The words “I’m moving” are typically received with an empathetic sigh. According to the conventional wisdom, moving ranks among the most stressful life events, right up there with prolonged unemployment and divorce. Everyone — parents, kids, pets, plants — gets caught up in the turmoil. For your trouble, the movers rob you blind.
If you go about it the right way, though, moving’s more clarifying than stressful. It’s like a juice cleanse for your stuff: a purification method that compels you to distinguish between what you happen to have and what you actually want. The more you move, the more the objects you choose to keep reflect your sense of self.
I know whereof I speak. As a child, I stayed put; my parents still live in the Manhattan apartment where I grew up, and on holidays, I come home to the same old tchotchkes. As an adult, I’ve rebelled, zipping from coast to coast like an outlaw. In the past 10 years, I’ve moved house six times, including twice across the country. I’ve had four addresses in Brooklyn and two in Los Angeles. Now I live in Washington, but next fall, I’m relocating yet again — back to Brooklyn.
I’ve moved small and I’ve moved big. I’ve moved three blocks and 3,000 miles. Each time, I’ve been ruthless with my possessions, diverting a great many of them to charity, or the trash.
In 2008 my roommate and I left a roach-infested Brooklyn apartment for another Brooklyn apartment with a less dramatic roach problem. We took everything a person could sit or lie down on; not far removed from college, we didn’t have enough money to let go of any basics. I did, however, think better of a few outfits that were fine for the classroom, not for the office. In 2010 I moved in with my boyfriend, to a third location in Brooklyn. He said the nightstand I bought at a secondhand store wasn’t charming, just cheap; it ended up on the street. In 2014, after my boyfriend became my husband, we bought a condo a few miles away. It was too nice, we thought, for the kitchen island from Ikea, the blue floral rug that had once seemed adult — now just unfashionable — and a half-dozen other vestiges of our youthful taste.
Six months later, when I received a job offer in Los Angeles, we finally offloaded the sagging gray couch from Macy’s that, somehow, had made the intra-Brooklyn cut. We signed a short lease on a studio, then a long lease on a house — which we broke in September when I received a job offer in Washington. Out went the spacey, white plastic chairs that were more California than we were. We worried they would weigh us down, physically and psychologically, on the way to our new city.
Although all that packing and unpacking was exhausting , the process of downsizing brought me great pleasure, just as Marie Kondo promises in the Netflix show based on her best-selling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” It’s gratifying to whittle down one’s possessions to a more cherished core.
Each move is a chance to admit to myself that I never really liked that lamp — or chair, or vase — and to reflect that what works at age 23 doesn’t necessarily do the trick at age 33. The sagging couch, for example, was best suited for a time of life when friends were liable to leave trails of beer in their wake. When that era expired, so did the couch’s utility. If I hadn’t moved around so much, though, I might still be stuck with it, living in the past. Thrift and inertia are powerful agents.
Each move is also an opportunity to remind myself of my sincere attachments. The round box my sister gave me with our childhood pictures taped to the lid — I’ve had that since I was 14, and I’ll never give it up. The books are lifers too, tablet be damned. Yes, I need both editions of “The Odyssey,” even though I may never read them again, the one with my high school notes and the one with my college notes. Old insights, unlike old couches, don’t hold me back; they just take me back.
If I’m on the fence, not sure whether to keep or chuck, I think through what will happen to the liminal object after I’m gone. Truly gone, not just in the next city. I can’t be the only person who imagines my own estate sale instead of my own funeral. Who cares about the eulogy? What I want to know is: How will my belongings represent me?
The midcentury chairs I bought on Etsy will suggest — to the scavengers looking for a deal — that I cared more for style than comfort. Fair enough. Same goes for the slat table that my husband salvaged from the street. It looks good, but if you don’t position your glass of wine just right, it’ll tip over. Worth the effort, I maintain, and I bet others will agree. Those items will go quickly.
But the little red clock with the broken battery cover has no apparent upside. It’s both tacky and wonky. That may go late in the day, if at all. As for the round box of photos from my sister — my children wouldn’t dare put it up for sale, and not just because they know that no one will buy it. One of those treasures that is both worthless and priceless, the box proves that their dearly departed mom had a softer, nostalgic side.
At the tail end of my time in Los Angeles, I walked through the house and saw it through that lens — my morbid fantasy. I chucked at the little red clock and, of course, kept the round box. I know, I know, I can’t take it with me. But every move’s a trial run for what’s worth leaving behind.
Read more from Outlook: