Packing

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.

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Packing

Brett

I sucked in a breath, picked up the clunky plastic handset, and dialed. “Hello?” said a faint voice on the other end of the line. I’d known I would freeze up, so I had typed out a script. “Hi, Mr. Ricaña. My name is Claire Landsbaum, and I’m a reporter for the Columbia Missourian. I’m calling because every year the Missourian commemorates M.U. students who have died, and I’m writing a short tribute about your daughter. I know this must be hard for you, but I wanted to give you a chance to tell me a little bit about her.” Clifton Ricaña Sr. listened in silence. Then, through tears, he told me about Christine, who had died in October at 22. “I know she’s doing well,” he told me, as though they’d spoken just yesterday. I repeated the process for three other students, calling friends, relatives, people who’d known them. For months afterward, I thought of the four of them as I walked through campus, their untimely deaths a niggling guilt in the back of my brain.

What saved me from going completely insane were my professors. By nature, much of journalism is a close-up examination of trauma, and these women had fielded their fair share. They talked me through writing the obituaries: what to say, how to say it, what to do. And afterward, they talked me off a ledge of self-destructive remorse. The same was true for students who covered shootings, fires, and floods: tragedy, in the abstract sense, was well-trodden in our seminars, where we learned about things like war-zone reporting and political arrest. I left my undergraduate program with an idea of what covering the conflict in Syria might entail. But I was in no way prepared for Brett Kavanaugh.

The irony, of course, is that even as sexual harassment and assault was glossed over in classrooms, it ran rampant on campus. College is where my #MeToo story unfolded, not once, but several times over. Even before I had finished reading Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s Washington Post interview, I believed her—her story was both too simple and too familiar not to be true. I’d been to the party; been locked in the upstairs bedroom, even; been pawed at, my protestations ignored, my friends calling my name a floor below. Even before I watched her testify along with most of the country, Ford’s story brought back a sickening wave of memories, like rising bile. “It’s a very difficult time,” Dr. Christine Nicholson, a clinical psychologist, recently told The New York Times. “I’m having people call me after hours when they’re just feeling meltdowns and a sense of hopelessness.”

That was all true: the private crying jags in the bathroom, and the cloying sense not that no one believed, but that no one cared. And worse, the sense that I was professionally obligated to hold it together—to serve as an example for the small team of women writers I work with every day. In a way, we had signed up for this: we’d known about the floods, the fires, and the shootings going in, and had decided that this was what we wanted, anyway. But in other ways, we hadn’t. Who could have predicted that we would come of age in an era that dredged up our long-buried traumas and shoved them into the light? That we’d become both chroniclers of the story, and part of it ourselves? We couldn’t have known. But perhaps we could have been better prepared.

Brett

If you must cry in public

Here’s how I know I’m about to cry in public: I touch my bottom lip with my right index finger. It’s an automatic motion, and I’ve noticed that it only happens when my body is about to teeter over the line between fighting the tears and letting them flow, the last futile gesture of resistance. Shh, my finger tells my mouth. Shh, it’s all right – don’t cry. My mouth ignores it.

Here are all the places I’ve cried this week: the obvious ones like on the train, in my cubicle, in my bed on a particularly gray morning; the less obvious ones like on West 16th Street on the way to meet a friend at a bar, in the doorway of an 8th-Avenue apartment complex after running out of that bar when she – there’s always a she, italics – showed up there. In my first-ever cycling class on the stationary bike. At an acoustic show. On the bus to D.C. In Strand. In the hokey movie theater where tourists watch a 15-minute film on the foundation of the U.S. Congress. At the Lincoln Memorial.

On 8th Avenue in particular I drew stares, strangers looking back in confusion at the sound of a muffled sob in the darkness. They searched for the source and focused on me, my forehead pressed into the building like it might soak me up. One of them walked over.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

No, I was not. Yes, I would be, eventually. See? I was still together enough to be rational. The foresight reassured her.

“By the way,” she said before retreating, gesturing to my cheek, “You have an eyelash.” Dear reader, I let her retreat before I lost it again.

Here’s what crying is like to me: sneezing. I can feel it build, and I know once it’s done I’ll feel lighter. Still, I put it off with Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” and my mind-numbing Twitter feed and by calling my mom to talk en route. But no matter how much you squint at the sun (does that make you sneeze or stave it off? I forget), it happens, eventually.

Here’s what I have to fix it: wadded coffee-shop napkins, Visine, friends, time.

If you must cry in public