Thursday, March 15, 2012

A collector's plea

You can tell a lot by what a person collects.

In my room, I have a ton of junk. My closet is overflowing with dresses and skirts and tops and coats and whatever else I can stuff in such a tiny space. On the floor I have oodles of shoes, some newer than others, some worn until they're about to fall apart. If you crawl across my giant bed you'll find a collection of novels in a chest of drawers and next to the door there is a bookshelf filled with more novels and DVDs.

I will basically spend all of my money on three sorts of luxury items. As you may have deduced from above, they are: clothing, movies and books. It has become such a problem that when I go to a store I actively consider where I can fit my new additions - imagining the constantly decreasing space in the limited shelves of my living space.

My room is small and my collections are not, but as I've reminded myself recently - this is not a problem I face alone. And for that I am grateful...and concerned.

I feel the former because while I do think I can be excessive in my desire for more additions to what I already possess way too much of, at least I am comforted in the fact that many people I know can relate to me on some level.

My dad has quite a similar problem in the way of movies. In addition to buying a ton of them whenever something he fancies goes on sale, he is a regular DVD recording machine. He sets his recorder more than once a week, usually so often that I can barely keep track of what he's adding to his collection on any particular day. It can be a bit overwhelming when he adds yet another book shelf to our ever-expanding collection. Our living room now looks more like a shrine to film, television and music than a place to relax.

But my dad was not the only major collector in my life. The obsessive compulsive collecting came from both sides of my gene pool. My mom, as I mentioned yesterday, collected tons of three- and four-ingredient cookbooks. She had stacks of craft instruction coffee table reads and giant tomes dedicated to the same topics: Marie Antoinette, Richard III and Henry VIII.

Today, as I was going through some old crap with my grandma that my mom left behind when she passed away, I was inundated with a blast from the past. All the books followed a connected string of relatively aimless planning for the future. My mom bought a ton of craft and cookbooks because, even though she didn't have the time to use them as a full-time working single mother, she always intended to eventually use all of them - or at least the best ones - to make some really awesome things.

Now, I have no problem with being borne of two weirdos who love collecting. I think it has shaped me and my love of quirky arts and crafts - which is an asset to my personality, in my humble opinion.

But I do have a problem with collecting for future's sake rather than immediate gratification.

Because there are two types of collecting. There are the collections that can be enjoyed at present and there are the collections that you think will be of value to you in the future with quite a bit of uncertainty.

Either way, it's kind of embarrassing to admit to having such ridiculously large amounts of stuff. Most people live their lives as relative minimalists - buying only the DVDs they find on super sale or a few nice clothes items from a really expensive store that they know they'll wear over and over.

I prefer options. When I go halfway across the country to college, I know I need both discs in The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition, or I will be distraught if I - very likely - decide I want to watch the Making Of documentary on disc two right after I see the full movie on disc one.

But I digress. The real issue here is whether it is more beneficial to collect something that is of immediate importance to you, or rather something that will accrue value as time goes on.

I will absolutely, wholeheartedly vouch for the former.

My mom always wanted her own personal fairytale retirement. She dreamed of leaving her desk job and getting to crochet and cook all day long. It was a simple dream, but it was a dream nonetheless. And for her it ended up being unattainable.

If there's anything I've learned from watching what happened with my mom, it's that collecting shouldn't be about stockpiling stuff you might enjoy in the future. It should be about things you enjoy now. Because inevitably, what you value now will continue to be valuable to you in the future. Why waste time and money on junk that keeps you dreaming and never living?

I'm glad to have a kinship with my mom and dad in my weird habit of overstocking my room with books and movies and clothes. It's always nice to recognize an origin in your strange behavior, especially when it confirms that you're not half as crazy as you thought you were (okay, I'm still pretty crazy - but that's beside the point).

More powerful than my gratefulness at knowing I'm not the only collector out there, is my worry for others that allow their collections to take over their lives in a detrimental way.

Collecting is about allowing yourself to indulge in something you love every once in a while. It's not about being manically obsessed with adding to what you already have. Really it's about enjoying the individual finds of a new movie or an adorable and lovely dress or a book you never thought you'd locate anywhere (when I found a Sylvia Plath diary collection, I thought I owned one of the only copies in the world, hah).

If you're not planning on really finding pleasure in those things, but perhaps putting off that pleasure until some future date when you might actually get to enjoy what you've collected, then your priorities may need to be checked with reality.

It all fits into a larger argument that I've constantly had with myself about how long I actually have to enjoy what's on this earth. I may sound like quite the nihilist, but a lot of my decisions are about feeling happy in this moment in time without any context in how it will fit into the grand scheme of things (I make exceptions for health and well-being issues, this is in regards to my arts and media-related happiness).

I don't worry so much about whether my DVDs will be worthy of watching when I'm retired. Mostly because, with my life experience, I know you can't count on something like that. Not only are our futures up in the air, but our choices and preferences in the future are just as indeterminate. And that's why collecting for me is about finding joy in some small acquisition now, rather than waiting for it to gain meaning later.

For a lot of collectors, the search and the find is the real basis of meaning in having the collection. Memorabilia collectors never plan to find much physical happiness through their collections, they just enjoy the idea that they have them - that there is an ever-expanding group of trinkets that they can eventually be proud of.

But my mantra through life has always been the trite "you only live once," transposed into my own little form:

Take joy in the little things while you still can.

Why wait?

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