just a beginning. And it’s something I have to fight in myself.
I have to fight the ‘just-in-case’ and the ‘maybe-I’ll-need-it-someday.’ I have to learn to let go. I have to learn to let myself breathe and let myself live. And let myself be free, for once.
Thank you, Sally Field.