April 7, 2016

On steeping bags of tea, twice.

My grandmother reuses her bags of tea. Every morning, she takes a bag of orange pekoe out of the big blue box, steeps it in her mug full of boiling water, and then removes it and places it on a plate which she keeps on the counter until her early lunch hour. At that time, she re-steeps the bag in boiling water, getting whatever flavor is left in the leaves floating in the pouch, and then finally discards the bag as she drinks her second cup of tea.

She tells herself she does this because she does not like strong tea, and that she only likes to half-steep the bag for each cup. We tell her that she could still have weaker tea and not feel compelled to keep the bag of tea on the counter for three or four hours; she can always have another. Still, she continues with her routine.

It didn’t take me long to realize that this need to save her bag of tea, to reuse things and never throw them away, is borne of her immigrant mindset. My grandmother was chased out of her country, of her home once, not-so-long ago; she then hopped between cities across the world before settling in Toronto. Her life, for a large part of her adulthood, has been marked by scarcity, change, and uncertainty.

Even when we settled in Toronto, we lived a life of frugality for many years. We lived off of hand-me-downs and handouts until our financial security strengthened. During that time, we didn’t have the privilege of throwing things away because we didn’t like them, or we didn’t need them immediately. We saved things for uncertain eventualities, never knowing if we would need them again, and if we did, if we could afford to procure them at our time of need.

Life is different now. My parents, my whole family, have reached a point of financial security where we don’t worry about our next meal or fret about sewing up holes in our socks because we can just buy new ones. I recognize and acknowledge that ours is a privilege that many don’t have; it is a privilege, an opulence that even we could not imagine just a decade ago.

My grandmother still saves her bags of tea, still steeps them twice. Despite the fact that she can now afford to use another, scarcity is built into the way she sees the world—it doesn’t make sense to just throw something away.

There is a copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up on my bookshelf that I have been meaning to read since January. It’s not that I haven’t had the time to read it—I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading over the past few months—or that I don’t have an interest in its contents. Instead, every time I pick up the book, I think of my grandmother.

I wonder what my grandmother would say if she read the book, if she learned that hundreds of thousands of people around the world are being inspired by an ethos of if it doesn’t give you joy, throw it away.” There is an inherent opulence in the idea that everything is disposable, that everything we need can be bought again when we need it, only to be disposed of again when the joy has been drained.

That bag of tea does not bring my grandmother joy, yet she keeps it, she reuses it, because she knows what it is like to not be able to get something when she needs it. She understands scarcity, longing.

I’m not the only one that thinks of my grandmother when I see the cover of Marie Kondo’s book. Just last week, I read an excellent piece by Arielle Bernstein who recognizes and acknowledges this privilege of clutter:

Of course, in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned. The idea that going through items cheerfully evaluating whether or not objects inspire happiness is fraught for a family like mine, for whom cherished items have historically been taken away. For my grandparents, the question wasn’t whether an item sparked joy, but whether it was necessary for their survival. In America, that obsession transformed into a love for all items, whether or not they were valuable in a financial or emotional sense. If our life is made from the objects we collect over time, then surely our very sense of who we are is dependent upon the things we carry.

It’s particularly ironic that the KonMari method has taken hold now, during a major refugee crisis, when the news constantly shows scenes of people fleeing their homes and everything they have. A Vice article, All the Stuff Syrian Refugees Leave Behind During Their Journey to Europe” shows discarded things ranging from trash to toys to ticket stubs. Each items looks lonely and lost: like evidence of a life left behind. For a project titled The Most Important Thing,” the photographer Brian Sokol asks refugees to show him the most important thing they kept from the place they left behind. The items they proffer range from the necessary (crutches), to the practical (a sewing machine), to the deeply sentimental (photographs of someone deeply loved, treasured instruments, family pets).

Against this backdrop, Kondo’s advice to live in the moment and discard the things you don’t need seems to ignore some important truths about what it means to be human. It’s easy to see the items we own as oppressive when we can so easily buy new ones. That we can only guess at the things we’ll need in the future and that we don’t always know how deeply we love something until it’s gone.

Like Ms. Bernstein, I am the perfect person to be swayed by Ms. Kondo’s writing, by her method. Despite growing up in uncertainty, the majority of my adult life has been spent in relative ease, knowing full well that if I happen to get rid of that lamp because it doesn’t fit the decor, I will, soon enough, be able to afford a new one. But also like Ms. Bernstein, I am the child of immigrants, of parents and grandparents who didn’t have that luxury, that privilege to assume that things could just be replaced.

That’s why I haven’t been able to pick up Ms. Kondo’s book since it arrived in the mail some months ago—I keep wondering what my grandmother would think.

The honest truth is that I am really good at throwing things away: L is better than I am at keeping things that are important, things that could be of use in the near future. In my effort to pare down the amount of stuff” in my life, I have developed a callousness around disposability, a callousness that only comes from privilege—perhaps, a privilege borne of someone who was raised with so little and now has too much.

It is at those times, when I am getting rid of things rather than keeping them for a rainy day, that I forget my grandmother, and forget what she has taught me. I forget that there once was a time when we had to darn our socks and reuse our teabags; I forget that my grandparents and my parents (and even I, for the early part of my life) lived in times of uncertainty and scarcity, and that this newfound ease isn’t promised for the long term.

When we first moved into this new house, I was wary of using the basement for storage. I wanted to live a smaller life, with fewer things. Now, when I enter the basement, I think of my grandmother, and the way she reuses her morning bag of tea.

I remind myself that it’s okay that we have stuff stored away in the basement. Not everything was made to be thrown away, no matter what Marie Kondo may be yelling from the bookshelf.