While I was never able to articulate this in years past, it occurred to me recently that the reason I have such issues with packing is the overall emotional weight of the entire process. There is something about putting all of your accumulated possessions into boxes that makes you feel trapped and claustrophobic, partially because you know that these boxes will remain mostly sealed for quite some time. Not only does packing uncover all the things you had shoved into the corners of your life in the hopes it would go away / resolve itself without any effort, but it puts into perspective the number of things you actually own, and your own caustic relationship with your material things.
In the days before we had Hoarders, the term you heard most often was Pack Rat, and I was raised as one. Something about all the moves we went through as a kid, coupled with all the things I lost to siblings and my own carelessness, caused me to overcompensate in a way that led to me keeping everything, and having no ability to sort through it, or keep track of it usefully. By the time I was in High School, and had discovered Comic Books and Music, I was screwed. I started filling longbox after longbox with back issues, and each cassette / CD / LP container I purchased was very quickly not enough to hold the new things I was bringing home. While I’m not exactly sure if I was born a collector, once I had a taste for it, I adopted all of the intrinsic qualities of one before I fully understood their implications.
In the early days of living on my own, this was not as much of a problem as it has become. My ‘Archive’ (as I have come to refer to it) was rather small, and at its worst, arranging for transportation was the most difficult aspect of moving I had to face. In those days, it almost took as much time to pack as it did to close the box and put it in the truck. However, as the years have passed and my archive has expanded to the point where I found myself wondering why I own two microwaves, four teapots, a strange assortment of glass items (is that a cup? a vase? what is that?) I don’t even remember purchasing, and a box of used batteries.
It is not hard to understand that we all form long-term and important relationships with our stuff. George Carlin has expounded on this more eloquently than I ever will be able to, but his point is so well made that it bears revisiting. We often define ourselves in relation to our things, and even those searching for a connection to the universe outside of the material realm are still functioning in opposition to the hold that material things have on us. While I am the wrong person to make this claim, I do feel that stuff is not intrinsically bad for us. Even the minimalists in my life are caught making the comment, “I love my _________,” and the creature comforts of having things that you enjoy have measurably positive effects, I believe.
However, when confronted with the overwhelming number of things that I own, I have a recurring fantasy that will stick with me forever: I come home to my things, there is no one else around, and there is no hope of endangering anyone around me. I strike a match, throw it down, watch until the fire is burning quite large, then run for my dear life, freed from the trappings of our modern world.
In reality, I would be devastated by such an event. But I still dream about it from time to time.
The real problem with packing is that it is a thankless job. This is work that you are not compensated for, must be done by a deadline, and is followed by a tremendous amount of work afterward, too. Usually, you have a number of unforeseen expenses that come up, and in the end, you are performing this work after you have put in a full day’s work, anyway. There’s nothing like waking up, packing for a few hours, going to work, coming home to pack for a few more hours, knowing that ultimately you get to spend days / weeks / months unpacking, too.
The worst is uncovering things that are still packed from the last move. I found a number of boxes in the garage that I was afraid to even look at, because I knew that they had remained unopened since the last time I had moved, and didn’t even what to bring up the notion that I should just throw them out, because it is something I am incapable of doing, try as I might. To my credit, I threw away six boxes of stuff that I had sitting around in this kind of state. However, the 36 boxes that were still left over didn’t make it feel as if I made much progress.
The intention behind packing is always so noble, and what it becomes by the end of the process is so completely gross that it is embarrassing. When you first start loading boxes, extreme care is usually taken. Everything is labeled very carefully, progress is slow, and you are sure that your book boxes contain books, your dishes are carefully wrapped, and your clothes are properly stored to reduce wrinkles and make them easy to find when you get to your destination. However, as your move-out date gets closer and closer, your attention to detail is more and more off base. When you’re unpacking, you will eventually find a box that is full of a half-eaten omelet, Seasons 2 & 6 of Lost, 16 dried up pens, a half-used box of tissues, letters from a girl you explicitly destroyed eight years previously, and a string of linked paperclips with a zipper tangled within it.
Let’s not even discuss the garbage bags full of who-knows-what.
The one thing I kept thinking about when I was frantically trying to compartmentalize my life was that this must have been a more intense version of what Andy Warhol was going through when he started making his Time Capsules. While the story goes that he would fill these boxes with things that would show up in his office and on his desk, part of me feels as if he was undergoing a massive packing art project, one that took up years and was coupled with the emotional weight that packing often brings with in. His capsules completely evoke the feeling of someone frantically putting everything – anything – in boxes, and while they are viewed as incredible works of art, I can’t help but imagine the craziest moving day in history, with Andy fussing and fretting over what goes in which box.
Even the relief of being fully packed and moved is only the façade of relief, as you now have an entire house full of things that need to be unpacked and put away, an entirely new set of challenges that will likely never end until you are ready to move again. This time, I have some very grand goals: throw out half the things I no longer need, reduce my belongings to the bare essentials, get a filing cabinet and actually sort through everything in my “Paper Archive,” and on the whole find a Less-Is-More kind of balance to my new lifestyle. However, I’m pretty sure this will not happen. I am a middle-aged man in the 21st Century living a privileged lifestyle that involves no kids or major responsibilities outside of houseplants and keeping the liquor cabinet full. I have so much inertia behind my terrible habits that I fear for the people who have to go through my estate when I pass.
I can only hope they have the common sense to just light it all on fire.