The big sort

It doesn’t seem to make sense to us to think in terms of phases, but this part of our big sort is nearing its end. If the weather cooperates, and it looks as if it will, we are in our last week of sorting and packing our house in Rapid City. We have made three round trips to our new home since we retired in June and we plan to head out on our last trip from this house in a week. We have begun to think of the time between June and November as the big sort. We have downsized significantly, probably not enough, but we have succeeded in decreasing the number of our possessions. We have given away items, sold items, found new homes for things, donated things, and thrown away quite a few things. The process has been, at times, exhausting.

Last night was one of the times when we ran out of energy before we ran out of time. Our bodies hadn’t adjusted to the end of daylight savings time, so we got an early start yesterday and we were ready to head to bed earlier than our usual. We pushed a bit, but didn’t accomplish much in the last hour of our work day. We are tired, and we might complain, but there has also been a lot of meaning in this part of our lives.

The educator and philosopher Erik Erikson has had a deep influence on our thinking over the span of our years. The German-American developmental psychologist lived just before we were born. His writings helped to shape a generation of teachers and thinkers. He is credited with coining the phrase “identity crisis.” His seminal work, “Childhood and Society,” outlines eight stages of life. The final of those stages, integration vs. despair, is the time of life when the task is to bring together all of the events of a lifetime into a meaningful whole. According to Erikson the time of retirement is a time of looking back, contemplating accomplishments, and viewing the successes of life. This is the task of all adults from about the age of 65 until the end of life.

Our big sort has been a time of looking back in a way that has been deeply meaningful for us. As we packed up household items, we saw connections that our lives have been. We moved furniture that has been in use in our family for generations. Seeing items that belonged to our parents, grandparents and great grandparents in the place where our grandchildren live is a clear illustration of the interconnectedness of generations. We have had to make decisions about what to keep and what to leave behind. In our case, the sorting is also sorting things of our parents. Both Susan and I have had to go through boxes of things from our parents that have been in storage for years. Our parents left behind the effects of their lives and though we sorted as we packed up their homes at the end of their lives, there were items that we did not have the energy to sort at the time. So we have had boxes to go through in the past few months. Some of the items we discovered were things that we wondered why we had kept. I found a box of aeronautical charts from the 1950’s. Those charts expired when my father was still alive. They should have been thrown away at the time. I don’t know why they had been kept for so many years. I also found the receipts from the purchase of several airplanes that my father owned over the years. They have a little historic value. He bought a brand new airplane, fresh from the factory, for under $6,000 in 1958. I learned to fly and soloed in that airplane a decade later. How the invoice for the plane was kept all these years is a mystery.

We also found a box from Susan’s mother’s desk in which she had kept all of her father’s pay stubs. I’ve spent more in a single trip to the grocery store than a week’s wages of a master electrician in the 1960’s. The stubs are a testament to hard work and careful financial management. They don’t need to be kept in order to be appreciated.

We’ve sorted a few boxes filled with our children’s school work. Some items have been kept. A few have been photographed and discarded. Others have been looked at and thrown away. I have a picture of a birthday card signed by our children. Our daughter was just learning her letters. Her signature reads, E, H, sideways C, A, backwards R, L. She had started near the center of the page with the first letter of her name, written the second to the left and continued until she ran out of space and then put the final letter, L, on the other side of the R. All of the letters are there, but they look like they are in the wrong order. She is a fine writer these days and has a distinctive and wonderful signature that is easy to read.

Looking through our children’s school papers is a way to review and remember their development through the years. They gained practical skills, such as writing. They also developed more complex thinking. Reviewing their work is a journey down memory lane. We often don’t know why the things we have got saved, but they stir memories and feelings that are important to us as we reflect on our lives. Some of the things from our parent’s lives seem crazy to us. “Why did they save this?” Some give insight and understanding into the lives that they lived.

Although there have been frustrations, the big sort has been a worthwhile adventure. There are still a few boxes to sort. There is a pile of items that need to be delivered to various individuals and agencies. But the end is in sight. A week from now we will have emptied the house where our family lived for more than 25 years. We’re down to just a very few pieces of furniture: one bed a couple of chairs and an old table that won’t be moved. The adventure is shifting to a new location, where there will be boxes to sort as we unpack. We’re pretty sure we moved too much stuff already. Our lives, however, are focused on the process of sifting and sorting. The move has given us an opportunity to work on an important developmental task in our lives.

How fortunate we are to have had time to do this work.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!