some thoughts after an hour spent sorting
through boxes in storage from my time in Madison
When I left Madison I’d been living there for three years. Three point five, technically. I’d lived in two apartments in this time, the first of which was an ill-fated 2nd floor spot that smelled suspiciously of cat and was situated ever-so-perfectly across the street from the Willy St. Coop. It was also, however, located not-so-perfectly next to an empty lot that quick became a giant hole turned construction site turned apartment building. So I moved. I moved to Spaight St., two blocks away. This time there was a driveway for parking and a porch for rocking and a full dining room for hosting big meals. I built raised-beds in the front yard for heirloom tomatoes, painted bedrooms. In those years I acquired things. Kitchen things. Decorative things and functional things. I had a bread machine, houseplants, matching coffee mugs and intentionally-mismatching dinner plates (each in a different bright gerber daisy color; stacked up they look like the Crate & Barrel advertisements). My mother, nesty* herself, sent me random nesty things including fancy dish towels with kitchen herbs printed on them for summer, pumpkins and corn for fall, holly for winter, crocuses for spring. In that house on Spaight Street I cooked many a meal with friends and for friends, I watched many a movie, taught myself how to re-tile a floor, got over some heartbreak, and celebrated some epic birthdays.
Then it was time. Time to go. Time to explore. Time to be re-inspired by life after too much time working and not enough of…well…anything else. I’d lived abroad before and my fingers and toes were positively itchy. Madison had lost its glow, and faraway places were calling. One in particular, it was time for Hanoi. So I sold things. Most things. Almost everything, if I’m honest, except the things with sentimental value, and even some of those. I could bring 2 suitcases that I could bring to Hanoi so a strict 90% rule was imposed. My snowboards, the appliances, the first new couch set I’d ever bought, a set that marked (for me) my shift into “adulthood” proper and which included the ottoman where Ethel would sleep with her head hanging off the edge. Area rugs, curtains, power tools. All must go, Hanoi beckoned.
And so I left. I got Ethel a fancy travel crate big enough for a Labrador and I left and I traveled back to the other side of the world and I left those sentimental items in boxes in Dave’s basement, on the premise that I’d likely return at some point and rebuild the nest – though I didn’t know where that would be, or for that matter when. I moved to Hanoi and rented a furnished apartment (as most of us do in this city) and I lived with relatively few things, compared to before…for a while. But I like to cook and I like things to be convenient and over the 2.5 years I’ve begun to rebuild here. I have cloth napkins again, I bought a lamp. As a matter of fact, I bought a dining table. I should admit that this is much less of a financial investment than it is stateside, but there it is nonetheless. I know I won’t live on Nguyen Khac Hieu forever, or in Hanoi forever for that matter. At some point it’ll be time again and the 90% rule will apply again and things will have to go. But that’s in the future, and I spend a lot less time trying to figure the future out, these days.
Two and a half years after I left those boxes with Dave, I went back to Madison for a visit. I know different things now, and most of them are about me, about what I need and want, about who I am, about what I want from the world and from life. Introspection breeds self-awareness, yadda yadda. In addition to eating and drinking and laughing and catching up with several wonderful people, I spent about an hour in Dave’s garage, filtering through the whole pile again, pulling more things to donate, to throw away, to sell, or (for a few special items) to come back to Hanoi with me.
I was surprised at the unexpected and not-small amount of sadness I felt looking through those boxes.
There are boxes and boxes of books – sociology books and my favorite “chapter books” from childhood, poetry books and many many books about Vietnam. There’s a steam trunk full of LPs, an all-caps CBAIN scrawled on each, having passed from Christopher to Cristina. There are plastic bins of kitchen supplies, just the things I couldn’t bear to part with: those mismatched dinner plates I bought slowly, one per paycheck. Rammekins for individual pot-pies and soufflés. A few of the good cutting boards used when Susan and I canned tomatoes or cooked vegetarian Indian banquets or planned and orchestrated Piesgiving (an interpretation on Thanksgiving in which two vegetarians make two savory and two dessert pies in lieu of a traditional Thanksgiving, and then had to eat pie of one sort or another for almost a week). A folder full of photographs from that film class I took, also full of now-mostly-forgotten memories that always come with old photographs, memories of people I don’t remember anymore (or worse I guess, those that I wish I didn’t). I filtered through my stuff again, donating forgotten clothes to Goodwill, selling a few pieces of furniture and a few appliances on Craigslist, throwing away those random cords that everyone saves but no one can match to an electronic appliance. But the books? Records? The plates? The folder of photographs? They’re still there, though I’m not sure why. Rationally, I know I don’t need a steam trunk full of records and books that’ll mold in the Hanoi humidity, I know these hand-printed photographs aren’t anything worth hanging up. Rationally I know these things can’t follow me around the world.
I’m not torn or unsure of what it is I want. I like this life of relative transience better than a life that would allow me to unpack those books somewhere, to listen to that Cat Stevens record, to put those perfectly-mismatched plates out on a table. I am happy with my plan, excited about it… the idea of living in a three or four or a dozen places over the next 30-50 years, of not having children or owning property. I feel increasingly certain that I’ll never live in the States, but those books, those plates, these few important-for-reasons-I-can’t-explain things …I can’t quite shed them.