Everything has a place and everything is in its place. That was my grandmother’s #1 household rule. And boy did she live by it! Her house was ordered down to the tiniest detail. She was a stamp collector and had a filing case for her doubles - thousands and thousands of tiny brown envelopes — with the country, year, and catalog number of each extra stamp written meticulously on the front. She had diaries where she wrote one sentence each day saying what she had done - and seeing as how she lived to the age of 92, there were a lot of them. Her book cases and spice racks were alphabetized. She made lists . . . lots of lists . . . of her records, and video tapes, and jewelry, and friends’ birthdays . . . The clothes hanging in her closet were grouped by color and arranged ROYGBV, with matching shoes underneath.
As I do every year when I find myself with four days home alone - my family off on a skiing vacation that I mercifully am allowed to bow out of – I spent the last four days maniacally ordering my house in a desperate (and futile) attempt to reach a state that my Grandma would approve of. I failed miserably. At some point I got overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff.
How did this happen? I came to this country 30 years ago with two suitcases. At the time the plan was to live a nomadic existence. To go somewhere, stay and work for a year or two and then pack all my belongings in two suitcases and move on (maybe with the option of sending one box of memorabilia home to my sister to store in her attic.) Things turned out differently. I stayed. I settled. I started accumulating. Now living in a fairly large house that somehow miraculously belongs to me, there is still no longer the space to have everything in its place. I sift through it. I sort it. I shift and stack. I scooch and scrunch. I shelve. I stuff. I save. I slave.
I sit back and contemplate the overspill. And I think back to a time in my life when I was 23 and traveling through Asia. At one point, I found myself stuck in a country waiting for a visa that wouldn’t arrive. The sum of my worldly possessions was a suitcase, a typewriter, a one-way ticket to Seoul, South Korea and $10. I had a bed in a room with 11 strangers in a travelers’ hostel that cost $2 dollars a night and an unofficial teaching job that brought in just enough extra to buy a meal and a beer each day. Anything more depended on the kindness of strangers. I lived that way for about three weeks. Never in my life, before or since, have I ever felt so free.
Years later, when my university Business students expressed superior attitudes about our way of life as compared to less developed cultures (i.e. nomadic or simply less materialistic ones), I tried to point out to them how our culture steers us to live. We study hard in school to pass tests and get to university where we study hard to pass tests to get a good job. Then we marry and produce our 2.2 children and build a house and proceed to fill that house with stuff and keep on working hard and harder to maintain that house and all the stuff in it. It’s self-enslavement in the Land of the (Buy One Get One) Free where our possessions own us.
I dont think my students were very impressed. They continued to look forward to their future Audis and vacations in the Maldives. They certainly didn’t envision their lives - their lists and stamp collections, their diaries and costume jewelry, their letters and photo albums — all packed willy-nilly in boxes and sitting, collecting dust, in my sister’s attic.