For more than a decade, our lives have been packed and repacked, re-arranged and uprooted, with the help of a humble plastic box known as the “Action Packer.” On a recent home-assignment, I felt some kind of tribute to the container was due. The essay also helped me work through some of those emotions of coming and going between vastly different cultures that we have (not yet) become accustomed to.
Sitting alone at a Subway restaurant strategically embedded within a north Jersey Walmart store, I munch on a roast beef sandwich and gaze into the bustling activity before me — as if I’m watching a documentary on the minds and mannerisms of American culture. As our family counts down the days to our departure for Africa, I have once again entered into a state of willful detachment from it all. I am an outsider to my homeland again.
The television-monitors draping from the ceiling and tilted down over the aisles of the store beckon as people walk beneath them. Happy people dance across the screens as they realize the promise of some new product. The suggestion is, of course, that I could too. Over the PA loudspeakers, a reassuring voice redoubles the effort. “Attention Walmart shoppers!”
I chew slowly and revel in my resistance. Like the clandestine hero in some Sci-Fi adventure who manages to remove the mind-control chip from his brain, but who nonetheless must pretend to be under the spell of the controlling authority, I finish my lunch and blend surreptitiously into the crowd.
Pushing a cart with a bum wheel that pulls it starboard, I make a crooked line for the automotive department. I’m only here for one more thing. (Aren’t we all?)
Just one more thing. This final shopping trip brought back memories of the first couple we made last Spring. Renee and I were trying to set up an apartment for an undetermined stay during an unsettling time in our lives. We “needed” just about everything one would consider basic to the functions of a typical American family. Sheets and towels. Chairs. A toaster oven.
Our gathering of “things” went on for days. And the familiar effect of “reverse culture shock” — whereby one feels dizzy and overwhelmed at all the possibilities and decisions — hit us. At one point it hit me particularly hard. Tired from a long day on the shopping circuit, I wandered into the Cheesecake Factory with Renee and almost passed out. I stood paralyzed before an immensity of food. The rich decor. And a restaurant of people who were probably too full to appreciate a deeper emptiness around them. The room began to spin and I rushed out the door and clear out of the mall and fell to the concrete. I sat leaning against a wall and closed my eyes. And then I opened them to a view of nothing but sky. It was the most substantial thing I had seen all day. As if the world were real again.
Coaxing my reluctant shopping cart to the rear of the Walmart store, I was already planning my exit strategy — my escape from the entanglement of consumerism that brought me to my knees that day outside the Cheesecake Factory.
But freedom, as they say, isn’t free. For me, today, it’s $24.98 plus tax. The cost of one multi-function injection-molded plastic container (with lid) perfectly proportioned for airline travel and robust enough for many round-trips. The “Action Packer” is a staple of missionary life as I know it. A product crafted by the good people at Rubbermaid. It was likely envisioned for the purpose of amassing and storing people’s stuff, but has the curious ability to also reduce it.
For a missionary preparing for a move to Africa, you simply multiply the number of people in your family times 3… (the allotted checked-baggage limit for British Airways). From this you get your resultant “packing factor.” For us, that translates into twelve such plastic containers stacked against the wall in our apartment. And stacked against that are the odds of us actually reducing our lives down to the cubic footage they represent. We will rifle through the clutter of our lives and everything that doesn’t fit will be dissolved. It is a beautiful, liberating, “blue-sky in your face” kind of activity.
Alone in the automotive isle I’m inspecting the last three Action Packers in the store. I know what to look for: a faulty hinge, a soft spot in the plastic that will crack when dropped by a careless baggage handler. Unlike an aficionado of finer things, I am the quirky collector of plastic containers. Finding a good one unleashes a secret thrill. Satisfied, I pile all three into the cart and roll my way toward the checkout.
Approaching the front of the store, I hear the faint sound of UPC scanners singing the song of our economy. Each pass through the matrix of red laser beams emits an audible blip as the machine gives its approval: Yep. Yep. Yep-yep. As I get closer, the sound rises above the murmur of the crowds and even the rattle in the wheel of my treasure-laden cart. Yep. Yep. Yep.
Maneuvering into place like an everyday consumer, I could be mistaken for someone who adheres to the philosophy of storing up stuff. But the contents of my cart, to the observant, tell another story. I am opting out. The Action Packer and the smile in the corner of my mouth are symbols of my rebellion. A declaration that I probably have too much stuff already. That I’m getting ready to let much of it go. Jumping continents every couple of years forces us to purge our lives like this. It’s one of those unexpected blessings of the missionary endeavor.
(PS – If anyone needs a toaster oven, we’ve got one. It doesn’t fit.)