Stuff and Nonsense

16447087There is an old saying that “two moves are as good as a fire.” I’d never heard that before but after this last move, I’ll opt for the fire. Since I had plenty of advance notice this time that we were moving households, I started constructing boxes and organizing the garage, basement and attic months before the movers actually arrived. Next time I’ll know to do it on the fly. After four months of discovering, examining and either packing or discarding the artifacts of the last eight years (and beyond) of our lives, I got to the point where I wanted to run out of the house while concomitantly ripping my hair out when I came upon yet another box of “memorabilia” or, God save me, “old photos.”

Wikipedia defines nostalgia as possessing a sentimentality for the past. In the old days, it was even considered a medical condition, like melancholia. I’m not surprised. After shifting through box after box of letters and memorabilia from my parents, grandparents—and the tragic journals of 18-year old Susan—I can tell you that the past is a scary place that will make you cry buckets for all that you have lost. There, I’ve said it. I don’t know why I kept all those short stories and poems that I wrote so many years ago (maybe thinking they’d be worth something when I was famous someday? Or did I really have a vision of my great grandchildren carefully handling these letters  with awe and 7536541reverence?) Taking a prolonged peek at college-age Susan was not really a pick-me-up for post-menopausal Susan. Looking at all those notes from my Dad—gone now these past 25 years—seeing his familiar hand and noting the happy occasions he referenced did not do much for my happy mood the rest of the day.

Why do we keep this crap? It’s like we think we’re throwing out the person instead of the hastily-scrawled note from the person. It’s hard to believe that I am not losing my Dad any more permanently or completely when I toss out a card from him than I did in 1987 when he actually stopped existing. All of my memories are at least as comforting and real to me than this stuff is that I drag around behind me, move after laborious move (did I mention this is my 32nd house shift?)

I think sentimentality has its place but it’s not a going-forward, grab-life-by-the-horns kind of place. It’s a sad, let’s-slow-down-and-stare-inward-kind of place. Was I really thinking of creating an altar using all of John Patrick’s 32336839artwork from the third grade? Do I think the teachers’ handwritten notes about his brilliance are as important as the confirming, computerized SAT scores? Do I think by keeping them I’ll somehow make time stand still, or better yet, go backwards to that delightful time when he was five? Then why does thinking of it make me want to cry?

I threw out a lot this last time. I threw out Christmas ornaments over forty years old that were battered and in pieces and made the tree look like one erected at a homeless shelter. I threw out evidence of my hopes and dreams bled out on a page that I’d submitted to the New Yorker Magazine when I still thought I had a shot. I threw out love notes and photos of old boyfriends (and so young Susan), I threw out letters from my grandparents, sports trophies and Mother’s Day cards from my only child, cards from my husband in our courting days.

I can’t truly bring any of these people or  times back and I think my attempt to hang on to these photos and memorabilia—like a terrible, pinching anchor around my neck—was trying to do exactly that. Stupid, really. Those people and those times live in my heart and in my mind.  I don’t need the other stuff to remember them. And let’s face it, for years on end, these artifacts sit boxed and unnoticed in the attic or the basement. Unless I’m waiting to channel it all into eBay gold, it seems kind of silly to only drag them out and look at them every decade when I move household. It seems it’s the having of them that’s important more than anything else. But when you’ve got fifteen boxes of photos, clippings and gee-gaws, well, the having part of the remembering gets downright onerous.

bluehatIn the end, I kept my Dad’s “go to hell” cap that he wore in the Air Force, some awards he earned at the Cape for the Apollo launches, and, well, okay, every note and letter he ever sent to me. I packed them  up with a carefully selected handful of the colorful schoolboy detritus of the grandson he never met, bundled them in a single box with a very few and very special things from my husband and grandparents and placed the box on a shelf in order that it may follow me around the rest of my days. I’m very proud of this solution.  I see it as a mature and measured way to selectively protect the emotional remnants of my past without letting it own me.

Besides, whittling things down gives me room to add more stuff later.

Belonging Starts by Leaving Home

I have lived at 35 different addresses in my life. 13 of those addresses were before I turned 18. The 22 apartments and houses since then are the legacy of an ex-military dependent who spent the bulk of her childhood moving, saying goodbye, saying hello. My husband, who spent his entire childhood and adolescence in one neighborhood and in one house, is resigned to my relentless restlessness (eight of the 35 moves were with him.)

It’s my belief that the feeling of belonging and travel are not mutually exclusive. I think, to a certain degree, we travel in order to feel like we belong. Not only does travel give you a glimpse of the rest of the world, and therefore a snapshot of your place in it, it also helps you to see that we are all a part of one large human family.

In fact, the expatriate experience—one that you’d typically think of as apart or separate from the collective group—is really a definitive exercise in belonging. Nowhere is the feeling of belonging more strongly felt than when you live abroad and happen upon a fellow American. This could be someone you might not bother to cross the street for back home, yet in this context—say one where they are the only American besides yourself in a room of foreign nationals—they are met with real pleasure and enthusiasm.

Think of all the expatriate clubs and organizations in Paris, for example. First, there are an astounding 165,000 Americans living in France today (50,000 in Paris, alone) so they have no problem getting a taco party together to watch American gridiron or feeling like “they belong.”

Then, of course, there’s the technological revolution and how it’s affected the expatriate. When my husband and I lived overseas—he in the late seventies and me in the mid-eighties—contact with family and friends was expensive and slow. A letter to New Zealand from the States could easily take two weeks to get to me. The phone calls—expensive and infrequent—had serious quality issues, (like a humpback was squatting on the cable that threaded along the ocean floor from Jacksonville, Florida to Auckland, New Zealand.) My husband and I often remark how much easier it would be to live in a foreign country today, with skyping, and the instant gratification of cell phone contact. During the decades that he and I lived overseas, we felt truly and completely separated from our support group of friends and family back home.

The plus side, of course, was that it added to the immersion effect, for us, a large part of the reason we were overseas in the first place. He was living in Germany at the time and the lack of home contact probably aided in his mastering the language that much faster.

Like all travel, living abroad tends to give you perspective. It gives you a different point of view either of how you live back in the States—or how you want to live. Have you ever come back from a trip overseas and then made a drastic change in your life? I would love to hear how a trip or travel in general has changed you.