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My life in a box

It occured to me, when I heaved open the heavy metal door to the storage unit that has held most of my possessions for the past eight months — unveiling disarray, peppered with mouse poop — that what was revealed wasn’t just a metaphor for my life.

It was my life — up to now — in a box.

Virtually all my worldly possessions, except my dog — and, though he’s worldly, I don’t really possess him — are in there.

Cash value? Not much. Emotional value? Depends on which box you open. Overall importance? Given the fact that I didn’t miss any of it in eight months, next to nothing.

But when I moved out of my house in Baltimore to hit the road with my dog last May, I packed it all, and hauled it all, and stacked it all and secured it all with big strong lock.

Because, for me to be truly liberated, all my stuff had to be incarcerated.

We in the free world are slaves to our stuff. We are slaves to our jobs, which allow us to get more stuff. We are slaves to our mortgages, and utility bills, and the Internet and other technology we grow to depend on. Most of all, we are slaves to health insurance.

That, maybe more than anything — especially for those 40 and above — is why we stay in jobs we hate. Sometimes we hate them so much it makes us physically sick — especially when our workload quadruples so that stockholders can get a second yacht. But that’s OK because we have health insurance.

I gave up my regular job — with a salary and health insurance — more than two years ago at the age of 55. It was scary then. It’s scary now.

Unable to afford both health insurance and housing, I’ve opted to go with an alternative health plan whose protocol will be followed in the event of serious illness. It’s known as CIACAD (Crawl Into A Corner And Die.)

For my dental plan, I’ve chosen LTARAFO (Let Them All Rot And Fall Out).

For vision — it being more important than to me than life or chewing — I’ll likely pay my own way, as opposed to going with SAGAMG (Shutup And Get A Magnifying Glass).

I need to check into all these health insurance reforms, but my guess is whatever Obama-care benefits might apply to me probably, with my luck, are scheduled to kick in the day after I die.

But this post isn’t about death. It’s about life, and how we choose to live it — and how that, for most of us, is in a really big box, divided up into smaller boxes, some with plumbing and appliances, and all, of course, filled with stuff.

All my stuff, when it wasn’t scattered from room to room, fit nicely into a one-car-garage-sized storage compartment.

I started off loading it in a very organized manner, but running out of time, sped up to the point that much of it isn’t organized at all. Some boxes are labeled; others are mysteries. There are many boxes that say books, but there are only four or five books I need right now, and going through 20 boxes to find them — all of course trapped back at the very rear of the unit — would be a real time absorber.

So how is my storage unit a metaphor for my life?

First, it’s in disarray. I’m guessing an x-ray of my brain would look a lot like the inside of my storage unit. My stuff is not organized, not immediately locatable. My stuff is in limbo. My stuff, like me, has no idea where it will be a year from now.

There are some treasures in there. A baseball with Willie Mays’ autograph; photos of my son arriving from Korea; the goofy white cap I had to wear at my first job, selling burgers; my Pulitzer Prize (it’s just a sheet of paper); yellowed newspaper stories written nearly 35-plus years ago.

There are four or five boxes of strictly sentimental value. They contain memories. But I don’t remember where they are.

The stuff I need — certain books, forks, long underwear — are all buried somewhere at the back of the unit. The stuff I have no use for right now — my bicycle, golf clubs, tennis rackets — are all right at the front.

Part of me thinks it would be nice to have a place of my own, where I could unpack my stuff and organize it and live amongst it. Part of me thinks that would again make me a slave to my stuff, and all those previously mentioned other things that tie us down.

Here is what I am wondering — after the eight months Ace and I lived in a boat, trailer, tent, my car, cheap motel rooms, and the homes of friends and strangers as we traversed the U.S.:

Is what’s stuffed in that big metal box my life? Or, is my life over there, down that road winding into the horizon?

Do we treasure our past and present to the point that we shortchange our future? Is it possible, for those eking out an existence — as opposed to rolling in money — to have both security and adventure? Is it possible to properly nourish relationships with friends and family — in more than a superficial Facebook kind of way — without living right where they live?

In a way, it should be less complicated for me, having no “partner,” except for my big fuzzy one; having not just an empty nest, but no nest at all.

I should be able to figure this out.

If you’re wondering who that woman is in the back of the storage unit, that’s my beer sign lady — a cardboard cut-out, who, like much of my furniture, I rescued from a Dumpster. I picked her up last winter, but, in the months that followed, found her a bit one-dimensional and not at all good at conversation.

When I moved my stuff into storage, I assigned her the task of watching over it all.

She did a lousy job.

Somehow, all my (mostly) neatly stacked boxes started leaning, and teetering, and falling. She did nothing, and apparently wasn’t much help in scaring visiting mice away.

I think, when I finally do locate myself, I will get rid of her.

The bigger decision, though, is where I belong — warmly ensconced in a home of my own, or among the realm of vagabonds, like those RV nomads who kept their wanderlust in check until retirement kicked in and have been happily rolling along ever since?

When the road calls again, and I’m sure it will, will I answer?


Comment from Sue
Time January 18, 2011 at 7:08 am

Excellent post. Without a doubt I’ll be thinking about this one, and the questions you pose, all day. The wanderlust is in my blood and in my genes, but most of the time I suck it up and act like a society-approved-adult. We happen to have a storage unit in VA (twice as big as yours) stuffed to the gills… yet we’ve been in MO 6 years. We’ve visited that storage unit and pulled a few things out from time to time. I suspect we leave it mostly untouched as a proof that we intend to return “for keeps” one day. For now we’re sticking with health insurance. Sigh…

Comment from Kelly
Time January 18, 2011 at 8:11 am

Options can boggle the brain, John, but they are good to have. I wish I were in a position to option on the health ins. I feel a slave to it & panic each month to pay that and the mortgage.

Comment from Brenna
Time January 18, 2011 at 9:53 am

This really has me thinking that more and more about decluttering my house and getting rid of more of my stuff. While you were away on your adventure I had a flood in my basement that caused me to get rid of 90% of my possessions (from the very cluttered basement of mostly unpacked boxes from when I moved in over 4 years ago) which I found I really didn’t need. The few things that remained were Christmas decorations. A couple rescued not so moldy books that I refused to get rid of. And lots of photos, photos from my thesis, to photos of my family. The basement was easy the rest of the house seems so large compared to it. Maybe we should have a party and everyone can come throw out my crap and I will provide beer wine, pizza, music and surely some good laughs!

Comment from Valerie Brooks
Time January 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Your one-dimensional inamorata, while pretty, has a honker of a pimple on her back. Looking after your boxes is one thing, but couldn’t she have popped the bugger before greeting you again? Sheesh….

Comment from TSG
Time January 18, 2011 at 3:02 pm

In late 2006, I jumped ship from a well-paying corporate job in search of a life, versus just working. Sold a lot in yard sales – gave some other stuff to friends – some treasured items in storage. House sharing for 3+ years kept my few treasured items in storage. A year ago this week, I found my own home, modest as it is. Kind hearted folks keep trying to pawn stuff on me for my home, but I am happy to have less stuff that means more. Been where you are JW and I truly believe you can have a safe nesting place surrounded by a few meaningful life tokens AND experience the thrill of adventure. Stay patient, open minded and creative — things WILL fall into place.

Comment from Storitz
Time January 18, 2011 at 3:10 pm

This is just the kind of self storage uses that people don’t think about. Way to follow the call of the open road, free of material possessions tying you down.