You can’t take it with you

by Angela on January 5, 2012 · 2 comments

The packing has officially begun! And even after moving cross-country 3 times within 4 years, I still get shell-shocked at just how much we have accumulated.

After my junior year in college, I spent the summer taking photographs of a multi-generational Chinese family in San Francisco’s colorful Chinatown. Inspired by a Documenting Communities class at Duke the previous semester, and armed with a few grants that paid for my supplies and accommodations, I set out to study my own culture — one that as a second generation Chinese-American woman, I sadly knew very little about.

Photo from Angela's documentary project "Chinese Junk", taken in San Francisco, 1997.

I was lucky enough to meet the Chus — a family that invited me into their hilltop Victorian house on Sutter Street, and let me capture their lives for a few weeks on 35mm film. And what I saw was eye-opening.

Their home was full of stuff.

Every corner was occupied by furniture. Every crevice within each piece of furniture was further filled with small toys, knickknacks, baubles, and randomness! That’s when I realized that a culture not just of excess, but of possession existed all around me. It made me question why we choose to own the non-functional things in life — everything from a vintage fur coat to a snow globe, and everything in between. What sort of identity or contentment or idea of success do these possessions really bring?

Fast forward to 2004, when Mike and I shared an apartment in hipster Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We were lucky enough to score not only a garden space in the back of our railroad 2-bedroom on North Tenth Street, but a rare basement storage room as well. And the strangest thing started to happen. We would walk home from the subway, and I would watch Mike literally pick up somewhat usable furniture he spotted abandoned on the street and haul it (sometimes on his back) to put in our basement. I’d stare at him. “Why are we storing that?” I’d ask. “Because we can,” he’d reply triumphantly.

Our basement storage unit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

I suppose the thought was “Someday, we may need that.”  But guess what? We never did. The massive ivory coffee table, the clunky oak credenza (do they even make credenzas anymore? Do people even say credenza?), the mottled leather bench — they all just sat there, collecting grime and dust, laying in wait to wreak some revenge on us one day.

And that day came when we had to move across the country to Sacramento, for my job. I was already out in California working when Mike, in charge of packing up our belongings, called me in a state of panic. “I am so overwhelmed. We have stuff that even The Salvation Army won’t pick up.”

Now that we’re on the brink of winnowing down our possessions to what is truly necessary for Lion King tour life, it’s time to make these tough decisions. For instance, we decided to buy a compact umbrella stroller which took up a fraction of the space that Max’s huge, plush cadillac of a stroller did.  I posted the caddy on Craigslist, and three hours later, our buyer arrived and had to pry it from my fingers. I wanted luxury, but had to accept that all we needed was function.

Today I began to worry about Max having to downsize his toy collection. There’s no way we can travel with his play mini-ATV, drum set, and the assortment of buzzing, singing, popping plastic playthings we’ve gotten as gifts over the past year. And don’t get me started on his menagerie of stuffed animals! Poor Max, I thought. What a traumatic experience, to have to say goodbye to these things.

But then I stopped and really thought about what loomed before us. Adventure. We will be in a different city every month; we will get to explore unknown cityscapes, let loose in unfamiliar playgrounds, taste new foods and get to know these different — might I say, exotic? — regions of the country. He’ll meet many, many new faces. We’ll seek out local swim schools or YMCAs so that Max can have some consistency in the water, but we’ll also be hitting places like South Beach in Miami where he can frolic in the waves and tan his cheeks!

In fact, I can bet you’ll soon see Max traipsing down Main Street, USA in Disneyworld, hand-in-hand with Mickey when we hit Orlando; biting into his first fresh beignet with sheer delight in New Orleans; and trumpeting in his sweet, squealy voice to the elephants at the zoo in every single city.

Max doesn’t need a stockpile of plastic toys to provide him with imaginary playtime. He has us — brave souls, by design. This is such a unique opportunity ahead of us. We don’t want to blow it by obsessing over our stuff.  And that brings me to the real beauty of minimalization: It gives us more time to spend with Max, and more time to play in the exciting world around us that provides us with exactly what we need.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ron January 5, 2012 at 9:38 pm

I love these posts. Look at all that stuff! It’s true, we collect too, too much.


Michelle January 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm

This is a great post! I really enjoyed reading and look forward to more of your thoughtful stories of life & adventure. All the best to you Angela, Mike & Max!


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