Preparing for our planned move from a two-story home in a tree-lined suburb to a less spacious apartment in a more urban setting, my wife brought home a little book by organizing consultant Marie Condo. It’s called “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” a kind of bible on the Japanese art of decluttering.
The basic message, repeated often, is that you should take out each item in your home, hold it in front of you, and ask yourself if it brings you joy. If not, thank it for its past service and discard it.
So I followed Marie’s instructions. After giving her book a quick read, I tossed it.
That brought me joy.
But just about nothing else did in the tedious, frustrating and often overwhelming experience of going through several decades of possessions — from fine furniture to fading family photos — and determining which to sell, which to give to a charitable cause, which to throw away, and which to keep.
By the end of the process, sobered by the reality that young families aren’t interested in the furniture we value, we found ourselves putting out word that items like the charming antique armoire or hand-woven Oriental rug we thought would fetch a fine price — of course our kids weren’t interested — can be had for a pittance of what we paid. And a week later, after no bites, we watched as people took a variety of cast-offs from our front curb — and were grateful we didn’t have to pay to haul the stuff away.
Moving is, indeed, a humbling experience. And frequently during the last few months I recalled with a rueful smile the late George Carlin’s classic routine on Stuff, like his observation that “the whole meaning of life” is about finding “a place to put your stuff.” He defined a house as “a place to pile up your stuff and put a cover on it” so you can go out and look for more stuff.
Every move is stressful. In fact, Moving is ranked up there with Death and Divorce as among the most traumatic of life experiences. But I think moving as an empty nester — after the kids are grown and out of the house and you’re anticipating what used to be called The Golden Years — i.e., the last stop before the nursing home — can be the most stressful time of all.
That’s because it’s not just about the purging and packing that goes with every move. It’s a nostalgic time of reflecting on the life you have lived, a kind of cheshbon hanefesh (a soulful introspection) that encompasses going through and considering all you’ve acquired over the years — not just material things. You find yourself thinking about where you’ve been and where you’re going as you sift through the pictures of the kids from infancy to adulthood and of loved ones no longer alive.
To be clear, we chose to make this transition after 23 years in the house and community we loved. Though the prospect of no longer being within walking distance of good friends made it harder, our decision was based on a combination of factors. Some were practical, like scaling down and downsizing, saving on taxes and other homeowner expenses, and no longer worrying about shoveling the snow in winter. It was also about shedding the kinds of excess possessions that fill up a house when you have a basement and garage, the kind you know your kids would toss if it were up to them.
You have to confront things that have sentimental (though not practical) value to you — like old love letters, or boxes of your late parents’ photos and papers you cleared out from their homes but never got around to opening, and you just don’t have room for them all anymore.
But we liked the notion of setting out on a new course at a time when many people our age were burrowing in or, for those friends who have already retired, spending extended time in warm climates. We’ll still be only a few miles from where we lived but a shorter distance now from kids and grandkids in the area. And no longer dependent on getting to work via the George Washington Bridge or Lincoln Tunnel, infamous for their colossal traffic delays (with or without the help of New Jersey politicians.)
Moving is disruptive. It throws you off balance, changes your routine, and challenges your assumptions about your day-to-day life and its priorities.
We are still a bit unsettled. There are still boxes to be unpacked, neighbors to get to know, and hopefully new friends to be made. But there’s a certain relief in getting down to basics, freeing ourselves of excess possessions and an excitement about starting a new chapter together.
In the end, this moving experience reaffirms that it’s the relationships we have, the experiences we share and the work we do — not the stuff we acquire — that bring us joy.