Valentine's Day: dinner on a cooler, with wine on an overturned bucket.

14 February 2011

In American culture, we have a…thing about Stuff. You can’t take it with you. Using money to buy it won’t make you happy. The more of it you have, the more tied down you become and the more expensive it becomes to move. At the same time, we’re obsessed with it here. We’re in constant competition with each other to have better Stuff, shinier Stuff, newer Stuff, faster Stuff, more fashionable Stuff…the list goes on and on. We kinda have a problem.

For the past eight months, Nick and I have been living without most of our Stuff. This isn’t our noble attempt to “live simply so that others may simply live,” to reduce clutter, or to experiment. It’s because Stuff, unlike people, is surprisingly challenging to transport from one location to another. The fifteen boxes of kitchen supplies, bedding, and books that I sent to Germany took almost four months to arrive. When we left Germany at the end of October, we sent back those fifteen boxes…plus furniture, mattresses, and umpteen wedding presents. It has yet to arrive. And while our first German apartment provided basic furnishings such as a bed, our current place in Colorado doesn’t. We sleep on a leaky air mattress. Our pillows are folded-up towels. We sit on the floor to eat, read, and relax, and our big luxury purchase- a butt-and-a-half recliner- is the only real chair in the house. My sister-in-law gave us a bunch of kitchen supplies, so we can cook basic meals and eat them off plates, but every now and then we’re caught off guard by the little things we’re still waiting on- like a cheese grater or a knife that can cut things other than butter. And thanks to a couple of mishaps with our moving company, we probably won’t see our belongings until the end of April.

This lack of goods has given me a surprising insight into the depth to which American cultural standards are embedded in my consciousness. In many places around the world, not having chairs, mattresses, or plates isn’t cause for alarm- rather, it’s normal. Entire cuisines have developed around the concept of using bread as a plate (think tortillas, crepes, or injera). Beth noted in her article “Chita” that in Haiti, where chairs may be few and far between, it’s customary for guests to sit in the chairs while hosts or hostesses sit on the floor. Here, friends and family are practically embarrassed by the lack of furniture, and turn down the offer of our only chair as though it’s too rude to make us sit on the floor. We’ve stopped inviting people over, instead telling them that we owe them a dinner or a party when our belongings arrive, because we can’t accommodate guests “properly.” When I think back to my university days, I remember throwing (and attending) house parties where everyone sat on the floor and drank out of jam jars. What I remember most about those parties is that it wasn’t the furniture (or lack thereof) that people cared about- it was the company. Somehow, in the world of grown-up America, that got lost.

Part of it is, of course, comfort. As our bodies age, our ligaments tighten and our joints begin to ache (especially if, like me, you did ballet for well over a decade). Sleeping on an air mattress that forces you into a V-shape over the course of the night will eventually make your shoulders sore and your head hurt. If you haven’t spent your entire life sleeping and sitting on the floor, teaching your body to be natural in these positions, you get stiff. By the time you’re my parents’ age, these positions are used sparingly for a reason! In America, the Land of Ultimate Comfort, we invite guests over and show our hospitality by making them comfortable. But in a culture that likes to deny its hierarchies and inequalities, we can’t stand to watch our hosts and hostesses go to “too much trouble” for the sake of our relaxation. So our one chair is used only by us (and the cat) because no one else will come over to sit in it. Our living room is empty, waiting for furniture to come and make it an acceptably egalitarian party site once again.

In the meantime, while I whine and complain to myself (and anyone who will listen) about not having a “real” bed or a couch or tables or dishes, I try to remind myself that it’s all culture. Sure, it might be miserable not having these things, but around the world, that’s not an insurmountable problem. We have a good roof over our heads, food in the fridge, and safe drinking water. Our heat works. We have warm winter clothes. Our basic human rights haven’t been violated because every night we can go to bed warm, full, clean, and safe. Most luxuriously of all, the absence of furniture and good old-fashioned American comfort is temporary. Our belongings- our Stuff- will eventually arrive, bringing with it all the comfort and attachments from which I wish we were culturally independent. The reality is, though, that the things I value- including having friends over for a wonderfully social evening- mean that I’m less Spartan than I’d like to be. So when our Stuff arrives, I’ll lounge in bed for a day, sit on a couch, praise the fact that I no longer eat on the floor- and try to remember that it’s the little things that matter.