I don’t want any more objects. I have enough

design

When my parents visited me, I told the story of assembling my Ikea bed. It goes like this: a friend helps me bring the boxes in the bedroom. My sister and I go step by step through the assembly process and everything goes perfectly well! There is no missing piece, every bolt and screw is in the package. We managed to get the bed frame standing and stable.

At this point we take a break and there’s one more step to complete: fix the 4 flexible metal bars that hold the frame together. Easy peezy… We just had to put screw nr 117327 in 12 little holes . Or not.
I could only think that assembling an Ikea bed might discourage the myth of the 40(or 72 virgins). Who would ever like to deal with that after trying to make screw nr 117337 go in it’s hole?

I only had an electrical screw driver. It didn’t work. Apparently when it’s too small you don’t need force. You need precision and being gentle. And I tried from the top and from the bottom. I tried making the holes bigger, but metal on metal doesn’t go well. In the end I managed to screw around 6 of the 12 screws and I gave up. So, if my bed falls apart one day, you’ll know why.

I bought then a new manual screwdriver that turned out to be as useless as the previous.
At that moment in the story, my father did the following exclamation: “And do you have a hammer?”.
Now, being used to the logic of my family, I know exactly why my dad asked me this apparently unrelated question.

The reason has nothing to do with crafting, or DYI or nails for that matter. It has to do with tradition. No, we have no tradition of hitting each other in the head with a hammer. The man was simply looking ahead to the next occasion when he will have to, for the sake of tradition, buy me a present.

“No, dad, I don’t have a hammer since my ex boyfriend took it with him 3 years ago.”
“What??? You don’t have a hammer? I’ll buy you one tomorrow. As a present.”
“Thank you dad, but I don’t need a hammer.”
“Why? What will you do if you need to put a picture on the wall?”
“Like I always did: I’ll use the rolling pin. I never use it for backing but it’s perfect for hammering nails.”
“And what if you will absolutely need a hammer. What if you need to assemble something that needs nails?”
“I’ll borrow one.”
“But why? I’ll buy you a hammer tomorrow.”
“Dad, I have lived for 3 years without a hammer. I can still live for another 3.”
“Then what would you like for a present?”

That’s the thing. I don’t want anything. I have so many things, so much stuff that the idea of desire itself is gone. Instead I have less and less space and tend to spend more and more time outside.
Have you ever felt fed up with something? I did. With objects.
I appreciated all the presents that I received in the previous years. I still know who gave me the scarf I was wearing yesterday or each book, but I also know that the most valuable gifts received from them were non material. For instance I remember when a friend of mine gave me as a present The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This is a book that I devorished, and I watched the movie. But I have other memories with her that I value more, like the times when I was visiting her over the weekend. I was just beginning to live in Luxembourg and I was alone with all this time in my hands. She had a 28 square meters studio in Nancy, France and we were watching movies and talk and walk and when I was leaving was always a feeling of emptiness and loneliness again. All gifts from her were valuable, but those times are even more important to me.

And there are those few presents that I wanted to have and I couldn’t have. One time, someone promised me for my birthday the crystal unicorn figurine from his collection. But in between the promise and the time when he was suppose to bring me the unicorn, our friendship broke into pieces. Now you know what the unicorn on my bracelet represents.

I know I can’t help myself from buying presents and I do put a lot of heart and energy into finding the right one. But ultimately I would like to change that. And I’m working on it.

I would like to challenge this idea. Ok, birthdays are birthdays. We all benefit from time to time to have a special day. But Christmas… this should be about sharing and not presents.

My parents had a job in sales and the most busy time was December. Many years in a row I received from them a pyjama, bought from the store next to the place where they were working. Yes, it was sweet but the memories of all these pyjamas are in fact quite bitter. There was a lot of useless guilt on both sides of this gift: them for not being able to put a greater present under the tree and me for their effort that did not mean much to me. In fact, for a strange reason, I hate pyjamas, as I hate any set of closing. I don’t own any costume in my wardrobe. I only wore a skirt suit once for graduation and because my mother forced me to. And that was because the skirt was different from the jacket.
Anyways, coming back to the pyjamas. Strangely enough, I remember them all and in relation to my parents. The most vivid memories about those were about me being sick.

Back to presents. I really think that we could slow down on buying Christmas presents. Why can’t we just give up on one tradition and build other more meaningful? Why is it soo hard to give up on a thing that won’t matter anyway? Are we doomed to bury each other under objects? In stuff? Is happiness only about having things or cumulating mountains of plastic?

I remember the times when my grandmother was cleaning the storage house, an event that took place every two years in summer. In my family, you probably got it already, we love to entertain paradoxes. We had the house with the 5 rooms which was called “the house” and a small annexe – only one room where we were throwing all the useless shit, and that was called “the BIG house”. Once every two years the BIG house was put under reorganisation works. Did I mention that my grandparents lived most of their lives in the scarcity of communism so the number of objects they cumulated over the years is probably the tenth part of what a family would hold today in one year?

And then the show would start. Grandma was taking everything out from the big house into the sun and would make piles of what is to be given away, what is to be thrown and what is to be rearranged. And when she got the three equally big piles she would go for a nap and when she came back she would find my grandpa (also called “the collector”) who was shifting the last two piles back.
“Why are you throwing this dress away?”
“Because it’s eaten by moths.”
“It looks good to me”
“It doesn’t fit me since I had kids”
“Maybe the girls would wear it”

And when it wouldn’t work with the practical argument he would try an emotional one. Sometimes it worked if he would track back the touching memory of an object, but most of the time, the negotiations were tough and totally unpractical.
But grandpa didn’t like presents either. When he was asked what he would like for a present he would say: “Bring me that sweater that doesn’t fit you any more. I’ll wear it when I’ll feed the animals”. He never appreciated new things but each time he was receiving a good pair of worn shoes from my father his eyes sparkled.

For years I thought that he was just too attached to objects to let go, but towards the end of his life, when fear of death started to slip in, I understood that it had nothing to do with the stuff itself. It had to do with the memories of his life, pictures of his girls cheering up, joy and beauty that he once lived, and something else. Because here’s another element about this wise man: he was a craftsman. Nothing was ever lost, everything was transformed. Whatever was there in the piles, he saw a potential to use it. And it wasn’t the stuff itself he didn’t want to give up but the idea that one day in the future he will do something with it.

I wish I had the time and motivation to do like him, but the problem with the world today is that we have a lot more. We are in the middle of an excess crisis. We own too much and feel too little! We give with comfort and relief. We give to clean our conscience, we pay money for it. There is more love that goes into not giving than into this meaningless exchange of benefits: money against doing your duty in the tradition.

That being said, I would like to make a point for all those who feel guilty that they didn’t buy all their loved ones a gift for Christmas. Don’t feel! By all means, don’t feel guilty for not adding to the mountain of meaningless stuff under which we bury ourselves.
Do something else: write them a nice card, bring them to a show, a movie, cook something (only if you’re good at it) or simply spend time without fighting! Be kind! Think about not hurting someone! Give attention! Leave your phone aside for a day and go in the woods with them.
That’s what Christmas should be about: quality time, not stuff.

Merry Christmas!

A train story

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The below happened under my eyes in the train which was taking me and my sister to Bruxelles to spend holidays with our family. It’s not a tragic story, it’s just slightly bitter as a day of winter when the sky turns grey and you know that it was supposed to snow by now but you slip under the dim light of your desk lamp and dive your nose into the computer and you let news of climate change be covered by some video with a dog eating a Christmas tree.

It was the day of the attack in Germany and the news were grim, nerves were stretching, a few dark thoughts passed through my mind.

I fell asleep around Namur and woke up near Ottignes where the whole scene started. A man walked into the train, a young man of presumably Moroccan origins. He put his luggage and sat like any normal passenger, with his girlfriend, a redhead young woman. A few seats in front a Muslim woman with her hair covered sat alone.

Just a minute later, another man entered the train. He had washed out jeans and a brown leather jacket, he was bold and had unsteady eyes, surrounded by large black circles. His moves were swift and irregular. He was holding an unlit cigarette between his fingers, using it to point towards imaginary people. His eyes seem to be running in all the directions. His lips were moving as if he was talking to himself. My first thought was “drugs”. He entered our car and went straight to the first man, mumbling and baiting at him in a mix of French and Arab.

Soon the tone started to raise and everyone in the train was terrified. The woman with the headscarf was obviously scared. She had her fingers on the phone, as if she was ready to call someone. What I could understand from the mix was: “you’re not a good Moroccan. What? You’re only speaking French? French? The language of these …? Of these … You’re Moroccan, you should be ashamed to speak to me in French! You think you’re a Belgium? You are Moroccan. French is the language of scoundrels!”
The insults were pouring in this strange language mix, in spite of the young man answering in Arab with an impressive calm. My sister told me later on that she could see his hands shaking while the deranged was shouting at him. It lasted for too long. Other people in the car were looking down, on the window. We continued talking soddly as if nothing was happening. I could smell the fear in the air, this fear that oppresses us lately, the fear of an attack, the fear that raises the tensions, fear of other humans, fear that there was a bomb under that brown leather jacket.

I could smell it and I was myself drowning in it, with every new stronger wave of the verbal violence. I could understand a word in 10 but I could feel the hate through the language barrier. The woman with the headscarf looked more and more worried and the young man was managing to keep calm.

After a while he stopped answering in Arab and any language. The violent guy left the car but he was watching him though the door, still moving his cigarette. A controller came and asked his ticket. For just the 2 minutes they spoke, his face changed at 180 degrees. He was smiling, showing his ticket as if he has been smiling for the entire journey. I was surprised that the employee of the railroad didn’t ask anything about his cigarette, which he was still turning and pointing in his hand. Maybe he didn’t want to know more.

Meanwhile the young man was talking to his girlfriend: “I am so ashamed and I feel guilty for his attitude. You can’t imagine the words of hate he said to me in Arab, all the insults…”

When the train entered the first station in Brussels, it stopped for another extremely long minutes. The deranged open the door and from there he asked the young man why he doesn’t want to get out of train. The young man said that he goes to another station.
That created a new tsunami of affronts and insults. The door kept automatically closing and he was hitting the handle to push it back like crazy, while he was yelling: “your a fagget, a homosexual! You’re not a real Moroccan! Fucking fagget! You only speak French!! You wanna fight? Let’s fight! Let’s see who’s stronger! I know box! You wanna fight, you PD?”

At this point the young man who was saying nothing in this second round, could not take it anymore. He raised his tone and shouted out: “ok! Let’s fight!”

Silence in the train. Nothing was moving for a few seconds. He was still sitting in his seat when the mad shut his mouth for once. The door closed for good and the mad man stepped out of the train.
I let out a sigh. The woman with headscarf let her phone on the table and breathed.
The last thing I heard the young man telling his girlfriend was:
“I can’t feel my hands! I was so scared! My heart is pumping.”
“Would you have gotten into a fight with him?” she asked.
“I don’t know”

There are so many questions I think about while putting in writing this events at 1 a.m. I wonder about fear, about war. Are we about to lose the paradise, the safety and freedom we were used to?
From outside it may look like “Arabs fighting between themselves” but from where I was it looked exactly like a consequence of raising hostility between “us” and “them”. As if this “us” and “them” should even exist.

Someone in a post on Facebook, wrote, referring to the Berlin attach: “Muslim immigrants don’t understand the principle of our democracy.”
When I was telling the story into family, I started with introducing the young man, but I called him, for the sake of simplification, “a young Arab”. I could see that from my first words, they were expecting him to be the negative character of the story. As the story unfolded, he became the hero.
And I was wondering what is our so called democracy that allowed so much hate between us as we are no longer recognising the courage, the kindness in a man, just because of a word that I wrongly chose to describe someone?
And do we really know better with our democratic, European values that hang by a hair? What do we know about this large culture? What do we know about being an immigrant and being raised in a family that does not belong and having to fight your way and feel guilty for someone that doesn’t share anything with you, except your language and maybe some obsolete religious rituals? We, the so called “western world” know nothing. This is not a war between the “Arabs” and the “Western world”. It’s a clash of cultures and educations. None of the sides understands the other and those in between, the generation of hard working people who tries to live here like us, well, they are just “immigrants”.
It’s a war of fear. Of course, somewhere in this fucked up world there is blood flowing in rivers and suffering and abuse, but here, in the safety warm, western world we can close our eyes and hide under the blanket. We are no longer used to violence so every outburst is an event.

But then, there was something positive about this story. There was a young man who didn’t answer violence with violence, one of the most forgotten Christian lessons. There was hate giving up in front of courage. There was also mistrust and fear. No one thought about calling any authorities, which shows how much trust we all have in them.

I learned something from the attitude of everyone else in the train.
You can not suppress fear! In front of violence, fear is something real, touchable, it throws you out of control. But, even in those moments, one can chose his or her attitude.
I regret not going and saying an appreciative word to that young man when I was leaving, a simple word of recognition. I was still under this fear that something might have happened.
In the airport there were men patrolling with guns. They didn’t make me feel safer or better. Hate from inside kills as much as the hate from outside.

I don’t have any solutions for the current state of the world. I find that the most difficult to bear is feeling tied, hopeless,  feeling useless. My only way of dealing with these feelings has always been and will always be writing. So, I write. I tell the story as it is, as insignificant as it may look and somewhere in this process I found a glimpse of hope.