It’s Not Just Physical

In the space of two weeks we have reduced the contents of our 4,000 square foot rental to what will fit in our van for traveling, and 20 boxes and a filing cabinet to go to storage. That square footage includes a full attic and basement; unusual for California, but we used them. I had a server room in the basement for my three servers and other network equipment. A full weight set, bicycles, and other exercise equipment; we used the basement. The attic wasn’t completely full. Not completely. But it wasn’t completely empty until yesterday.

There have been solid days of work; sorting, moving, selling, cleaning.

That first one, the sorting—that’s the tricky part; the hard part.

Much of what’s left are things I should probably have sorted out of my life years ago; some of it, decades ago. Instead, I’ve lugged boxes of stuff, some of it for 35 years, from house to house, from old life to new. One particular item, while I’ve only been conscious of carrying it for more than 30 years has been mine for 50: the center panel from the baby blanket my mom made when I was born.

It’s that old life/new life nexxus that’s been the challenge.

Much of what’s happening right now is the culmination of a process which started either 8 years ago, or 15 years ago, depending on which event you count from. The last major pruning of possessions occurred at the end of my first marriage. I ended up with virtually none of the books from my library of about a thousand, and about half my vinyl albums from a collection of about that size as well.

I also kept zero out of four children. Since they are all adults, I’ve accepted that it was their choice.

Boxing up my records for storage in a friend’s closet (they have to be kept in a space suitable for humans; no hot dusty garage or potentially damp basement) I had a stress attack as painful as the two which sent me to the emergency room twice, long ago before I knew what that pain meant.

It wasn’t the records; not entirely. I still have a collection even I find impressive; stuff you can’t find on CD or MP3; stuff I still put on the turntable I bought after my divorce just so I could continue listening to them. But mostly it was the aggregation of stress over the decisions, and over the realisation that no one values the things I love the way I do.

We had a very productive yard sale; over a period of a week, between Craig’s List ads and the yard we made enough to buy Sue an excellent laptop for our new life—and as much again beyond that.

But, my books? Sold 6, gave away a dozen more, and the other hundreds will go to the library’s bin for their used sale.

Computers? The one I recorded over 100 songs on, recorded my podcasts and online radio shows, a little workhorse that saw use by someone in the family every single day—I can’t give it away. Nor can I get rid of five or six more computers, including an IBM server which originally cost the company I worked for at the time something like $4,000. Nobody buys used computers. Nobody even takes them for free.

I have a thing about cups and glasses. When I find one that feels right in my hand and against my lips it’s like making a new friend. Over the decades, I’ve gathered a lotta friends.

How many cups, pub glasses, and favorite bowls can one put in storage? Not many, not if one intends to be a nomad, and not a financial supporter of the National Association of Storage Units.

Palm trees. Not real ones, but embroidered or painted on everything. Our home’s theme was always going to be Scheherezade’s Oasis. Palm trees and oriental patterns on lamps. Palm trees on the quilt on the only bed we’ve ever shared. Palm trees on clocks (plural) and paintings and who knows what all.

Gone. All but a single framed print.

Cassette tapes I’ve lugged around for far too long. Since the only cassette player we own is, hopefully, still going to be sold (another difficult sell: small stereo systems with multi-CD player, dual cassette deck, decent speakers . . . ah, well.) Where was I? Cassettes. Large box will most likely end up in the trash; small small handful, I just don’t know. I don’t even know what’s on them. I have 10 days to find out because we’re not storing them. I’m scared rigid one of them will be the only remaining recordings of my father singing, or have some record of my 4 older children.

Down at the far end of the library/music room, I found a handful of books by Booth Tarkington. They’re not mine; they belong to my second son, my third child. When his mother and I divorced, he boxed them up and mailed them to me. I’d bought them for him when he took an interest in the adventures of Penrod.

I’ve decided the only thing I can do is mail them back. I can’t store them forever. I cannot possibly sell them, or give them away, or throw them away. So, he’ll have to decide.

Golf clubs. Clubs I haven’t pulled out of the bag in over a decade. SImple decision, right? Hah! I might just be able to give them away, despite the fact that the woods, at least, are a matched set of Bobby Jones Jr. persimmons which crack like a whip and have a sweet spot the size of Milwaukee. Nice leather bag, and some easy-to-hit irons and a wooden shafted putter which is a nightmare to hit but pure joy to look at and hold.

When my older brother moved to Texas where I lived, he spent some of the very little money he had on those clubs to bring to me as a gift, so he could teach me the game and have someone to share it with. He did, and we did, and I’ll probably part with my beloved vinyl albums before I let the clubs go. Besides, if we end up in Ireland, there’s a glorious world-class course not far from where we’ll be living.

My father’s tool box; the one he carried in the trunk of our car from my earliest memory. The hasp has been broken since somewhere around 1985, I think. It contains some greasy rust and a torque wrench. The likelihood that I will ever again use a torque wrench is right up there with my chances of winning American Idol. It sits on a shelf, with a few other oddments from the basement, hah; basement oddments; mocking me, daring me to email my sister and older brother Yet Once More asking, since you’re taking Dad’s 1951 Webster’s Dictionary, and the cuckoo clock he found somewhere and fixed, would you like his broken toolbox, too? And then I have to store it until our travels take us to San Diego in a few months.

We haven’t lived in our old home for almost a week. We own exactly one piece of furniture, a glorious mahogany table with a carved top and sensuously curved legs which I’m not ready to part with just yet. Oh yes; we own a table and four chairs, being used by Sue’s two adult children in their new apartment until we need them, or abandon the belief that we ever will.

On the 29th, our hosts return from Italy. We’re invited to stay over that night, then we’re leaving at the crack of dawn to make the 13-hour drive to Phoenix. If we don’t, our options are pretty severely limited. We don’t have a home, we don’t have furniture.

And yet, the naysayers continue to wriggle out from behind the paneling, suggesting that I’ve taken leave of my senses, that I need guidance and direction to set me back on the right path, that my family, my business, my spirituality, my life are all at stake if I don’t wake up and smell the good advice.

What, at this point, would a naysayer like me to do? Just because you’ve only thought about this for a week doesn’t mean I’ve only thought about it for a week. I’ve thought about it off and on for years. Sue and I have actively thought about it for months. We even included a 5-week experimental international trip.

After much thought and consultation with many trusted advisors, we made the best decision we can with the information currently on hand. Your opinion does not constitute ‘more information’ and isn’t going to cause us to reverse course, find a tiny apartment where we can sleep on the floor under the single blanket we own, eating off paper plates on the storage boxes we’d have to use as table and chairs.

I think that, just maybe, now that I’ve reached the age of 50 (that’s, y’know, half a century) I’m capable of making a decision without your second-guessing it. In fact, I have, and it’s done.

Thursday morning, September 30th, my life turns an abrupt corner which has been a long time coming.

Fasten your seatbelts and hang on. It’s gonna be a wild ride.


  1. While we’re driving to Montreal I believe we’ll have that long emotional conversation about all of this. Of course we’ve had conversations about it all; there’s just the final one once it’s all done and we are living the reality.

    It’s been interesting for me to find out that the possessions themselves aren’t important; it’s the memories. And we’ll always have those. With today’s technology we get to record those memories forever.

    Yes, it is going to be a wild ride. And we’re going to love every minute of it!

  2. I would have thought after spending time with a dog named Bentley, you would no longer have anxieties about anything. (Unless he’s an actual relative of mine, which means you need stronger tranquilizers).

    Yeah, that’s strange, unsettling business, going through the goods that have ghost attachments to them, like your father’s toolbox. That’s heavy in multiple ways. I’ve tried to pare down a portion of my physical belongings before, and it’s an odd juggling match of emotional meaning and occasional stubborn absurdity—and I might come to absurdity’s defense more often than what’s good for me.

    But always keep those palm trees swaying in your minds…

  3. Oh, Joel, you made me tear up hear and there.

    First, Sue, as Joel would say, “hah” on the one final conversation. I suspect this will be a spiral conversation. Not second-guessing in order to reverse the decision but processing the grief of such a change, considering aspects you can’t consider until you are in it, strategizing into the night when Fiona misses her big sister (which she likely would have done with her big sister living down the road from you, but in the moment of her sadness you might forget.) In my mind, this spiral conversation will be gloriously alive with joys and angst and pain and piles of happiness. Long live the conversation!

    Joel, you got me at every mention of an item full of connection to those you love. Connections that reside almost exclusively in the object. Something you can fondle and notice anew a remembered crack or scrape. It is sooooooo hard to know which ones need keeping.

    I am married to a man who looks at dust collectors with disdain, although he sportingly puts up with a few of mine and I accept that even if he no longer identifies as a Buddhist, the artistry of his buddhas will be collecting dust on some of my surfaces. He likes order and long clean countertops. While I relish a well-packed closet, he considers a clear floor and a shelf with few items and breathing space between his hanging garments the ideal. You get the picture.

    In one of our moves, I was sorting (yet, again) through many of the same beloved objects that you describe. Shaped less like golf clubs and more like an ancient metal lunch kit of my grandmother’s, the hand-turned bowl of my grandfather, the useless wooden carved chain links with which my grandfather had practiced an idea, many photo albums, and my pony tail. There was never any doubt that I would keep both the antique clocks of my grandmothers (maternal & paternal had clocks that sat on the mantle and chimed) but the pony tail was incomprehensible to my husband and, I think, grossed him out a little. He kept remarking on the fact that it was “human” hair.

    When I had my son, both his dad and I had long hair, halfway down our backs. As we grappled with life as new, young parents, living in a situation where water was trucked in and we had to pay for it by the gallon, having long hair full of pablum and sticky baby fingers was not so appealing. We had our pony tails cut off. For years, more than a decade past the divorce, I had both pony tails and a little lock of our baby’s hair in a box. Eventually, I offered the strawberry blonde tail back to its original owner and kept my own and my baby’s. But this day, I succumbed to the reasonable reasoning of my husband and, with a little ceremony, let go of the pony tails.

    To this day, almost another decade down the road, I still mourn the pony tail and baby locks. The box was a slim and beautiful gold-topped cardboard gift box. It didn’t take up much room and on rainy days like today, when I was cleaning and sorting, I would take it from its place and look inside and remember who I was. How young I was. All the anguish and beauty that were my days. Emotions that I am sure were woven into that hair.

    And, yet, I have given many previously precious items away and they do not haunt me. How are we to know which ones must continue with us on the journey?

    A beautiful piece that, I am sure, resonates with many of us. Thank you.

  4. PS. I have posted most of my reply on my website, starting just after midnight tonight. I included a picture of Dad & Daughter nomads walking off into the woods in Friendship Gardens – and, of course, there is a link to this record of your madness. :-)

  5. Now that you mention it, Tom, there’s a certain je nais se quois about Bentley’s hair . . . yes, the palm trees will waft me to Eire some day, but it will be the palms of my mind, not those spray painted on cheap goods from WalMart.

    Caitlyn, I trust my gut about what to keep. Some stuff just looks like junk and I toss it; some stuff tugs, and despite actually being junk, I keep it. Trusting my heart, this go ’round.

    Found a scrap of paper from long ago, when I wanted to be the next Ogden Nash (after all, who doesn’t want to be the next Ogden Nash?) It contained these two Highly Important Poems:

    On Plurality

    Some say fish
    Some say fishes
    Youse can say
    What you wishes

    On Not Catching a Cold

    The elephant’s nose
    Is highly inscrutable
    With it he eats
    It’s also tootable

    Perhaps it’s all for the best that I never seriously pursued the poetry thing . . .

  6. Toughest job of them all got done tonight: I went through the box of school papers I’ve been lugging around for 35 years. A large box (the largest, in fact, of all the boxes) was reduced, with minimal fuss, to a single folder. The rest was so clearly dross I was astonished. Most of it school handouts, not even my own works of genius.

    The bits I kept were some of my writing from a class which was ostensibly English but in reality was a fairly complex philosophical forum. I believe I’ll post some of what I wrote at 16; it was, by and large, good stuff, and still essentially me. I wouldn’t have thought I’d be so consistent over nearly 4 decades.

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