A CURE FOR THE COMMON MOVE
Adele Cox, MA
When I walked into my living room, the bright orange label on one of the boxes caught my eye. “187.”
Here was my life, condensed into one hundred and eighty-something triple-taped brightly-labeled cardboard moving boxes. I felt the familiar clenching in my jaw, chest, and throat, but I finally understood why it had been happening. My body had been trying to tell me a difficult truth, and now that truth was crystallized in my consciousness: I really did not want to move.
It’s two days after Valentine’s Day, and I’ve been packing steadily since Halloween. There are nearly two hundred boxes, each numbered on all sides with a brightly colored label denoting its destination – orange for the living room, yellow for the bedrooms, blue for the bathrooms.
Early on, I’d created an inventory spreadsheet that mapped each box’s number to its exact contents, so every paper clip, spatula, and roll of toilet paper would be accounted for. I’d wrapped the fragile items and cushioned every box with bubble plastic – not the bargain brand but the type with the extra large bulbs that BOOM when I squeeze them.
The garage and closets have been filled with neat stacks of boxes for months now. My realtor had recommended I pack away my “non-essential items” before she listed the house. Less clutter, she had said, would make the rooms appear larger and more attractive to prospective buyers. And she had reminded me that, once the house was on the market, it must always be show-ready. That meant making the beds everyday, keeping the bathrooms tidy, and absolutely never any dirty dishes in the kitchen.
“Who can live like that?” I had silently protested.
Logically, I’d known she was right – after all, I’d hired her for her real estate expertise. But inside, the thought of a “For Sale” sign on my front lawn had nauseated me. I’d cringed at the image of strangers gawking at my bedroom, snooping in my cupboards, and tramping over my white carpet.
That was when I had first noticed the clenching sensation. I’d begun clamping down on my jaw, literally and metaphorically forcing myself to push my negative, almost childish, feelings aside.
Instead, I’d tried to simply focus on the process of getting the house sold. I turned blind to my doubts and fears, and executed my realtor’s suggestions dutifully and precisely. Just before the winter holidays, we planted new blooms in the yard and we “staged” every room; by year’s end, the house shown looked like a brand-new model.
Meanwhile, the reflexive clenching sensation had expanded to include a grip in my throat and a clutch in my chest. If I’d paid more attention, I might have also noticed the perpetual sting of tears at the back of my eyes.
My house was listed on January 2, and within a week I’d accepted an offer from a nice young man who had fallen in love with it on first sight. We’d agreed to the standard 45-day escrow, although a distant but distraught voice in my head wondered why there had to be such a rush.
Over these last five weeks, the clenching sensation has become my normal resting state; now I only notice the moments when it’s not there. It also seems the emotions I’d decided to ignore are bubbling through: I’m crying one day, irritable the next, and numb the day after that. I feel like I’m suffering with an endless case of PMS.
But last night something snapped. I was trying to seal box 187, but I couldn’t tear the strip of packing tape off the roll. It stretched and twisted on itself as I struggled; then it grabbed the bubble-wrap from the box, part of my inventory list, and finally wound around my fingers. I couldn’t make sense of this scene. “Now the packing tape is against me?”
The emotional volcano finally erupted. With the roll of tape and its conquests swinging from my hand, I rampaged around my living room, desperately looking for something to hit or kick or throw – but wary of damaging any furniture or boxes or walls. The lack of objects to destroy further infuriated me, but I was oddly amused by my commitment not to do any harm. So there I was, this normally rational, mature, articulate woman, stomping around in a circle, flailing and screeching, enmeshed in a full-blown temper tantrum.
After about fifteen minutes, though, I got tired – what happened to that endless store of anger energy we had as kids? I surrendered to my sofa, sobbing but smiling, and dislodged the renegade tape and its mangled contents from my hand. I coddled the dispenser gently, letting it represent the repressed part of me that was finally having her say. When I listened for that distant distraught voice and heard her words so clearly, I wondered how I could’ve missed the message before.
“I really don’t want to move, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Chantal sipped her iced tea as she reverently listened to my narrative.
“You asked what’s going on,” I concluded. “Now you know.”
My dear friend Chantal Rohlfing is a licensed therapist in Berkeley. She specializes in issues related to life transitions such as marriage, divorce, birth, death, career change, and yes, even moving. This morning, as I stood staring at box 187, it was clear I needed both moral support and practical advice; I called Chantal at home.
“Are you free for lunch today?”
“Sure.” She’d paused, then added, “Any particular reason?”
I’d tried to lighten my tone and conceal the tears caught in my throat. Nonetheless, my sigh of relief had been audible.
“Well, I had a bit of a meltdown while I was packing last night. In a nutshell, the movers are coming in six days, but I’ve just realized that apparently I don’t want to go.”
“Ah, yes. Where do you want to meet?”
“How about the scene of the crime?”
“I’ll be there around one,” Chantal had reassured me. “Take care.”
By the time she’d arrived I’d laid out two heaping servings of my favorite spinach salad, clam chowder, and San Francisco sourdough bread from Trader Joes. I’d decided to unpack some of my china and stemware for our meal, and felt surprisingly uplifted as I admired the lovely setting. It had been months since I’d created pleasure and beauty in the house just for me. I’d even fantasized the wicked joy of leaving the dirty dishes on the counter . . .
Chantal finished her iced tea before she spoke. “It sounds like you’ve been through quite a bit these last few weeks.” Her rich, soft voice conveyed comfort, validation, and wisdom.
“Sometimes we don’t realize that any life change brings up a multitude of conflicting and intense emotions,” she continued. “It’s normal to feel excited, scared, angry, resistant, even powerless – and sometimes all at once.
“And no matter how much excitement or positive potential will come with the change, there is also a loss, a need to let go of our preconceived notions of what our life is.”
She paused briefly to let me absorb her words.
“All of your feelings are real and valid,” she resumed, “and it’s important to acknowledge whatever you’re feeling throughout the change process.
“And realize that feelings are transient: repressing them makes them seem more intense and overwhelming, but expressing them helps them dissipate.”
I winked at her gently veiled candor. “So basically, that wild woman from last night won’t show up and smash my china as long as I stop trying to shut her up, right?”
Chantal beamed as she handed me a slice of the strawberry cheesecake she’d brought for dessert.
“One other thing,” she said after we’d savored a few bites. “Recognize that how you approach change is a choice. When we feel that change is being forced on us, we feel powerless and victimized. I see this especially with clients who’ve recently been laid off, but it applies to all types of life changes.
“When you’re able to see change as a choice, you can choose to embrace it. You can even see it as an opportunity to rethink your life, to free you up for something new, maybe even letting you see other choices you didn’t know were available.”
A wide but sheepish grin crossed my face. “So I guess my mutinous fantasy was just my need to regain control in a situation in which I was feeling powerless.”
“And now that you see you’re not powerless,” she jokingly chided, “whether or not you wash the dishes, whether or not you move, whether you embrace the process or not – it can all be your choice.”
Two days later I was still reflecting on our conversation. We had talked for nearly three hours, and just before she left, Chantal had counseled me, “You need to grieve the loss.”
“But it’s not like somebody died,” I chuckled as I pushed the vacuum across my bedroom carpet.
I froze. It was indeed a kind of death. I was in the midst of a major life change, and I needed, and deserved, the comfort and attention we give each other when a life we care about comes to an end. I suddenly had my answer. I wanted to have a memorial.
Early morning on moving day, I lit a white pillar candle and carried it slowly into each room. I sat on the floor, and recalled the memories associated with that room. I relived the boisterous holiday dinners with friends and family, the months of studying for my graduate school comprehensive exams, and my attempts to meditate (which morphed into napping) in my bay window. As each flow of memories completed, I quietly expressed my deep gratitude for the treasures that room had given me.
I let the candle burn through the day; it seemed to symbolize the continuing yet always changing process of life. The moving truck filled as the house emptied; the hustle of activity peaked and waned; the morning sun moved toward the evening sky.
As I stood in the doorway of my house for the last time, I knew I would always experience some aspects of grief. But I had also opened space for the hope and excitement of creating new memories in my new house and my new life. I could finally move.