May 1, 2010.
In between grading a tower of research papers and jogging through Chicago parks, I begin to help my husband pack our stuff. We’re not sure when we’ll see most of it again. We plan to live with my parents in Pennsylvania for at least a year. Into newspaper and bubble wrap go my favorite coffee mugs, our wedding pictures, and our eccentric decorations — like the Toucan Sam we keep on our windowsill and the cylindrical sculpture, something like a disfigured Tin Man, that my husband found on eBay by searching for “weird metal thing.”
What will it be like to live without our stuff, I wonder. My sister, who has been living with her stuff in storage for almost a year, says she doesn’t miss it at all.
Memorial Day Weekend, 2010.
The brown velour couch and love seat that were partly bought with our wedding money won’t fit up the stairs and through the narrow hallways of my parents’ house. It’d be a shame to put good couches like these into storage, though, so my dad initiates us into country life by strapping the couches to his backhoe and using the backhoe to lift the couches through our upstairs window. This actually works.
With couches, a coffee table, some bookshelves, a desk, and a few decorations, we create a living room in what used to be my sister’s bedroom. We have to turn sideways to get through the doorway because the arms of the couch and love seat almost touch each other.
My childhood bedroom becomes our bedroom. It’s not a bad little suite. We stow three-quarters of our stuff in my parents’ barn, attic, basement, and closets. My mom boxes some of her own kitchenware to clear pantry shelves for me. How did all of this fit into a one-bedroom Chicago apartment? How, in the scant years of living on our own and in three years of marriage, had we accumulated so much? Did we really need it all?
March 21, 2011.
My parents take a week-long trip overseas. Seizing the chance to entertain guests, we invite some new friends to dinner. I make a point to use our plates from the pantry, but as we’re sitting in my parents’ living room, I notice our friends looking up at the quilts and grapevine wreaths that adorn the walls, the warm colonial colors that characterize the curtains and furniture, and the history and Christian living books that line the shelves.
I’ve often made a game of trying to guess people’s interests by looking at their stuff. Our friends would know a lot about my parents’ interests from glancing around the living room, and they would learn more than most people know about how I was raised, but could they really get to know us without seeing the “weird metal thing” or having French Press coffee in one of my favorite mugs, or browsing our bookshelves?
Should this trouble me? Why can’t I meet a new friend in a brick-walled coffee shop and have her know me as well as if I invited her home? Or why wouldn’t it seem as bonding to invite that new friend to an unfurnished apartment, order pizza, and just talk? Is this just another way that consumerism has seeped into me, making me think that the way my accessories sculpt my surroundings offers the best means of knowing my true self?
Of course I am more than what I own. Of course one day what I own will be irrelevant. Of course there are people who, out of poverty, thrift, sacred vows, or minimalism, own only necessities. Those people often divulge more of their souls because their selves are what they are able to share.
But we are body as well as spirit, and a body likes a couch. If you are my friend or neighbor, I would like it to be my couch.
May 2011—August 2011.
I discover there’s a chance to return to Chicago to teach. Nearly simultaneously, a friend writes to say that they’ll be subletting their place for September. We decide to return to the city and sublet their place. We’ll leave our stuff in Pennsylvania — pretty much all that we don’t need to wear, listen to, teach with, or communicate through — until October, and we’ll stay with many generous friends until the sublet begins.
Downsizing, and then downsizing again. It’s like the process my maternal grandparents followed as they aged. Between my grandfather’s New England practicality and my grandmother’s compulsive generosity, they never collected much. If you opened a closet door, you could actually see everything the closet contained. But they still had to downsize when they sold their house and moved into a retirement home, and several years later my widowed grandmother had to store, sell, or give away almost everything else when she moved into a hospital-room-sized assisted living apartment.
Maybe it’s good to act out that process early in life.
Our sublet begins. We stay in our friends’ furnished apartment. I find their belongings oddly comforting: their artwork, furniture, serving dishes, even their houseplants. They’ve welcomed us to share this space with them many times before; we’ve even shared Thanksgiving dinners with them among these furnishings. It is not home, but it still feels welcoming.
October 7, 2011.
My dad and brother maneuver the couches back the way they came, backhoe and all.
October 10-14, 2011.
We get our stuff back. As I write this, most of it towers around me in boxes. Even as I’ve begun unpacking some of it, I feel detached. I’d expected my heart to cartwheel when I unwrapped my KitchenAid or curtains or picture frames, but no, the heart’s calm. I feel no strong claim to any of these things I am unpacking. Maybe that’s because I haven’t shared them yet.