More than 25 years ago I was running through LAX to catch my connecting flight, with two large suitcases slowing down my speed. An airline official offered to take them off me and recheck them after I had dragged them through customs.
“Whoa these are heavy!” He exclaimed. “What’s in here?”
“My life,” I answered.
I was emigrating to the US, burning bridges and not wanting to look back. The US, American literature, an American husband had stolen my heart— I was young, optimistic and giddy with the LA sunlight trying to break through the fog of jetlag.
And so I built a life in California, with a husband and two kids. With it came two dogs, a storybook house in the East Bay, rosemary bushes, lemon trees, a jacuzzi and lots of possessions that we are now shedding because we are moving back to Europe as Trump exiles. The US is becoming an authoritarian state and, having grown up with parents who were old enough to experience the deleterious effects of fascism, I know a red flag when I see one, and this one is chilling and utterly disturbing. And well, if you’re not bothered by it, you’re clearly not paying attention.
Also, the Bay Area, that Mecca of techies and startups, is now one of the most expensive places to live and since Jon was burning out badly from having worked in tech for most of his career, I suggested we downsize, ship out and drop out. Embracing my fate as a digital nomad, we can live comfortably on my salary in a place like Portugal, and well, life is too short, the planet is gasping for air due to plastic and pollution, and quite frankly, I don’t understand why there aren’t more of us wanting to carpe that fucking diem…
Responses from friends were mixed. There’s always American enthusiasm for ventures like these but the raised eyebrow and the occasional silence told us that we were in a minority. Some of them wouldn’t believe us until I actually posted pictures of us dismantling our house and paring down our possessions to the size of two small pods. “So you’re really doing this?” Or “We had no idea you were going to move so soon…” were mixed with “I would do it in a heartbeat but my parents are still alive, and then there are the kids…” We think possessions tie us down, but so do people and relationships.
That said, with more than 20 years of stuff, just getting rid of it was no small feat. Things are just things, but some things are charged with memories and getting rid of items seems both callous and indifferent. Emptying a house is emptying your life of memories, and, always having been a nostalgia nerd, the entire process became emotionally draining. Every piece that goes through your hands opens a window onto a past that you have to give a place before tossing it on the pile of the Great Forgetting.
And then there was Teddy, our 14-year-old dachshund who had practically grown up with the kids and was a fixture of the house and garden. He died just before we put the house on the market. Walking down the kitchen steps, his back and rear legs gave out like jello. I took him to an animal hospital where they suggested euthanasia, so I took him home for one more night and fine Fall day to give him another 24 hours of bliss in the yard.
I made him a bed on the lounger outside and fed him paté and pasta and sent the kids tons of pictures. At 4 PM we took him to our vet for the last rites. I was crying in the car, and he was licking away my tears. He died in our arms, a princely fellow with a grey snout and eyes that went from soulful to a glassy stare in a New York minute.
Teddy’s death was a blessing in disguise because with him gone, the empty house (and nest) seemed to have been robbed of its soul and reason for being. But in the weeks thereafter, I still heard the clicking of Teddy’s nails on our hardwood floors. He was still with us. The sounds diminished, but when the house was finally empty and I heard my own footsteps echoing as I walked one more time through the house and garden, Teddy was there again, right by my side, surveying the grounds.
“Teddy, sweet Teddy, you need to go. Be with your mommy,” I said out loud. The guy who was hauling away stuff and with whom we had become somewhat intimate (because if you think that going through your stuff is personal, wait until someone else does it…) popped his head around the corner and said: “You OK?” I merely nodded, for how do you explain to someone that you’re telling your dead dog to let go?!
We’re temporary refugees of Tahoe now where we are renting for a few months before we remigrate, and after the emotionally and physically draining part of emptying the house, I felt a strange sense of joy at the first sight of snow and the lake, as we were driving to our rental for the first time. It was a kind of died-and-gone-to-heaven feeling. I had a similar moment when our beds got hauled away and we had to book a hotel for a night in a town that has our old familiar zip code but where we no longer have a house or a home. I texted a friend: “We’re staying at a hotel tonight as our beds got hauled away. It sounds really shabby, but it is strangely liberating.”
Less is more, and the entire process has forced us to think in terms of experiences and living now. When you build a career, it’s all status symbols and possessions but when you’ve reached the end of a career, the status symbols and possessions have lost their magic, meaning and transformative power.
Now it’s just us and being on the road, meeting new people, gaining new experiences, tasting different foods, learning new languages and painting and writing en plein air instead of working over time in a cubicle with overhead lights that are not unlike prison lights. We all create our own prisons and we think we have to, to pay the bills and the rent/mortgage, but at the end of the day, it enslaves us, and crushes our soul and self. Was it Sheryl Crow who sang It’s not having what you want but wanting what you’ve got? That’s right. Soak up the sun, before it soaks you up. Live now, love generously and savor every moment. Life is too short.