A few months ago, my mother approached me with wide eyes and a juicy piece of neighborhood gossip. “You won’t believe this,” her voice a whisper “you remember that boy who lived next door to us in Greenwich? The one with the ponytail and the motorcycle?” I think back to being 11 years old and watching him work on his bike. Ah, my first crush, how could I forget. We called him El Guapo, I never knew his name, he wasn’t particularly friendly, but he looked like a character in a Spanish soap opera. “Yes…” I conspired.
“Well, turns out he was a……(she pauses for effect) ….hoarder.”
If you know my mother, you know this is the worst crime anyone could commit. If you don’t know my mother, let me give you more context. When I asked her how she knew that our old neighbor was a hoarder, she explained that El Guapo had attempted to murder his own disabled mother by setting their shared house on fire. Apparently, the police and fire department couldn’t open the front door because the house was busting at the seams with hoarder memorabilia. So there you have her ranking of crimes: hoarding: a more serious offense than attempting to kill your wheelchair-bound mother.
Which is why it pains me to admit, we have a bit of a hoarding problem at Flying Kites. At times, it feels hopeless. I will throw something in the trash, an old and empty vaseline container, the remnants of a paper lantern that is now just a few wires and a tiny section of paper, five cards to a board game that no longer exists. And then, one by one, these things reappear. On shelves, in drawers - the very same items I threw in the trash pit weeks ago. It drives me absolutely insane, I walk around like a crazy person yelling, “WHO RESCUED THIS EMPTY VASELINE CONTAINER?? I CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS. THE CONTAINER IS EMPTY, LET IT DIE IN PEACE”
I know that a lot of this behavior comes from a place of trauma and scarcity but that doesn’t always make it easier to deal with. The food hoarding is somehow easier to accept; it usually takes a few months for a new student to settle in and stop stashing food. Zippy used to hide pieces of bread under the couch, Njeri would take fistfuls of avocado and put them in her pockets. We’ve had kids try and stash raw eggs, always worried that the food will one day disappear. But the dumpster diving for an empty, broken bottle of olive oil, half a shoe lace and a handful of pens that have run out of ink? Dear Lord, we need an intervention.
Last night I called together a group of our small girls, (don’t be fooled by this description, they are all under 13, but their collective debating skills could bring a supreme court to its knees). I was staying in their bedroom for the night, having given up my bed to some volunteers. “Guys, we are surrounding ourselves with trash, and it has to stop. It’s dirty, it’s embarrassing, it’s unnecessary.” I hold up my first piece of evidence and complain, “Someone took this empty glass bottle of peanut butter out of the trash.” “Auntie!” Rahab gets to her feet, takes the jar out of my hands and begins to wave it at me, “You put that in the garbage pit but the guards told us all glass goes in the pit latrine!!” Ok, fair point, I ask her, why then, didn’t she put it in the pit latrine? She looks at me. “I was going to.” she lies and throws her head back and laughs a guilty giggle, like a housewife whose husband just discovered a shopping bag full of new shoes.
One by one, I hold up things I’ve thrown away, and the girls devise lengthy explanations for why they were resurrected. Friends, please do not be fooled, remember, these are not children who are committed to recycling and reusing, these here are hoarders. Markers that don’t mark, plastic buckets with no bottom, and don’t even get my started on the clothes situation. After much debating we come to a “Code of Conduct” mainly regarding discarded food containers and torn sweaters. We agree that when the new dorms are built, and we all have our own space, dressers and desks, we won’t keep or collect trash. We shake on it and Lucy suggests we follow up on our progress at the next student council meeting, she offers to “add it to the agenda.” My heart melts a little at this serious and earnest gesture.
Done for the night, I climb onto my bed and open my toiletry bag. Anytime the girls are within a mile of cosmetic products you can hear a pin drop. I can feel five sets of eyes on me, watching my every move as I unzip the bag and begin to clean my face. Wanting to make up for being a bit too crazy over the trash situation earlier, I tell the girls they can play with my hair and face products. They all sit in front of me, faces of amazement and tenacious hope. I offer my perfume to Lucy and she holds out her wrist. “Wait!” Sarah shrieks. She jumps off the bed and grabs Lucy’s school uniform sweater, “Spray it here, that way it will last and tomorrow at school we will smell it.” (I never said these children were cute, I said they were hoarders). I offer Rahab my Hermes body lotion, putting some in her hand and watching her rub it into her tiny calfs. I do the same for Lucy. The girls are delighted, their fascination reminds me of being a little girl and watching my stepmother blow-dry her hair. They all get into their beds and when I go to tuck Lucy in, she hugs me with one arm, the other hand raised up and clasped shut. I open her hand to find a dime-sized amount of lotion. I laugh and ask her what she plans to do with it, to which she responds, “Put it on my face in the morning, before school.”
I explain to her that she can’t sleep with it in her hand because it will get absorbed. She looks deep into my eyes, somehow choosing her words carefully. “I am going to store it.” she says. “Where?” I ask. She swallows, “I have an empty vaseline container.”
These children, they will surely be the death of me. I will suffocate under trash, or love.