Several years ago, my family and I were staying in a small cottage, on a small bay, on a small island, on the southernmost edge of the Caribbean Sea.
The cottage had no screens on the windows. No hot water. No super automatic espresso machine with an intuitive user interface and built-in burr grinder. No. Instead, there were mosquito nets for sleeping, a cistern of rainwater for washing, and glasses full of that same rainwater with a squeeze of lime for breakfast drinks.
The walls of the cottage, pink and blue and green, existed mostly to hold up the roof. A few items hung here and there, including two small shelves. On those shelves we kept the two books we had with us (An Embarrassment of Mangoes and Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, good books both). Also: my Leatherman tool, a few smooth black rocks, and a freshly scavenged collection of sea fan swizzle sticks in various stages of production.
I was reminded of all this the other day while I was in our bedroom at home, assessing all the books on our shelves. Hundreds and hundreds of books, many unread or never to be read again. (I don't see myself cracking open Fear & Trembling for another pass any time soon. Sorry Søren. In the words of Pee Wee: I don't have to see it Dottie. I lived it.)
And still, there they sit. So many books.
Why do I need all these books?
Well, I need them to fill all these shelves.
And why do I need all these shelves?
To hold all these goddamn books.
It's another example of that quintessentially American, snake-eating-its-own-tail logic: I need a car so I can go to work so I can afford a car.
But, of course, at least with books there's an upside: Books provide inspiration, an understanding of the human condition, a chance to look like a smarty-pants when you have houseguests over, and so on. Owning too many books is rarely going to have a negative impact on your life (exception: moving day).
But let me get back to the little cottage because I didn't mean to write about books today. I meant to write about plates. All my gibberish about books is something that we journalism majors call a tangent – tangent being the latin term for "crappy writing."
Back to the little cottage.
There was a small kitchen area, right next to the bed. Mostly some counter space, an old school fridge, and a two-burner stove that looked pretty much like a Coleman camp stove, only more blow-uppy. Above that was another set of shelves which held four plates, four bowls, four glasses, one pot, and one pan.
There were four of us in our little cottage and my first thought was "we're gonna need some more plates up in here!" You can take the boy out of America, evidently, but you can't take America... etc.
But. But! We quickly realized we didn't need more plates. In fact, four plates was the exact right amount of plates for four people. One plate per person means you never have to do the dishes. You just have to do the dish. And then, just like that, you're back in the surf trying to pull one of those crazy-ass eels from the jetty.
By keeping the people/plate ratio at 1:1, there's nothing to stack up. There's nothing to leave behind for someone else to deal with. There's no need for a dishwasher, or a dishwasher repair guy, or that gluggy stuff you put in a dishwasher to keep spots off the dishes you keep dishwashering when, in fact, a quick rinse would have cleaned them fine and avoided spots to boot. There's none of any of that.
Now I'll admit that I've never counted the number of plates in our kitchen at home. Just like I've never counted the number of books in our bedroom. Or the number of half-empty paint cans and old dvd players in our basement.
But there's a lot.
And each item represents weight. Each item represents a burden of some sort, real or imagined. Our closets, our shelves, our garages hold an overwhelming glomdom of random crap.
I've come to realize that every plate I own, beyond the all-important four, adds to my sense of bogged-down-edness.
I've come to realize that my stuff is conspiring against me.
And I've come to realize that some of it, at least some of it, has to go.