Hyperthymestic syndrome is the fascinating condition of remembering every single day of ones life in vivid detail. Actress Marilu Henner has it. Pick a date, any date, and she can tell you the day of the week, the weather and what she was doing, as well as historically significant events of that day.
It sounds like a blessing as well as a curse. You cannot forget. You must always remember.
I also possess a vivid memory, but mine is centered around personal objects. Every object in my house has a history, and when I look at it, I remember exactly how it got here. I can remember, for instance, that I bought the little pencil holder that sits on my desk, in Manhattan in 1984, when I worked at The New Yorker. I had it on my desk in the Goings On department. My supervisor, Jane Olds thought it a good sign that I'd bought this pencil holder, because it meant I was settling in.
Looking around at random objects while I write this blog post, I remember that Ben and I got the wall hanging above my desk in Buenos Aires, from an exhibit of native art. Turning towards the window seat on my right, I see peacock feathers from a tiny shop in the Eden Center - and the vase they sit in which was given to me by Maria Inez from Uruguay. She meant it to be on my dressing table as a reminder of our friendship.
The ceramic planter next to it came from Mesmerelda's in McLean, Virginia where my mother purchased it in 1993, and the lamp that sits beside it came from my sister in law Kate's apartment. The settee was bought at an antique shop in Falls Church and I remember the exact location I first saw it, how we carried it into the back of the shop and put it in the car, to drive home. In fact, when I look at each object in this home, its history comes forward and announces itself to me.
In this bedroom I see a batik wall hanging Ben purchased in Siberia; the painting beside it done by Scott Ketcham and given to us as a wedding gift; the dark chintz curtains, which my friend Marsha gave me in 1995; the clock on Ben's chest of drawers which Pedro and Blanchette gave us when they visited; the bedside tables made of walnut, which came from my grandmother Elsie. You get the picture. This history keeps me grounded, keeps me knowing who I am.
The other night, we were watching "Hoarders" on TV, Ben, my mother and me. The hoarder of the day was a painter whose house was filled to the brim with clutter. His place was stuffed with newspaper, piles of books and numerous unused, broken objects, which he couldn't bring himself to let go.
"Hoarders" intrigues me. Something about their condition reminds me of myself, although during commercial breaks I find myself cleaning surfaces, throwing away magazines and papers, because I want to separate myself from them, and cannot fully wrap my mind around why somebody would ever live as they do, with so much junk. Why don't they throw out their garbage, for instance? Why must their movements be reduced to narrow passages between mountains of meaningless stuff, leading to the bathroom - where they rinse a lone coffee cup, before climbing back over mounds of take away containers, to seek out a bed in the rubble.
Episode after episode, it becomes clear that these hoarders became this way after suffering a trauma in their lives.
The episode we watched the other night showed a painter, who wouldn't dispose of an old iron headboard. He couldn't let it go because it was part of his soul, he said. He didn't need it, except that every day when he passed it, he touched it, and in that way it had become a part of him.
This got me thinking. What if a hoarder is simply a traumatized person with a very good memory? What if each of the objects in their home is somehow connected to a piece of their journey through life? Their objects have become like the breadcrumbs dropped in the forest by Hansel and Gretel. The breadcrumbs lead them to safety, to a time before their trauma, and they need these objects in order to find their way back.
Their trail of objects has become more than a solace. It has become a guide. They panic, these hoarders, when threatened with the disposal of what to others looks so meaningless. Finally, I thought I understood.
There's a beautiful poem by Jorge Luis Borges about Things. He enumerates various items - a watch, a book whose pages have faded to
violet and so forth, and suggests that our things will not only outlive us, but that the memories held in these things is forgotten, and yet
also remembered by these objects. Somehow they have more solidity than we ourselves do, and they will never know when we have gone.
El baston, las monedas, el llavero,
la docil cerradura, las tardias
notas que no leeran los pocos dias
que me quedan, los naipes y el tablero,
un libro y en sus paginas la ajeda
violeta, monumento de una tarde
sin duda inolvidable y ya olvidada,
el rojo espejo, occidental en que arde
una ilusoria aurora. Cuantas cosas,
laminas, umbralas, atlas, copas, clavos,
non sirven como tacitos esclavos,
ciegas y estranemente sigilosas!
Duraran mas alla de nuestro olvido;
no sabran nunca que nos hermos ido.
This is the beauty of things, as well as the terrible pain of them, for those of us who have too many and cannot let them go.