No one told me my parents’ divorce would make me an excellent packer. That detail was absent from the Reddit threads and Tumblr blogs I visited in search of answers, as it was from the literature splayed on the table in the office of the psychotherapist my father brought me and my sister to see. But it was true: in spending every other weekend at Dad’s, I developed a mental checklist that cemented itself in my mind, and hasn’t budged since. The handful of times I forgot a crucial item, forcing Dad to drive all the way back to Mom’s to recover said history book or ballet shoe, ensured I never did so again.
As I grew older, I learned to derive pleasure from packing very little. There’s something empowering in the notion of traveling light—something reassuring in reminding yourself that the things needed to sustain you are few, that you are efficient, that at any moment you can pick up and leave and want for (almost) nothing. I am proud of myself when I pack light for a trip, not only because it saves me the pain of asking someone else to lift my carry-on into the overhead compartment, but because it means I have streamlined my life into a shape I can handle alone. I feel the same way when I pack a tote or backpack for a day running errands in the city, and remember a snack, my water bottle, a phone charger, an extra battery, a flannel to throw on if (okay, when) I get cold. The trick is never to over-pack, but to have handy anything and everything you might need. To be the best prepared of anyone around you. In this way, you beat the game.
Of course, there’s also something soothing in the process of packing itself: the folding, the rolling, the fitting of items together just so, like a real-world game of Tetris. At this point, my hands do the work automatically—again, a product of so many weekends away. There’s a satisfaction inherent in running through my mental checklist and finding it complete. Even better, over the years I’ve acquired packing accoutrements—suitcases, pouches, laptop sleeves, shoe bags—that are uniformly black and rectangular. They’re arrayed on my bed even now, ready to be zipped and flown to Florida. And I can’t deny that the sight of them pleases something primordial in my core.
In a way, this fondness for packing is an offshoot of my penchant for doing that keeps me functional even when my mind is spinning out. I’ve cried every day this week, overwhelmed by a deep-rooted fear that I am unlovable and unknowable, and each time my hands begin to move of their own accord, washing dishes, doling lentil soup into a Tupperware for lunch, packing or unpacking or re-packing my work or gym bag. The rhythm of these actions propels me forward, casting an aura of functionality around my body while my brain implodes and spirals ever deeper into worst-case scenarios. But when I finally break the surface of reality again, there are the clean dishes, there is the ready lunch, the packed bag, the suitcase filled with everything I’ll need for a few days away. A big part of growing up, I think, is learning to save yourself.
There are times when I crave the opposite: someone to still my hands, pull me close, tell me they know me, they love me, and everything will be fine—that it’s okay to rest for a moment. Another part of growing up is learning to be vulnerable in ways you thought you’d stamped out of yourself: shucking off a self-preservationist instinct in favor of trust. Believing a good thing can last. Relinquishing some control. Packing a little heavier, every now and then.