Donna Levin: Confessions of an Unrecovered Hoarder

Hoarding is a spectrum disorder. I don’t qualify for my own reality show: One can walk through my house without using a machete to clear a path. Let’s say, however, that when I read about the older woman who had a jar labeled “pieces of string too short to save,” it touched something in me, something very deep and terrible, something I shudder to name, but it includes the syllable “hore.”

The stuff I’ve hoarded is all over the house: A friend once opened my refrigerator and remarked, “It’s too bad that penicillin’s already been discovered.” On the third floor, where I “work,” though I use the term for lack of one more precise, there are piles of papers giving birth to dust bunnies. I look at these papers – bills paid and unpaid, receipts, lists – and I think, throw it away, but then, what if I need this someday?

My local Walgreen’s and Safeway often run out of lemonade vitamin water zero, so I buy it whenever and wherever I see it. As I write, there are 46 bottles of lemonade vitamin water in the basement.

There’s also a storeroom in our basement. It’s a large, finished room, with electricity, and a cheap but functional hardwood floor. If we added plumbing and a heating vent it would easily command $1000 a month, even in San Francisco’s currently depressed rental market. Instead, it’s home to shoeboxes of “mementos” that I’ve schlepped from city to city, and apartment to house, now well into middle age. There’s a saying, “three moves is as good as a fire.” My moves haven’t even singed the cardboard.

A few months ago, my husband brought home some boxes of his old papers from the office. Hopeless romantic that he is, he invited me to keep him company while he went through them to see what he could throw out, thus implying, this is a chance for you to go through some of your old stuff!

Who could resist a fun-filled afternoon of confronting one’s most virulent demons?

In the storeroom, I grabbed a random shoebox. It turned out to be where I’d stored souvenirs from a two-week trip I took through Scandinavia with my sister, forty-five years ago. That’s forty-five, as in two generations, six presidents, and 11,745 episodes of General Hospitals. Coffee was twenty-five cents and we all thought that there would be colonies on Mars by now.

And what was in this shoebox that I’d carted from Berkeley to San Francisco to Los Angeles then back to two different San Francisco apartments, before settling in my current house? Ticket folders for SAS. Notepads with the hotel logos. Some Swedish currency.

I did throw it away. Except for the Swedish currency.

Can it possibly be a coincidence that I was doing a little “Swedish Death Cleaning”? As explained to me, Swedish Death Cleaning means that you throw away everything that your children aren’t going to want. But how do I know for certain that Sweden won’t eventually adopt the euro and that one of my children won’t want to collect krona?

A few years after the Scandinavian trip, I drove across country with a friend who was moving her car back to Los Angeles from Boston. At each place we stopped, mostly Howard Johnsons, I bought postcards. Not one postcard, mind you, three identical postcards. In case a thief took two of them?

I did throw away the Howard Johnsons postcards, but only because those images are all online now. I did not throw away the programs from plays in which I was cast when a student in the UC Berkeley drama department. And no one throws away photos, right? No matter how unflattering.

Every letter I ever received is also in a shoebox, folded in the original envelope, though the envelopes have a variety of addresses. The most recent one in twenty-five years old. Do I really think my children will want to read about Janice, or Debbie, or even letters from my longest-term friend, Doug?

No. But I kept them.

There’s something inviolable about the written word. That’s why I’ve saved every silly piece of anything I put on paper. The embarrassing attempt at a novel when I was in college. And oh, yeah, notes that my husband I wrote to each other when we were first married: “Be home at 9pm.” Immortal words.

(In the early days of email, I printed out every message I sent and received. I have several boxes of exchanges between myself and friends. I think of it as an ersatz journal.)

My last attempt at reforming hit a wall. After a round of self-administered ECT, I threw away the twenty-plus theater programs I’d brought home from trips to New York. That included the program from a July 2015, performance of Hamilton that by sheer dumb luck I saw before tickets were going for the price of a gently used Porsche.

Last weekend I watched the filmed version on Disney+. And I wanted to know exactly who of the original cast I saw. Since I haven’t been living in a bunker the past five years, I immediately recognized Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom Jr and others… but was Philippa Soo onstage the night was in the audience, or was it her understudy? I know I saw it mid-July, but I don’t know the exact date.

The program would tell me, since there are always inserts that announce which understudies are in for the night.

But I don’t have the program.

And I wish I did.

You see, I should have kept it.

Certain neural pathways have been reinforced. The clutter remains. My kids will have to wash it out with a hose, like the ball turret gunner. Won’t be my problem.


Donna Levin is the author of four novels, all of which are available from Chickadee Prince Books. Her latest novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at the bookstore right across the street from your home. Please take a look.