23 July 2011

Disposable stuff

A few years ago, IKEA, the Swedish super-furnishings store had a marketing campaign in which it advertised that if you grew tired of your IKEA lamp or bedding, you could just get rid of it and get new stuff, because IKEA's prices were so low. I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable with that message, with the idea that furnishings could be so disposable, and it turns out that so did many other consumers, and IKEA ended that campaign rather quickly.

It's interesting to see how the mindset has changed from one of rabid consumerism to one of careful consumption, at least in pockets of the U.S. We recycle avidly here in Seattle of course, not just paper, glass, plastic, but also our food waste and yard waste. I have learned to feel guilty if some jar is just too icky to clean out, or if I'm somewhere where composting isn't possible. This is why I'm feeling a little strange this week because my spouse and I are at the point in our packing where we are wearing what we have come to call, 'disposable clothing.' These are clothes not quite decent enough to pass onto charity, but still suitable to wear, but definitely not going with us to France. Throwing out a perfectly good, but dirty and faded t-shirt after wearing it one day this week just feels wrong! Not only that, I am just horrified by the amount of shredded paper waste that is coming out of this household. Somehow I managed to save bills from 1999 onward and now I have the monumental task of shredding or recycling those documents. This paper in its shredded form is only good enough for the compost bin according to City of Seattle and I've been filling my neighbors' compost bins as well as our own with bags of the shredded stuff. Embarrassing! On the other hand, a few weeks ago I had some things that just felt too good to give away to charity, and I offered them via a group email to my friends, who surprised me by snapping them all up (even the IKEA items!). One friend sagely observed that these items were probably laden with strong memories and that was making their disposal a bit more emotional and thus more difficult. She was right as I happen to be one of those people who remembers where I acquired something, who I was with, or what the circumstances were around a particular object, whether it be as mundane as the cheap laundry basket from Allen's grandparents' house that I snatched up when the house was being emptied to sell, or as cherished as the secondhand dishes I bought with my friends on a girls' weekend on Whidbey Island several years ago. Those objects help me remember certain social connections.

I wonder how much of our 'stuff' adds meaning to our lives, and how much just adds clutter, to our space and in our minds. I also wonder how much stuff we will accumulate during our French adventure, and whether we will be able to live more minimally than we have recently. (I like the idea of this.) There will certainly be things we will want to buy and bring home that are different from what we can get in Seattle, but will we have the boxes of papers, old clothing, candles, dishes that have been so cumbersome to deal with these past few months? (And will we be as able to recycle, compost and pass on our things as we have here? What I've seen in Aix-en-Provence hasn't convinced me that recycling is as popular there as here.) As for a new minimal lifestyle, I think that we might succeed for a while, but as we meet new people, explore new places, and entertain visitors from home, we will engage in that age-old custom of exchanging gifts and goods that add meaning to our social relationships. And that means we will likely have 'stuff' to deal with upon our return as well.

11 July 2011

Est-ce que tu es prête, Anne?

In preparation for our grand French adventure, I've been reviewing my high school French by listening to a Radiolingua language podcast for the past 9 months (see: http://radiolingua.com/members/coffee-break-french/). In the 15-20 minute, coffee break-length episodes, Marc the teacher often begins the lessons by asking his student, Est-ce que tu es prête, Anna? (Are you ready, Anna?) Anna is invariably always ready to learn French, and I try to be ready with her.

We have much to do, to get 'ready' for our departure to France. People have been commiserating with us about all we must be trying to do, to get ready. A military wife friend who moves her family every two to three years sent an email many months ago wishing me well as I began the onerous task of sorting through (and discarding) the accumulated stuff of our lives. Just yesterday we sold one of our cars, and the buyers pointed out that we could check that off our list, of things we have to do to get ready. The more I've done to get us ready though, the more I realize how relative a concept readiness is, and how sociological it is.

For example, my family has the distinct privilege of having time and money to get ready to move. Our upper middle class social position gives us the luxury of choosing when we have to be ready, how we will go about it, and the conditions surrounding our readiness. We have a lot of choices and time. For months, I've been able to sort through our things slowly, deciding what to pass on to charity, what to discard, what to store, what to take along. I've had the time to find a good family to rent our home, and the time to find a good home to rent for our family in France. I have time to schedule our utilities and subscriptions to end or transfer seamlessly so that our family's credit remains intact and we won't have to pay extra for later installations. I think about the working class woman in our apartment complex in Concord, California, back in the early 1990s, who was being evicted and had to get rid of her dining room furniture in a hurry (lucky us) and who no doubt had trouble the next time she tried setting up utilities, or I imagine the migrant agricultural workers who have to follow the crop cycles for work, uprooting their families and parsing their spare belongings quickly each time (if they are lucky enough to have their families and any significant belongings with them). These folks are not always fully ready to move on; they often have to get rid of necessities, and their few belongings go with them in bags or single carloads. Setting up new housekeeping ends up costing them all over again because of their limited choices and timing. Those are very different experiences from how ours is shaping up.

Even the things that I'm parsing through reflect my privilege. That I have so many things that make my current space a home and that I can choose which items will go along in our new home is luxurious. (Such riches can also feel a little oppressive, as I noticed how liberated and spacious my newly-sparse family room looked last week, but that feeling too is a a middle class privilege. I am able to make the choice of whether or not I wish to consume or acquire things; things are of course the marker of 'making it' in U.S. society.) On the other hand, this accumulation of stuff also seems to reflect age or generational status, particularly when I compare the paltry one box of mementos each of my children are storing, (in addition to a few boxes of elementary school papers and artwork and some musical paraphernalia), and the items they are bringing. Some of their efficiency is clearly related to their generational position, as their music and personal contacts' information are all stored (and have always been stored) on little electronic devices, while I struggle with deciding what to do with old address books full of old family names and addresses, and notebooks of course materials that I won't take with me, but that I can't relegate to the trash or recycling heap (nor that I would take the time or have the inclination to scan electronically). I am clearly old-school and they are the 'it' generation.

Am I ready? Will we be ready when it's time to move? My middle class audacity says we will be ready enough, even if there is some scrambling in the last few days. And, will we be ready to learn French, when we arrive? On that score, we may have a lot more in common with the less privileged, as we won't have a choice!