By Anne Gagliano
It was time; they had to go. No longer could I bear to look at the ratty, gummy, sticky layers of duct tape slapped across the suede sides and rubber soles of my husband Mike’s slippers. He left a trail of little rubber pieces everywhere he walked, and his footsteps made a peculiar slap, stick, schlep sound on our hardwood floors that was both amusing and irritating. As comfortable as they were and had been for years, they must be let go. Mike’s slippers, his beloved lamb’s wool slippers (yes, the ones from a previous column picture that so many of you laughed about) finally made their way into the trash with a resounding, triumphant, and satisfying thud.
I rejoiced and was relieved to see them go, but Mike was strangely remorseful. He had, after all, received much comfort and warmth from those old fleecy house shoes—that’s why he had worked so hard to make them last. Problem was, some things just can’t be fixed anymore; they simply wear out. They outlast their usefulness, and as painful as it can be, they must eventually be let go. The familiar is comfortable and safe, and with fond memories comes sentimental attachment. But life is an ever-moving current that brings constant change our way. New things come along almost daily, forcing us to choose to eliminate old things if we are to have any room to move.
Ever heard of a “Collyer’s Mansion”? Because Mike and I have had the pleasure of getting to know a New York firefighter very well, Captain Mike Dugan, we’ve become familiar with this saying. A “Collyer’s Mansion” is the term Fire Department of New York firefighters use to identify a structure in which a hoarder (someone who accumulates massive amounts of possessions and who does not throw anything away) resides. When on fire, a Collyer’s Mansion can present unique, challenging, and very dangerous conditions in which to fight fire; thus, it is announced as soon as possible to warn the crew.
The term is derived from the real-life Collyer brothers who resided in a mansion on 5th Avenue in Manhattan from the 1880s until 1947. They were wealthy, they were reclusive, they were peculiar, and they were the first-known compulsive hoarders. They both died as a direct result of their hoarded masses of stuff. Neighbors became alarmed when they noticed a foul stench coming from the mansion. The police had trouble breaking in as the “piles” blocked the doors. They found Homer Collyer immediately—he’d only been dead about 10 hours so he obviously was not the source of the stench. It took days, however, to find Langley; he’d been dead for much longer, and he proved to be the source of the smell. Langley had perished when one of his “booby traps” went off, sending a pile of his possessions cascading down on him, burying him alive. He’d been crawling through the towers of stuff to bring paralyzed Homer something to eat when he died. Homer then died of starvation. The police removed 140 tons of items from the mansion—130 tons of which was unsalvageable garbage.
Today’s reality show “Hoarders, Buried Alive” gives us an insight into the lives of people like the Collyer brothers. I sometimes watch this show and it inspires me to purge—to clean out a drawer or closet or something—lest I, too, become buried in my own piles of debris someday. I find myself smirking at the hoarder’s inability to let go of obvious garbage; why do they hang onto it with such inexplicable vehemence? But then I am humbly reminded that I, too, like most people, can hang onto things that I should be letting go of. We all have a little bit of a hoarding streak in us—holding on to obvious garbage like an old, shabby pair of slippers. The beginning of a new year is a great time to take stock of our lives to see what needs to go to make room for the new. Sometimes we need to purge old possessions—like clothes that don’t fit anymore because we’ve outgrown them or they’ve worn out or lost their style. And sometimes we need to purge old behaviors because we’ve outgrown them as well and it’s time to be rid of them.
What needs to go to make your life better, cleaner, safer, happier? Maybe it’s time to let go of an old, bad habit, a habit that once brought you joy and comfort but is now costing you your health or is negatively impacting your marriage. Maybe you need to quit smoking or chewing. Maybe you drink a little too much, or perhaps you eat too much. Maybe you spend way too much time on the couch or in a comfy recliner with the remote planted firmly in your hand, watching other people do things you yourself should be doing instead. Is it time to cast one or more of these old, worn-out favorites into the trash?
Some things that need to go aren’t so obvious—they lie beneath the surface, buried in the depths of your heart. For example, do you need to forgive someone? Are you holding on to an old grudge with a bitterness that is causing a stench in your life? Perhaps someone wronged you—a family member, a friend, a co-worker, or even your spouse. You may find yourself re-hashing the event over and over again, taking it out like an old photograph to relive the memory, keeping the details fresh in your mind. They may or may not have apologized; even so, you cannot let it go. Unforgiveness eats at the soul, wearing it down. It is a heavy burden to carry, and it only hurts you—not them. One of my favorite sayings puts it this way, “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” (Anonymous)
Maybe your spouse is the one you cannot forgive. They’ve apologized, you say you forgive them, but you keep throwing the past grievance in their face every time you argue about anything, though completely unrelated. Unforgiveness is like that—it festers and grows and spreads like black mold, making the environment of your relationship toxic. It must be purged, let go, thrown out with the trash.
In my next column, I will continue to explore ways in which to clean house for the New Year. Out with the old, in with the new! Newness keeps life exciting and moving forward. It keeps you alive!
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 26 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.