I’m thinking of moving.
It’s a very big move. It’s the doing of it that’s big, not so much the getting there or being there. It’s pulling up eleven years of roots and hoping not to kill the tree. It’s pruning, shedding, clipping, grafting, transplanting—and taking root again in another soil.
From in here to out there, from crowds to solitude, from concrete to mud, from skyscrapers to woods. I’m moving from one life to another, leaving behind a stressed professional and becoming a person without portfolio or known source of income. I’m going away from neighbors, family and friends to a place where I know one or two people. For all I know, I may be moving from one planet to another. A move, it feels to me, of great consequence. More so because I have not spent much time in planning it, thinking it through, predicting, calculating, being thorough. I am making this move the way I have made many moves in my life—without great consideration and with relatively little thought to the consequences since I had always believed consequences were, for the most part, unknowable. This impulsiveness has led me to live a sprawling, rather untidy life.
The reality of the move rises to meet me and I am consciously gathering my strengths to meet the task. A solitary task it must be and an intensely personal one, like dying or giving birth. Helping hands abound but in the end I realize I do it alone. Of course family and friends
will sit with me, will offer advice and help me pack. Movers will lift boxes, the post office will provide change of address forms and the telephone company will convert my area code to one to more accurately reflects my new coordinates. But in the end it becomes a very personal migration, it is me who is taking my body from one life and moving it to another that has not yet been created. I take courage from believing that although the shape of this other life is unknown, it has in a sense always been there, waiting for me to step into it at the right time. Perhaps the drama with which this is playing out comes from the feeling that I am moving into the third—and last—stage of my life. From child to adult to crone. From growing to producing to dying. From gathering to spending to divesting.
Birds and herds and nomads do it
Or, perhaps I simply like the way drama allows me to make more of what some might say is an inevitable, mundane aspect of our hard-wiring. Birds do it, herds do it, even nomads and their yaks do it, we all do it, we move—driven by the seasons, the availability of water or pasture, the ebb and flow of real estate prices, the lure of a new love or job or the lacuna carved by a sudden loss. It’s well known that stress accompanies what sociologists rather flatly refer to as “a mobility event” and what 20% of America, 43 million people do every year, half of them between Memorial Day and Labor Day. What’s the big deal? Moving is something that, on average, Americans do eleven times during their lifetimes. But frequency can’t trivialize the experience nor can the commonplace rob moving of its solemn thumbprint on an individual’s life: people say it takes them at least six months before their new surroundings feel familiar and two years to feel properly settled.
Every time I see a real estate sign planted on a lawn that announces a house is for sale or that it has been sold, I imagine the moving ripples as they spread through a life, a family, a community. Statistics that document this movement are available from numerous sources—local and federal government, the realtor and movers associations, the retail trade where moving creates energetic and lucrative movement of its own from warehouses into consumers’ new homes—40% of people change their brand of toothpaste when
they move, opening new doors not only to their new homes perhaps but to a range of new options.
These macro-level moving patterns, interesting and well documented though they are, reveal very little about the real story, about all that actually happens in the internal life of the mover. Certainly I had no idea what I would experience once I had decided to sell my loft in Manhattan and move to a house in the woods, eighty miles east and a thousand lifetimes away.
Living in limbo
All I did know was that my true address belonged neither to the place I currently owned nor to the place I hoped to own but rather that I was living in limbo, where anxiety grew like mold between my twin roles of buyer and seller.
I was still waiting for final mortgage approval for the house I was hoping would become my home. And I was hoping that the final contract signed by the unknown, unseen buyer who had decided my loft would become his home would arrive not too early, not too late but at just the perfect time to coincide with the approval from my bank. I hoped the gods of impeccable sequencing would roll the dice in my direction.
Writing my anxieties would, I thought, contain and dilute them and in my search for an empty notebook I found an old cahier with 48 recycled pages, European-sized and yellowing. On its brown cover inexplicably covered with Australian aborigine beasts and designs, a small crudely drawn alarm clock logo declared le reveil qui sonne.This seemed an appropriate enough wake-up call to which I responded on the first page that: I want to document the move I’m making, to record my ways of doing it, the choices I face and how I resolve them. This will be my meditation, a closing so there can be a new opening which cannot be until I’ve closed the old exit.
I’ve been waiting for the legalities, the final sentence from the bank that is lending me $204,000. They have to type one more clause before the approval is signed and diligently sealed. I’ve been waiting with great anxiety: approval is not an easy thing for a person to wait for. It’s very all or nothing: ‘Yes’, you live. ‘No’, you die. (I guess that’s why they call it ‘the final sentence’!) The lending institutions in this December of 1998 are filled to capacity with demand—I imagine the loan applications piled up, jamming the doors and windows, desks buckling under their weigh, clerical workers, contemptuous of deadlines, arriving late for work and leaving early, so onerous has the paper onslaught become.
I wait and wait for telephone calls that don’t come, harassing my patient mortgage broker who has now transferred my file to his wife, a better candidate for absorbing my daily dose of neurosis which I cannily disguise as pleas for clarification, request for best- and worst-case scenarios, despair over deadlines
missed that now require expensive legal intervention. I imagine the man from whom I’m buying my house in his restless suspicion plotting to tear up our contract and start again, with a buyer who is less lethargic, whose wheels move more smoothly. I am, at this stage, quite unable to turn the tables on myself, the tables I have personally created.. For am I not just a buyer but a seller too?
I think of Polonius and promise myself that in the future I shall neither a borrower nor a lender be, neither a buyer nor a seller ever again. A gypsy maybe, moving with my caravanserai, bonded forever with my tribe, wandering from well to oasis, my camels forever free of lending institutions lawyers and real estate brokers. But for now I am both buyer and seller, eternally captive, forever it seems, in limbo. Yet this same limbo affords me shelter, the refuge of not having to anything just yet, not having to search for the beginning of that ball of yarn that will start the grand unraveling.
But philosophy can sustain and defer only so much. Moving is about action and this is becoming too abstract. In the end, I need strategies, tactics, criteria, decisions and not lofty thinking. I have stuff to move and stuff to remove. How am I going to begin? What’s going to be the first step? Where’s the plan?
I listed these organizing principles, some of which made more sense then than they do now:
1. Discard the chaff which is different from:
2. Select the wheat
3. Keep it all, but categorize: keep forever; keep to sell-after I move (coward!); keep to eventually replace (coward, again!)
4. Give away now: to charity; to family
5. Sell as valuables—Christie’s; sell as accumulation—find that person
Then, in the midst of this self-indulgent strategizing, mirabile dictu! I have a buyer who is willing to pay almost the price I have advertised. (Unlike the stories that proliferated in those heady days, I am not the sort of person who would encounter a buyer willing to pay more than the price I asked. Nor do I win lotteries or receive letters from lawyers that I have been named a beneficiary in the will of a secret admirer.)
This is the seventh offer I have received. I learn the hard way for I tend to believe what people tell me (a natural “mark”, an erstwhile lover once described me). When the first offer was presented to me by J.O., my young and tenacious real estate broker, I felt panic but I was also indignant. How dare they move into my apartment, my terrified inner voice asked. I don’t want anyone else living there. It’s mine. Tell them to go away, I wanted to tell her as silence piled up on the phone lines. Four months and six offers later, I am astute and hardened. My apartment is no longer my home. It has become ‘the property’. Four months later, we count: seventy people have passed through these rooms, leaving their imprints and strangers’ energies in the walls. My home has lost its insularity, it has passed into the realm of public space. Hands in pockets, fingers pointing to this or that feature, this or that problem area, the streams of prospective buyers pinch and poke my nooks and crannies as if they’re selecting the choicest, least bruised apples from a street vendor’s cart. They leave behind the detritus of their valuations and assessments: $50,000 to renovate, $200,000 to gut, needs a new kitchen, floorboards need replacing. They pinch and squeeze the neighborhood, the neighbors, the co-op building’s financial statements. Outside, looking in, they try to imagine what it would be like to be inside, looking out. Most can’t leap over that barrier. They can’t see themselves living where I live. And I can’t see them living here either. I want to tell them they don’t belong here, never will, and what makes them think I would even sell to them?
In the beginning when the loft was first listed on the market, I mercilessly prevailed on J.O. to debrief me after each prospective buyer’s tour of ‘the property’. What did they say? What did they like? Why didn’t they like it? I speculate, as the increasingly silent, long-suffering J.O. listens, whether or not that couple will return, what kind of place such people like. I suggest why they’re not good enough to live here. All this speculation and not once have I ever met one of these people. J.O. tells me when she has set appointments and I leave the apartment to fit in with her schedule. Brokers prefer it when the owner is absent: too much interference, one more unnecessary and distracting variable to deal with. Besides, the owner is not part of the sale and could be a contaminant, blocking the crucial ability of the prospective buyer to project herself into the space, to see herself living there. I’m beginning to understand I am such a contaminant.
After a while, I realize I am becoming a mature seller. I am tired of the involvement with the prospective buyer, bored with routine and undernourished by the debriefs. Buyers as a socio-psychological group no longer interest me and I start to objectify the process. Now all I want is a contract. I don’t care who the person is, what they look like, how their divorce is going, who they vote for or whether they have good taste. Now it is their financials that interest me. And their sincerity. A series of disappointments has taught me that making an offer is not a serious step for many of these shoppers. Sometimes, they even forget they’ve made one. “Tell her $500,000”, they say and are never heard from again. I, on the other hand, felt I was committing to a marriage when I made my offer to the seller of the house I wanted to buy. It did not occur to me that such an offer could be frivolous and retractable. Do, undo. Easy come, easy go. Words lightly spoken and all that… But then I’m a Capricorn. Nest time round, a Gemini maybe?
Horribile dictu! J.O.’s messenger brings me five signed copies of the contracts from a prospective buyer turned real. Nor further denial is possible. Procrastination has lost its spine. The Transition stares me in the face. I remember being at the pinnacle of labor pains with my first child and wishing that I could stop right then and there, turn back, forget the whole thing. I want to stop the sale. But I can’t turn back. New flesh is pressing on the door and I am huddled at the exit, beleaguered, illegitimate, refugee. No help is forthcoming. What shall I do?
First, you procrastinate. I’ll come home early on Friday, I promise myself, not go out. I’ll start on Friday. I didn’t.
I’ll wake up early on Saturday and perhaps I’ll finish the whole thing by Sunday evening. Then I’ll still have two weeks before the movers come.
But I didn’t. Star Wars is playing, a friend is in from the West Coast. On Sunday night I dream that the movers have come and I still haven’t started packing.
I take myself in hand. I am stern. Think of this as a work project, I tell myself. Choose a starting place. It’s like life. The journey of a thousand steps begins with the first step I promise myself that once I start, I’ll get into it. It’ll be like eating peanuts. I won’t want to stop. After all, that is the kind of person I am—compulsive, driven, disciplined.
Start with Closet Number One, that’s what. The northwest corner of my loft. Start there and continue west and south until I come full circle to the front door. I am soothed by the imperative of this geographical decision.
I’m actually beginning to move. It’s
Christmas Eve (it’s not my holiday) and I actually do begin.
Closet Number One is the worst of all the closets—powerful coats occupy half of it with all the unyielding arrogance of incumbents. They are jostled by wheelies (three pairs-is it possible?) who nudge brutishly at old paints and long-expired Yellow Pages. One small Yellow Pages books is designed for the South Asian community and for those who want to buy what its merchants sell. I am sure, as I discard this now obsolete volume, that those merchants have already followed in the footsteps of their hardworking countrymen into more affluent pastures and now own not just the local kabab stand but a chain of all-night restaurants, a fleet of taxis, a string of newsstands. It is no longer Mohd. Khan, green card immigrant but Mohd. Khan Inc. That’s how long that phone book had settled at the back of this closet. I remind myself to think about my reluctance to throw out old phone books and stand up to tie up the first full black garbage bag, mumbling as the wounded umbrella spoke poking through its side and into my leg.
At midnight, the cupboard is bare except for three piles that I am taking (wheat separated from chaff) and one pile to stay for the new owners: apartment ownership papers, manuals for the appliances, three faded New York Times articles about the landmark building and its history. A fourth pile is for V., the super who is also moving and whose eyes light up when he sees a jam jar of assorted screws, two sheets of lightly-used sandpaper, a paint can with pale yellow rivulets down its side and a can of wood stain.
Next comes Closet Number Two, its doors three feet west of the now tamed Closet Number One. Ah, Two, a snarled testament to celebrations past. Wrapping paper and ribbons shed by years of birthday presents cohabit in exuberant disorder with new rolls of Christwas paper, empty blue boxes from Tiffany, glossy lipstick red ones from Charles Jourdan and endless rolls of ribbon from Lillian Vernon, some of them with curling ends, many of them pristine, waiting to be chosen and matched with presents not yet bought for birthdays not yet celebrated. Dozens of family celebrations replay at the back of my eyes as I remember my children, and then my grandson, impatiently humoring me as I carefully unwrapped each gift, sliding my finger under the scotch tape not to damage the paper, and also delaying the moment of seeing what wondrous gift it concealed. They rolled their eyes as I folded the paper along its folds and wound the ribbon around my fingers, saving it all for some unknown next time. Years of this along with years of intermittent stops at Hallmark or Kate’s Paperie to find the right paper for this one or that, for Spring or Chanukah or whatever. All these decisions and shops and tissue papers later, I stand overwhelmed at the accumulation, stuffed onto the rows of shelves designed to hold large sheets of professional paper and board by the small advertising agency housed in my loft before me.
Looking at the shelves I realize how much I accommodated myself to the layout and idiosyncracies left by my predecessors. Unlike the slash and burn sentiments expressed by many of the prospective buyers, it didn’t occur to me to do “serious renovation” and ”major gutting”. Since I don’t believe perfection is either attainable or necessary, I am prepared to live with what I deem to be good enough. As a shopper, I don’t wear out my shoe leather in pursuit of the perfect sweater or tea kettle. As a woman, I have never held in my mind the idea of the perfect man and as an artist I have been too zealous in improving a piece—and damaged it irreversibly. Even if perfection does exist and is attainable, I change and with it shifts the absolute beauty of the sweater or the kettle or the man. Good enough is good enough. But it does have to be good. Not just enough.
I think of the country music song that counsels: If you can’t be with the girl you love, love the girl you’re with. Buddha would probably agree.
By midnight, I have filled six garbage bags. I drag them to the garbage room on my floor, grateful that Christmas has taken my neighbors away to their celebrations. I am chagrined by offal just as I am lightened by its removal and relocation. I silently shake my head as I walk back and sit for a moment on the stepladder from which I have been commanding my dismantling campaign and realize this move is a lot bigger and deeper than I anticipated.
Lying in bed that night, relief exchanged place with uneasiness. I wonder how all that accumulation happened. How did I keep stuffing more stuff into those narrow shelves? Where was my consciousness? Did I know deep down that one day I’d be called to account, allowing me to defer and delay until that moment?
I could not deny the evidence: I had been at least as excessive in my consumerism as those at whom I’d virtuously pointed my fingers; I’d been no less culpable than they were in infecting the planet. How empty the contents of those six black bags are! How useless all those weekends spent at flea markets or Soho street fairs or Macy’s.
Before I can move to a new place and truly move ON, I first have to move OUT.
The next morning, Christmas Day for the rest of New York, I wake up eager, excited even. This is not about garbage and packing, I realize. This is about understanding where I’ve come from and where I’m going.
I am possessed
January 1 I have made my way across the west, where most of the closets are located, and am ready to head south.
This move has become a meditation on the meaning of ownership. What is to be with my possessions, to have them? What would it be to be without them, to have the spaces between them rather than the things themselves? Would I feel emptiness, or air?
I’m at the bookshelves no and remove the twelve volumes of Sigmund Freud’s Gesammelte Werke (1924). I’ll never read them so what does removing them mean? My father’s professional preferences and training? My antiquarian bookseller brother’s desire—and resentment? Bibliofind or Bibliolose or Bibliodetach?
The antique rosewood desk that Paul bought at the Armory a dozen years ago and the leather-covered gentleman’s traveling case, replete with crystal containers and ivory-backed hairbrushes? And the life-size bronze horse from India? All impulses belonging to Paul but he’s dead and they’ve lain leaden in my life ever since. I’m moving on and they cannot come along.
I have become the custodian of others’ collections, dragging them with me, searching for bigger quarters so I can house them. Can my new house be truly my own place if these objects, objectively valuable though they may be, have to share it with me? If I own them, who am I? And if others don’t own them, who are they? And when these others own them do they then become somebody else?
Moving sets you in motion, based on these notes, was broadcast on WPKN on January 24, 2008.