Most people hate moving. As one of my friends used to say, "you have to touch everything you own twice." And there's always that temptation to just clear everything off shelves into waiting boxes, without bothering to go through any of it. But moving is best experienced as an opportunity to review, re-envision, and remake; yes, one's possessions, but also one's path and trajectory.
I've had some emotional moves in my life. I remember one many years ago, in which I moved apartments a couple of years after breaking up with a boyfriend with whom I had shared the place. It had been a rough break-up, the loss of one of those "love of my life" relationships, and I'd certainly mourned it extensively, long before the move. But when I came to packing up my stuff, I could barely fill a box a day, I was so sad. I played Joni Mitchell's Blue obsessively, and wept, and slowly packed. It was as if there was no room to pack boxes because I was still so packed with grief.
Thankfully, this move is not so fraught: I am not saying goodbye to a relationship (albeit it is a hello to a commuting marriage), and my hormones have finally evened out (or, egad, died out) so that emotions are not as overwhelming as they used to be. Yet there is no denying that to pack is to unpack: to handle one's things and choose to place them in a box, to recommit to keeping them, is to examine one's life and values. Here are those books on a project begun years ago, yet unfinished: am I really still into this? Will I ever really go back to it?
I have been able to shed far more than I usually can in my day-to-day life. I am a bit of a pack-rat; a tendency that is somewhat held in check by my love of a minimalist aesthetic. I got a look at the origins of my pack-rattiness when I went through my mother's things after she died. That woman kept EVERYthing--letters from her first husband's (my father's) parents from the 1950s, ticket stubs from museums we visited together in Rome years before, etc. etc. I felt a distinct sense of recognition when I sifted through her bits and scraps: I instantly understood what they were and why she kept them, because I would have kept them too.
But somehow, I'm able to shed this time. Books I've read and probably won't read again, even though they're great?: gone. Shoes that are still OK but which I just never wear?: gone. I've even been able to shred old photographs and manuscripts that just don't appeal anymore. My biggest hurdle came recently when I had to finally confront 10 or 12 boxes I'd been storing in my closet for 8 years; boxes that contained all of my childhood things, from my earliest possessions to what I chose to keep at 20 when I boxed up what was left and moved out of my father's house to live on my own. These boxes had gone missing for years, until my stepmother sent them to me about 15 years ago. At that time, I glanced through the contents, but couldn't bring myself to throw out my childish scraps. So on one undyingly bright spring evening recently, I poured myself a bourbon and seltzer and knifed open my first box. The smell of pervasive must and mildew coming from the box confirmed immediately that I simply could not continue to keep these things, which were a health hazard to my allergic husband. I allowed myself one box to fill up with a few items of juvenilabilia to keep, but the rest had to go.
How odd to handle things you owned 40 years ago, as a child. Yet I instantly recognized each item; perhaps because I had turned these items in my hands so many times in the past. Each item evoked pathos and humor, in equal parts. My obssessive self-historicizing was widely in evidence--e.g. a box of discarded Xmas cards, collected when I was six, with a detailed note explaining that the cards were not sent to me, but were sent to my parents and given to me, a "Last Will & Testament" I wrote when I was 11, bequeathing my plastic model horses and horse books (yes, I was one of those girls) to a good friend. And the relative poverty of my childhood too: the little cracked jars and doll parts that had been cracked even back then when I owned them, but which I had transformed with my imagination into lovely, elegant objets. "These fragments I have shored against my ruin," as Pound wrote in the Cantos. Mostly what I retrieved are the reams and reams of drawings and writings I began as soon as I was able. My first poems, dating from age 8. The elaborate sketches of countries and superheroes I created (including arch-villain, Hot Sauce Man), the novels in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald I had begun, the drawings of medieval ladies. I recognized my young self in these things, and had more humor about her than she could have about herself. But of course I also recognized my continuous self--the writing, the projects, the broad range of interests.
When you look at things from that long ago, they more clearly fit into history: the world's, not just yours. So now the decidedly early 70's style of the fashion photos I clipped and put into my scrapbook was evident. And the now quaint and immanently civilized manual on how to use the telephone from Bell Telephone (including admonitions to be polite and have a pencil and paper on hand to write things down). Just as I was able to see my mother's actions, towards the end of her life and after she died, in terms of her era and situation more than in terms of some psychological narrative of which I was the center, I caught a glimpse of my own life in the history it spanned (One of my favorite relics: a small disk of paper I had turned into a peace sign, with the slogans "Black Power!", "Stop the War," and "Peace" penned on the back).
My new-found ability to let go of the childhood archive perhaps is also part of unpacking the possibility of a new self. Or a self of all selves, ultimately a non-self: my hope now is less for a particular type of character or being, but a flow. Discarding to unpack; packing to unpack.