Crisis / catharsis: packing for a move and the psychology of “stuff”

boxedup

On Saturday, Christine and I move to our new home – the first home for us both as owners after many years of renting.

Moving to a new place is always stressful, sometimes more than others. Like most everyone, I can easily recall panics, freak-outs and meltdowns associated with past moves. This time around, though, I have to say that the process seems to be going more smoothly. Things are already mostly packed, transfer of utilities and such arranged. Maybe I have learned something after all these years.

What’s making me thoughtful this time is just how much stuff I’m parting with. Traditionally, moving for me meant dutifully packing up pretty much everything I had, with little or no analysis. Every book, record, videotape, knick-knack – it all went in a box and on to the next place.

Maybe it’s just because I have a lot more stuff now – the various “collections”, intentional or not, tend to just keep growing – but this time around, I’ve been making some hard choices and leaving a LOT of things for thrift stores, the back alley, used book stores, or the trash. OK, “a lot” may be a relative thing, but for a pack rat like myself who files away so much stuff, I think I’ve been doing pretty well.

And in the process, I’ve inevitably thought about why exactly I keep certain things – or indeed, anything. It’s an interesting question with no clear answer but plenty of pondering potential.

I’m a sentimental person by nature, and I’ll hang onto anything that acts as a memento or reminder of some time, place or experience I’ve had. Even some bad experiences (especially if they ultimately had good outcomes). But with each move, and the intervening span of years, there’s an interesting change. There seem to be three aspects, and I’ve come up with some strategies to deal with them.

A higher bar

Just how significant a memory is that item to me? Even if something still holds interest or has a little story attached to it, I have to decide if it’s important enough. If it’s not, though, I don’t have to lose it completely. I take a photo of it with my trusty digital camera and add it to my archives. (Using iPhoto Library Manager, I’ve set up a gallery just for “Discarded Items”.)

A first real look

When no urgent decision is required, it’s easy to save things “just in case” and – at least for me – the nooks and crannies, shelves and drawers, all become encrusted with items of dubious significance. In many cases, I’m sifting through mini-collections of random stuff for the first time – and realizing how little of it is of any importance. No “posterity photos” needed here – this is uncategorizable stuff, like those 3-D glasses from the movie theatre or that free button from an event I never actually attended, that just goes in the trash. Good riddance!

What’s truly important?

Events change in their importance as time goes on – some hold their value while others fade to virtual irrelevance. It’s true that this is a very subjective area, one where one’s personal philosophy comes heavily into play. But by necessity, I’ve come up with certain rules and principles to guide me. For example, I’ll hold onto most all of my vinyl records, except for ones that are duplicates (yes, there are a few) and thrift-store finds that I just didn’t care for.

Books are another area where some guidelines have helped a lot. It’s not so much whether I regularly read or look at a book, but whether I’m ever likely to, and whether there’s a sentimental attachment to it. This enabled me to discard nearly three boxes full of books – ones I know I will not miss.

Off the table

There are some things that I’ll keep without question: anything given to me by a parent or grandparent, for one thing. And for the time being, VHS and (yes) Beta tapes with material on it which is unique (local television broadcasts from the 80’s) or not readily available. YouTube and DVD’s have a big impact here, so that old tape of “Fawlty Towers” episodes goes. Eventually I plan to go through the tapes and dub the “keeper” material onto DVD.

What do we keep?

And finally, we reach the nub of it all – the things I want to keep but don’t really have a reason. For why, after all, do we keep anything? If it isn’t utilitarian, like kitchenware or clothing (though these can also be items of beauty of course), and it isn’t a work of art or something creative, or a cherished book we love to re-read, then why do we keep things at all?

For me, it’s about memory – connection to the past, to life experiences, to family and friends. That accounts for photos and such, but I also keep tickets and programs from shows I’ve been to, for example.

And it’s not only my own past that’s a factor, but a past era I feel drawn or connected to. In my case, that’s the 1950’s and 60’s, to me a time of unmatched style and elegance mixed with true whimsy and a certain innocence and optimism. So I cling to my vintage desk, my old radio, clock, phone, records, books and magazines – they reflect my personality, and I like having them around me.

Surprisingly though, for a pack rat like me, getting rid of so much stuff hasn’t been traumatic – quite the opposite. I relished the opportunity to see what I was willing to part with. I erred on the side of letting go. The result was highly cathartic – a psychological lightening to accompany the physical. And, best of all, what remains is a more pure distillation of what’s important to me, and of who I am. And as I embark on a new and exciting phase of my life, that’s a great way to begin.

One thought on “Crisis / catharsis: packing for a move and the psychology of “stuff”

  1. Dear Adam,

    Aren’t you glad I threw away those little cream containers from White Spot that you used to horde when you were a young child. I’m sure my lovely daughter-in-law Christine is happy about that. You may have had a hard time detaching yourself from them, as I know how important they were to you.

    TTYS

    Momma

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