When I was four, my parents packed me and my two brothers into our pale yellow Chevy Impala station wagon and drove from Massachusetts to Mexico City for my father’s sabbatical year. Throughout those months we ventured to different towns and villages, each of which specialized in at least one distinctive craft, many of which my parents admired enough to buy. For the return trip, they hitched a large U-Haul trailer to the car for the artesanias they’d collected. Almost every room in our house had something Mexican in it. Painted ceramic plates hung in the dining room; a bright yellow Mexican tablecloth with matching napkins appeared for festive occasions. In the living room, a wool wall hanging depicting a bird with outstretched wings dominated one wall. Two large and intricately decorated ceramic vases stood sentry on either side of the fireplace, and logs nestled in a rectangular woven basket. Handmade blankets and covers topped our beds. Clay figurines, glazed and unglazed, matte black and shiny green, stood on shelves. Other items, like colorful woven belts and handbags and embroidered blouses, remained in drawers and closets and trunks when not being used, if at all. Carved masks, Huichol yarn paintings, embroideries and beadwork, plus hand-beaten copper ware, and items I’ve since forgotten, adorned the house. Each item was worthy of contemplation. Each item represented hours, if not weeks or months, of labor. Each had a story to tell, of either the craft itself, the village or the artisan.
After I began traveling on my own, I started collecting crafts, too. It’s what I knew to do, and it was a way of weaving threads of my childhood into adulthood, of creating some continuity after my parents divorced. Having learned to appreciate quality, I couldn’t wander into a typical tourist shop and casually buy just anything. Shopping, which might have been fun for some, occasionally turned into a high stakes activity. At times the search for distinctive souvenirs felt frantic, as if not finding anything I loved would stain the whole adventure, even if I had enjoyed sightseeing, meeting locals and other tourists, taking photographs and appreciating the cuisine. There were days, especially towards the end of trips, that I drove myself crazy going from shop to shop, or market stall to market stall, trying to find the best souvenirs for others and for myself. In those moments I was no longer fully there, my mind had already traveled home and out of the moment. I see now that while I did choose particular items, I felt I had no choice but to buy something. To travel and to purchase seemed inextricable; to return empty handed, unthinkable.
Over the years, I amassed my own modest collection of handmade pottery, textiles, glassware, ethnic clothing and artwork from Hungary, Thailand, Hong Kong, Peru and Ecuador. I even lived in Mexico City again; although I didn’t purchase a U-Haul’s worth of stuff, I schlepped heavy things (thick rugs, a jaguar-shaped straw stool and a mask carved from a tree trunk), from rural communities to the city and later shipped them (and other things) home, all of which involved considerable stress. Then, I anticipated that I’d keep these treasures for the rest of my life, given how much time and effort I had invested in their acquisition. I imbued these items with practically a sacred status and value. Yet, frequently, the items hung unworn in a closet or stowed in bins, for lack of a suitable place or way to display them. Every so often I’d remove an item, touch and admire it, reconnect with the memory of when and where I’d bought it, and return it to storage, as if performing an odd yet reassuring ritual of kneeling at an altar of the past, both my own and that of the world, whose indigenous cultures and crafts are struggling if not disappearing.
When I walked El Camino de Santiago in Spain in 2012, carrying only a backpack for six weeks, the trek required me to “differentiate” being abroad from being a collector. There were moments, especially when traversing city streets lined with tempting boutiques, that desire and the powerful habit of collecting reared up inside me like a pair of bucking broncos, causing temporary distress. The thought of carrying the potential souvenir for several hundred miles, or even to the nearest post office, was sufficient to reduce its appeal significantly. I trudged onward and usually forgot whatever had caught my attention. While I did buy a few items necessary for my trip, by the end of the Pilgrimage my compulsion to acquire had been temporarily tamed if not untangled from the act of travel itself. I returned with some lightweight, inexpensive and practical souvenirs for family members that fit into my pack. Perhaps an arduous adventure, and the palpable relief at the end, was what finally allowed me to start making a different choice around the ritual of souvenirs and around my relationship to objects in general.
In cultivating the habit of regularly culling and decluttering, I’m weaning myself from sentimentality. Through Feldenkrais, I’m gradually sensing and reimagining myself as a person who lives more lightly and nimbly, who doesn’t wish to be held hostage by conscious decisions or unconscious compulsions created decades before. Ideally I will learn to locate myself more internally rather than in the objects around me. Once again, I’m scrutinizing my belongings, just as I did a year ago, when I bid adieu to many, but not all, treasures from overseas. That I don’t miss or even remember what some of these things were emboldens me to shed even more. As I consider each object, I try to recall if I purchased it by choice or compulsion, and if it’s still a source of joy or pleasure.
At the time I drafted this post I was looking at a vintage Hungarian embroidered sheepskin vest, which I bought in Budapest in 1988 or 1989, but could have been made decades earlier. Then, and perhaps still, clusters of thick waisted peasant women with grim expressions on sun creased faces huddled along Vaci Street, a popular thoroughfare and home to upscale shops. They held these garments, once an integral part of their culture, in front of their bosoms, hoping for a sale. After walking past them many times throughout my sojourn, I bought a vest, probably worried that I’d regret leaving without one. I also appreciated its tight, colorful and intricate embroidery. Perhaps I thought I’d wear it to a Halloween party or hang it on a wall. Still, there was something discomfiting about handing over a fistful of forints to a woman at least twice my age, who might not have been selling the vest had economic conditions been more favorable. Was she like Esau, selling (part of) her birthright for (a month’s worth of) porridge? And what did that make me?
The bulky vest, weighing more than three pounds, was as interesting to touch as to look at. The soft and bumpy embroidered designs contrasted with the flat but somewhat rough sheepskin on the outside and the thick wool on the inside. I couldn’t imagine how many hours it must have taken to create the embellishments covering much of the surface. Their intricacy drew me into a kind of trance and, as I considered listing it on eBay, it occurred to me that I’d never before given the vest such close attention, probably not even at the time of purchase. Did my continued appreciation suggest keeping it, even though it had spent most of its life in a box? Would I find pleasure in looking at it perhaps half a dozen more times over the rest of my life? Even if I hung it on a wall, it would eventually recede into the background, only brought alive each time a new person saw it.
I decided to part with the vest. It fetched a decent price. Briefly, I wondered what else I could put on eBay’s auction block. Just as acquiring can be compulsive, so can selling. I hope I don’t exchange one for the other, but can always be at choice.