There is a lot of crispy brown cardboard in my life right now. I was staring into space, thinking about all the details involved in our latest move, when my gaze settled on one of the boxes in the tower across from me. It has a time estimate printed on it. It says: “Moving – 4 moves. Storage – 10-12 years.”
Let’s talk about this.
First of all, raise your hand if you’ve kept at least one box in its unopened state for four moves or more. Double points if it’s spent any of that time in a storage unit.
Second, do you have any cardboard that has been in your life for “10-12 years” or more?
I have a particular box with a lid that I realize dates back to the second year of my first marriage. That would be 1999, folks. I used to have six of them. It’s an Avon box that one of my coworkers brought over for me as my first husband and I were moving into our third and final home together, not that I knew that then. I guess I’ve kept this box because it’s still structurally sound, it’s small enough that I can carry it even when it’s packed full of heavy stuff, and it has a lid. The realization that I’ve hung onto something that is crawling with DIVORCE COOTIES has just poleaxed me into the Beyond. Of all the stupid things I’ve saved over the years, why a cardboard box, of all things?
The fact that something is stored in a box is a clear, unmistakable signal that that thing is not getting used very often. If that box is taped closed, we can venture that that thing is not getting used ever, at all. Why do we keep things we don’t use?
If the answer to that question were obvious, I’d be out of a job.
It wouldn’t be just me out of a job, either. It would be everyone involved in the $30 billion self-storage industry. It would probably signal the end of a lot of other sectors of the economy. If we never bought anything we didn’t need or use, craft stores would be much smaller, I can tell you that right now. It’s a little chilling to think how many livelihoods depend on our living surrounded by stuff the way we do. Not just buying stuff and using stuff, but cramming it into every nook and cranny, stacking it literally to the ceiling in some cases, strewing it across the floor (in the house and in the car too), and even going so far as to rent extra space off-site to store it where we can’t even look at it.
I work with squalor, hoarding, and compulsive acquisition. The way I am living over these few days of our move is not dissimilar from the way my people live ALL THE TIME. They do this every day. It makes me feel claustrophobic to think about it. Cardboard sucks in a lot of ways: it can attract termites and other insects, it’s a fire hazard, it gets damp and mildewed, it crushes and tears, and it really is not up to the task of trying to preserve our personal archives. I have comforted some very sad people who have realized that their treasures and keepsakes were ruined long ago, when that cardboard exterior had obscured the entropy that was happening inside. Most of all, though, there is that great mystery of why we are willing to live in Box City, among all these cartons and bins and tubs and totes and stacks and piles. It’s dreadful. We’ve spent half our time the past couple of days trying to find common housewares such as water glasses and scissors. I’ve packed logically and labeled carefully, but there is nothing about a stack of boxes that makes life easier.
I want to finish unpacking and bust down these boxes as quickly as possible. It’s annoying to have them there, blocking my way. They look awful. Any time we need something that can’t wait until the box is unpacked, it always seems to be the one on the bottom of the stack, or behind the stack, on the bottom of a different stack. It’s impossible to relax while the darn things are there, mutely accusing us of sloth. Our TV hasn’t been turned on in two weeks, and we had just started a new season of Game of Thrones, if that tells you anything. Mainly, everything in those boxes is a useful thing. Almost all of it at the moment consists of kitchen wares, because this house was undergoing a kitchen remodel that is not yet complete. The best we have been able to do is cook in the microwave and make a taco salad. We need to unpack so we can get back to living a normal life.
It’s funny, or actually it’s really sad, that other people have no trouble at all in living the way we have this week. They can cheerfully sit and watch TV, or play games, five hours a day or more, regardless of how much stuff is stacked around them, because they’re not really using or interacting with it. They may never cook a proper meal at all. As long as the electricity stays on, all they need is somewhere to sit and something for entertainment. (This does tend to imply that most of us could live happily with little more than a bed, a couch, a computer, and a TV). I truly believe that a major factor in our post-1980s clutter crisis was the advent of cable TV and home electronic gaming, followed shortly afterward by the Internet. Box City has some great shows.
Our stuff says a lot about us. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be interested in it, and we certainly wouldn’t form emotional attachments to it. For instance, if someone sent me a pair of boxing gloves, I would be puzzled, and then I would check to see if it was a mistake. We buy or keep things that speak to us in some way. I now have five boxes of books (it used to be closer to 20), and half of them are cookbooks. That’s my thing. I also have an ukulele, a unicycle, and four hula hoops, none of which, incidentally, fit well in boxes. I don’t have a wine rack, a curling iron, a gaming system, a recliner, or a barbecue. This is an inventory, not a personality assessment, but it does seem that someone could learn a little about me and my life by looking over that inventory.
What do we keep? Why? More importantly, where? Are we stuffing our homes and lives with things we could never possibly use or enjoy? Are we spending money we don’t have and going into debt in order to keep buying and storing more stuff? These are good questions. I’m more interested, though, in how we want to live. How do we want to spend our days? What do we want out of life? How do we want to feel as we experience each day? If the answers to any of these questions have much to do with material possessions at all, is there enough space to use them in the way we have intended? When I spin my hula hoop, and my dog tries to jump in while I’m inside it, that gives both of us (and any onlookers) an experience that transcends the hoop itself. Keeping things is fine, but it’s better when they are actively contributing to our life in some way.
[I lost track of this post during the move, but it still seems worth sharing. I can hardly believe that it was written just two weeks ago! This feels like a proper home now. The kitchen has been fully operational and there are no remaining boxes in the house. The pictures are hung, the closets are organized, and even the garage is done. In another week, we’ll have forgotten the stress of the move. Hopefully that won’t stop us from continuing to release possessions we don’t want to move to our next house, however many years down the road that might be].
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.