Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Learning from China's Rats

One of my favorite things to do is look at photographs. I know this comes as a huge surprise, but it's true.

Lately, I've been pretty caught up in images made by those I know. Friends made at Camp Shutter Sisters mostly, but also some old photo buddies and even family. The other night I decided to branch out and see what the fine people of VII have been up to.

Well, the first thing I discovered was that apparently I've been quite insulated from the Big World of Photography, as I didn't even know that James Nachtwey (one of my all-time favorites) left VII. This is huge, as Nachtwey was a founder of the agency back in 2001 with six other photographers. (M asked, "Are they calling themselves VI now?" Smartass.)

Anyway, after getting over that startling bit of info, I perused the various photo projects of VII and learned all kinds of new, and mostly discomforting, information.

One of the things that really popped out at me was a story done under the auspices of the VII Mentor program by Sim Chi Yin, titled "China's Rat Tribe." It's a glimpse into the lives of people living in tiny rooms two and three stories below Beijing. It was startling, to say the least. Many of these rooms are barely wide enough to fit a bed. They suffer from mold and mildew in the summer months. I read that "50 to 100 rooms often share a single bathroom and several toilet cubicles." The Chinese government is looking to shut down these basement and former air-raid-shelter dwellings in the name of safety, and the occupants are worried about finding other, affordable housing.

This story made me look around my comfortable bedroom with clothes strewn across the floor and over furniture, toys scattered around, and other various daily life accouterments; I felt a combination of gratitude and disgust.

Do we, as a family, really need all the stuff that is in our house? No, we don't. People a half a world away are living with a fraction of what we have in tiny basement closets.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am not a keeper-of-things. I'm a pitcher. I much prefer sparse simplicity to clutter. I renewed my personal vow that, with this move (this double-move, I should say), I will rid our house of everything that is not absolutely essential to our health and happiness. This is not to say that I'm going to throw out everything save for some clothes. We will keep things that have sentimental value, that remind us of places seen and memories made. M and I have an absolutely incredible collection of items purchased with thoughtfulness and care from around the world on our trips. Our Christmas tree is full of ornaments that evoke memories of new experiences (trout fishing at 5 a.m., riding bikes with M pulling Zoe in her little two-wheeled carrier, dinner in the southwest dessert with fresh guac prepared tableside, snowshoeing in Colorado). These things, these small, tangible objects that we selected to represent our lives, are worth keeping.

It's the other stuff that needs to go. Like the 90 pounds of wax that make up an inordinate amount of candles purchased years ago but never burned. Toys Zoe no longer plays with. Books I will never read again.

M found a local organization that takes stuffed animals, so several trash bags will disappear this weekend. He's sold a couple units from the old Christmas display on eBay, making me look at nearly everything in our home with a shopkeeper's eye. "When in doubt, throw it out" has taken on new meaning, new purpose.

Soon, I will pack everything we own, move it, store it, move it again, and unpack it. It damn well better be worth keeping to do all that.

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