A couple of years ago when I was in Tokyo, I heard about these places called “Owl Cafes.” I thought they would be peaceful rooms where people sat and drank tea and read books. Owls would be sitting on perches preening themselves or staring and relaxing. Somehow I imagined that they would be someone’s well cared for pet and that they would be accustomed to living in the city, brought there by some odd circumstance. My wife and I researched one of these cafes, checked the address and then set out on foot to find it. After getting lost and then being personally guided by a very helpful woman, we arrived at a sterile looking building and stepped inside. The owls were there and they were beautiful. There were a bunch of them. there were barn owls and burrowing owls, and types I had never seen before. They sat on perches or in boxes but instead of chilling or sleeping, they were busy. Trainers prompted them to fly from their perch and land on a person’s arm. Everyone wanted a photograph with an owl. It wasn’t the romantic scene I had imagined. But in that year of wandering the planet, unsettling events happened every day, things I didn’t see coming. Like the Owl Café. But there was also usually something magnificent or unexplained within these situations too. I stood there, taking in the craziness of the Owl Café, grappling with my mixed feelings at being there, when I noticed an owl sitting perfectly still by a window. It sat by itself sort of looking down at the city below. It seemed removed from everything but at the same time oddly in charge. The wizened supervisor. And so here was that explainable thing. It was the way the owl occupied its own space, the way it sat anchored by something I couldn’t see, and completely unencumbered by the strangeness of the activities around it. Even though it was surrounded by an enormous city, it remained singular, a thing unshakable in its wildness. it never forgot itself. I think of this owl now, whenever I feel swallowed by chaos or strangeness. I think of it sitting still and quiet its talons gripping the wooden perch as snow falls on the streets below.
One of the things traveling for a year revealed to me was how much stuff my wife and I had. On the road, we had very little – one suitcase, one backpack and one day bag. We got used to needing and using less. It felt good to travel light and wearing the same clothes over and over again was no big deal. What did that matter when every day felt new?
It reminds me of the black browed albatross I was lucky enough to witness in the Antarctic. They possess the amazing capacity to fly for years without alighting on land because their internal organs are surrounded by little air sacs. Every day that I watched them dip and rise in the air currents behind our boat filled me with a sense of possibility. They knew how to ride the world’s currents.
Coming back to a house of stuff was the opposite of that spacious Albatross feeling.
We had forgotten, literally forgotten, 3/4s of all the things we owned: furniture, clothes, tchotchkes, dishes, pillows, socks, etc.
Stuff management then, became our first task.
Towards this end, we sorted and piled and went through a ton of items from our pre-travel life. Once piles were amassed, I dragged the items to the curb in preparation of helping them find new homes. The pile included an old futon and broken frame, two old dining room chairs, plastic file cabinets, a wardrobe rack, an ugly and tired office swivel chair, two good office chairs, clothes, books, duplicate kitchen ware, a broken side table and a rickety wooden desk.
I arranged everything as invitingly as I could in front of the house and placed a “free” sign on the swivel chair. Over the next week or so, items slowly disappeared including the wardrobe rack, a file cabinet, and the two good office chairs. That was a start but what about the rest?
To handle the remaining things, I arranged for the Veterans Association to do a pick up. They came right to our door and took the clothes and boxes of books. This left the furniture to contend with.
I called some more non-profits. They wanted photos of the furniture that I then had to upload to their website before they would schedule a pick-up. This made me re-examine some of the items. The two dining room chairs were covered in a faded floral design and weren’t all that stable to sit on. The swivel office chair looked pretty mangy too. And then there was my Achilles heel: the lumpy futon and broken frame.
At that point, I broke down and did what I didn’t want to do, what I had resisted from the start: I called the city and arranged for a curbside bulk pick up. I had seen so much of the world in need of resources or overwhelmed with trash, and hear I was resorting to throwing some of my largesse into the landfill. It felt way wrong.
Another week went by with the free sign. A few more items were picked off but not the futon or the chairs or the rickety desk. I felt heavy with dread. Bulk pick up was just a few days away.
Then something shifted for me.
After two weeks of spending most of my waking hours of sorting, piling, moving and otherwise getting very intimate with stuff, I started to relate to our old junk as less junk-like. Maybe I could use that lumpy futon as a kind of chair pillow in my new, cleaned out office. And maybe the ugly swivel chair could be covered with a cloth and kept in use.
So two weeks after dragging it all to the curb, I brought much of it back to the house.
Some items have been put back to use like the surface of the old desk, which has been placed atop two of my wife’s file cabinets to form a new work area. Even parts of the rickety desk came back to the house, to be burned as wood in the fire place later this winter. Other items sit on the side deck, waiting for my office to be ready.
The city did come take the futon frame, too broken and splintered to be used, and a few other items, but most of the items has been or will be repurposed.
It feels good to have empty drawers in the bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom, and far fewer clothes hanging in the closet. Each day I walk through a less cluttered house, I feel lighter inside, more like an Albatross. And that feels amazing.
I’m back after traveling for a year, trying to make sense of things. Who am I? Which life do I go back to? Sometimes I catch myself wanting to fill my days with completely unexplored paths and places. But then that’s not quite it either. It’s more than that. Or deeper.
What I’m really hungry for is to stay rooted in new ways of seeing.
That’s what every day was like on the road. Whether I was in Tibet or India or Myanmar or Australia, every moment was filled with people and streets and faces and languages and skies I had never encountered before. Every new eyeful and earful of world shook me out of my old ways of seeing.
I’m trying to keep my eyes on the new – walking to work instead of driving, cooking something different to eat, or taking photographs of kids on the beach in Santa Cruz, local stuff. When I don’t know what to do, I just sit in my uncertainty until something gets revealed, until I see the new fresh right in front of me.