Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What Shall We Bring (Part One)?

Now that we have the house rented, and our move out date - August 1st - is looming, I have started to think seriously about packing. "Packing" is a kind of vague, all inclusive term by which I mean sorting all of my earthly belongings and deciding what to throw away, what to give away, what to pack for storage, and what to bring with us.

The last time I moved, five years ago, I was moving out of a house in which I had lived for fifteen years. There was, as you can imagine, a great deal of accumulated stuff, and I dreaded to move it all. Luckily, we were not working under a deadline, and I had ample time to go slowly through the closets and drawers and move a few boxes at a time.

This time, we are working under a deadline, though not a close one. Somehow, we seem to have accumulated as much stuff in the five years we have lived here as I did in the previous fifteen. I blame my husband. He inherited the pack rat gene from his mother, whereas I look on moving as an excellent opportunity to get rid of half of what we own. In fact, I like the rule of thumb my own mother laid down - if there's a closed box, and you haven't opened it in a year, and you don't know what's in it, just throw it away unopened.

My husband is adamantly against such a policy, and in the interest of fairness I have to admit that five years ago, he was right. When I tried to toss several boxes unopened he snatched them away and put them in the truck and drove them up here, where he proceeded to put them in an old shed where they sat moldering for another three years. Then the shed fell down one winter, and we had to remove the debris.

"Let's for god's sake just toss these boxes now, please?" I said.

"No," he said, and carried them inside to go through one by one.

Among other, less important things, he found a box full of my best jewelry and - ahem - the deed to our house in Seattle. I still maintain that I wasn't actually missing the jewelry if I didn't even know it was there, and that we could have always got a replacement deed. But factually speaking, he won the argument and no boxes shall be thrown away unopened. Probably we will simply carry them unopened to the shop, where they will remain until we return and carry them, unopened, back into the house.

My mom, when overwhelmed by clutter, used to fantasize out loud about becoming a nun and living in a small empty cell. I completely relate. I have a definite monkish bent when it comes to material possessions (books excepted).  Fewer things means less work, right? Fewer dishes to wash, fewer clothes to wash and fold, less general upkeep. However, now that I am faced with something close to my fantasy becoming reality, I am finding it very difficult to figure out how to make it work.

I am not certain I have described our prospective living situation, so I'll do so now. First off, we'll be living in my mother-in-law's home. For a year. Yes, that's what I said. More about my feelings on that subject in another post; for now I will confine myself to a clinical description of the actual quarters. Abuelita (as we call Homero's mom) has a nice home. Homero and his three brothers built it from the ground up when Homero was a teenager.

It is a two story concrete home, laid out in a straight line. On the first floor is the living room, nearest the street, then the kitchen, and then two bedrooms, one after the other. As in most traditional Mexican homes, there is no communication from one room to another on the inside - in other words, no hall. You leave the house to move from one room to another. This doesn't mean going out on the street, because the entire property is enclosed within a tall wall. The rooms line one side of a rectangular courtyard, and to move from room to room you go through this central space. I hope that's clear.

One one end of this line of rooms there is a cast iron spiral staircase leading up to the second floor. Half of this upper area is a flat area open to the sky: this is where the dogs live. In the other half are three small bedrooms, laid out in a straight line. The upstairs rooms are not as wide as the downstairs rooms, which leaves room for a balcony that runs the length of the house. The doors of the bedrooms open on to this balcony.

We will have two of these upstairs bedrooms, together with the the balcony in front of them. The bedrooms are small, about ten by ten feet, and they do not have windows except for one window in the front wall, next to the door. The truth is, they are hot little concrete boxes, pretty much exactly like the monk's cells my mother used to fantasize about. Each has a double bed, which takes up most of the space, but is otherwise devoid of furniture.

Trying to create a plan for how to live in these rooms for a year, and trying to decide what we absolutely need and how - first of all - to bring it with us in a minivan that will be carrying four people and a dog, and how - second of all - to make it fit into our allotted space is mentally grueling.

I have a few absolutes. I insist, absurdly, on having a kitchen. Having been the mistress of my own domain for twenty-something years, and the matriarch of my family for ten, I know beyond a doubt that I will go stark staring raving mad if I do not have my own kitchen, be it ever so humble. I'm thinking of a folding card table and four chairs placed out on the balcony, with a beer-fridge and a hot plate. I can make coffee in the mornings for Homero and myself, and the children can sit at this table and do their homework in the afternoons. Homero will never understand this and thinks I am being difficult, but I know that this kitchen table is fundamental and integral to my sanity. It MUST exist.

Inside the bedrooms, we need a way to manage clothing. Being extremely lazy, I have for the past twenty years used a simple cedar chest for clean clothes, and a hamper for dirty ones. Pile of dirty; pile of clean. This system would work in Oaxaca as well, except that we have no way to bring our chests with us. For now, I'll assume we can buy some there. Additionally, in our bedroom, I'd like to install a few wall-mounted shelves for books and a lamp, and have a comfortable chair for reading. Perhaps a bedside table for water and such.

Homero will be bringing a selection of his mechanic's tools, which will take up most of the space in the minivan, even though he swears he is bringing a bare minimum. The girls and I will more or less have a generously sized suitcase apiece, and my suitcase will be partially filled with kitchen things (I can't leave my cast iron skillet behind, nor my best soup pot and a couple of good knives). The girls will have a couple of teddy bears. That's about it.

Oh, we are bringing our computer. That means I have to make space for it in our bedroom. All of this needs so much more thought, I feel like I need a blueprint. It's a sort of Tetris puzzle. How can four Americans and all their shit fit into a small part of a Mexican home? The answer is: they can't. Forget it. We can't live like Americans in Oaxaca.

Once again, I keep running into the same brick wall. We aren't going to live American lives, Aimee, wrap your head around it. We are going to live Mexican lives. You, Aimee, are not going to go on in the same manner, just in a different, exotic locale. You are going to go on in a different manner, a Mexican manner, a smaller more efficient manner. At first, a cramped and uncomfortable manner. But hopefully you will adapt gracefully and come to enjoy it.

You may even find, Aimee, that it is a fantasy come true.


  1. Ouch. Good luck. I hope it works out as amazingly as it needs to!

  2. I have faith that you will find it freeing... What a challenge though! Difficult to let go of the stuff. Books would be especially hard for me.

  3. Oh, I'm coming back to all the stuff. Whatever I don't throw away that is! I've already sent five boxes of books to Goodwill, and there are at least eight more big boxes that I'm keeping. The only books I am bringing are background material for the book I intend to write - books on Mexican history, and the relationship between Mexico and the U.S., some novels by famous Mexican authors.

  4. Well, you have courage, I'll give you that!
    I love westerns (movies and books) but have never been more than 200 miles south of the border and that was enough for me! Despite the best food ever, it's just that outhouses are too scary - and too often you're even lucky to find one of those when you need one.

    Would love a post wherein you elaborate on the book you've got in your head!