I suppose many people are glad to shed their skins as they grow older, but I cling. I clutch. I hate to let anything go.
When I was about eight my parents needed to move the upright piano they’d bought me a couple of years earlier away from the wall. Then, ‘Kate? Kate, what’s this?’ My mother was standing with a perplexed look, holding a handful of dusty receipts, yellowed tram tickets, the silver-backed paper from her cigarette packets. I explained that I’d saved all the papers that lay piled between the wall and the piano next to the wastepaper basket. I explained that because I couldn’t bear for them to go to the tip, that it would have hurt them, I’d saved them from their fate, for my comfort.
I find it difficult to let go of anything that has mattered to me, vintage vase or former lover: a kind of little gasp of apprehension comes up in me at the thought. I’ve never severed definitively from a friend, never moved permanently to another city. I keep every book that I have ever loved, not to re-read but to cherish. It’s hard for me to even throw out a birthday card. To me it’s all part of me, my narrative, my being.
So, why so much stuff? But I say it isn’t, really; it isn’t as much as it might be. (Or it isn’t enough!) My life is full and busy. I travel a lot. A single pebble, three postcards and a cloisonné salt cellar, all to show from a whole city? I could scavenge enough to wreck a boulevard. The beauty of the world is multiple and manifest; I consider myself frugal when it comes to it.
And part of it may, actually, be a reasonable pathology, for I am a survivor of a great purge. There is something I have given up. In my late twenties I had to give up heroin. I had to give it up before it took everything else from me.
At the time, I feared its absence as much as I feared losing everything else; that was its paradox. Heroin has a parasitical way of replacing all other comforts: calcium in the brain for clear thinking, endorphins to kill pain, your friends’ loyalty and solace. The social alienation of heroin use and the absurd financial cost of maintaining it can shortly divest you of your possessions, your friends and family, and your home.
So I found myself homeless with only a bag in my hand, abandoning to storage or fate my possessions, pawning many of them, living in a boarding house with a pile of books and some clothes. I had literally no money to spare: the unnerving liberation of a purse holding ten cents. I detached from material consumption; the thing I spent all my money on dissolved into my blood like salt, invisible. Things fell away from me. I wanted less and less of them, only the drug. My purity was amnesiac. But then I began to remember. I recalled that I had had books, souvenirs and other things with meaning; I missed them and I sensed that without them I was a lesser me. Thankfully others had helped me keep some of my old possessions, safe in storage, a debt I paid back steadily in years to come, and I got them close to me again. My books! My little treasures! Instantly I felt restored, fuller. Stronger. I understood: heroin or my former life and its warm clutter. It wasn’t as simple as I make it sound, of course, but this was part of it. The tether of my attachment, the haven of my things: I gave up heroin.
I have no doubt part of my current gathering is a reaction. I tasted parsimony and the liberation from material clutter: it was refreshing, like an ice bath. But it was associated with loss which was demeaning and demoralising; it was a forced poverty, not a quenching choice. I reacted with abundance. A profusion of luxurious cushions, for a start – as soon as I used less heroin I used the new money to buy literal comfort. Clothes, for ornament, not just cover. Soothing cosmetics and boxfuls of Moroccan-style home decorations, glittering with sequins and colour, extravagantly impractical. My new home was littered with candlesticks, vases, saris. I could hardly bear to pass a boutique in Brunswick Street without buying something just because it was lovely and useless.
There are those who pursue asceticism as an ethos. I had a lover once who, recoiling from his own vanity, purged all his possessions but for his hard bed, a cardboard box to keep his few clothes in, a small collection of books and CDs which he gave away as soon as he’d appreciated them, and a bag of toiletries he could fit in his pocket. For him it was virtue, it was discipline. I loved his room in a share house, the modesty of it, the frugality of a single white plastic super- market bag hanging for a light shade. Those white expanses of wall into which to gaze. That severity.
But I am not so confident, or stern. I’ve experienced loss, the shock of it. The idea of more loss scares me. Watching the rapidity of my child’s growing makes me newly alert to ephemerality. I am not comfortable with the inexorable.
One day I am going to have to begin to discard. First, hopefully distant in the future, my parents’ belongings. It will be unutterably painful. It will feel like desecration. Like violence. But it will also be done with tenderness, like cleaning a beloved body. And then, in old age or mid-life crisis or terminal illness, I imagine I will dissolve my own museum. Friends can come and choose mementos from my mementos. Something, I’ll suggest, they can use, like a nice pen or the bottle opener I got in New York. Or something useless, a smoothed stone or an old map: because I liked it, because it carries something invisible, my memory, a moment, the warmth of my hand. I can imagine a new kind of solace, of passing things on: not destroyed, but danced along a chain of other hands. With them may be passed something of the essence of me, little relics of feeling. To cut them from me now, however? I feel the wound.
This is an edited extract from Kate Holden’s essay Clinging which appears in the anthology Split: True Stories of Leaving, Loss and New Beginnings, edited by Lee Kofman published by Ventura Press, available now: https://www.booktopia.com.au/split-lee-kofman/prod9781925183870.html