Writer. Traveler. Tourist. Addicted to sunlight and road trips.
For years, the running joke in our house was that I would never go to Australia. My daughter became quite interested in Australia after the continent/country was a project in her kindergarten class. That was in 2009. She asked if we could go to Australia, see the koalas and kangaroos, and I showed her a map, explained that Australia involved over 20 hours of flying, including about a 15-hour flight across all of the Pacific Ocean, and that it was just simply too far and too expensive.
Last night, I returned from 10 days in Australia. Twenty-four hours of nonstop travel; 19 of those hours in the sky. No one is more surprised by this than me.
I was approached to participate in a press trip, and the itinerary was too intriguing to say no. In fact, despite the long haul, I was quite excited. My trip was coordinated and all expenses, including air, hotels, activities, and meals were covered by Voyages Indigenous Tourism Travel and Visit Victoria (and if I left anyone out, I do apologize, but those were the biggies). I flew Qantas (which quickly became one of my favorite airlines ever) for most of the trip, with a side hop on Virgin Australia when I flew from Ayers Rock to Alice Springs. I even spent a night in a tiny town called Dunkeld, about a three-hour’s drive west of Melbourne, population 480, which has this kick-ass hotel simply called The Royal Mail Hotel. This posh hotel is across from a tiny bookstore that’s only open on Saturdays and Sundays called Roz Greenwood’s Used and Rare Books. I was there on a Friday, pressing my nose against the glass wishing I had another 24 hours in town. Parked in front of the Royal Mail Hotel was a turquoise-colored, 1950s-style car featuring an airbrushed image of Elvis during his younger years. The car is owned by a local, making me wish that I had been given more time in Dunkeld.
There’s no way to sum up 10 days on another continent in one blog post, and my sense of time, not to mention what season we’re currently in, is too screwed up to offer you anything compelling or coherent. Australia will emerge gradually and sporadically on this blog. It’s a big country with a big landscape, and there’s just too much to process right now. What I can tell you is that I constantly mispronounced Melbourne, as many Americans do. It’s “Mel-burn,” not “Mel-born,” so I’ll work on that. I can also tell you I drank a flat white almost every morning—“flat white” being Aussie for latte—and that the Royal Mail Hotel whipped up one of the best flat whites in the world.
I can also tell you that I’m not a carnivorous or adventurous eater but I ate the following during my 10 days in Australia: green ants sprinkled on several dishes, crocodile, emu, wallaby, kangaroo, camel, eel, barramundi and a gazillion other types of fish with names I can’t recall. I’m jetlagged and know I’m forgetting a few critters, but I know I didn’t eat chicken or beef (I think some bacon might have been involved somewhere along the line). I ate a roadhouse camel burger about six hours after a riding a camel as the sun rose, the first—and, so far only—time I’ve ridden and eaten the same animal in the same day. I wasn’t fond of the camel burger though I’m confident I didn’t have the best cut of camel, probably some mix of body parts with most (hopefully) originating from the rump. No offense to the roadhouse cafe in Glen Helen that served me the camel burger, though the countless flies and wasps hovering over our food were annoying since we were eating indoors and I’m allergic to wasp stings.
It’s nearly summer in Australia right now. The constellations there are different because the seasons are different, some planets more clearly visible than others. Someone set up a large telescope in the desert while we were there and I got to see Saturn for the first time. I looked at this faint star in the desert sky, then peered through the lens and saw a white dot with a very distinct white ring, as if someone had placed a kid’s sticker on the other end of the telescope. I glanced back and forth between the two, my naked eye on the speck of light above, and the image coming through the telescope, trying to gauge if what I was seeing was real. It was a perfect night in the desert. Saturn wanted to be seen, surrounded by many stars, moonlight touching almost everything.
Back in the city, the desert feeling far, far away, Christmas decorations were already up, a tradition that always follows the Melbourne Cup, which this year, occurred on November 6, a holiday in Melbourne that involves high fashion and more than the usual amount of drinking. We were on a flight from Alice Springs to Melbourne when the pilot announced the winner: Rekindling. A good name. The name of one who perseveres. A word I need to hold on to now that it’s almost winter here.
Noshing on that kinda-tough camel burger the day before the Melbourne Cup, I had been dressed for 100-degree heat, sweating from unusual places, begging for a cool breeze to find me. I received texts from home about the drop in temperature, even my daughter complained about the cold, and I tried to remember what cold felt like. I flew home last night, crossing half the globe by air. Somewhere over Fiji, I watched The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, an Australian comedy-drama that takes places in the Northern Territories, and the movie made me love Australia even more, all that heat on screen in that cold, cramped plane. I landed, gathered my overstuffed suitcase, walked out into the dark New York night, and immediately questioned my choices. Daylight Savings occurred while I was away, which means it’s now nighttime at 4 p.m. I went from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere, from late spring to late fall, from light to dark, all in a day. My patio tomato plants are very brown and very dead, some tomatoes ossified on the vine by below-freezing nights. Such a sight to come home to was jarring.
While in the Northern Territories and Australia’s southern coast, I tried to soak up the region’s abundant sunshine like a camel (yes, pun intended!), but I knew re-entry would be hard. Today is re-entry. And it’s hard. I already feel that seasonal affective disorder weight settling in, and I’ve been on the ground less than 24 hours. Outside my living room window today, it’s gray, rainy, and barely 40 degrees, as if the sun decided “I prefer Australia, too. See you in April.” I had to dig out a pair of socks for the first time in almost two weeks, and I’ll likely have to dig out the happy lamp tomorrow.
Please don’t mistake today’s mopey mood for entitlement; I’m just missing sunshine and a functional circadian rhythm. I am home, with my kid, happily doing mom stuff, finally writing again because these press trips actually involve very little writing. Instead, it’s hauling your laptop from location to location, activity to activity, with the hope that you might have a spare 15 minutes to write anything down. It’s all exhilarating and tiring, as most cool things are. Today is simply a hangover after nearly three solid weeks of travel involving two trans-Pacific flights (more on Macau soon). I began this Monday by waking up at 1 a.m. because I was so hungry, I microwaved a few chicken nuggets. I’ll likely spend the day in my baggy flamingo pants writing and drinking tea. I sipped home-brewed coffee that admittedly tasted disappointing after days of being spoiled by the Melbourne flat white scene. Hiking four or five miles along the Southern Ocean last week already feels like it happened to someone else, which is why we take selfies and drain our smartphone batteries snapping photos. We need reminders that we are many people doing many different things all at once. Mother and traveler. Wife and writer. Tourist and homebody. Australia surprised me. I want to go back, despite that ridiculously long flight. The continent I told my daughter was too far to visit got under my skin. I like that the red dirt from the Northern Territories stained my sneakers. I spin the globe that sits on my kid’s bedroom desk, the classic one found in most elementary school classrooms with countries the color of Easter eggs. Australia is flamingo-pink on this globe, impossible to miss, and I think “When?”
America’s story depends on where you stand. If you’re standing on the Navajo Nation reservation or maybe somewhere in Flathead, Montana, America’s story is a story about conquest and resilience. If you’re a black American whose ancestors were brought on slave ships, your story might be about survival and resilience. If you identify with those who arrived on different ships—and now on planes—fleeing persecution or seeking economic opportunities, then America’s story is perhaps a story about possibilities and resilience. Nowhere is this story better told than at The Tenement Museum on 97 Orchard Street in New York’s Lower East Side.
Look, I don’t readily gush about New York City. It’s crowded, noisy, and abrasive. I lived in Greenwich Village over 20 years ago, and I’ve been back in this sphere now for almost 14 years. I’ve stood in long lines for a morning bagel (back before I was gluten-free); I know my schmears; I’ve gotten stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel; I sneezed while driving across the George Washington Bridge and hit the car in front of me; I got broadsided by a dump truck on Second Avenue; I’ve had afternoon tea at the Waldorf Astoria where I rode the elevator with Leah Rabin five years before she died; I got to see Top of the Rock for free because I knew people. I’ve done almost all of New York except see Hamilton because, like most of America, I can’t afford to see Hamilton. Oh, and I eat my pizza folded (is there any other way???).
Now that we’ve established my NYC street cred, let me get back to gushing about 97 Orchard Street, the visionary magnificence of museum founders Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson (and that is not hyperbole), and the brilliance of how the Tenement Museum executes this vision.
As expected, visitors are taken through the apartments of families who lived in this complex, which was built in 1863 and closed in 1935 before being rediscovered in 1988. Some of the 325-square-foot apartments are restored in the styles of the time, and you’re walked through a single family’s experience of living there, where they worked, how they ate, and even work-life balance, which wasn’t a term in the late 19th century, but still a problem because so many people, children included, were overworked.
Here’s what’s glorious about what Abram and Jacobson did: they left some of the apartments untouched, as they found them: abandoned, peeling, with handwritten notes scribbled in pencil on the walls. Some of these notes are inventories listing numbers of jackets or dresses since this part of New York was central to the garment trade, sewing the clothes for most American women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We see what Abram and Jacobson saw in 1988, which was how the interior of the building was last seen by those who lived there before being kicked out in 1935. They were smart enough to leave things alone, recognizing the impact of decay, how time is really layers. The design of the museum is a restored time capsule interspersed with the real time capsule.
Our guide explained that the walls contain 40 layers of paint and 21 different types of wallpaper, one over the other, each wave of immigrants and families leaving their mark. There are also different layers of flooring cracked and peeling, revealing the tastes of the previous occupants: big, floral patterns, bright turquoises and reds, the working class so eager to mimic the decor uptown. The chipped walls are like the rings of a giant Sequoia tree, each layer an era, a story, a family’s place in history. They won’t let you touch the peeling walls, and I understand why, but I very much wanted to.
Seven thousand people lived at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. We took the “Hard Times” tour featuring a German family in the 1870s headed by a single mother who somehow got all three of her daughters educated. Our other tour, “Sweat Shops,” focused on a Lithuanian Jewish family who followed the Sabbath despite pressures to work Saturdays. The father was a tailor, just about everyone in the family worked, and over the years, they managed to save up enough to move to Brooklyn, considered the Promised Land back then with its newer construction and green parks before hipsters and artisanal pickle factories took over.
The Tenement Museum couldn’t be more relevant than it is now. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was just getting off the ground when Trump’s white supremacy decided otherwise. His hatred and myopia leave hundreds of thousands terrified about their futures, many of them non-white. Trump’s action was a move to decide who gets to be an American, a question posed by our guide. Sadly, this question isn’t new in the United States. Prior to the Civil War, anyone could show up and try to earn a living, and then over the generations, the U.S. government’s attitude towards immigration fluctuated, sometimes open arms, sometimes a door in the face. The federal government officially took an active role in managing immigration beginning in 1891, just in time for the “Great Wave” of 24 million immigrants who arrived between 1900 and 1920, thousands upon thousands of them landing on Ellis Island, a pipeline to lower Manhattan, a pipeline to 97 Orchard Street.
What you see at the Tenement Museum is how immigrants have been the backbone of this country for decade after decade, generation after generation. Who would we be without them? Who would I have been if Anna Woznicka got cold feet about leaving Poland all those years ago when 97 Orchard was hopping? My memories of my great-grandmother are limited, but vivid: a 1950s kitchen with a Formica table and counter tops; above the booth-like seating around the table, a photo of John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president who had been long dead by the time I was hanging out in Great-Grandma’s kitchen. Next to JFK was a photo of a very youthful Pope John Paul II, the Vatican’s first Polish Pope, who was at his peak then. These two faces were the first faces you always saw upon entering my great-grandmother’s house.
Before our visits, in the car ride over (a blue Oldsmobile station wagon) my mother would always tell us not to eat anything that was offered, concerned we would be getting expired treats, which was highly likely. I don’t know when Anna Woznicka left Poland, but I know she spoke little English. I know she was born in July 1894, sometime arrived to New York before 1915 when my grandfather was born, gave birth to four children in America, lived most of her adult life in Syracuse, New York, and by the time I was old enough to remember her from visits during the 1970s and early 1980s, she was a raisined old lady wearing pastel housecoats that looked like tablecloths. She would shuffle about the house crying and mumbling in Polish. No one ever explained why she cried during our visits. Sometimes she and my grandfather would bicker in what I could only guess was Polish because it certainly wasn’t English, and I was working hard at a young age to try to pick up words where I could. She would disappear into her bedroom down the hall and return with $5 bills, one for me and one for my younger brother. Once, I received a Christmas card in Polish and had no idea how to read it. She died in 1988. I was 15, my parents were newly divorced, and I wasn’t at the funeral. I have no clue what happened to the Christmas card written in Polish.
But Anna Woznicka got to stay, and by 1973 when I was born, there wasn’t any question that I, a third-generation American, a blonde, green-eyed girl with a Polish name who couldn’t pronounce a word of Polish, would get to stay.
So go to the Tenement Museum, and definitely book more than one tour. Look at the peeling paint on the walls. Listen to the stairs creak beneath your feet. Think about the smells that were outside those windows in 1863 or 1901 or 1915—plenty of horse shit and garbage and beer because the neighborhood was predominantly German at the end of the 19th century with countless saloons. Think of who you are and where your family comes from. Think about your neighbors; mine are mostly Korean who speak Korean—one little girl two doors down recently learned English. Think about who became American and why, and then think how America could still be America yet turn people away.
Okay! It’s that part of the day where I’m up at 3:30 a.m. rearing to go because my body is still in Italy thinking it’s time for cappuccino and sunshine. This is what flying from Europe to the United States means: doing laundry at 4 in the morning, feeling like the only one moving at this hour except for the raccoons outside calling it a night and the hookers on 8th Avenue thinking the same.
My 10 days in Italy flew, and there’s no effective way to capture all that I did, saw, ate, smelled, heard and overheard other than to list. As Diego Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “Let me explain. No. There is too much. Let me sum up.” Here we go:
– Nonnas everywhere: towns, cities, dirt country roads. And it’s good luck to catch a nonna. I caught one last year while standing on a train that was slowing down to the station. Our train lurched, and a nonna standing next to me lost her footing and just fell into my arms. It was *exactly* like that feeling of catching the ball in third grade and all your classmates cheering for you. This nonna regained her balance, squeezed my arm, and pronounced the longest “Grazie,” Italy had ever heard. It was like six syllables long and easily a full 10 seconds, that’s how grateful she was to have not fallen down. She wore a cardigan, skirt, and a beautiful scarf, and as I drove from Sestri Levante to Panzano to Siena this past week, I saw that all nonnas wore cardigans, skirts, and beautiful scarves. It’s their superhero costume. One even wore yellow Crocs. So always slow down for nonnas crossing the road, getting on/off trains, and better yet—catch one! She might even grant you three wishes.
– People keep making films in Tuscany and about Tuscany because Tuscany is probably what the Garden of Eden looked like, and we all crave to get back to what was green and good.
– Green shutters on all houses. It’s like a homeowners’ association thing, but nationwide.
– No one uses dryers. I love this about Italy (perhaps because my own dryer doesn’t work). This was my third visit, and I always saw people line-drying their clothes. Fuck dryers.
– Fat grapes heavy on the vine do indeed look sexy.
– I drove a little stick-shift Lancia from Florence to Sestri Levante to Panzano to Siena to Florence. I named him Pepe. He didn’t like uphill dirt roads but anything downhill turned him into Peter Pan. Also, driving Pepe into one-way city streets or markets in Florence while jet-lagged and with minor traces of Klonopin in your bloodstream may sound scary, but Italians appeared accustomed to this and simply moved aside while I made very public mistakes and got turned around. I even pulled up to Il Duomo and no one cared. This zigzagging and series of false turns is not in any guidebook but is a great way to see Florence.
– As my new friend Rose McAleese says, “Bugs are annoying in all countries.” Italy was beautiful, but its bugs are formidable. I saw bees that had actual muscle mass. I saw ants that could bench-press Skittles with ease. I also watched a yellow jacket take a piece of chicken (or was it pork?) off a spoon and fly off with it. I have an allergy to wasps and hornets, and while I’m not interested in wiping out any species, I don’t need to get close with bugs. I did two beautiful hikes with my EpiPen in tow and nothing happened. I’ve been fortunate to have not needed the EpiPen, and if there is an emergency stinging situation, I’m worried injecting an EpiPen will be like trying to remember how to properly use the kitchen fire extinguisher. Those are two situations you don’t want to screw up.
– I ate my body weight in mozzarella. I am both proud and slightly ashamed I did this without hesitation.
– I did not see the actual David in Florence, though saw its replicas everywhere. Honestly, I don’t mind missing David. I’m a fan of The Man, but David looks like a guy who lives in his head and he’s not well-endowed, so I didn’t feel motivated to pay museum admission to stand and admire a thinky dude with a small penis. I know that says a lot about me.
– I ate my first gluten-free ice cream cone in Sestri Levante. I’ll take this to the grave. The flavor was olive oil gelato, which was amazing and should be its own body scrub.
– Finding St. Catherine’s severed head was indeed a “Where’s Waldo” moment. You’d think a 700-year-old head would stand out, but we walked by it at least three or four times before realizing that waxy bulb behind the glass was the face of a 14th-century nun who had a relationship with Christ that would incite Jesus-envy among women and men alike. Not only did she suffer the Stigmata, but was said to have a ring made from Jesus’s foreskin that only she could see. Can you picture her showing off that bling? Once we did find her, me and my two companions, both Irish-Catholics, dropped to our knees and bowed in prayer. We may not be church-going regulars, but we know what to do when facing the mummified face of a saint.
– I hiked by olive trees that had inexplicably split. No one knows why they did this, but the olive trees kept growing and now look like hands raised in prayer. This seems to work because there are now more olives.
– The Bay of Silence lived up to its name. Go, especially late morning on a Wednesday when it’s just you, a few leathery-looking ladies, one nun, and the beach guard.
– You can get bad coffee in Italy. Anything that comes from an automated machine should not be trusted. You’re in Italy; treat yourself. Pay the three Euros and ask some handsome fella behind the barrista to razzle-dazzle the espresso machine and whip up something nice for you. You won’t regret it.
This summer, I went to a handful of places: the town library, the town pool, the grocery store, the yoga studio, and the Adirondacks—always a late-summer favorite. While neighbors and friends went on vacations to cool places, I stayed home and tried to spend as little money as possible. I looked and behaved like a suburban hausfrau. The rest of the world was happening somewhere else, not in my ‘hood. When not grocery shopping or borrowing library books, I browsed Twitter for the latest Donald Trump bashing, worked on corporate writing assignments, or read some fabulous books including Paul Yoon’s “Snow Hunters,” Roxane Gay’s “Hunger,” Annie Gray’s “The Greedy Queen,” and Emily Ruskovich’s “Idaho.” See? Lots of trips to the town library.
I’ll need plenty of books for the fall season of globetrotting that’s kicking off on Monday. I’m in Italy for this amazing Hedgebrook conference, then I am squeeing over the fact that I will be going to Macau in October and Australia’s Northern Territories in November as guests of the local tourism boards. In fact, four days after I fly home from Macau, I turn around and fly to Australia. If you knew me, that last sentence would make you laugh your head off because you’d say, “Hey, you don’t like to fly.” True, being stuck on a plane isn’t my preferred state-of-being, but neither is getting my yearly mammogram, sitting in Lincoln Tunnel traffic, or waiting in line for interstate fast food I don’t even want to eat but I have to because I’m starving and there’s nothing else sold on the interstate and I’ve run out of snacks. I’ve decided I like travel more than I dislike flying, so airplanes it is. The klonopin and donut floatie are ready.
My last (and only) trip to Asia was a 13-hour flight to Tokyo in 2013, so I’m rusty with long hauls in the sky. Plus, I’m not a spring chicken and I do like my sleep; the idea of being 25 and “powering through” sounds ludicrous to me. I don’t want to “power through” anything. I want to savor all of it, not rush any of it, see as much as possible, and get enough rest so I can keep not rushing things. Twenty-five-year-olds do not think this way.
I have no idea what to expect when I go to Italy (well, okay, this is my third trip to Italy so I have some idea), Macau, or Australia, but you can follow my reactions, inner monologue and photos here. Also, all three of these trips are solo. My biggest accomplishment from them will not be a published clip but to instill a sense of empowerment in my 13-year-old daughter, to show her that the world is hers to explore, that it’s a world of yes, and if anyone tells her no, she keeps pushing forward, that despite society being rigged to benefit white guys, she can still succeed.
I feel very lucky to have the travel opportunities that I have. I know that people see the trips and assume it’s a glamorous life, but as any travel writer will tell you, it is anything but glamorous and few travel writers I know earn any real money writing about interesting destinations. Tumbleweed may blow through my wallet, but I have a long list of interesting experiences to share. Assuming I can afford to get into the party, I have enough cocktail party stories to keep the night lively. I usually don’t have a hard time at cocktail parties as long as someone else is paying for the drinks.
Stay tuned, and we’ll see what stories emerge. I can promise you that I will try to use the word “cerulean,” one of my favorite words ever anywhere, as often as possible. You’ll likely get sick of it, maybe even find it pretentious. I can’t help it, I love that word and that color. To date, “cerulean” has appeared in three of my travel articles, including my most recent piece which is in the October/November print edition of National Geographic Traveler where I talk about my obsession with hotel swimming pools (it is indeed a long-running thing). I have my second story coming out in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, where, sadly, the word “cerulean” didn’t apply, but there are several references to “green.” It’s a coming-of-age essay set in London coming out any day now.
So off we go! Join me on the journey. No sugar-coating, I swear.
I’ve been jogging more lately, which means I’ve caught glimpses of what my neighbors are up to—and not up to, such as cleaning out their garages. I’ve seen a number of garage doors with boxes packed to the ceiling, stuff spilling into the driveway. Catching someone opening his or her garage door is like witnessing a surgery; the surgeon cuts an opening, and the viscera that’s packed in there so tightly overflows past the barriers of skin.
That’s suburbia. More. More. And then more.
Japanese minimalism hasn’t caught on here, or, if it has, those folks keep their garage doors closed. My husband often jokes I should earn money consulting as a de-clutterer. I don’t have any books to my name like Marie Kondo, only a decades-long track record of purging stuff. One of my college roommates called me “Spartan” because in our cramped apartment in London, I kept only a few items and didn’t paste my corner of the wall with mementos. Open our garage door and you’ll find about seven things that belong to us: my 1926 iron-cast clawfoot tub I hope to reglaze; our lawnmower, a fire pit; two bags of potting soil food; two vintage-style porch chairs. The rest of what’s in there: wooden planks (no idea why or for what); gardening tools; a very old dining room chair that doesn’t seem to match anything; and interior doors from our 1926 Colonial all belonged to the previous owner, an avid gardener who was from Japan, and who spent more time sprucing her yard than the house. Not knowing what to do with her stuff, we just left everything alone.
I’ve been doing some late spring/early summer cleaning, and while I was doing this, the same college friend who called me “Spartan” sent me a story about compulsive purging. I’ll own this, but only up to a point. I will admit that there’s a little brain chemical rush when the Salvation Army picks up old furniture, or when last weekend, some guy in a white pickup truck took the old barbecue smoker I left on the curb (because no one has 14 hours anymore to stand around and turn meat as it smokes). Purging gives me the same brain chemical rush as eating chocolate or dancing or jogging or yoga. Perhaps I was sparking my own joy before it became trendy. But I’m not a compulsive purger, and there are many reasons why.
Walk into my house and books are everywhere. On the coffee table. On the dining room table. On the desk. By the bedside. Sometimes on a chair. Sometimes left in bed. Sometimes serving as a coaster. These books aren’t organized in any particular way, just splayed out in either the order I was reading them or the order in which I brought them home from the library.
I also keep in plain sight a conch I found last year. It was lying in a pile of garbage and rotting conchs on a beach in the Bahamas. It’s absolutely beautiful, a swirl of pink grooves, and people have asked where I got it. When I say “in a pile of garbage,” they often look surprised, perhaps assuming I bought it at a tchotchke shop in Florida, because isn’t that where shells come from? I have a number of shells from my travels (though none from the Galapagos Islands because that’s illegal, and I won’t take anything from Hawaii, whenever I visit, because I’m told that brings bad luck). So I guess you could say I’m hoarding shells.
Also, I don’t buy something, purge it, and then go out and buy it again, which is what compulsive purgers do, with anything from lamps to toasters. Usually when I buy something, I hold on to it for a long time. I have two dresses I bought in 1993 at the Portobello Road Market that I can no longer fit into (no amount of diet and exercise is going to give you back the waistline you had at age 20). Donating them would make sense, but I never will. I also have a lovely antique-looking (don’t know the exact date) chamber pot Mike bought for me also at the Portobello Road Market when he was there in 2015. Do I keep a chamber pot next to my bed? No. Do I love having a chamber pot sit on my bookshelves next to a century-old Lithuanian typewriter? Yes. Will that chamber pot ever fall into the Purge Pile? Never.
I fall somewhere between wanting that Japanese aesthetic and wanting a Cuban aesthetic, and I recognize that sentence makes no sense, but let me explain. When I went to Japan in 2013, and walked into hotel rooms or restaurants where the only adornment was a single vase with a single flower, or sometimes just a vase or piece of pottery, nothing on the walls, no other distractions, I thought: “I’m home. This is me.” Clutter gets on my nerves, space calms me, and Japan calmed me. And then I walked into paladars in Havana where the walls are sensory experiences, filled with color, dozens of paintings often by local artists because Cuba brims with art, fresh flowers, an old record player, and I thought: “I’m home. This is me.” Color and eclectic stuff make me happy, and Cuba makes me happy.
The decor of our 1926 Colonial swings between these two. I’m not sure it works, but I’m being honest with you in case you visit.
We’re not shoppers. We don’t routinely go to malls or have boxes on our front step from Amazon. We are surrounded by folks who are Black Belts in online shopping. When I’m in Cuba, I think about the Story of Stuff, and wonder what Cubans would think of this, an island where there’s a shortage of just about everything, where I brought a suitcase full of art supplies and baseball gear. How do you explain that de-cluttering has become a middle class American battle cry? Whenever I come back from Cuba, I’m always in shock at the 10,000 brands of toothpaste on the shelves here or the hundreds of shades of nail polish. Do we really need this much?
Research suggests clutter reflects stress, anxiety, and depression, and adds to these feelings. I believe this to be true, though I have my own unique compartmentalization techniques my husband still quite doesn’t understand. I can’t stand the clutter of a pile of shoes (I like shoes kept in their original boxes so they don’t get dusty), but I don’t mind a sloppy stack of books. I can’t stand too many kitchen utensils or appliances cluttering up our small kitchen (really, how many spatulas and frying pans does one need?), but I’ve got a five-foot metal sunflower made in New Mexico that I lovingly dust. A pile of dirty clothes will fray my nerves but a pile of seashells from Mexico, Florida, Jamaica, is okay. It only makes sense to me.
My mother-in-law spent decades shopping herself into poverty, and when she passed away from leukemia in 2014, my husband and I geared up for the arduous task of going through her house and sorting through her stuff. She had countless unopened boxes from QVC, including multiple salad spinners and asparagus cookers (so that you could cook asparagus vertically instead of horizontally in a conventional saucepan). To call the experience sobering is an understatement, and perhaps afterward, my husband came to appreciate my quirky de-cluttering tendencies (or maybe not; you have to ask him).
The death of a loved one, the clearing out of a house, always makes us pause and think about what we really need, what should stay and what should go. Whenever we move out of our 1926 Colonial and away from these overstuffed garages and McMansions, I will feel a huge sense of relief but also, surprisingly, some sadness. We’ve lived in this house for seven years now, and I’ve grown very attached to writing on my enclosed front porch, where I write this blog post. I will miss this porch very much, one of the main reasons we bought the house. I will miss my other clawfoot tub in the upstairs bathroom (I will reglaze its twin someday), where I would soak after a day of skiing in the Catskills. I will miss the backyard Easter egg hunts that we no longer do because kids quickly outgrow such activities (we already donated the plastic eggs we used to fill with candy). I will miss roasting s’mores on the backyard fire pit. We will be eventually downsizing because my husband and I dislike lawn care and we only use two-thirds of our 1,430-square-foot house, which is modest compared with current American floor plans. We are not very good suburbanites. It’s time for a change.
Five years from now, which will happen in a blink, our only child leaves for college. I’ve kept five or six large plastic bins filled with stuff from her childhood: tiny handprints cast in clay; crayon drawings; some baby clothes; some baby toys—items that used to be randomly tossed about our apartment before we bought this old house because back then, they were everyday objects. I remember during those early years, feeling overwhelmed by baby clutter, the strollers, the swing, all the bulky plastic toys before she became old enough to play with small Legos and not swallow them (and then the tsunami of Legos overwhelmed me). Over the years, I set aside the items, many that my daughter made, that I could never say goodbye to (though she was such a prolific artist we did have to toss quite a bit of art). Now, these objects that were once taped to the refrigerator or gathered dust on a table are mementos and memories stored in bins, bins that will follow us no matter where go, no matter what the anti-stuff experts say.