Why We’re Lousy At Packing Light

Photo courtesy of carryology

I’m packing for a big trip and doing what I always do when I pack: Reinvent the wheel.

I start from scratch and build my life from the ground up, starting with the very base needs (underwear, bra, deodorant, shoes) to the very specific and often imagined ones (how can I be on a beach without this fabulous rattan bag, even if it scratches my shoulder up? I need it!).

I do this. Every. Time.

Let me preface this by saying I have dreams about packing. Nightmares, rather. I’m always packing–for a train about to depart the station, for a flight to China that somehow I just found out I need to be on. In a recurring dream, I’m leaving college and trying to shove all of my stuff into boxes but nothing will fit or stay. It’s exhausting. Rent a Moving Van was the solution that my dream ended with, after all the nights I had with the same reoccurring dream of not being able to fit everything in. I think after I realised there is a solution to everything, I did feel a lot better. But it was just a dream.

The Art and Obsession of Packing

I’ll leave the dream part for my therapist to figure out. But the packing itself is ritual: It really is a study in life essentials–not just what you actually need (passport, wallet, clothes), but what you feel you need. The suitcase is a zippered confessional where I keep all that I want to be and do, and the things I’m afraid to be without. And because it’s a solemn ritual (as all confessions are), I must do it alone. I cannot pack with someone else in the room. I can’t talk to you while I do it. I need to focus.

I was forced to really think essential when, in my 20s, I went on a series of trips with my uncle, the late Rev. Robert Barone of the University of Scranton, who led study group tours to Jerusalem and Rome, and then a few other trips to different parts of Italy. It was always an amazing, eye-opening adventure, albeit, somewhat ascetic–we ate at the same restaurant every night, stayed in stripped-down pilgrims’ quarters on mattresses the size of steno pads.

But what made it particularly stringent was my uncle’s one rule: No checked baggage. You had to carry on, and it had to fit. So I learned to be very smart about making one carry-on piece of luggage and a backpack house three weeks’ worth of wardrobe and toiletrees, which, for a chick is no joke. I wore a lot of neutrals.

BEFORE that rule was strictly enforced (and part of the reason it was), I checked a bag and it was lost. And then you realize that what you counted on showing up with you, in this case my lumpy duffel, sometimes doesn’t; that life is unpredictable, and that it’s amazing anyone ever gets their luggage, quite frankly. So for a few days I walked around Jerusalem without my smart footwear, and in a lousy dress someone loaned me. And while it was annoying, it didn’t really matter. Though I did shriek with joy when the bag finally showed up, I won’t lie.

Why You Don’t Need to Bring That

Nowadays, I can check with abandon, and do. I’m about to depart for ten days in Israel to visit a friend, and I have done and packed every conceivable thing, down to teabags and nut bars and a ziploc full of bandaids. I have thought long and hard about footwear and the potential for blisters. I’ve thought through hats and bathing suits, sunscreens (mineral and spray, face and body). I’ve imagined myself walking through the streets of Tel Aviv (and what bag am I holding?), or skipping along the beach (flip flops, check, sunglasses, check). Climbing around the ruins in Petra (backpack, athletic sandals, got it, check).

But I stop myself when I get to the brink of, say, packing another long, floral summer dress. I talked myself out of this just now. First I think, this is why I bought these dresses–so they could see the light of day, traipse around the Mediterranean. But then you have to ask: Who is this trip for, anyway, me or them? Sure I’m tempted to throw the other one in, but I am coming down hard on myself and saying, C’mon. So you wear the one dress twice. Who gives a fuck.

Unpacking the Packing Urge

This is why I think we go through this rigmarole: Even though it’s just vacation, whether it’s five days or ten, you are leaving. And not to sound morbid, but you can’t be 100% sure if or when you’ll be back.

My theory is this: Overpacking is a stay against the unknown. As if the more you pack, the more you can somehow control the unknown (you can’t), or armor yourself against chaos or conflict (good luck). There’s a distrust in anything beyond our immediate comfort zone, and yet the best part of travel is feeling that worry, that distrust of the world, fall away–usually the minute you’re boarded on the plane, because whatever you don’t have now you will have to live without.

Still, we have to beat back that fear-based need to take home with us. We’re torn. I’m torn. Always. If it’s the sundress this time it’ll be shoes the next. What if I need it? You probably won’t, but try telling yourself that the day before you leave your house, your city, your country, your life. And so it goes.

So if there’s a good reason to travel, this is it, I think: to learn to let go of the things you know, embrace what you don’t, and believe that somehow, in some way, the world will provide. I am trying to teach myself that my needs aren’t always needs at all, but fears of the unknown, and that the more I open up to the unpredictability and pleasure of it all, the less I need to drag along with me.

(But it would behoove you to take antibiotics along, especially if you’re leaving the country. The world is wild and exciting, yes, but no need to suffer. There’s only so much of the world you can see from a toilet seat.)