Atlas Hugged: How to Stop Collecting Globes, or Anything Else

My favorite globe, gifted to me from a fourth grade teacher in Portland.

My favorite globe, gifted to me from a fourth grade teacher in Portland.

HouseI didn’t do it consciously. It wasn’t like I woke up one day and decided I was going to start collecting Cold War-era globes. Seriously, who does that? But within a year, I had four. And I started realizing that globes were sneaking up on me in other areas of my life.

Like any good self-examiner, I started wondering what was going on.

I had started decorating with globes.

The nymph sculpture is my husband's work, carved from a root.

The nymph sculpture is my husband’s work, carved from a root. I picked up the painting at a vintage shop in Aurora, Ore. It’s a watercolor of Grosvenor Square in London, from 1922.

The globes had started congregating in my office.

My husband found most of these at Goodwill.

My husband found most of these at Goodwill.

One day, my friend gave me this gorgeous globe necklace.

You can take it with you and, of course, it falls at your heart.

You can take it with you and, of course, it falls at your heart.

Two years after the fact, I realized that I had even made my son into a globe, for our local UFO parade.

My kids are my whole world.

My kids are my whole world.

Why We Collect

Psychologists estimate that about a third of people collect, and the reasons vary immensely. You might not be surprised to read that people who study collecting always point to the psychological underpinnings of the behavior. It has everything to do with the high-game stakes of life and death and our shoddy attempts at cheating the inevitable.

In other words, you’re older than you’ve ever been and now you’re even older!

Are we trying to fill a void in our lives that was never filled? Motivated by the existential urge to make our ephemeral existences more permanent? Connecting ourselves to an object in an attempt to hang our identity hats on something in the physical realm? Simply misplacing an age-old survival tactic?

The desire to control even a small part of the chaos of the universe is great — even greater so for me since I became a mother and became the ruler of the universe.

“The objects and their organization bind us to something larger than ourselves, and as religion was born out of a fear of death and the wish of eternal life, collecting expresses the same fundamental urges.” – Philipp Blom,

I like that idea. It feels so definitive, and yet, I don’t think it says enough. It certainly doesn’t explain my globe collecting to myself. After all, every collection is an attempt at personal storytelling, with the beginning (the idea) and the end (your death) being just the bookends.

Golden Globes

I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with  maps. As a child, I had attended one of those no-walls elementary schools developed in the 1970s. Between my fourth-grade classroom and the bathroom was a storage space where our teachers had placed several giant maps of the world on movable rolling barriers.

The relief map of Europe was my favorite. During bathroom breaks I often stopped there and ran my fingers along the word Czechoslovakia. Ever since, nothing makes me tingle more than a map. It’s the travel writer in me – the person who sees a place name and imagines being there. Just what would happen to me in the place between here and there?

But globes? As physical objects they are so much more compelling than a map.The earth trembles under your hands.  They harness space and time in a way that accentuates our place in the universe. So tiny, but with such a great and expanding view.

You can certainly hug a globe.

So there it is – a childhood back story, a life calling to become a travel writer. Self-identification as a worldly person. A global symbology upon which I could hang a collection.

In my life, the globes came forth.

Enough is Enough

You can see the possible end to this story. Emily decides she’s into globes and then acquires globes for the rest of her life until her house is like a mini universe of rotating Earths. Each holiday, her friends and family find new and inspired ways to bring the globe back into her life, to appease this unending global hunger.

That’s not the way it’s working out, thank God. For me, the balance has come from two areas 1.) Identifying what the collection means and 2.) Becoming something of a feng shui nut. These two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I have found a way to both be thrilled with my collection and not let it take control of my space.

Collecting and feng shui

In her wonderful book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, Karen Kingston writes about how collections happen. When you collect, you choose object based on their metaphorical meaning. After all, I’m not collecting vintage medical tools or Pez dispensers. These are globes.

Kingston says that when the collector has moved through the stage where she draws metaphorical meaning from the object, she can stop collecting.

You mean you don’t have to collect something for the rest of your life?!

Yes. You can stop now.


And I did. I stopped. Because here’s the real reason I was collecting globes.

Since having children and becoming a mostly stay-at-home mom, my world has gotten smaller, sometimes suffocatingly so. International travel is pretty much off my radar. Since my entire world exists in about 2,000 ft.2, and I work from home, I have sometimes felt like a John Denver song unable to reach its chorus. And while I do get out a lot more than other moms since I do a fair amount of travel writing professionally, the distance between the center of my circle and its periphery is very small.

But the world is out there! It’s waiting for me, for another time. I am small and the world is big. And every day I have reminders of that. Sure, they may be reminders with political boundaries from my childhood, but there is some comfort in that, too. These globes are reminders that the borders are always shifting, that attempts at control break down over time. Rivers change paths. Mountains crumble, a planet swiftly tilting and all.

Once I realized this, I didn’t really need any more globes. I love them, I’m keeping them all (for now), but let’s not get carried away here. Now, I have something different. I have am left to enjoy the process of having an acquisitive eye, which means when I see globes out there looking awesome (as so many of them do), I can merely snap a pic for Instagram or add it to my ever-growing collection on Pinterest of globes.

The Internet saves the world again.


Making a collection work for you

Feng shui guru Kathryn Weber has a really great breakdown about how to assess if your collection is working for you. It’s got some truly stellar questions you can ask yourself about your collection and your collecting habit that will help you see your collection as the story that it is in your life.

In the end, you can’t control other people, but you can control yourself. I know someone who liked penguins as a child and was still getting penguins a decade after she was over it. My German host father has an overflowing owl cabinet, for example, though he really seems into it. My husband has too many collections to recollect: bonsai, flutes, wheel-thrown pottery. He’s unstoppable.

But you have to be really vocal about just what your relationship is to these objects. If you find yourself getting gifted a lot for your collection, don’t forget:

You’re the curator, here.

Do you have a collection? Do you know why you are collecting?

Feng Shui for Book Lovers: How to Pare Down a Library

Where's Dash? My kids seem to tolerate mess more than I do these days.

Where’s Dash? My kids seem to tolerate mess more than I do these days.

HouseLast month I decided once and for all that I was going to either get rid of some books or embrace what my life was becoming: a Grey Gardens kind of gorgeous.

As a writer, I had long taken solace in studies linking messiness to creativity. Oh the ways old magazines, paper clips, half-open books, unanswered mail and yesterday morning’s cereal bowl must be sparking fireworks in my brain! But with three other people in the house, and overflowing bookshelves set to topple, the center could no longer hold. All I yearned for was an empty room, maybe some curtains billowing from a sun-drenched window. Faced with this impossibility, I found myself, over the past several weeks, becoming one of those people who can’t stop talking about feng shui.

You know feng shui. The ancient Chinese art of balancing energy in spaces. The only way you might convince a husband to buy a bed with a tufted headboard. The theory behind what every family learns eventually: Hell is other peoples’ stuff. This was not the first time I welcomed the inexplicable power of space and energy into my life.

I first latched onto the ideas of feng shui a year before when it struck me that I had three different kinds of cinnamon in my cupboard and six different salts. I was experiencing what Germans call die Qual der Wahl (the torture of choices). A friend of mine had pressed a copy of Karen Kingston’s Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui: Free Yourself from Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Clutter Forever into my hand and I ended up removing at least two thirds of the items from my kitchen, which is apparently in the love center of my feng shui Bagua. Don’t ask me what this psycho juju actually means. All I know is that by clearing clutter, you make room for new energy to flow into your home. It must have worked, for within a week of decluttering the kitchen, I became a mom to a Finnish exchange student.

But the books were a different kind of trouble. To a writer, books aren’t objects or clutter – they are life blood. My lined shelves were a living diary of my reading life. I wasn’t sure how I was even going to remember what I had read, if I could be a writer without a house filled with physical books. The judgy houseguest in me tsk tsked. How could anyone get an image of who I am if they didn’t judge me by my books? And more importantly, how could I?

Naturally my first attempt at applying feng shui to the library yielded space for perhaps four more hardbacks, which I promptly filled up – and then some – over the next twelve months. But just a year later these shelves were filled to overflowing and I had found myself with a new problem. I was trying to write my first book. I was three chapters in, and I had started to believe that my packed library had taken on metaphorical meaning. There was no room on my shelves for anything new, no room in the world for this very weird idea I had to write a memoir through the lens of scent.

Then came Marie Kondo, Japan’s reigning tidiness expert, whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing already has 73 holds at my small-town Oregon library. She is everywhere these days, with her bright-eyed, doll face and nothing out of place, encouraging people to surround themselves only with objects that bring them joy. I adore her for one reason: She is a poster child for how to make your own particular mental illness into a business model. Her major feat for our culture is in finding a way to turn her OCD (I’m diagnosing here) come across as this lovely, embraceable lifestyle choice for you and, let’s hope, the people around you. Marie – I feel like I can call her Marie, we’re that close now – declutters by category, not by room. For books, she advises that you pull every volume out of a shelf in order to let it breathe and put them all on the floor.

So that’s what I did. For my second book-clearing feat, I removed every book from every bookshelf and sat there despondent in a pile of paper. I cried in this heap of books. Then I was tired, so I napped. But then, the real task: Hold each book in my hands and ask myself: Does this spark joy?

Do not open the book. Do not read the book. You ask the question and you build your discard piles accordingly.

Friends: I got rid of five sixths of my books. But what really slayed me wasn’t the number of books I was carrying in bags to Goodwill the next day. In harnessing the sense of joy I associated with the books I kept I was able to figure a couple of things out. For one, in the discarding, I found my chosen writing tribe – the writers I long to share a shelf with as opposed to the writers who I thought I should have read. Two: I made some peace with the realities of author longevity and the idea that not everything you write will hit (chucked one Franzen essay collection but kept the other). But the most revealing thing I discovered was that I had, without being aware of it, kept every memoir I had ever bought, as if this joyful connection were forged through genre alone.

The Books I Kept: My row of favorite memoir and personal writing, staring back at me, cheering me on.

The Books I Kept: My row of favorite memoir and personal writing, staring back at me, cheering me on.

Gone the useless thesauruses, away with The Elementary Particles! Goodbye to every Tom Robbins novel except Jitterbug Perfume! Sayonara to six hand-bound leather journals, each of which had only three pages hand-scrawled in them! Au revoir Jane Eyre! The purge was a clinic on my own processes, a chance to really understand who my influences were and what kind of distasteful writerly arrogance I was ready to put in the past. Did I really need two copies of T.C. Boyles Drop City? (No, just the signed one).

Marie says you must hold the book in your hand and you thank it for the role it played in your life, and then you Let It Go (cue the music). This wasn’t always easy. What yawner was I going to keep for when insomnia gripped me? (Moby Dick). And which one did I thank for putting me to sleep so often but bid a fond farewell to? (Sebald’s Campo Santo (Modern Library Paperbacks)). As two days wore on, I found myself retreating from another of my long-held beliefs – that I was somehow responsible for the books my children would encounter in the world. I was left with the conviction that if these books had found me, surely the universe would make sure that my children would find the ones they needed at the right point in their lives, too. Besides, if my mom could never interest me in the poems of Rod McKuen (Listen to the Warm, anyone?) by presence alone, surely my collection of German-language expressionist classics might find welcome elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in true before/after fashion, and much to my deep relief, the writing is going great. It is flying out of my head and through my fingers. I keep waiting for that moment of regret when I look up at the shelves with despair, when I know for sure that I trashed my treasure in some kind of misplaced spring cleaning mania, but it’s not like that at all. It’s more like seeing the bleachers from the field – a crowd cheering me on.

Want to read more? Follow me on Twitter or Facebook, or you can read some of my writing at