This is one of the great questions that divides my people from ordinary folk. Believe it or not, there are people who go through life utterly unconcerned about their physical possessions. They have what they need, they can find it when they want it, and they get rid of things that have outlived their usefulness without a second glance. The general belief of such folk is that if it’s in a box, it’s not getting used; therefore, you can just… throw it away. I know, right? Crazy.
Boxes, according to this theory, are for very specific uses. They are required for shipping most things by most methods. They make it easier to carry stuff. They can be used to group like things together, making them easier to find. They are essential when moving to a new home. They can be used to store things that are used infrequently, such as holiday decorations. They occasionally add marginal resale value to collectibles or electronics. Cats like them. Other than that, why put something in a box?
What is most interesting about this is that my people always have boxes, but somehow manage not to use them for many of the purposes that an ordinary person would. My people are not ordinary; they are extraordinary. They are creative, sensitive, divergent thinkers, better suited to coming up with 1000 uses for a brick than to following a numbered list of instructions. Amalgamations of loose items intrigue and inspire them. That’s why their cars tend to be full of random stuff, and their dining tables tend to be covered by random stuff, and their countertops tend to be buried in random stuff, and their closets tend to be full to bursting with random stuff… It’s basically an allotment of art supplies.
When my people get ahold of a box, it quickly gets filled, as it’s the most expedient way to clear space to fill up with more awesome (read: more recent) things. As often as not, the box has been filled by someone else, probably during a hurried, disorganized move. This box probably has lots of friends. None of them are labeled, because what are we, fascists? In fact, my people are notorious for referring to organized people as Nazis, which is heartless and rude and also a cliché, but it does tell you something about their level of frustration with life’s many convergent, left-brain rules. One of those rules is the universal law that disorganized things in unlabeled boxes are hard to find later.
Another reason my people keep things in boxes is that the very thought of opening the box and sorting its contents fills them with waves of nameless dread. They can’t bear the tension and stress and anxiety of being faced with all those decisions. Do I need it? Do I already have another one? Am I violating a moral precept by throwing it in the landfill? (We forget that we turn our own dwellings into de facto landfills…) Is it moldy or broken or disintegrating, and can I stand the pain of knowing it’s wasted and ruined now? So much better to close the box again and put it back. As long as that box is sitting there in its familiar, unopened state, its contents revert to the Platonic ideal, extremely valuable, easily convertible to piles of hard cash, perfect and stylish and gleaming. That box holds POTENTIAL.
Boxes of misc (pronounced ‘misk’) are like the Sphinx’s last riddle. You could earn a doctorate by analyzing the contents of a box of misc and figuring out what to do with it. It never fails. When I come in to work in a client’s home, there will be a box that is 80% one type of object, which should be fairly straightforward. Ah, but it will also contain: a coin, an office supply, a piece of hardware, a button, some dry pens, and some junk mail. These have been random loose items that were tossed into the nearest open box during a cleaning spree or moving extravaganza. The presence of these miscellaneous items can turn a box of clothes, books, or kitchen supplies into THE DREADED MISC. Panic-inducing, mind-boggling, willpower-depleting MISC. It’s a form of invisible packing material that is made by Dementors in a dreary factory in Northumberland. Then I come along and wave my magic wand. Put the pennies in a jar, throw the rusty paperclips in the recycle bin, open the six-year-old junk mail and dispose of it. Hey presto! The box of misc (THE DREADED MISC) has transmogrified into common, everyday objects! Astounding.
Another type of box that confounds my people is the box of dead relatives’ personal belongings. That stuff has a half-life. It’s absolutely standard to see hair brushes with hair still in them several years after their owners pass away from this world. Opening what is most likely a box of old pots and pans or mass-market paperbacks from the 80s is like defusing a bomb. An aura of grief pours out twelve feet in every direction. I’ve never been called on to help go through grief boxes. Generally I assume at least a decade has to go by before anyone is prepared to deal with the sadness of them. It’s yet another example of how we always isolate ourselves just when we need help the most. Don’t face it alone!
Why is it in a box? Because someone else put it there. Because there’s nowhere for me to spread out the contents for sorting. Because I might be moving again soon. Because I’m actually a neat freak and it’s tidier to keep it all in my storage unit. Because I know exactly what’s in there, and I’m extremely emotionally attached to it, even though I don’t use it or look at it. Because I’m afraid it will get wrecked if I take it out to display it. Because I’m waiting for it to be worth something so I can recoup what I spent on it. Because it stacks better. Because I spend my money on things other than end tables and nightstands. Because I don’t want to set aside the time to deal with it. Because I’m afraid there might be a spider in there. Because it’s dusty and moving it will aggravate my respiratory issues. (As if the dust isn’t already doing that). Because it’s heavy and I’m physically unable to move it. (A great reason not to have it). Because the thought of getting rid of anything in the box is heartbreaking. Because I can’t think straight right now. Because I’m tired. Because I’m waiting for the motivation. Because I’m used to it. Because I don’t know how to proceed. Because I believe I can stop the passage of time by living in a static environment.
Going through boxes is a way of getting caught up to the present moment. At some point, Past Self made a little time capsule, preserving things that Future Self may find cool or interesting or useful. Present Self probably has a better idea of what Future Self is going to want; after all, Present Self may be living further down the timeline than Past Self imagined in the first place. I still have books that Past Self 2007 thought Past Self 2008 would have read by now. It’s nice to think of Past Self sending us gifts. Charitable, anyway. What is more likely is that Past Self had a warped view of how we spend our time, what we think is truly important, and how much we enjoy cleaning up Past Self’s messes and paying Past Self’s debts. We can pause to reevaluate. It’s no trickier than readjusting your seat and mirrors after someone else drives your car. Stop and look in those boxes. Exorcise your misc (THE DREADED MISC). If it’s stuff you love, take it out and display it. Otherwise, feel free to let it go and look to the future instead of the past.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.