Posted by: Ken Brown | July 8, 2010

Moving Sale

The immensity of a move overseas is beginning to set in. The plane tickets have been purchased, paperwork mailed off, and housing arranged, and we are making every effort to learn German, but now we face the even more daunting task of compressing our lives into a few suitcases. It’s amazing how much “useful” but unused junk you can acquire in just a few short years, and it’s remarkably difficult to get rid of it. We moved into this house six years ago from a tiny basement apartment that held everything we owned. Now we’ve filled the house and two storage units, and needed a U-Haul just to move things for a garage sale, then another to carry back the left-overs.

Getting rid of stuff is a lot harder than it sounds. It’s no wonder so many people put their lives in storage when they move, often never taking it back out. An effective yard sale requires a ton of work to organize and price, a good location and an overabundance of advertising (invest in a jumbo-size Sharpie and some big posterboard!). Fair weather is also a must, but hardly a given in these parts. Yet even when everything comes together perfectly, you are lucky to dispose of half of what you offer, and likely at half the price you asked.

By all accounts, our moving sale was a great success, yet we will certainly have to hold another before we leave, and what we do with what’s left from that one is anyone’s guess. In the mean time we’ve been introduced to the wonderful world of Craig’sList ads. Posting on there means basically a fifty-fifty chance of selling the item immediately, or getting nothing but scam emails offering (fake) money-orders to ship your items to Timbuktu.

It is interesting to see what sells and what doesn’t, though. Some things that cost a great deal to buy new can hardly be given away, whereas other silly trinkets get snatched up instantly. It doesn’t matter that the gadget cost $300 new, if it’s an older model or needs some minor repair it’s basically worthless. Meanwhile, used baby clothes are worth their weight in gold, despite filling the clearance racks of every major department store. A well-kept, fully operational piano get’s hardly any interest in a month, but a cheap fiber-board dresser draws two dozen phone calls by mid-morning.

The trouble isn’t just in finding new owners for what we want rid of, though, it’s all the things that we’d rather keep. How much will it cost to replace all the stuff in our kitchen–all the dishes and utensils, small appliances and gadgets, silverware and pans, towels and dishrags? How much of that stuff should we try to keep, and what else would we have to leave to take it? Nor is it always what you expect that stalls you. My wife and I had a fight over a a zippo lighter. I don’t even use the thing, but it annoyed me to no end that she put it in the yard sale without asking. Maybe the lighter symbolized all I must leave behind, or maybe it was just my inner pyromaniac peaking out, I don’t know.

My real struggle, however, is what to do with my books. Thankfully my wife knows well enough not to sell those without asking, but I’ve been little help. Beyond perhaps my computer, my library is my most prized material possession, but I’ll be lucky to take 20 volumes with me. No book sounds more interesting and important than the one you are about to pack away, and leaving them behind feels like leaving behind my interests. I cannot even take all my Old Testament books, despite that being my area of focus for PhD work, and virtually all my Theology and New Testament studies will have to stay. My books on science, culture, philosophy have no chance, and my novels and literature will certainly be left behind, no matter how much I’d like to take them.

Yet what shall I do with those I cannot take? Should I sell them? Store them? Lend them to a family member? All options carry the distinct possibility that I will never see the book again, at least without spending a lot of extra money. Yet will I actually care, or do I just think I will because I’d really like to read or reread these books–someday. Would I really have the time to read them in the next three years anyway, even if I took them? Perhaps all this sorting and narrowing isn’t just a necessity of moving abroad, but also a sign of the unfortunate overspecialization of higher education. Or maybe I’m just a pack-rat with delusions of being a renaissance man.

At least I have some idea of what I’ll be losing, though; my children have no clue. They will be lucky to take much more than their favorite clothes and bedding, and it is difficult to predict what will be missed and what will simply be forgotten. I was recently given a copy of the book Third Culture Kids by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken (this one I’m taking!), which is all about the lifelong impact an internationally mobile childhood can have on a person. Such unavoidably multicultural children have both the advantages and disadvantages of growing up with an outsider’s perspective on society. They are never fully a part of either their birth or host cultures and, for better or worse, constitute a “third” culture all of their own. Deeply invested in but always somewhat distinct from those places they have known, they face a constant threat of loss, as they must frequently leave behind the people, places and things they grow to love.

I already know this first-hand from my mother, who grew up in Syria, Ethiopia and Kenya as a missionary kid, and it can be both a great benefit and a difficult challenge. Such a childhood offers a range of experiences most can only dream of, but sometimes also leaves behind a debilitating nostalgia. Now I’m preparing to put my own kids in a similar situation–taking them far from everything and everyone they have known and loved, knowing that one day they will also face a similar loss when we return. They will never have the childhood that they would have had if we stayed here, but neither will they ever really be Germans. They will have the advantages of travel–seeing places and meeting people they would never have otherwise–but will also miss the chance to grow up near relatives or have a “normal” American childhood.

All of that is yet future, for now all they know is the excitement of moving, and the pain of loss. My daughter especially (who is four) is starting to realize that she will soon be far away from her friends and family, and has begun to notice things missing–toys and books that have already sold. She cried quite a bit when we told her we couldn’t take the piano, then suddenly cheered up and told us we could buy her a trumpet instead. I’m sure our new German neighbors would be thrilled by that prospect! Unconsciously, she is beginning to experience what may become a defining feature of her life as a “third culture kid,” or TCK:

Everyone’s life is filled with the tangible and intangible. What is it that makes a house a home? Sure it is more than the furniture or the color of the rug. Yet the tangibles are part of the intangible. The old fading recliner reminds us of Grandma and when we sat on her lap listening to her read us stories. We see the chair and feel a twinge of nostalgia for days that are no more… in that moment, the tangible and intangible mix and we know that we are home.

Though third culture kids have a wealth of tangible and intangible realities that give their lives meaning, many of the worlds they have known are far away. Therefore what they loved and lost in each transition remains invisible to others and often unamed by themselves.

[The] loss of possessions… doesn’t refer to possessions of monetary value, but to the loss of things that connect TCKs to their past.

Not just “third culture kids” but all of us face this loss right now, and we can only trust that the gain of an adventure abroad will outweigh it–that the intangibles we carry with us will always be of greater value than the tangibles we leave behind.


  1. I feel your pain. Welcome to the new world of global nomadism.

  2. Have you read Third Culture Kids, Ben? If so, what are your thoughts having lived through it for a while now?

  3. Your blog post sounded just like us about 5 weeks ago. We moved to Berlin on 5 July and we’re still trying to get settled. We had an air shipment that was supposed to take two weeks, but as of last Friday was “in the air”. We have no idea when our “by ship” shipment will get here. So pack well. You may be using that suitcase shipment for some time. Oh, and we’ve waiting for our internet to be installed for four weeks now. Welcome to Germany!

  4. […] so you can only really afford to bring the essentials. But just getting rid of the old can be a major headache, not to mention the time and expense required to rebuy a whole household. In the end, we spent a […]

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