Dreaming of living light

My husband and I moved house recently for the fifth time in 10 years. What is more surprising than the frequency of our house-hopping is the sheer amount of stuff we always end up accumulating

Spring-cleaning took on epic proportions for my family this year, as we moved into our new place two weeks before Chinese New Year.

Given that this was the fifth time in 10 years that my husband and I were moving house, you would have thought our worldly possessions would be whittled down to the bare essentials by now.

Yet minimalist living for us remains a vision found only in home decor glossies.

Friends are often amazed by the frequency of our house-hopping (which is born of necessity rather than whim, I might add). But I find the sheer amount of stuff we always end up accumulating more shocking.

Despite the heavy editing and purging, it still took at least 50 packing boxes to house the belongings of our family of four this time. These, together with our furniture and other bulky items that couldn't fit in cartons, filled two trucks from the moving company.

Every move is a life-sapping exercise, stressful and back-breaking. And each time as my husband and I toss items in blind panic into boxes the night before the movers arrive, we would swear to pare down our stuff and start afresh.

Promises, promises.


ST ILLUSTRATION: PRADIPKUMAR SIKDAR

With each move, we enter into a different season of our lives and find ourselves collecting things that match our new interests.

In the four happy years that we spent in our previous home, our two kids hit primary-school age and were game for a lot more activities. This explains the many bicycles and skate scooters that used to litter our porch.

"Child-friendly" also ceased to be our abiding principle when shopping for furnishings. Revelling in our newfound freedom, we freely added artworks and other ornaments to our place, sharp corners and fragile materials be damned.

As the kids grow up, moving has also become more fraught and complicated.

They are now old enough to demand a say in what they want to keep, yet still not mature enough to grasp the concept of practical living. They simply don't get why I won't let them hoard every broken toy, tattered book or darn scrap of doodling that "reminds us of our childhood".

My son, who turns 11 this year, was so fed up with me junking his things while he was in school that he plonked his favourite books, toys and knick-knacks into several boxes one night and sealed them before I could peek inside.

My daughter, now in Primary 2, squealed in protest and made puppy eyes at me each time I was about to throw something of hers.

"My kindergarten teacher gave me that keychain," she said of a dusty key fob.

Or, "That is from my good friend. It has sentimental value," she would say of a pencil stub, of which she has about a million.

As my time and energy ran out, I gave up my ruthless purging and gave in to their pleas and badgering. This is why they each still have several big boxes labelled "stuff" sitting in their rooms today.

I am, however, not much better.

I may be a reformed shopaholic after giving up full-time work when my son started Primary 1, but the kiasu auntie in me lives on.

While I once bought shoes and clothing of the same design in different colours, I now snap up toiletries and stationery in multiple quantities for fear of running out or missing out on a good deal.

Then I'll shove the surplus supplies - shampoo, eyebrow pencils, disposable underwear and correction tape, just to name a few - into the dark recesses of my cabinets and promptly forget about them. So when I next need these things, I end up buying what I already have, again in multiples.

While packing for the latest move, I uncovered, among other things, three bottles of facial cleansing oil, four tubes of sunscreen and countless bottles of perfume, most of which were way past their expiry dates. After binning these, I still had enough lotions and potions to fill an entire box.

Two days after we moved into our new home, our friend Stephen texted to ask how things were. We had met the Kenyan Catholic missionary on a trip to Turkana in north-western Kenya last year and still chat with him regularly via WhatsApp.

I sent him a shot of our living room that was still colonised by boxes. "Wow... so many boxes," came his restrained reply.

He admitted later to being shocked by the sight of them. "I was telling myself, 'Oh my God, they need help', which I couldn't offer since I am miles away."

Struck by the stark contrast between our lifestyles, I asked what missionaries like him cannot do without.

Everything he needs fits into a small bag he calls "macuto", or knapsack in Spanish: a book, a pen, basic toiletries and some brochures and magazines that promote the work of the Missionary Community of Saint Paul the Apostle, of which he is a member.

When he was posted to Malawi for his pastoral attachment about seven months ago, he took along just one more small bag containing some clothes.

"How many sets of clothes do you own?"

"Three to five T-shirts, two pairs of trousers, three pairs of shorts and two decent shirts for mass and important meetings," he replied, and I cringed at the thought of my racks and racks of mostly unworn clothes.

He doesn't just travel light, he lives light.

It must be liberating to be able to live a full life with so little, I said.

He agreed. "It makes life easier."

There is hope for us yet. For starters, my kids are showing signs of repentance. When I ushered them into a store last week to shop for Chinese New Year outfits, they both put up such a fight, I had to apologise to the attentive sales staff when we left empty-handed.

"I already have a Chinese New Year shirt," said my son, referring to a polo tee with red dragon motifs that he's been wearing for the last two years.

His sister had a more convincing argument. "I don't need more clothes, mama. Anyway there's no more space in my room."

Here's to a happy and clutter-free year ahead.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 18, 2018, with the headline 'Dreaming of living light'. Print Edition | Subscribe