Saturday, March 27, 2010

Moving Thoughts

(This whole post, in one way or another, is informed by George Carlin's classic routine, "A Place For My Stuff." Watch it here.)

I moved recently and, as those who have done this before know, it is never a cut-and-dried task. There are always things you forget, corners you forget to dust, boxes you didn't tape right, hitching a trailer in a blinding snow storm. That sort of thing.

I suppose as moves go, mine was relatively uneventful (apart from the fact that I did most of the work without my glasses, no mean feat). It went how most moves go, in stages:
  1. Gather boxes, tape, labels, Sharpies, garbage bags and other vessels for stuff.
  2. Let those things sit around for a week while you do absolutely nothing.
  3. Realize the move date is coming up and frantically start to sift through your stuff.
  4. Establish guidelines for what stays and what goes. The dusty, rarely-used, broken, stained, too-hard-to-clean, or about-to-collapse stuff goes.
  5. Gather usable, but unwanted stuff, and donate it or give it away. Feel good about yourself and, as a reward, do absolutely nothing for another week.
  6. Realize that the move is even closer now and start to jam stuff into aforementioned boxes, bags, pants with the legs tied off, whatever. This is the stuff, naturally, that made the cut and is not junk or potential home decor for some insufferable hipster.
  7. Begin cleaning, realize the enormity of the task and then do absolutely nothing for a few more days.
  8. Realize that you move in three days and turn into some hopped-up combination of a house-parlour maid and Bob Vila, cleaning and repairing (or masking) all your sins.
  9. Realize that it is all done and then do nothing until the trailer is ready for pick-up.

That's about how it went.

The interesting thoughts, however, came about in Stage 9. There I was, clean apartment, everything packed and sitting neatly (?) in a pile in front of me.

First I thought, "sitting in front of me, in boxes saved by Yo La Tengo Shirt Guy at the corner store, is, well me. These are, as they say, all my earthly possessions. This is all I got. Everything I own in this world that is not my body is there in a pile. This thought depressed me, as you might imagine.

Can a life be reduced to this? Is this the sum-total of my estate? What does this pile of boxes and bags mean, exactly?

I then thought, "No. This is not me. I am me, and these are just material possessions. Why, I could get rid of all of this and still be me. I am not defined by my posessions anymore than I am defined by a job, nationality, religion, ethnicity or baseball team affiliation (well, maybe not so much that last one)."

Well, then, why do you keep any of it? Why not just hippie/Jesus out, dump it all and just live, man?

Like it or not, I then thought, I have grown attached to some of these things. Why?

Then, the real question hit me: why did you keep the particular things you did and get rid of the rest?

Some of it is personal, things that remind me of my past and the past of my family. These things are priceless (not in a literal sense, but you get my meaning). A lot of what I kept were books. As an academic, they are the tools of my trade and the medium through which I keep my mind active and discursive as ever. Movies and music also made it past the garbage/Goodwill stage. These things make me happy and give me perspective, so I kept those. Practical items, too, like clothes. Well, there are few who want to see a naked guy wandering around, and almost none who want to see a naked me, so I had better have those. Apart from my computer, that was about it.

What does any of this prove? I think it boils down to value. When asked to move, we take the path of least resistance. We want to move as little as possible as quick as possible. We must make some hard decisions about the material things around us. In the end, it shows what we really value most. I guess I value my memories, ideas and not being naked.

What I am perhaps getting at is that a move involves a certain value calculus, one that is different for everyone. This process of winnowing is different for everyone and I suppose the process says as much about the individual as the things processed. It is all signalling, to put it another way.

So, whether you are moving are not, take a look around your place, pick out a few things and ask yourself: "Why am I keeping this? What does this object mean to me? What does it say about me? What would I think if I never saw it again? Would I care?"

The answers might surprise you. I know they surprised me.

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