Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Packing your life up for a year

Packing all of your belongings up for being away for a year is surprisingly different from simply moving, where you pack up, move, and then immediately unpack again.  We expected it to be different, but our preconceptions were not very accurate.  We are both organized, list-making, plan-ahead people.  We’ve moved efficiently in the past, so we didn’t feel particularly challenged by the idea of packing everything up, and then moving back into our house again a year later.  While we didn’t fail spectacularly in any sense, it wasn’t as smooth as we’d hoped.  In hindsight, we found a number of things we wish we’d known to anticipate.  If you’re packing up for an extended period—whether for travel or not, we hope some of these realizations will help you.


There are a lot of variables that influence how you pack, and what you jettison.  Do you know what you’ll be doing when you return?  Do you know where you are returning to?  Where will you store your stuff?  Do you want to simplify your life when you get back, or do you already have a happy relationship with your belongings?  We thought we knew the answers to most of these questions, but the answers changed—as we did—while we were travelling.


One of the first differences we found was with perishables—there were very few foods we wanted to keep in storage for a year.  In the months leading up to our departure, we did our best to plan meals that would deplete our existing stocks, as well as trying not to add any more to our pantry.  This was foreshadowing of trials to come, if only we’d recognized the signs.  We just had too much food stored up to use it all in a handful of months—at least not without eating a diet that leads to rickets and scurvy.


We thought we had labeled our boxes with enough detail, but we were wrong.  Our labels would have been overkill for a traditional move, but after a year, it just wasn’t enough.  More detailed labels probably wouldn’t be enough, unless they were an exact inventory of every item, and that would have extended packing time (and living in chaos time) significantly.  In our case, we did not move back into our house as soon as we returned to the US, and when we finally did, we moved our stuff back in in phases.  We didn’t pack with either of those scenarios in mind; we’d had envisioned a “normal” move with a one year lag in between.  Our normal array of ‘essentials’ boxes that you pack last and unpack first weren’t as useful as we thought they would—after a year on the road, our essentials were already with us in our luggage.  If we could advise our pre-trip selves, one of our suggestions would be: pretend you’re moving into a one room studio.  Pack what you’d move into that imaginary, restricted space, and keep those boxes separate from the rest of your packing.   Those are the boxes you’re most likely to need when you first return.


Pre-move, we had a general sense that we had too much stuff.  While packing, it became obvious that we did, but that was nothing compared to how we felt when we came back and confronted the array of boxes taking up one third of Lana’s parents’ basement.  Our hoard felt oppressive, and we were both surprised by how stressful it was to confront our stuff.  We liked the idea of simplicity before we left.  Living—quite merrily—for a year with just what could fit in a daypack and a carry-on bag altered and refined our notions of simplicity.  Seeing so many genuinely happy people around the world who had even fewer belongings than we were travelling with made us re-examine what we needed to be content.  Conversely, seeing stressed and preoccupied people in countries with conspicuous wealth (painfully clear in Singapore) made us aware of the burdens that stuff can place on you—both financially and mentally.  


We honestly don’t want to get preachy about minimalism, and we certainly haven’t turned into ascetic monks, but we do want to convey how much our concept of simplicity changed over the course of the year.  We thought we had trimmed our house down to the near essentials before and during packing (there were things we didn’t have the time or energy to sell/donate, or make the purging decisions on, and we intentionally postponed those) but what we thought was necessary turned out to be laughable when we returned.  Whether you want to downsize your life or not, our guess is that you will have a very different idea of what you need (and want) when you return from extended travel.

One tip we picked up while searching through a large number of boxes for one specific thing, without unpacking everything (we had not yet moved in, but needed a few things): once you’ve examined the contents of a box, flag it with a sticky note or masking tape, so you can keep track of which boxes you’ve already searched.  Once you’ve rummaged through a few, it’s really easy to forget which ones you have and haven’t looked in yet.  If you have to find something else, start making hash marks on the flags.  We also found it very useful to update the list of contents on the box when removing something (and often, when we found something significant in there that was unlisted).


When we finally did move back into our house, we moved our belongings in phases.  The initial phase was pretty sparse, for two reasons.  First, we really were stressed by how much stuff we had—David could feel his pulse elevate just looking at the stacks of boxes.  Second, neither of us had jobs when our renter gave notice, and while we were pretty confident that at least one of us could get a job in time to remain solvent, we didn’t want to move a ton of stuff in to the house in case we decided to rent it out again in a month or two, letting someone else pay the mortgage while we searched.  That meant no art, limited furniture, no books.  We rented the largest available U-Haul trailer (which was much cheaper because there was no mileage fee) which would fit a queen size mattress, and packed essential furniture around the mattress.  Once Lana found a job, we rented a truck and packed three classes of things into it:  large stuff that we couldn’t fit in a car later, 25 of our 40 boxes of book, and things we wanted to sell since it would be easier to arrange that from our home (there was a lot of overlap between the last two).  Everything else could be transported at a later date in the trunk of a car.


Rather than spend a lot of time and stress sorting through boxes for the basic kitchen gear we’d need, we just moved all of our kitchen boxes back, and vowed to address our excess there.  To do so, we adopted a useful technique from Alton Brown.  He advocated de-cluttering your kitchen of things you don’t use by removing everything to a temporary area, and as you cook, and find you need to use certain items, return them to the kitchen, and place them in a reasonable drawer/cabinet for future use.  After a month, you know what you constantly use, and what you don’t use.  Since we started out with an empty kitchen, that was much easier!  The only things we unpacked directly into the kitchen were items we were positive we used frequently.  Everything else went to kitchen purgatory—in our case, the shelves in our garage.  We divided the items in the garage into two classes: items we know we use, but infrequently or seasonally, and everything else (things that were likely just taking up space).  We actually pre-purged items before they even went to kitchen purgatory—the utensils above are rejects from that.  The de-clutter phase was only annoying for a fairly brief window, as we darted into the garage for things we ended up needing.  The end result was countertops that are nearly bare—and thus useable workspace for actual cooking—and drawers that aren’t several layers deep in utensils, with the item you want invariably at the bottom (or in a different drawer, but not visibly so).  We never expected that our year of travel would turn us into neat freaks!  But the less you have, the harder it is to be messy, and we’d just spent a year living with less than we used to cram into two or three kitchen drawers.


We applied the kitchen purge to our clothes, and ended up with a much simpler wardrobe (the bulk of the volume is clothing appropriate for interviewing in or wearing in a workplace setting).  All of our clothing now fits in one closet, where it used to bulge out of that one, and the one in our spare room, and a packed, tall dresser—we have the empty dresser in the basement but didn’t need the extra storage, and we ended up liking the room a lot more without it taking up space.  On a related topic: anyone want to buy a dresser?

During a normal move, you need to change your mailing address, establish mail forwarding, etc.  In our case, we didn’t have a new address we’d be at, but we still needed to receive and respond to some types of mail (tax documents, for example).  David’s mother was kind enough to let us redirect our mail to her house. You can forward your mail temporarily for 6 months, and renew that forwarding order online for an additional 6 months.  Then David configured his mother’s scanner to be able to save scanned documents to a shared Dropbox folder for things that we needed to deal with, which worked quite well.  Prior to leaving on the trip, we also opted out of all of the catalogs and junk mail that we could, and as part of changing our mailing address, we changed legitimate correspondence to electronic delivery if that was an option.  Post-move, that has made an amazing difference in keeping counters and tables clear of gathering cruft.  Once a surface has accumulated just one item of mail to be dealt with, it seems to attract all manner of junk that really doesn’t need to be there—eliminating that initial seed makes a startling difference (it’s like graffiti?).  We now receive one or two pieces of mail a week, and most of that can go directly into the recycling, and never land on a counter.


On a related note, Lana spent some time before we left cleaning up her email subscriptions as well. eliminating those daily Groupon deals and any local emails she got from various restaurants, bookstores and races that she would normally be interested in, but only if she is local to use them.  Even though we’re local again, those emails haven’t been added back to her inbox, which is just fine. We’re learning that it helps to live with less when you don’t have constant reminders about stuff you don’t own. Whether that is a spate of emails about special deals, one-day sales at the Gap, or catalogs and coupons in our snail mail. 


We’ve been back for a while, and have settled in; for the most part, our downsizing has been successful.  That said, for all our willingness to change, it is easy to slip back into old habits.  Our backsliding has mostly been in the kitchen; a general over-accumulation of pantry items, and to a smaller extent, a few too many cooking tools.  After people, cooking was was what we missed most while traveling, so we shouldn’t be surprised that we tend to go a little overboard there.  But generally it's just too easy to buy more than you need back in the ol' U.S of A.  We don't want to sound smug about it--we struggle with it all the time, and its more difficult for us the longer we've been back. Just like any other way you consciously change your behaviors, we have to continually remind ourselves what we need, and think much more carefully about what we want.