Clutter and Cheese Croissants

Maria Shine Stewart planned to take advantage of slightly quieter summer days to clean house. She instead confronts her packrat tendencies.

July 10, 2009

Ah, summer. The time to catch up on tasks neglected during the school year. I don’t lack good intentions, so I make a goal to throw away a few nonessentials every day. There’s just one little problem.

“My name is Maria, and I am a packrat.”

An archaeologist excavating an ancient site could not be working much harder than I am as I sort out papers, books, magazines and miscellany that have accumulated in my home office. Despite the stress of doing so, I must push against my natural tendency to collect. I must grit my teeth and sort, pitch and reminisce.

The Truth?

The truth is that I love the printed word in all its variegated forms, from classic literature to third-class mail. I love it too much, and I never know when I might want to read something again. Or order coffee from a company I never heard of before. But I don’t live in the Library of Congress or a print shop. I’m in a four-bedroom colonial shared with my husband and son, heaven help them.

I wish I could say it is just the home office that is, if I may gently suggest, messy. There is also the dining room table, under the table, and around the table. Plastic files. Folders on wheels. Brief cases. Canvas bags. Both of my clothes closets have just a little spillover on the floor. Writing stuff. Teaching stuff. Writing stuff. Teaching stuff. I have tucked some things in the piano bench. I once made the mistake of putting papers in my clothes’ drawers. My husband and son did an emergency maneuver of dumping them into several trash bags. That made the point.

The Excuses

Call hoarding what you will (collecting, storing, keeping): I’ve got it bad. I ache for the past, and how can I remember it without mementos? But it’s not just sentiment. I’ve got logical reasons. I have three part-time teaching positions but inconsistent office space. A career counselor friend of mine believes that I have a “spatial memory”; I know what I have by seeing it out in front of me, somewhere, and am not much helped by file folders, filing cabinets, and organizers.

Going back to childhood, I had the reverse example of my parents, who were immigrants and able to pitch and sort at will, bringing their key worldly possessions thousands of miles in just two jumbo trunks stored in the attic. I often meditated on those trunks and have probably overreacted, accumulating enough to fill the equivalent of those trunks in the past year alone. But above all, everything I save has words on it. All it takes is a glance at the words to be transported backward or forward in time, wherever the text wants me to go. That is a feeling hard to surrender.

Until recently, my purse was full of Post-it notes I use for quick reference, and I will not swear that former purses tucked into various closets are totally empty. You never know when I’ll feel like changing my purse on a whim … and that movie ticket stub might find its way to a memorabilia scrapbook … or I might need just a few more cents to give exact change to a harried clerk as I buy a cup of coffee to fuel an all-night purge of papers. But the purge of files usually turns into a merge.

A Darling Definition

So what exactly is a packrat? In a town with a renowned natural history museum and a wonderful metropolitan park system, I lazily turn to Wikipedia. Immediately, I feel less alone in the universe. There are 22 species of packrat listed and it’s also known as a trade rat or wood rat. I’m walking prouder already.

Kingdom Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Superfamily: Muroidea
Family: Cricetidae
Subfamily: Neotominae
Tribe: Neotomini
Genus: Neotoma

Or in my case:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: None
Superfamily: Yes
Family: Yes
Subfamily: Yes
Tribe: Jewish
Genius: Yes

A Daring Discovery

We have much in common, the pack rat and I:

“In houses, pack rats are active nocturnally, searching for food and nest material. A peculiar characteristic is that if they find something they want, they will drop what they are currently carrying, for example a piece of cactus, and ‘trade’ it for the new item. They are particularly fond of shiny objects, leading to tales of rats swapping jewelry for a stone. They can also be quite vocal and boisterous, sounding at times as if a ‘family rift’ is taking place.”

Family rift: Yes, I’m married to a very neat guy who doesn’t have an extra piece of paper anywhere in his den and periodically loses his patience with his fuzzy spouse. Nocturnal: Affirmative. Married to a morning person. Searching for food: Indeed, I snack at night, especially during those quiet hours when I labor to peel layers of stuff off the dining room table. Incidentally, I do prefer even costume jewelry to a stone, but I’ve been known to collect a few stones. In a fit of generosity, I gave my memoir-writing class semi-precious stone hearts I ordered from a catalog that I wish I had kept because I am nostalgic to order the complete set again. Pitching leads to great problems.

Driven to Distraction

“A pack rat ‘midden’ is the nest of a pack rat.” Could a car be considered a nest? That is a cozy, preferable to the term my husband once used -- “rough draft wagon” -- referring to my proclivity for transporting student papers in their variant versions back and forth. “Due to a number of factors, pack rat middens may preserve the materials incorporated into it up to 40,000 years” [read: miles]. This can yield valuable knowledge of the past. I guess that’s what I’m hoping for. If you ever need a 1984 Writers Market, call me.

If Only

If only I had possessed the innate organizational instinct to create a scrapbook of my son’s art from his early years (he is now 16). I would have had to begin long ago. I thought I’d be in the mood to organize when my son was small. That was before I found that once he no longer had a crib, he wouldn’t be napping. And that I’d rather be playing with him and helping his own habits of collecting (plastic animals, stuffed animals, Pokemon cards, books, art supplies, whatever). He has outgrown his need for these things. I have not.

The Sublime

Who needs scrapbooks when the whole house is a packrat’s den? Like most writers, I have portfolios of my work, arranged and rearranged periodically. But narrowing the pedestrian aisles (please walk mindfully if you visit) is the work that has not yet made it to the portfolio and the extra copies of some work that has.…

Why do I have so much stuff? Some of the papers are work-related from various writing and editing jobs, now represented as just a line or two on the C.V. I save back-up, what led to a finished product. I’m process oriented. And then there are the handouts I’m forever tweaking for my students. And students’ writing. And the extra readings I love to share. And the extra copies of whatever, as I’d like to save at least a few trees in my lifetime. And student evaluations. And samples of good writing. And self-help materials. Inspirational articles. Science News. Tricycle, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Reform Judaism, and because I am ecumenically inclined, Daily Word, Unity Magazine, UU (Unitarian Universalist) World, Natural Solutions, Quill, to name about one fifth of the publications I read regularly.

The Ridiculous

There is nothing like a move or two to put a dent in knowing what is where. I undertook one such move as a dewy-eyed newlywed from my mother’s house to an apartment with my spouse who, as yet, did not know what he had gotten into. Six years later, a move from that apartment to a house had among its surprises the unexpected discovery of the box of cheese croissants left over from my wedding reception’s buffet. We always wondered where they went, and as starving graduate students, every leftover counted. Surprise! They had been somehow placed with other wedding mementos in a durable, airtight, cardboard box. They were intact, just waxy to the touch. (Don’t worry, I did pitch them.)

A Silver Lining

Some genuine treasures have emerged in excavations, such as a book I read over and over in my teens: Conversations: Christian and Buddhist. I found a precious handwritten account of Army life by one of my community memoir students now deceased; looking at the words makes me remember in an instant this man’s wit and grace. I see an assessment sheet in my own graphite printing assigned by an ambitious fourth grade teacher who had us rank our fellow classmates who had given oral reports. I find (and then misplace again) a postlude in my loopy fountain-pen script that I wrote in the seventh grade in response to a story about a young Native American who must decide whether to accept an out-of-town offer of education or to stay on the reservation. The last two items survived various moves since childhood.

Teaching About the Real World

Because I have an artistic side and liked the layout and design of invitations to benefits that were held three months ago, they might be saved. Samples of effective marketing writing and advertising might come in handy when my students are in the persuasion unit. Who says college teachers live in an ivory tower? I’m a teacher who recently got an idea about how to teach the sentence fragment while cutting up a box that had held teabags over the recycle bin. The cut-up box got rerouted to a new incarnation into the classroom. Temporarily. Now it’s in a plastic bag of teaching essentials somewhere on the dining room table.

Collecting Acronyms

The headline in a Suite 101 online article on organizing impertinently asks me: “Do you have hoard and clutter syndrome?” Yes, add HCS to the list of acronyms that describe me. Meyers-Briggs personality lingo pegs me as INFP (an introverted, intuitive, feeling, perceiving type). Maybe it’s attention-deficit disorder, ADD, that makes me loathe filing. Perhaps my hoarding is suggestive of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) rather than a charming personal quirk. On the brighter side, I do have an M.A. in English, and I’m working on an L.P.C. in a program accredited by CACREP. I’m a proud member of SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists) and NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English).

The Truth

By the way, don’t believe the rumor my husband has shared with visitors that my home office still has sample student papers from my first year of teaching, 1982. I threw them away in the great purge of 2006.


Maria Shine Stewart teaches, writes and eludes the fire marshal in South Euclid, Ohio.


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