Firing Line: The Zen of the Permanent Change of Station
The KonMari Method. Minimalist lifestyle. Tiny houses. Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you the latest craze in decluttering therapy: the permanent change of station. I sit here in my brand-new Hawaii-based quarters, nothing but a few pieces of loaned “aloha” furniture to sustain us until our belongings pull up to the house in an overloaded moving van. I feel like I’m living in my own HGTV reality show called “Extreme Minimalism: Island Edition.”
The truth is, if I actually starred in a television show, it would be the opposite of “Hoarders” and more along the lines of “Maybe We Should Have Kept That.” I grew up as an Army brat, my father still on active duty when I went away to college. In 18 years I moved nine times. Once in college, I joined ROTC and was commissioned, leading me down another path of constant permanent changes of station (PCS). I couldn’t escape it even when I was medically retired as a captain—I had already married another service member who dreamed of a full Army career and sent us on a trajectory of many more moves.
Settling into our overseas move to Hawaii, it seems crazy that we will be in this house for three years. I can’t imagine my husband’s traditional upbringing, growing up in the same house his parents brought him home to when he was a newborn. I literally don’t know how to stay put.
Not that I think there is anything wrong with it, I think it sounds lovely. My question really lies with the “stuff.” When, and how, does one declutter a house where a lifetime of memories is stored? Friends tell me stories of finding boxes in their parents’ attic that have been sealed and sitting since the early ’80s. People ask me if I plan on passing down a treasured baby carrier to my (2-year-old) daughter so she can use it for her own children. I try to control my facial expression as I envision trying to keep track of said carrier for the next 25 years and goodness knows how many moves, praying each time that it’s not in the box that is required to be lost every PCS.
Moves can feel like Christmas, with squeals of happiness and sighs of relief as treasures are pulled from boxes and placed in a new location. But if everyone who moves often is honest, there is a lot of eye-rolling, arguing, and shocking exclamations of “Why do we have SO. MUCH. STUFF???” Then we purge.
Doesn’t fit in the cabinets? Thrift store. Snowshoes from Fort Drum and now we live in Georgia? EBay. Three different coffeemakers because we bought one when we first moved in, upgraded to a better model, and then bought another when both of those were accidentally packed? Curb.
My mom has a few boxes of select childhood toys, artwork and pictures from my two brothers and me, and by a few I literally mean three. In a military lifestyle, sometimes it feels like holding onto things is a luxury. Collections become small and expeditionary. Adorable baby clothes get sold once our youngest outgrows them. Household items get loaned without much thought or expectation that we will get them back, but with the knowledge that when we need them, a neighbor will likely have something similar we can borrow. Even furniture is sold or given away when it doesn’t fit in the newest home the military has assigned. Sentimentality is replaced by efficiency.
The hardest part of life in the military is the goodbyes; there seem to be so many of them. Goodbye to spouses who PCS to far off lands, goodbye to best friends who have been in the trenches of childrearing with us, goodbye to our baby’s first playmates.
But perhaps that is why we say goodbye without the sentimentality. We know that when we say goodbye to dear friends, it usually means “see you later”. We know that there are new friends waiting to be met at the next duty station. We know that another blender can easily be bought if need be, and gives us an excuse to explore our new town.
So today, instead of lamenting the fact that I have been without my household goods for six weeks, I am embracing the minimalism. I am learning to live with less. I am celebrating the items I was able to bring with me: my computer, my sewing machine, everything Disney ever made with the “Frozen” logo on it (did I mention the 2-year-old daughter?). I am placing Post-it notes around the house, assigning new homes for our couch, plates, and favorite photographs, and mentally saying goodbye to things I know we don’t need.
I am, as my husband puts it, embracing the suck, and putting to use the training my life as a nomad has given me.