The Things They Owned

Graffiti in Spokane, Washington

Graffiti in Spokane, Washington

They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.
— Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

In Tim O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried, he proposes that the worst thing about the Vietnam War - and any war - was not the deaths, nor the killings, but the way it created obedience out of "fear of blushing." 

I'm going to make a giant metaphorical leap here from serious to superficial: the same is true in the way most of us function as consumers, a 'keeping up with the O'Briens' if you'll pardon my pun. Switching to a completely different genre, I read Francine Joy's book The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Living Guide six years ago. It was after the disheartening reality check that many young adults face: most "stuff" is made under terribly unethical circumstances, despite the myth that after you graduate more stuff = more success. Joy's book opened my eyes to the true weight of material possessions; it was not just the immediate cost of purchasing, it was also the storing, the cleaning, the fixing, and the protecting...things cost not only money, but precious time and energy. It made me much more mindful of how much I wanted to own before moving abroad, but when it came time to decide if I would store or sell, my minimalist mission before the big move was to 1. Identify the essential and 2. Eliminate the rest. 

I decided that my adventures would have more value in life than any household items I could own; I eliminated my car, almost all furniture, tv set, DVDs, DVD player, pillows, lamps, a Wii, craft supplies, school supplies, and a lot of books and clothes. I sold what I could at a yard sale, consignment shops, Craigslist, Ebay, and Amazon, and donated the rest to Goodwill. It was both freeing and terrifying. In the back of my my head I kept thinking, "I'm going to come back with nothing. I'm going to come back with nothing," constantly forgetting I was going to come back with much more than "nothing," but it just wouldn't be anything I could hold. I've always wanted to be a person that treasured experiences > stuff, but when push came to shove, it was a lot harder in practice than it seemed in theory. 

Ok, so... a lot  of books met the "significantly changed the way I saw the world and felt about it" requirement...

Ok, so...a lot of books met the "significantly changed the way I saw the world and felt about it" requirement...

Things I still own that I determined essential are books that significantly changed the way I saw the world and felt about it, a handful of very sentimental gifts (my guitar, a handmade quilt, my snowboard, and my china set), select kitchen gadgets and winter clothes that I knew I'd have to repurchase promptly upon return, my art, photographs, cherished mementos, and two dressers. All wrapped up in a few plastic tubs stored in a basement in Washington. 

I accept that all the new things I come to own in Colombia are temporal; knowing, when it becomes time to move along, I will eliminate it all again. Having this knowledge of things as temporal and home as not fixed makes it so much easier to make needs and wants few; four bowls are enough, 1 set of sheets is enough, 1 notebook is enough, and life will go on, more or less the same, without a crockpot or a dryer or a dishwasher or a car. But I won't get too braggy; I have 9 dresses, and 12 pairs of shoes in my closet here. Tim O'Brien has more to say about that...

By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.
— Tim O'Brien

In the same way we objectify and separate stories from ourselves, we (and I would argue, especially females) similarly attempt to clarify and explain through our belongings. If you wear this, it means that. For example, where does my love, (nay, obsession) of fashion come from? In one regard, it makes me feel good and even more at home in Colombia. The women here get dressed up in heels to go to the grocery story - it's a very noticeable cultural trait, but in another regard, it's a lot of my life energy spent. I have spent so many hours curling hair, applying makeup, shopping for the most flattering pair of jeans, and curating the perfectly styled outfit (and don't even get me started on waxing). The things we own help us invent and explain who we are, or maybe - who we wish we were. I'm aware of all of this, but unwilling to reject my (totally excessive) closet yet. Some things feel too deeply intertwined. 

And so my guide to detachment of the things we own is still a work in progress...I practically ran home to our apartment in Manizales the day we received a box of "stuff" from home: the main culprits were (the usual) shoes, dresses, and pumpkin spice latte mix. Most recently, my boyfriend keeps talking about #vanlife and living in a van in the future (just to let you know, he has 20 hangers, and I have about, well...I have a lot more). I'm not too sure about that...yet. Still working on shaking that voice in the back of my head screaming, "But we'd basically be homeless!" But he has a point...have less; do more. 

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
— William Wordsworth

Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. β€œStuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451