Mover’s Guide: How to pack up a house (and not lose your mind)

Moving can be daunting. Relocation anxiety is real, especially if you’re hoofing it alone. But, fear not, we’re here to help with a few simple steps. Let’s get started.

1. Ask yourself a question. Not a big one like, why am I leaving the house I’ve lived in for ten years? Or, what does “home” really mean? Will I be lonely? Save those for therapy or for a drink (or four) with friends. Instead, just take a look around, wander room to room, and try to imagine fitting everything you are taking into 24” x 24” x 24” inch boxes. Ask yourself: How many boxes will that be? Do the math.

2. Now you have the number of boxes you need to pick up at Home Depot or Staples or whatever cavernous big box store of choice. Chuckle that you are getting actual boxes at a “big box store.” Then shed a tear or two that your whole life fits into X number of boxes. Feel reduced to a number. Small. Decide you actually need more boxes. Feel better.

3. Continue your survey of your soon to be non-home. Experience a curious lack of nostalgia as you nod at various items you’re happy to leave behind. An uncomfortable leather couch. A white plastic charging unit for multiple iPhones. A lamp whose shade is always crooked. Remember this feeling of dispassion. It won’t last.

4. Seize the moment of sang-froid to get rid of some stuff.  Let’s face it: you’ve had ten years of life here which also means ten years of crap. Open a drawer. A jumbled pile of photos, drawings in crayon, an old passport, loose AA batteries, a xerox copy of a marriage license, a dead iPhone. Feel twitchy with dread. Shut the drawer. You’ve got time.

Or do you?

5. Have you scheduled the movers? Have you found movers to schedule? Are they cheap? Are they ex-felons? Are they stoned college kids? They are not the same white-gloved-insured-to-the-hilt movers who moved you and your husband into this house a decade ago. You’ve made sure of that. New Budgetary Priorities. Still, tomorrow you may be concerned when a skinny white guy named Matt arrives with his equally slight Latina helper named Alma, half your age. You’ve never even met a lady mover before, didn’t know they existed. You’re dismayed at her arrival and doubtful she can do all the heaving required, and then you are dismayed by your doubt. We women are capable of anything, you tell yourself. But when you watch Alma hauling your crap you can’t stand it, like you’re shifting the burden of the move onto another woman. That you are paying her, does not lessen your fidgety unease. Soon you are lugging your boxes with her and Matt to the curb, flexing your soon-to-be toned arms. You scan your block for the moving truck. It’s a minivan.

But, we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves. You still haven’t packed a thing. Let’s go room by room.

6. Bathroom: tackle this first. There is so much to toss! Think to yourself, if I haven’t put this on my face, body, hair in the last five years, will I ever? We invite you to imagine a new bathroom with only what you love and need. Expired Neosporin and half used bottles of hotel conditioner don’t cut it. Malaria pills from 2009? Leftover Prednisone from an inexplicable rash in 2012? Samitragen? (What the hell is that for?) Do you keep these for an imagined apocalypse when CVS is wiped off the face of the earth? You decide. The bath bomb with so many embedded petals you were left with a pile of dead leaves circling the drain, yes, a dear friend gave you that, but remember what a pain in the ass it was cleaning the tub. Get rid of the other two. Toss, toss, toss. In the end, the bathroom looks so uncluttered and immaculate, beaming with restored dignity. You can’t help thinking, I should’ve done this years ago. Bad wife.

7. Clothes closet: invite a friend. Don’t go in there alone and put on your husband’s favorite sweater, grey and soft, and hug yourself. Don’t lie down in the dark enclosed space, smelling his smells and your smells, thinking of the intimate daily ritual of getting dressed and undressed with another person. Don’t hug your knees to your chest on the carpeted floor and weep. Call a friend to help with the clothes closet.

8. Living room: be careful. Take only your books. Don’t take your husband’s books, even if by accident, especially not the one inscribed to him by a former girlfriend. Don’t think Peter Bogdanovitch’s, Who The Devil Made It is yours. You’ll only have to apologize when he notices it the first time he comes to your new place, pulls it off the shelf and reads the inscription out loud. You’ll tell him to take it back. He will refuse. You are certain you left the hardcover of A Secret History—the one you bought in Paris—which makes you feel slightly better. He always liked that book more than you anyway. Leave all jointly signed books at his place. This isn’t generous, really. You know these were all signed for him, primarily, by his colleagues and friends. You just happened to be at the book signing table standing next to him, as a couple. But they belong to him.  

9. Kitchen: take the salad tongs you got in Kenya at your best friend’s wedding, take the lidded heavy cast iron skillet you hauled back from a trip to the desert and nothing more. Taking foodstuffs seems extreme. But when your friend appears, the one – thank god – helping you with your clothes, she’ll say, You’re not taking any spices? What’s he going to do with Za’atar? It’s true. You put the Za’atar in the box. You’ve got double cinnamon, double cumin, double oregano. You take those, too. You feel emboldened and take one of the three salad bowls, the one you bought from a crafter in Montana. Catch your strained reflection in the window above the sink. Where has the day gone. It’s well past dark. Tell your friend to go home, your hero. Feel immense gratitude.

10. Finally, go up the stairs. Go into your daughter’s room. Gaze at her canopy bed with its fluffy pillows and neat row of stuffed animals. Think of all the stories you read her under its gauzy white tented roof. Take in her pink typewriter on her blue desk, the flowers made of feathers you bought together in Sweden, her swing chair with more stuffed animals, a llama, a sloth, some bears, and a cat. There are so many knickknacks on her long credenza, each with a story that could make your knees buckle if you let it. Shuffle to the closet and lift a couple of her school uniforms from the rack. Decide not to take anything else. She can decide for herself in a couple of days what to bring. Leave her room intact. Anything else would feel like robbery.

11. Congratulations. You’re packed. Now sleep. Tomorrow will be loading and unloading boxes with Matt and Alma, unpacking those boxes at your new place alone or with a friend. Do get some sleep, even if you hear the screech of adhesive tape pulling out of the dispenser in your dreams. It is tempting to stay up communing with the ghosts of your past life here, staring blankly at the corner where the Christmas tree is always put up—we get it—but greeting a purple dawn with blood shot eyes is not a good idea.

Final steps. You’re almost there.

12. Wake up early, stay hydrated, get the job done. By mid-day things should be coming together. Learn from Matt and Alma about hump straps and mattress slings, the shoulder dolly and sliders. When they expertly navigate a giant cabinet from one room to the next, you can’t believe you ever doubted Alma’s competence or strength. Over a quick lunch, discover she is studying to be a paramedic. Now you almost want her number on speed dial. The two lift and arrange a few more heavy things for you in your pre-furnished rental – center the coffee table, move the couch farther from the TV—as you borrow their boxcutter to unseal your things. Hug them when they are finally through. Tip well.

13. In the early evening, covered in dirt, sweat, and exhaustion, walk through the new house and notice how the aurous light fills what will become your favorite room. Marvel that each room has enough of you now to feel like yours. Ascend the stairs, walk into your daughter’s new space with its pretty windows looking out on trees. A neatly made bed, a clean desk, an empty set of bookshelves, a lamp. Nothing of her save a couple of grey skirts hanging in the closet. A hollow.

14. Change your mind. You’re allowed. Decide you will go back to the old house tomorrow and grab some things from her room. Just a small box, a few things. Picture what those might be. Her surf magazines, her selenite crystal, the furry mommy otter that hugs the baby otter to her chest. That can go on her bed. Maybe you’ll bring the feathered flowers you got together in Sweden. She can always bring them back. You just know she needs a few things here when she walks in for the first time, a hint of her, the suggestion of what it might become, a place for her to feel cozy, a place for her to grow. Just a few things, you tell yourself. She can decide the rest. Just one box.

Liz Tynes Netto is a lapsed journalist, TV producer, and resident of Los Angeles. Her poems have appeared in The West Trestle Review, The Mas Tequila Review, The Lummox, Lady/Liberty/Lit and others. A current MFA candidate at Antioch University in Fiction, she is writing a novel.