Unpacking ‘Unpacking’

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What’s In This Box… Another Box? What?

It’s very easy to sympathize with the immediate problems of having completed your move. However, there is a period between “just after having moved in” and “just before you give up on unpacking and put everything else in storage,” a period often referred to as The Reconstruction. Much like the post-Civil War period of the same name, it is not talked about by non-history buffs, but it is an essential period in any move, and deserves some discussion to help demystify this confusing and troublesome aspect of moving.

It bears repeating that the entire process of moving can be summarized thusly: Take your life, and all the material things in it, put it all in disorganized and unlabeled boxes that are falling apart, transport them quite a ways from your current home, then put them all into a building that is yours only in name. It cannot be stressed enough how uncanny this new place is, in an entirely strange environment, full of things that you are pretty sure are yours, but is entirely confusing and out of place. This is what you are contending with during The Reconstruction.

While this is both good and bad, moving is essentially like pushing the Reset Button on your life. All of the routines that you have are now obstructed, but are still ingrained in you during The Reconstruction. The things you reach for automatically are no longer there, and relocating them will take longer than it ever did at your previous home. Usually, necessity helps speed along certain processes. The bathroom is the first thing to come together, followed by the bedroom, kitchen, and living room. But even this state of affairs is skeletal at best, with many of the lesser used items only making their way to their final destinations weeks (or, in some cases, months) into The Reconstruction.

The weirdest part of this process is coming to terms with the fact that you have to start everything over. The place where your pots and pans went before doesn’t exist, and try as you might to replicate it, eventually you have to make an entirely new place for them, and come to terms with that. While this does not seem like much, having to go through that with everything that you brought with you is a little terrifying, and as you open each new box, a sinking sensation begins to develop.  Suddenly, everything you own is adrift, and you are left to make sense of where it goes, and what must be done with it. Very quickly, to avoid having this feeling intensify, unpacking stops once the most important things are unboxed.

Not only are you confronted with the need to address the importance of everything you own, but moving puts into sharp relief all the things you have been living without previously. It isn’t until you have to install shelves before you realize that you’ve been living without a Phillips Head screwdriver for the last few years. The first thing we put together in our new home was a list of all the things we didn’t have but now needed, and as we began the process of unpacking, it was very clear that we would be missing a lot of things during The Reconstruction.

My philosophy toward dealing with situations like this is to create safe spaces that feel “moved in” and hide all the work that you still need to contend with. The first night we were in The Southernmost Outpost, I pushed everything into the Kitchen & downstairs bedrooms, and set up the living room as best we could so it seemed “livable.” (There was a couch, the coffee table, a shelf, a portable turntable, and a box of records, and that was it.) My thinking was that I wanted at least one space that I could go to that didn’t overwhelm me the amount of unpacking still ahead of me.

Most of our belongings went into the two bedrooms downstairs, and the large dining room that we now have, but this began to wear on us, too. The bathroom was next, but there was so much in the kitchen that needed to be dealt with that this sat undisturbed for quite some time. Finally, in a fit of frustration, I moved everything from the kitchen to the bedrooms, and set up the rest of the kitchen. A couple weeks after that, the upstairs bedroom came together, too.

Sadly, this is as far as we’ve been able to get with unpacking, mostly because of another aspect of The Reconstruction that is also rarely talked about: Life Goes On, no matter how much you still have to do. You still have to go to work, cook dinner, buy groceries, take out the trash, clean the kitchen, attend all the parties and stuff that you’ve been invited to, return your e-mail, and essentially live your life the way you would normally. In addition to having the gargantuan task of unpacking everything else that is still ahead of you. Periodically, I look at the piles of unpacked boxes, and feel a sense of dread. It represents work that I cannot avoid, and must be done.

But when?

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An Anecdote Regarding Lawn Maintenance & Upkeep

"Just A Little Off The Top, Please."
“Just A Little Off The Top, Please.”

One of the first things that M said to me after we looked at our very first house was, “I hope you don’t mind doing all the yard work.”

I was reminded of these words the other day, as I stepped out of the door to my new house, and was confronted with a lawn, a mower, and the sneaking suspicion that she was somehow getting the better deal as the designated launderer for our household.

It is not a secret that I am not much of an outdoor person. Or rather, my version of being outside involves doing only fun activities, and keeping these activities limited to spaces that are shaded in the summer and heated in the winter. It’s not that I’m disinterested or against the outdoors. I love camping, and I’m a big fan of backyard BBQs. I’m a Spring child, and when the sun returns and there’s a great reason to be outside, I am at my happiest.

However, I’m also an allergy sufferer, in addition to being a pasty white guy who cannot tan and is not very fit, and while these problems are mild by comparison, I find that during certain times of year, and regarding certain kinds of chores, to be outside is less than desirable.

More to the point, I am usually filled with any number of flashbacks to when, as the oldest of my family, I was charged with the job of keeping up various aspects of yard maintenance. As a youth, I was instilled with a Snuffy Smith / Ignatius J. Reilly / Rip Van Winkle sort of attitude when it came to doing… well, anything. But there was little tolerance for being lazy in my family, and I have any number of memories of pushing some lumbering machine through some field of grass, coughing and sneezing as I swore and made lists of all the things that I would have rather been doing.

Once I no longer lived with my family, my experience with yard care dropped significantly, and outside of occasional houseplants that all mysteriously died under my supervision, I had very little contact with nature. Occasionally I was get hired to do some weeding, or to mow a lawn, or to work on a farm. But on the whole I managed to avoid the need to invest any energy into lawn care through living in apartments.

It’s only been since I met M that my desire to engage in the natural world around me began to develop, and I’ve made a few efforts since then to get a few houseplants here and there. While my success ratio has been very low, when I was unemployed our plants thrived, so I know that if I can give my complete and undivided attention to something as needy as a houseplant (and if I have plenty of sleep, coffee, breakfast, and lounging around before I get to this work), I can almost aid the survival of an organic being, provided it cannot make noise and does not mind being uncomfortable and unhealthy for long stretches of time.

Get Your Motor Runnin'
Get Your Motor Runnin’

After we first moved into The Southernmost Outpost, I was able to avoid yardwork for a while as we settled in, but eventually I couldn’t put it off any longer. However, we hit our first barrier when the mower that had been left in our care by the landlord turned out not to work. This gave me a little more time for sloth as we casted around for a mower that would start, and eventually I crossed one of the first thresholds of living in an actual house: owning my first lawn mower.

Aside from a car I briefly owned as a teenager (which I never once drove, let alone managed to start), I have never been given the care of a machine with an engine. Not that I have made any efforts to do so; I have come into the possession of a few bicycles over the years, and several computers, but never something that required gasoline and spark plugs and other components to remain in operation. Fortunately for me, I have come to discover that this particular brand comes with a lifetime guarantee, and while this brings to mind the William Shatner bit about whose lifetime we’re talking about, this is still a very big moment for me. Not only does this mean that I have to face my responsibilities head on, but my excuses have completely run out. The lawn, for better or for worse, must be mowed.

Yard Find
Yard Find

Small town life is funny, and as I began to get ready it was very clear my neighbors were all incredibly fascinated by the prospect of me mowing the lawn. I am already the gentleman who is wearing a robe and slippers to take out the trash, or to check the mail, and my bow ties and sweaters have sealed my reputation as someone who is exactly as bookish as I appear. As I began to clear debris, contend with a dead squirrel, and survey the work ahead of me, my neighbors all stopped what they were doing, procured light beers to put in a cozy, and leaned against something nearby to watch.

If there’s anything more uncomfortable than taking on a task that you are not excited about and don’t really have any skill for, it is being watched by small town neighbors while they drink beer. I did my best to politely engage them, by saying, “Hi,” and nodding in their direction from time to time, but getting a response was just not in the cards. They stood, hypnotized by a middle aged nerd mowing a lawn, and it sent a chill up and down my spine that was a bit hard to shake.

Lookin' Good
Lookin’ Good

In the end, I managed to finish without any major problems or hiccups, and I think the results came out pretty good, all things considered. At least, everything looks okay, and no one is glaring at me for an unkempt lawn.

What’s particularly interesting to me, though, is that it didn’t take long to become guilty of the same thing I was worried about.  Now, I’m the one looking at my neighbor’s lawns, shaking my head when it gets out of control. In the last month I’ve already mowed twice, and as I was coming home from work yesterday, I found myself saying, “It looks like our lawn’s getting a little shaggy again.” This last weekend we not only bought a hose, but a rake and broom, too, and I’ve been eying various plants that I can put in pots throughout the yard.

How, exactly, I came to this particular situation is still a mystery to me. I still hate chores, and I’m not really the kind of person who spends time in my yard. But there is something about having a nice lawn and being attentive to the home you live in that I had never experienced before. This is probably one of those “growing up” moments that many people experience at much earlier ages, but I have only just begun to see the connection between my environment and my own well-being, in a non-physical sense. The lesson I have learned this time around is that my house is an extension of our life together, and the need to take care of the lawn is sort of like the need to take care of my hair. It’s a self-esteem thing, more than anything else.