Picture a house with broken kitchen cabinets and mouse droppings, cobwebs hanging from the dining room ceiling. Narrow footpaths between stacks of magazines and catalogs. You don’t see food wrappers or pet waste, but the once-beige carpet is stained and splotched, having passed its five-year expiration date four times by now. The aging, almost elderly, couple living here can’t put up a Christmas tree anymore. Guests, when they can’t be turned away, have nowhere to sit in the three-bedroom, three-level house with a separate sub-basement and garage.

This house isn’t from the reality TV show Hoarders. It belongs to my relatives.

I’m working on my PhD in English and American Literature, and as part of this activity I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about Time and The Body, particularly about memory and emotional attachments as embodied by things. I’ve also found myself staring with horrified fascination at the people on Hoarders, thinking there but for the grace…

We moved so many times when I was growing up—abrupt emergency moves, where many of my familiar treasures were lost or left behind—that I’ve become perhaps hyperaware of the paradoxical action a memento can have. It may serve as a root to a nourishing past or as an anchor that impedes your progress into the future. Sometimes both.

Looking at things through the lens of Time, I see the recent yard sale my family had as a sort of temporal recalibration: sure these footie pajamas remind you of a sweet then and you might have a place for this art print in the future, but do you have use or love for this item right now?

Circumstances that ripped from me objects I valued—such as a stint of homelessness when I was twelve—made me prone to processing my feelings and thoughts in writing and painting. They also made me appreciate the simplicity of a clean room, a clean slate, an empty apartment and all the possibilities it could contain. Though twelve-year-old me mourned the loss of my truly extraordinary dress-up box, I came to love being unencumbered too. It helped that I started embodying my attachments with notebooks. They’re much easier to curate than, say, a garage full of my grandparents’ furniture.

But the impulse to gather and keep is still there. As I study, I want to hoard up into my memory every interesting notion and promising line of inquiry I encounter. My physical space may be relatively clutter-free, but part of my labor now is distinguishing the point at which, for me, a rich and fertile collection of ideas becomes a dangerously top-heavy load. It causes me a twinge—sadness—to confront the truth that there are more paths I’d like to follow than there is time for me follow them.

The odor of death is what we want the hoard to disguise.