OFF THE BEAT: Journey to trash mountain

It’s no wonder so many religions preach against an overabundance of material goods. Not only do they distract you from whatever holy activities your soul is supposed to be partaking in (because, y’know, mine is totally doing that), but they can also be pretty annoying.

I never thought of myself as a pack rat, but relocating across the Atlantic Ocean makes you realize how many objects weigh down your life. Upon returning from my semester abroad, loaded with more than my body weight of not-totally-necessary necessities, I arrived at my apartment only to be greeted by more crap I had accumulated over the years — a semi-functional chair found on the sidewalk, clothing adopted from friends, a broken hubcap intended to some day metamorphose into a sculpture. In short, some key, can’t-live-without items — or at least that must have been what I told myself when I buried them in my little nest.

In a society that depends on our perpetual consumerism to keep its gears in rotation, objects contextualize the defining moments of our lives. The things in my room are charged with memory, brimming with the emotions surrounding their acquisition.

Maybe I’m a pack rat by inheritance. Before coming back to Berkeley, I made a pilgrimage to my birthplace of Saint Petersburg, Russia to see family. A visit to a sort of kitsch mecca, this return-to-the-origin entailed a lot of sitting around with old people and scavenging through even older objects.

Every family has that one relative around whom everybody’s anecdotes revolve — or at least mine does, and that one relative is my grandmother, who never throws anything away. Ever. While her pack rat tendencies usually fall under the butt end of others’ jokes (and by “others” I really mean mine), coming back to my scraggly nest of junk made me eat my own words.

I may be guilty of the same quality that makes my grandmother a laughable character, but my last visit to her junkyard paradise made me reconsider whether that is such a bad thing.

A lonely woman, my grandmother invited me to her house under the guise of helping her clear out her unwanted rubbish. And by clear, I really mean inspect items like tubes of hardened super glue from the 1970s and listen to speeches about why they can’t be thrown away, while trying to save family photos and stamp collections from destruction.

When you’ve spent a lot of time in trash mountain, your priorities can get screwy. You’re not sure what to dispose of, so you end up sifting and reminiscing without throwing away anything. The oxygen deprivation due to dust can adversely affect your judgment. Jokes aside, my grandmother’s collection — a collection in the purest form, a collection of everything — connects her to the different epochs of her existence. Having lived through nearly four times as many eras as I have, she has not only witnessed but also consumed what is now history.

Though I have scoured her shelves again and again, this time the objects buried in her cave of kitsch shone out like cheap plastic and tin diamonds. Waist-deep in the wasteland, I began to see not only the sentimental value of my grandmother’s hoarded objects but also their historical significance. Maybe my obsessive trips to thrift stores stateside are really my motherland calling me home.

Among the cacophonous clutter, I discovered Soviet treasures once mundane now wonderfully bizarre. A box once containing biscuits was weighed down by an enormous array of broaches depicting Lenins of all shapes and sizes — a bronze Lenin in profile, a black-and-white Baby Lenin, Lenin sharp-bearded and bespectacled.

This box contained secrets far removed from present reality, a past spoken of only in whispers and indignant rants. A letter addressed to my grandparents in 1964 congratulated them on the birth of a new female citizen who would one day glorify and serve the USSR. A box of tooth powder emblazoned with the pitch-black caricature of an African man with glowing white teeth boasted its government factory origins.

As I write in my unkempt bedroom, I silently scold myself for not having my shit under control. But maybe this chaotic room of mine will one day become the playground of a curious imagination, an anthropological record of this equally strange time in history. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m coming up with excuses not to haul myself to Goodwill — to get rid of this stuff, not to do more treasure hunting, that is.

Nastia Voynovskaya is the assistant arts & entertainment editor.