Notes from the Malevolent Heart of Packing
Last week I was sorting through my old New Yorkers and found, serendipitously, a terrific essay about...sorting and packing all one's belongings in preparation for a move. Of course I settled down amidst all the boxes and chaos and read it. My favorite sentence:
"By the fourth day, we have begun to enter the dark and malevolent space that lies at the true heart of packing." (Oxenhandler, Nicole. "Object Lesson." The New Yorker, August 7, 1995, p. 40.) Doesn't that just sum it all up, right there?
Oxenhandler's theory is that packing is so awful because inanimate objects resist being constrained and controlled. Also because we invest our lives and memories into our objects, and then we have to sort through them all and throw some away, and it's like throwing away parts of ourselves.
And all that is true, too. But, speaking from within that dark and malevolent space, I think there are some less poetic, more pragmatic reasons that moving--specifically, packing--is essentially impossible.
Here they are:
1) PACKING IS IMPOSSIBLE BECAUSE UNLESS YOU HAVE A MAGICAL TIME-STOPPER LIKE IN THAT BOOK BY NICHOLSON BAKER IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO PACK AND LIVE AT THE SAME TIME.
Packing consists mostly of taking all your belongings and putting them in boxes, thereby rendering them inaccessible for a period of time. Like, if the first thing you pack up is your stereo, and your packing takes two weeks, then you can't use your stereo for two weeks. Which is fine unless you NEED your stereo to, say, play CDs. So then you either end up a) unpacking your stereo again, which kind of defeats the purpose of packing, or b) creating some kind of work-around which makes your life more difficult, or c) living without your stereo, which is sad and annoying.
No problem! You might say. If you're organized, you can pack the things you don't need first, and then save the ones you need for the last minute! To which I say: HAHAHAHAHA. HA. Fine. We packed up our books first. And then some knincknacks and things. But most of the things we have, we have because we use and need them. If we packed all the things we really need at the last minute, that last minute would have to last for about a week and a half.
Also it turns out that as soon as you pack something, even if you haven't used it for months, you will need it. It's like a Murphy's Law of packing.
2) PACKING IS IMPOSSIBLE BECAUSE UNLESS YOU HAVE A SPARE BALLROOM HANDY IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO PACK AND LIVE IN THE SAME SPACE.
We got rid of the couch. We got rid of the bed. We got rid of the piano. We got rid of the rolling dishwasher. And even so, the filled and unfilled boxes are creeping into the bare minimum of space that we need to function: to get our clothes in the morning, put them away at night, prepare the little food left in the fridge, crawl into the beds we have left and sleep the sleep of the exhausted. This makes no sense, because presumably all the things we are packing and stacking in boxes had to come from somewhere, and so they should be leaving open spaces where they came from and not taking up any more room overall than they did originally. But somehow it doesn't work that way.
If we had another place to live, and just came over here during the day to pack, it wouldn't be so bad. And we do in fact have another place to live. The only problem is that it's in Canada, and we have to pack up our stuff to move there.
3) PACKING IS IMPOSSIBLE BECAUSE IT IS AN ITERATIVE PROCESS AND YET IT IS MORE OR LESS IRREVERSIBLE.
Much of packing consists of putting items into categories-- into actual boxes, like a literal incarnation of the ones teenagers like to rant about not being put into--and closing those categories. No mushy "it's really more than one thing, it's a floor wax AND a dessert topping" here; no multiple tags. If it's a memento, it goes in the Mementoes box. If it's a kitchen item, it goes in the Kitchen Items box. That egg cup I made RW at the Paint-Your-Own-Pottery place back when we first got together? Memento or kitchen item, baby; it can't be both, or you risk descending into utter chaos and never finding anything when you get to where you're going.
Of course, items don't fit neatly into categories any more than people do. So, you do what good catalogers do (and both of us have done our share of cataloging): you approximate, you improvise, and you label as well and specficially as possible.
But all cataloging is iterative: sometimes you don't know what the category is until you've gone through the complete data set. Is there enough stuff to make a box of Kitchen-Related Mementoes? Maybe. But you won't know until you've gone through and packed all the kitchen stuff. And all the mementoes. And then--hah! Too late! Unless you want to start all over again.
If that sounds too effete (who really cares what it is as long as it's wrapped in enough bubble wrap?) consider the fate of the lone CD found after all the CDs have been packed. Where to put it so it won't get lost? Maybe in a box marked "Miscellaneous," thus rendering all its contents impossible to identify? Hmm, yes. maybe so.
Of course those last-minute things are also generally the most loved, the most special, the ones you use the most (see Point #1). And they're the most likely to get lost from their categories and never found again.
4) PACKING IS IMPOSSIBLE BECAUSE IT REQUIRES YOU TO PREDICT WHAT YOUR LIFE WILL BE LIKE AFTER YOUR MOVE. WHICH IS IMPOSSIBLE UNLESS YOU ARE PSYCHIC.
Vision is distorted when you're in the depths of packing. You find things you haven't laid eyes on for months, and think "Oh, I forgot I had that! It's the perfect thing for [x activity]!" Then you pack the heretofore forgotten and probably useless item away, confident that this thing will be an essential part of your new life, while tossing the stuff you're really going to need in some poorly-labeled box of Miscellaneous (see Point #3) or discarding it altogether.
Case in point: a year or two ago, my dad kindly mailed me a box. Back in 1990, when I first moved to Seattle, I had apparently carefully packed, numbered, and labeled this box, but had somehow neglected to bring it with me.
I opened it eagerly, excited to see what treasures I'd felt worthy to accompany me into my new life but had been somehow unaccountably surviving without for the past fifteen years.
Here is what was in the box: My beloved childhood sewing kit (Nice to see you, old sewing kit, old pal! I've acquired other needles and spools of thread in the meantime, but nice to see you anyway! Though I notice you still have that big grease stain from when I insisted on taking you with us to the restaurant that time when I was 9. Hmm. Perhaps I am no longer as charmed by you as I once was).
Also in the box: an extension cord, a 5" floppy disk, a power cord for an unidentified appliance, some small boxes of tissues, and an unremarkable piece of driftwood which, if it ever held any memories, no longer does.
It was like a message in a bottle from my 23-year-old self. And the message was: "HELP! PACKING IS DRIVING ME INTO MADNESS!"
And, what do you know? Seventeen years later, here I am again.