I hate moving.
I was born into a family that had already done all the moving around they’d ever intended to do in life. By the time I came along, my family had settled into a nice house in a nice neighborhood and had bought all this really expensive Ethan Allen furniture — you know, the stuff that’s made exclusively out of old-growth hardwood harvested from virgin West Virginia forests by lumberjacks whose purity of character had never been sullied by the touch of a worldly woman, the kind of furniture that seems to emit its own gravitational field, the kind of furniture that dynasties are built on. We had a whole house full of that kind of furniture, and there was no way any of it was ever going to end up on a truck again. My parents’ house was permanent, more closely related to geography than to architecture, to geology than to real estate.
So I didn’t move for the first time until I was seventeen and starting college. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go off to college, and I did it all the wrong way. A bad first-move experience taints the whole process. Ever since then, I’ve hated moving.
But there’s something liberating about it, too. There’s something deeply comforting about taking out all your possessions, one by one, and looking at them with a cold and heartless eye. Do I really need this? Is this something I really want to own? Is this something I really want to haul across a thousand miles of Cumberland road? Is this thing — this book, this piece of furniture, this keepsake — really something with which I want to encumber myself?
Often the answer is yes, of course. Yes, I know that chair is kind of ugly, but I like it. Yes, I haven’t read that book in fifteen years, but I know if I get rid of it I’ll miss it. Yes, I know I only use that kitchen utensil once every other Thanksgiving, but I paid good money for it, and dammit, I’m keeping it.
But it seems that often the answer turns out to be no. We look at the things we’ve accumulated over the years and decide, for whatever reason, that they just don’t mean to us now what they meant to us then. And we try, as dispassionately as possible, to divest ourselves of as much of our lives as possible, paring ourselves down to the absolute minimum, taking with us only that which defines us and leaving behind all that we’ve outgrown.
It’s a painful process, but a necessary one. We’re really crustaceans, you see. We accumulate things over the course of our lives and use them to construct shells, shells that shelter and protect us but that also constrict and contain us. In order to grow, we have to molt. We have to cast aside our shells and step out naked into the world just long enough to find a new hole into which to crawl until we can reassemble the walls that make us feel safe, that make us feel like ourselves.
If only it were so easy to go through this process with the other aspects of our lives, the things we accumulate other than material wealth. If only it were so easy to do it with relationships. Is this someone I really want to know? Is this a relationship that uplifts me, that enriches me? Or is it one that constrains me? Is this a relationship — a friend, a coworker, a lover — that I should discard?
Then again, maybe it’s just as well that we can’t prune our social lives as easily as we can our material lives. Would we make bad decisions, discarding valuable friendships on impulse because of words thoughtlessly exchanged? Perhaps its good that there’s an inertia to human relations, a sort of hysteresis that prevents our relationships from evaporating as soon as we stop paying attention to them. For that would be a lonely life indeed.
What about our beliefs? What if we could clean out the closet in our souls as easily as we can empty the one under the stairs? Would we be better off or worse for having discarded the values we were given as children? Perhaps here, too, we’re lucky that it’s not as easy as all that. We hold on to the values with which we were raised simply because it’s difficult for us to dispose of them. Changing our fundamental beliefs — right and wrong, fair play, honesty and sincerity — would change not just how we behave but who we are. Perhaps it’s good that we take these things with us when we go.
But what about everything else? I know I would love to leave some of my fears behind when I move. If only I could march into the catacombs of my heart with a Hefty bag and a bottle of Murphy’s Oil Soap and leave the place cleaner than I found it. I’d fill the bag to bursting with my fear of commitment, my fear of loss, my fear of failure and my fear of success. I’d leave them by the curb for the garbage man to collect. Except, given their potency, it would probably be wiser for me to dispose of them in the way usually reserved for used hypodermic needles, toxic sludge, nuclear waste and unsold copies of execrable debut novels. Whatever that is.
While I was down there, I’d take an hour or two to clean out the closet of my regrets. I’d spend an afternoon sanitizing the basement of my humiliations, my embarrassments and my shames.
And I’d invest six to eight months and hundreds of millions of EPA dollars in rendering once again safe for human habitation the landfill in which I buried all my guilt.
But it doesn’t work like that, does it? When we move, we clean out our closets and our garages and our cabinets. We discard what we don’t want and pack the rest into cardboard boxes lined with newspaper — ink-stained thumbs being the sign of a packing job well done — and then we go, leaving behind that which we’ve outgrown or forgotten or for some other reason set down.
But we take everything else with us, for better or for worse. Better because the sum of our experiences — even our pain, our fear, our remorse — makes us who we are. Worse because that sum limits us as much as it enables us. It forms a shell around us, a shell that protects us but that also contains us. And growing beyond that shell is a bigger job than cleaning out a closet, a bigger job than moving across the country. Growing beyond that shell is a job for a lifetime.
Jeff Harrell blogs at The Shape of Days.